Chapter One: Obscure Senator, Small State
I must have walked the corridors of National Airport, now named Reagan National, seven or eight hundred times heading home to Vermont. Though people may imagine the life of a Senator as somewhat distant and glorious, for much of our lives we are first cousins of the traveling salesman. Marriages fail, children suffer, and friends are lost. If this time my mood was on the gloomy side, it was because I had just left a meeting where I had very likely lost a few more friends. It was easily the toughest meeting of the thousands I have had during my three decades in politics.
I was heading for Burlington, Vermont, the trip I had made so many times before, but tonight's eight o'clock flight was anything but routine. Although I had yet to fully appreciate this fact, the people at the airline had, and I had been steered by the airline's personnel to a VIP lounge just beyond the security checkpoint.
It seemed like the first half hour in days that I had a chance to catch my breath. The morning papers scattered about the room had given the story of my considering leaving front-page coverage with photos. The television was running the story almost constantly. Even the business news gave it play, attributing some of the movement in the stock market to speculation about my pending announcement.
My press secretary, Erik Smulson, had been so deluged by phone calls from reporters and producers that this was his first chance to see what was going on around us. Like me, he was amazed by the wall-to-wall coverage. Erik's job had been transformed over the past few days from trying to generate news to trying to contain it at some manageable level.
As the flight's departure time neared, we left the lounge and headed down the corridor to Gate 35A, the low-tech launching pad for the jets and prop planes headed for the small cities of the East Coast. I soon realized why the airline staff had intervened. A hundred yards away, dozens of reporters had staked out the little gate, with TV cameras and microphones pointed my way. This was not going to be another milk run to Burlington.
Before I reached the press, I got my first taste that my deliberations had pierced the veil of public indifference that often attends what Congress does or does not do. On both sides of the broad aisle, passengers awaiting their flight stood on their chairs and started cheering and applauding, while others pushed forward to shake my hand. This for someone who a few days before may have ranked about 99th on the U.S. Senate celebrity scale.
People don't much care what Congress does, and in a democracy, that can be a very good thing. There are, and should be, more important things in people's lives than who a Senator from a small state might be, or what he might do. But here were scores of people who not only recognized me but also approved of what they thought I would be doing the next day in Vermont, who literally wanted to reach out and touch me. It was extraordinary that the glare of media attention in just a few days had thrust me before people's eyes in a way that was flattering but not entirely comfortable. How had what I thought or done to that point so touched these people?
After running the press gauntlet, something I had some practice in after the past few days, my wife Liz, Erik, my chief of staff, Susan Russ, and I rode a shuttle bus out across the tarmac to the plane.
I had tried throughout the past few days to keep a level head about me, but my family and staff took no chances. Lest I had invested too much meaning into the reception I had just received, Susan pointed out that the people cheering me were waiting for a plane to Boston, hardly a political cross section of the country.
Our plane was a small jet, three seats across, which was a blessing for the Vermont delegation in Congress compared to the small props connecting through Pittsburgh or LaGuardia that used to be our only alternative. The flight usually had a Vermont flavor -- a few students from the University, an engineer from IBM, a state employee or two heading home from a conference in Washington, sometimes even Ben or Jerry. It is pretty common to know a few people on the trip; such is the size of my state.
But tonight the press had commandeered it. Within a few minutes of announcing at midday that I would travel to Vermont to make a statement the next day, the seats were sold out (which is not saying all that much, I suppose). UVM may have been represented on the flight, but so were the network news shows, newspapers from London, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, and camera crews from who knows where.
But it was not all strangers. The father of my former state director was on the flight, though I have to admit it was awkward seeing him. His daughter had left my office and with my support had won a job in the new Bush Administration, as head of the Vermont-New Hampshire USDA Rural Development office. Hers is one of a handful of jobs in a state that a Senator can have a role in filling when the President is from the same party. She is immensely qualified and a good Republican, but who could know her fate at that point? Would my candidates for the Vermont U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal, and Farm Service Agency Director jobs be at risk as well? Yet more people whose lives my decision would touch.
My wife Liz, one of the people most affected, was seated next to me on the plane. While normally as voluble as I am quiet, she had little to say as we settled in for the flight. Over the past week, we had said about all there was to say on the topic of my party affiliation.
Liz is an independent soul, but she has to be labeled a liberal. How else do you describe someone who was an early supporter of Reverend Jesse Jackson's bid for the presidency, and who put up a yard sign for the Democrat running for Governor the same year I was running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate?
In the instant and sometimes inaccurate analysis that characterized much of the coverage of my decision, Liz was rumored by some to have been the catalyst for my switch, when in fact the opposite was true. She thought it was a bad idea, said so repeatedly and in very unvarnished terms, but gave me tremendous support once she realized my decision was close to being made. She is not one to stand meekly by her man. But I think she realized the anguish I was enduring and wanted me to do what I thought was right.
It may be hard to understand if you are fed a steady diet of caricatures, but the Senate consists of real people, many of whom have personalities as magnetic as their political views can be repellent. I thought Liz would be the last to place much stock in the relationships you can develop in Washington. I traveled home to Vermont almost every weekend. She chose to spend most of her time there, leaving our home on the back side of Killington Mountain only once or twice a year to visit Washington, D.C. But she found, as I did, that political views do not always provide a window on someone's personality. Senator Jesse Helms and his wife, Dorothy, would not agree with Liz on many issues, but they are two of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Is it possible to divorce political views from your opinion of a person? I think so, and I could not function in the Senate otherwise. How corrosive it would be to constantly recalibrate your approach to an individual based on whether you agreed or disagreed on the last vote.
A conservative Republican lobbyist who once spent much of a weekend with Liz and me remarked of her afterward that he had never so thoroughly enjoyed a person with whom he so completely disagreed. My response was "Me, too." It got a good laugh, but in fact Liz and my views are not that far apart, and on the issue of my switch we had made our peace. I had explained to Liz again and again why I was thinking of cas