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Warren Rudman: War Stories

August 8, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of ‘U.S. News & World Report,’ engages Warren Rudman, former Republican Senator from New Hampshire, author of ‘Combat: Twelve Years in the U.S. Senate.’

DAVID GERGEN: Senator, many of us who’ve served in public life in the past quarter century have regrets about decisions we’ve made along the way. But very few of us are honest enough to admit them. In your own candid way, you talk in your new book about coming to the United States Senate after your election in 1980 and making one of those big mistakes. Tell us about it.

WARREN RUDMAN, Author, “Combat”: Well, the mistake in my view in retrospect was to vote for the Reagan tax plan and the whole Reagan economic plan which George Bush had called voodoo economics. I agreed with Bush. I found myself in the Senate, a brand new member with a very enthusiastic new majority, and frankly, it was hard to resist. But I should have resisted, and one of the things I say in the book is that Howard Baker told us that he thought it was a river boat gamble. And about two years later, I accosted Howard Baker, who is a dear personal friend to this day, and I said, you know, Howard, we not only lost the gamble, we lost the boat. And that’s the way I felt.

DAVID GERGEN: Because the deficits then went up very high.

WARREN RUDMAN: Absolutely.

DAVID GERGEN: Even though we had a lot of economic growth, there was–the deficits went up. That’s what you really felt aggrieved about.

WARREN RUDMAN: I felt very aggrieved that I had allowed myself to be taken in by that policy, and I’m pretty hard to a lot of people in the book about that, but to somewhat on myself as well.

DAVID GERGEN: How does one advise the next group of Senators, the next generation, to avoid the big mistakes?

WARREN RUDMAN: You know, that’s a great question, David, and I’ll answer it the best way I can. The first thing I’ll say is don’t repeat it. And I tried not to, and, you know, when I got to Iran-Contra, I asserted total independence at that point. I didn’t care what the administration was saying; I was going to do what I thought the American people wanted me to do. So my advice to young people is when you come in and you’re brand new into a legislative body, whether it be the state house or the U.S. Congress or the United States Senate, really be a doubting Thomas.

Follow your own instincts. And don’t be afraid to, to be the lone dissenter on the block if you really feel you’re right. It’s a hard thing to do, a hard thing particularly if you know the circumstance of 1981. The first Republican majority in the Senate for what–thirty-five or forty years–great new majority leader, Howard Baker, a greatly loved President, Ronald Reagan, and what are you going to do, stand up and say, you’re wrong? I should have, but I didn’t.

DAVID GERGEN: But you know, the adage in the Congress for so many years was to get along, go along. And you really feel that that, in retrospect, that’s not the right advice?

WARREN RUDMAN: No, I don’t think it’s the right advice at all. As long as you do it respectfully, you don’t do it by taking cheap shots at people but you essentially have a principled reason for what you do. I thought that was a major mistake and say so.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. Let me ask you another question. You say you’re–you made a decision after two terms to leave. You announced that in 1992. And as you say in your book, your decision to leave helped to prompt a number of others to leave, and we’ve had a whole series of people, distinguished Senators who are relatively young, and a good position in our home states where they could get reelected and yet have decided to leave. What do we do to address the conditions that led you and others to leave after two terms?

WARREN RUDMAN: I’m not sure the reasons are the same. I really didn’t enjoy it much after that first two terms. And when you lose your zest for it, you ought to step aside. I mean, it’s such a–such a wonderful opportunity people in your state give you. If you really don’t really want it badly, you shouldn’t go after it. I was unhappy with the whole system. I didn’t like it. But your broader question, I think to some extent it’s going to continue to happen because the stressfulness of the place, the intensity of the place, I think that we won’t have long-serving United States Senators in the future like Bob Dole, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Joe Biden. I could name a few others. I think you’ll find 12 years or 18 years and out and onto other things in life. I think people will come in younger and leave younger than they have been for the last let’s say four or five decades.

DAVID GERGEN: Does that mean that some of the conditions we’ve seen develop in the last few years since you have come to Washington–you first came in 1981–that the Senate’s a much meaner place now, it’s a much more partisan place?

WARREN RUDMAN: I think it is changing. I’m not sure how long it’ll take, if it’ll ever get back the way it was, for two reasons. I think the genesis of all of this hard feeling has come out of our campaigns. The campaigns are so negative. They are so nasty. You come back in after the election, you look at a fellow across the aisle who just defeated one of your best friends with a series of false ads.


WARREN RUDMAN: And I had that happen. I remember the situation, looking at it and saying what kind of a person is that. So you don’t feel the same. Secondly, if the terms are shorter, if people are not serving as long, you don’t get to know people as well. So I think we’re in for a period of some intensity and nastiness. Of course, I do think campaign finance reform will fix a great deal of that.

DAVID GERGEN: How would you go about restoring more bipartisanship in the Senate, an institution that once prided itself on that?

WARREN RUDMAN: It has to start with the leadership, itself. It has to start with people like Trent Lott who has the capacity and the ability to do that with Tom Daschle. People are going to have to start talking to each other, instead of at each other. I mean, this past couple of years both the House and the Senate, particularly the House has been frankly, in my view, nasty, and I think the American people don’t like it, irrespective of what gets accomplished. They don’t like the bickering. They don’t like the name calling. I think they’re tired of it. And they’re sick of it.

DAVID GERGEN: You had some tough words in your book for the left in the Democratic Party, ideological, too partisan, unwilling to compromise, but you also had some tough words about the right wing of your own party.

WARREN RUDMAN: I did. As far as the left is concerned, I think they’ve been guilty of many excesses which have put the Democratic Party for a long time into a position of far less power than it had for many years. In my party, we’ve seen the evolution of the Christian right and the far right, which is a minority in our party but nevertheless controlling the party because they are hard working, they’re active, and they really work for what they believe in.

The net result of that has been we’ve got a convention going on in San Diego in which those delegates, in my view, will not necessarily represent the centrist part of the Republican Party. Don’t call it the moderate part. I call it the centrist part. Most Republicans tend to be in the center but not the elected officials particularly, or the convention delegates. My own sense, David, is that unless the Republican Party shows, as Bob Dole has said recently, it must be more inclusive, must reach out, it must be more tolerant, then it will have a very difficult time winning the presidency and holding onto the Congress. That’s my view.

DAVID GERGEN: How does one disentangle the party, I mean, without losing a lot of the oomph that the party has?

WARREN RUDMAN: I don’t know. It may be too late. This party may crumble. If we lose this presidential election and lose either the House or the Senate in the next two years, whether this year or ’98, I think we’ve got serious problems. I’m not sure. You know, there are some people in the Christian right who are reasonable people, people like Ralph Reed, who, who called me after I wrote the book and talked to me about some of the things I said. My point to him and to others has been that it’s not so much the things that they’re advocating but the fact that they’re advocating them within the framework of a ‘religious’ organization.

And one of the more harsh lines in that book which has been quoted often–I’ll re-quote myself–and my statement has been if you want to see how religion and politics mix, I suggest you spend a few days in Belfast, Beirut, or Bosnia, where their religion is intricately involved in government. And you have people on opposites sides of religion fighting with each other. We don’t need that in America. We need total separation, and we don’t need people trying to insert their values, religious-based values on the basis that take it or leave it, if you don’t agree with it, you can’t be in my party. I mean, that just won’t fly.

DAVID GERGEN: How do you respond to their argument that the politicians in Washington have stripped religion out of public life, it’s not just that public life is now neutral but it’s hostile toward religious values?

WARREN RUDMAN: Well, it shouldn’t be hostile, and if they have examples of that, I would agree that we ought to change that, but we ought to be very careful that we don’t mix religion and politics. We ought to be firm on what the Constitution says. And the Constitution is very clear. You see, my problem, my problem are not the values they profess, it’s the fact that they bring them into the cloak of religion. That’s my problem.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, you’ve been a man of combat since the Korean War. When you were out there–you describe in your book what action was like in Korea, and it was a remarkably interesting section–and you still remain combative, but you want to see more reconciliation in American life.

WARREN RUDMAN: I don’t have a problem with combativeness on issues as long as people can put their arm around each other and walk out of the chambers. I saw happen early in my Senate years people having terrifically fierce debate and walking out good friends. The problem is it’s becoming personal, becoming mean. It’s becoming bitter. And that is not good for the country.

It’s not good for the institution. The one thing that I have learned since I have left the Senate is the reason that the Congress is not held in the high regard it ought to be held–because there are some great people up there as you and I both know–is simply because the American people get a view that it’s simply a free-for-all, and that’s not what they want out of their government.

DAVID GERGEN: Well, thank you for this book on the U.S. Senate, and we wish you well in the future.

WARREN RUDMAN: Thanks for having me, David. I appreciate it.