An Insider's Look at Congress With Former Rep. Jim McDermott
For more than 40 years, Jim McDermott has worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of Washington State. As a state legislator, he helped pass laws that offered healthcare to unemployed and low-income Washingtonians, the first such program in the nation. In the United States Congress, he continued to be a much-needed voice for his most vulnerable constituents. Across America, you'll find families that are better off because Jim McDermott was fighting for them.
– President Obama in 2016 on Congressman Jim McDermott’s impending retirement.
For many of us, politicians are a confounding and often frustrating mystery. What makes these people tick? What do they want? Why can’t they get along? Is politics merely a game for money or love or power? Can an idealist with a vision for the common good survive in politics?
Thanks to former Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott’s engaging, candid and often humorous new book Money, Love and Power: A Guide to Understanding Congress, readers are treated to the perspective of a veteran legislator with the instincts of a psychiatrist on the motivations of politicians and the complexities of their profession.
In his book, Congressman McDermott confronts the contentious issues of corruption, greed, and hypocrisy in politics, but he also shares accounts of his mentors and friends, his accomplishments to help millions of citizens, his hopes for our fragile democracy, and his clear and humane vision for rising from our current tribalism and polarization. He also describes the personal challenges in balancing a life as a career legislator with demands of family, colleagues, and constituents.
For nearly a half century, Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott was a powerful force in Washington State and national politics. He served 14 terms (1989-2017) in Congress representing Seattle and environs in Washington’s 7th Congressional District.
He began his legislative career in 1970 when he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives. Four years later, he was elected state senator and served in that role until 1987 when he left the legislature for a position as a medical officer in Zaire for the US Foreign Service. He returned to politics in 1988 when he answered the call to run for Congress.
Renowned as the “Liberal Lion” of the House of Representatives, Congressman McDermott has devoted his career to working tirelessly for a healthier, safer, more peaceful and more just nation and world. As a medical doctor with a specialty in psychiatry, he was especially focused on health care reform for accessible and affordable medical care for all citizens regardless of financial situation. He led a successful effort to provide health care for the most vulnerable citizens of Washington. In Congress, he was a principal architect of the Affordable Care Act and he also addressed other complex issues such as expanding Medicare coverage, HIV/AIDS funding, elder care, and more.
Congressman McDermott also mastered foreign policy in his work to improve and deepen US ties with our allies and the developing world. As he sponsored legislation to improve the safety net for citizens at home, he also advanced laws to relieve poverty and suffering in the Third World.
His staunch opposition of American “Forever Wars” in the Middle East is legendary. He brought a unique perspective to Congress as a veteran Navy psychiatrist who served during the Vietnam War and saw firsthand the brutal toll of the war on soldiers, Marines, and sailors. He remembered the losses and veterans of that disastrous conflict as he questioned the costs and wastefulness of twenty-first century military campaigns Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, Congressman McDermott honored the service of those who fought in the recent Mideast wars, and repeatedly reminded Washington State residents of their fellow citizens who had fallen. As detractors insulted and mocked Congressman McDermott as “Baghdad Jim,” most of his constituents and many other citizens admired his courage and hard-fought efforts to protect our troops and our nation with alternatives to a militant foreign policy.
As only the second psychiatrist who ever has served in Congress, he presents specialized understanding and thoughtful consideration of that august body and its members with his new guide for citizens, Money, Love and Power. (Congressman McDermott acknowledges pioneering physician Dr. Benjamin Rush as the first psychiatrist in Congress. Dr. Rush was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Continental Congress who became the face of the logo of the American Psychiatric Association because he finished his career taking care of patients in the mental hospitals and prisons of 18th century Philadelphia. He is seen as a founder of American psychiatry long before that medical discipline was widely recognized.)
Congressman McDermott generously responded by email to questions about his book and more from his home in France. His persistent efforts to connect from his remote village are greatly appreciated. There were some hiccups, but he generously observed how “hilarious” it was for two old guys to do an interview by email. Indeed. LOL, as the tech savvy young people might add.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Congressman McDermott for discussing your new book Money, Love, and Power. Congratulations on this engaging, thought-provoking and often humorous work. You served in Congress from 1989 until 2017. What inspired your book now on understanding Congress?
Congressman Jim McDermott: When I entered the state legislature in 1971, I was a psychiatrist who had spent many hours of training and experience in working in groups and watching how information was shared. I also had the experience of being totally unaware of the situation that I was coming into and, realizing my ignorance, I had to listen to all kinds of people to put together an understanding of what was going on. As I did that, I began to realize I was gathering the material for a storybook about the education of a member of a legislative body. That process started in January of 1971 and I irregularly dictated or jotted down or wrote in long-hand the stories I heard over the course of my 46 years in the legislative process from 1971 to 2017. I had a hard time knowing when I had written enough.
As I began to write a book, I tried to organize it but I could never get it done. By the time I got my manuscript into the hands of an editor I had written more than 150 chapters.
One other aspect of my book may be of some interest. The Irish, because of the oppression by the British, were forbidden to speak or write their own language—Gaelic or Irish—and therefore all their history was oral history. The most respected person in any village was the oral historian. The term in Gaelic for that person is seanchai. My father was a seanchai and my brothers as well. I saw storytelling as a natural way of expressing wisdom and history at the same time
Robin Lindley: You warn that your book is not a memoir, but I wondered about your background before your political career. It seems you’ve had a long-term interest in international relations. You include in the book your photo in Ghana in 1961 with a group called Operation Crossroads-Africa. You also stress your long-term desire to serve “the underprivileged of the world.” What sparked your early interest in world affairs and in serving the less fortunate?
Congressman Jim McDermott: When one reviews one's life it becomes clear that the roots of what you are as an adult started when you were a kid.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian evangelical home where the values were around following in Jesus’ footsteps. Missionaries often stayed at our home. I decided as an eight-year-old child to become a medical missionary to the Chinese. That decision was made in 1944, after watching slide presentations by returning missionaries from China about the atrocities that were committed against the Chinese by the Japanese in their attempt to conquer China before the Second World War began.
The world order changed dramatically during the 1940s and 1950s. China was no longer an option for missionary work, but the impulse to take care of those who were least able to take care of themselves was deeply embedded in my upbringing.
I went to Wheaton College, which was a center of Christian evangelical fundamentalism. The Christians I met had been sent there to prepare themselves for service. The things that I was raised to believe were simply cemented into my life by that experience.
My first trip to the Third World came in my sophomore year in medical school when I went with Operation Crossroads-Africa and lived in a village [in Ghana] at the level of the people of the country. That meant boiling water to drink and using a latrine and eating native food and sleeping under a net to avoid being infected with malaria by the ever-present mosquitoes. That was perhaps the most formative experience in my adult life for it exposed to me the real problems that most of the world faces.
Robin Lindley: What a powerful experience. What inspired you to become a physician and then to choose to specialize in psychiatry?
Congressman Jim McDermott: My decision to become a physician, as I look back on it, was driven from my own experience of having asthma as a child. I was taken to the doctor's office when I was unable to breathe and received a shot of adrenaline, which relieved the spasm in my lungs. My mother also had asthma and I saw her in extremis on several occasions. These two experiences I think drove my desire to be a physician so that I could prevent my mother from dying and also help people like myself who had had this horrible experience of fearing never to have another breath.
My role model was a military general practitioner who had been in the Second World War. His name was Bernard Rodkinson and I'll never forget it. He gave me a shoulder patch from the First Cavalry Division. Dr Rodkinson was a gruff but warm and caring MD who knew how to talk to scared little nine- year-old kids. That shoulder patch emblazoned with a black horse on yellow background was our bonding.
And, like most students in the 1950s and 1960s I was driven educationally toward what I thought would be a useful way to spend my life. I became more and more interested in the human mind and I decided to go into psychiatry when I was 15 years old. I had read widely, and when asked to write what my career would be when I was older, I said that I was going to be a psychiatrist. I'm sure I didn't really understand everything about psychiatry or what it meant but I was driven by the desire to understand the human mind.
Robin Lindley: You were precocious. I decided to be a brain surgeon in sixth grade and interviewed the two neurosurgeons then working in Spokane, but my deficiencies in chemistry and mathematics became apparent in high school and ended that dream. Patients should be thankful.
Your book is candid and often self-deprecating and wryly humorous. You’ve taken on the task of explaining how politicians think and behave. What is most important for readers to understand about the people who seek public office?
Congressman Jim McDermott: My book is not a tell all book designed to destroy this or that personality or tell stories that would be demeaning or hurtful but rather to help a student or someone who's interested in the subject understand what goes on in the mind of the congressman or congresswoman.
I don't think I've ever met anybody who didn't have some idea about what he or she wanted to accomplish as a congressperson. The election process is one in which people choose whether they want to send a person who has this goal or that goal to represent them in the national legislative assembly. The book is about the things that happen to people as they participate in that experience, and much of it is a surprise to the person who enters into the process.
Robin Lindley: What motivated you to seek public office, first at the state level and later with Congress?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I came out of the United States Navy absolutely enraged by what I have seen through the eyes of the soldiers and sailors and marines that I treated in my clinic. I saw the insanity of the war in Vietnam and wanted to do everything I could to stop it.
I actually thought before I went into the military of leaving the country and was offered a job in a psychiatric hospital in Tromso in northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle. I thought long and hard about leaving my country and finally decided that I wanted to stay and try and change it. That's really the driving force that took me from the Long Beach Naval Station on June 30th to a state legislative race in the 43rd district of Washington on the July 1, 1970.
Robin Lindley: Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—advised troubled kids to look for “the helpers.” In looking at your career of service, it seems you fit that helper mold. What do you think?
Congressman Jim McDermott: The old joke about when you find yourself in a deep hole the first thing to do is stop digging. That principle applies to anybody who gets into something they don't understand.
I looked for helpers to help me avoid the problems that inevitably come in the legislative process. I, in turn, did all I could to help people, both Republicans and Democrats, to effectuate the system in the way that made the most sense to them. I often told members when they asked me, “you should vote yes on this issue but I think you're wrong.” By saying that, I let them know I wouldn’t mislead and that I actually knew what was the best vote for them, even if it didn’t fit for me. I learned that one should never mislead another legislator for a momentary advantage. It'll come back to bite you.
The other part of being a helper in going to the legislature was that I saw that, as a member of Congress or of the state legislature, I could help all the people in the society if I could figure out what was an adequate and effective way to make their lives better. Being a doctor, I could help people one at a time, but being a legislator gave me more power.
Having been trained as a pediatric psychiatrist, I saw the world very much from the eyes of children and wondered how problems were going to affect kids and their families and their development for the future. Much of my effort was spent on trying to make a better place for them to live in the future.
Robin Lindley: What lessons did you bring from your medical training and career as a psychiatrist that were helpful in politics?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I only ran once as Doctor Jim McDermott and most of my career I was just plain Jim.
The fact that I was a psychiatrist made many people uneasy and was one of the reasons I lost the governor's race in 1980. The campaign against me advertised “Do you want a liberal Seattle psychiatrist to be your next governor?” Sounded like a good idea to me but the people of Washington weren’t ready for me. It's when I learned that the election was not about me but about the people making the choice of the person they felt most likely would represent them.
Coming to understand that elections are not about you is probably the most important thing you can learn from elections. A friend of mine who was Prime Minister of Ireland said the most important thing to have in politics is humility.
And, after experiencing that critique, I was very careful not to use psychiatric jargon or in any way make people uneasy because of my background. I couldn't change who I was, and I used the skills that I had learned of observing people and looking for evidence to explain why certain things happen, but I tried not to give people the impression that they were all patients. I wanted them to think of me as a colleague in the pursuit of good public policy.
Robin Lindley: You contend that most politicians do not set out to be scoundrels but are motivated by money or love or power—or a combination of those factors. Where do you see yourself in that mix? How do you see your evolution as a politician?
Congressman Jim McDermott: It was St. Ignatius who said, “if you give me a boy to the age of six, you could have him for the rest of his life.” The meaning of that aphorism is that the things that we build into children by the time they're six or eight years old are the roots of the way they will behave for the rest of their lives. That is why preschool education is so important.
My parents were very religious and strove very hard to live their lives as they thought Jesus wanted them to live. I never agreed with much of the trappings of religious denominations whether Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, but the roots had been planted at a very early age and followed me through my entire life.
Money was important of course—to have enough to live, but the accumulation of money was not something to be honored. What was to be honored was the self-service to other people: that one was able to do as Christ had done for the world by giving himself as a savior for all of us.
As most people do, I took those parts of the religion that made sense to me and carried then with me for 46 years and only now, as I look back, can I see some of the connections to the religious upbringing that I had.
If one's view of life is swayed by the acquisition of money or power, one is in danger of wandering into becoming a scoundrel. My favorite verse in the Bible is, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul. Or what shall he give in exchange for his soul.” Faust is just around the corner.
Robin Lindley: You ran for governor of Washington State three times as a neophyte politician. You vividly describe your losses in those statewide races. What happened?
Congressman Jim McDermott: It was a greenhorn in politics but determined to have an impact on the way things went in the world. I was angry at what I had seen in my clinic about the war, and I wanted to change the world. I decided to run for governor which would make me one of 50 governors rather than one of 435 members of Congress. It seemed like I would have a better chance to talk to the president about getting us out of Vietnam. As I look back on it, I can't believe how naive I was.
Robin Lindley: Before running for Congress, you had a successful career as a state legislator. What do you see as your major triumphs in state politics?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Reaganomics turned the country upside down in 1981. The state of Washington was in deep financial trouble.
I lost the election in 1980 for governor but became the Ways and Means chairman in 1981. My job as the chairman of the most powerful committees in the legislature was to control the expenditure of money and provide for the safety net and education for all the citizens.
In 1984 I ran for governor for the third time and was defeated and it was clear to me that my progressive politics or my campaign style or my personality was not going to be accepted ever by the entire state. I returned to the state Senate and put together the Washington Basic Health Plan and the funding for the cleanup of Puget Sound and had hearings on reform of our nursing homes and so forth.
I got frustrated with the inability to reach a greater level power because our congressional seats were taken and the governor's race was closed, so I decided to go back to medicine. That's when I became a Regional Medical Officer for the US State Department based in Kinshasa, Zaire. I had always loved medicine.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those comments on your work at the state level. Weren’t you a reluctant candidate for Congress in 1988 when you first ran? You were tapped to run when you were working in Zaire as a medical officer with the State Department.
Congressman Jim McDermott: I had a great job working in Africa for the State Department and, for the first time in my life, I had a stable income so that I could put two kids in college and pay for their education. I told my kids that the only thing that I would leave for them for a legacy would be a free college education so that, when they came out of college, they could do whatever they wanted without thinking about having to retire a monstrous debt.
I had already had the experience of picking myself up off the ground having lost three times for governor and knowing what it would be like if I came back from Africa having given up a great job and having to start all over again so I was scared. I wasn't sure that I could get elected to the United States House of Representatives.
Robin Lindley: What are a few of your proudest accomplishments as a member of Congress?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Every time I try to answer this question, I give different answers because I remember stuff I forgot after 28 years.
My biggest desire was to see national health care guaranteed to all Americans. Obama Care was a down payment. While I was there, I played a big part in the response to HIV-AIDS. HOPWA (housing for people living with HIV-AIDS) was very important in keeping people alive until treatment for AIDS came along.
My subcommittee of the Ways and Means committee was charged with rewriting the provisions of the 1935 Social Security Act. I upgraded unemployment insurance and care for foster kids (500,000) and welfare for families. I also wrote the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which was the first trade policy for Africa. At home, I finished the process of getting the Seattle’s Cedar River Watershed completely protected. I also passed the bill in the Natural Resources Committee to resolve the land claim between the Puyallup tribe and the Port of Tacoma so the port could reach its present size.
I did lots of other smaller things, but it is important to say: none of this I did alone. I worked with members from all over the country and, despite our political and social differences, we got stuff done. I also must say my staff did most of the work. It really came to a screeching halt in 1995 when Newt took control and tried take all the power to himself. It was almost impossible to get a Republican co-sponsor on a bill so then you couldn’t even get a hearing on an idea. You had to get very creative and seed an idea in a Republican mind to get it to go anywhere.
Robin Lindley: You mention the cautionary words of legendary physician William Osler, “Listen to the patient.” How did that advice inform your work in politics?
Congressman Jim McDermott: If one believes in democracy and the principle that you are elected to represent the people of your district, it is imperative that you listen to what 700,000 people are trying to tell you. It's not always clear and it's never easy to do but that is your goal.
The aphorism that I learned in medicine in tandem with William Osler, was what one of my supervisors in psychiatry said to me. “Jim, listen to the patient no matter how crazy he sounds or she sounds because buried in their confusing communication is the truth that you need to know in order to help them.” He finished by saying, “a stopped clock is right twice a day. Your job is to figure out when the clock is telling the right time.” I thought of that whenever my staff would say to me, “You spent too much time listening to so and so.” I was waiting to find out what time it was.
Robin Lindley: You served in Congress for 28 years. How would you compare your Congressional legislative experience to what you did at the state level?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I'm sorry, but the only way I can answer this question is by an analogy to baseball. The Washington State Legislature was like being in the Pacific Coast League in baseball. I batted about .375 and hit about 40 home runs. In 1989 when I went up to the Major Leagues as a congressman in Washington DC, I was lucky to hit .290 and hit 15 home runs. The game is the same as in the state legislature in that the ball is the same shape and size and the distances between the bases and the pitcher’s mound and home plate are the same, but the players have skills that you have never seen before. Congress is a collection of the best players from all over the country who all have different styles. You have to learn a whole new game.
Robin Lindley: Who were some of your significant helpers in your career in Congress as you fought for average citizens, for better health care and education and housing, and more?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Let me start with Tom Foley who was the Speaker of the House. He and his wife Heather took me under their wings and taught me innumerable things. The rest of the Washington delegation were helpful, even [Republican] Sid Morrison who I had known from the state legislature where we had worked together on writing the bilingual education bill in 1973. When Sid left the Congress, he sold me his car.
I came to Congress with Nancy Pelosi, and so I knew her from practically the first day I was started. She and her colleague from California, George Miller, were perhaps my most helpful guides in how to proceed in Washington DC. Danny Rostenkowski and Dick Durbin from Chicago shared my Chicago background and were very helpful.
To begin to name other members is to recite the membership of the House because, from each of them, I learned things that helped me while I was there. Jim Ford, the chaplain of the House, was also a great friend.
Robin Lindley: You mention that the revered civil rights activist, the late Congressman John Lewis, was also a good friend of yours. How to you see your friendship and his approach to working in Congress?
Congressman Jim McDermott: John and talked almost every day. I was senior to him on the Ways and Means Committee, so I usually spoke before him. He would always be complementary to me and often take my ideas and make them more acceptable to the committee. He took some of the edge off my style but he was never afraid to take ideas and improve on them. He “made trouble” with a velvet glove after I used my fist to make a point. He and I shared the deaths in our family and our aches and pains as we got older. He was a friend that I admired enormously as I watched him deal with the racism of the world. He was made of cool steel.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing those memories of Congressman Lewis. In your book, you share stories of ineptitude and corruption and vicious political schemes in Congress. That has to be frustrating when you’re working to help the people in your district and beyond. Are there a couple of particularly egregious incidents that especially surprised you?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I was raised in Chicago area and served in the state legislature for almost 16 years and had worked as a psychiatrist in a number of different settings in which I saw human foibles.
Coming to Congress simply exposed me to a wider variety of the things that people can do to get themselves in trouble because they didn't think about how it would look or how it would affect other people.
Robin Lindley: Right now, our country and Congress are extremely polarized, but you point out how this polarization in Congress really began in the 1990s with Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich and his “Contract for (on?) America.” That was years before the Tea Party far right extremists. How do you see Gingrich’s role in creating today’s divided Congress?
Congressman Jim McDermott: The election of Lyndon Johnson and his promise to bring the Great Society to the country threatened the conservatives and they planned, beginning in 1970, on how they were going to change the country. There are a dozen books you can read about what they did, but Newt Gingrich was simply the first very visible and most powerful prophet of our time to turn the Right away from democracy. He was unabashed in his willingness to bend the rules or to ignore the customs of the democracy in which we lived. It's hard to measure how important he was, but one can say that had he not led the Congress in 1995 in the way he did, we would not be anywhere near where we are today. The conservative wave was coming in the country and Newt Gingrich rode the wave like a surfer. And everyone saw him do it and began to follow suit.
Robin Lindley: Compromise in Congress is virtually impossible now. And you advise, “If you want to be a star, forget bipartisanship.” How does that work?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Two principles are essential for democracy to work: one principle is that of compromise. Everyone everyday compromises in multiple ways to make this society work. People very rarely get life exactly as they want it whether it's in their work or their profession or their personal life. Autocrats don't have to compromise.
The second principle is that there has to be honest debate over an agreed upon set of facts. You cannot have a useful discussion with someone if you cannot agree on the fundamental facts of the problem. You could have your own view about why the facts are the way they are but you and I have to agree on the facts if we're going have a sensible conversation about the problems.
When one side of the political process decides that compromise is not acceptable, partisanship is a direct result of that. Both sides of an argument go to their corner and never talk to the other side.
Diplomacy between nations is the attempt by leaders to bridge this gap between what one side thinks the facts are and what the other side thinks the facts are. If they can come to an agreement on the facts, they can probably work out an agreement. For example, the Good Friday Accords in Ireland settled 800 years of dispute between the British and the Irish. If either side had walked away from the table, you would still have mass killings in the streets of London, Dublin and Belfast.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for those words on the value of compromise. As you detail, it’s expensive to run for Congress and, if you win, it’s challenging to maintain homes in your district and Washington DC, and address other pressures. What did you learn and what would you advise prospective members of Congress regarding expenses?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Becoming a public official is not a way to become wealthy! If you want to be wealthy, go into business or a profession where the compensation is high.
If you go into politics and expect to come out wealthy, you are in grave danger because the temptations to enrich yourself directly or indirectly are everywhere. You will operate on a daily basis with people who have much more of the world's wealth than you do, and as you begin to envy what they have, you open yourself up more and more to be corrupted.
When I came to Congress, buying a house in Washington DC in certain areas was not prohibitive but now housing is out of sight for an ordinary member of Congress. If you're wealthy before you come, it's no problem. You just have a second house in Washington DC. Absent that good luck, you are going to be stretched in your living style. There should be housing provided for members just as we do for diplomats or military personnel so poorer members could bring their families to DC. The divorce rate might even go down then.
Robin Lindley: You detail in your book the Republican vendetta against you regarding release of an audiotaped recording—and the resulting complex litigation. It seems that you violated no laws but you lost several appeals, etc. What lessons did you take from this experience? As a result of your situation, you argue that all members of Congress have surrendered their First Amendment rights. Why is that?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I would advise anyone going into Congress to begin by studying the genesis and the operation of the Federalist Society. I was an ordinary citizen who had a couple parking tickets and a speeding ticket but that's all I knew about the justice system when I got to Congress.
The first goal of authoritarian leadership is to wipe out any aspect of free speech. You'll hear lots of speeches about support for the First Amendment, but the actions done in the process gradually take away the right of any citizen in the process to speak freely against the government. It's called the First Amendment because it is the first principle of any democracy. Behind that is a government that wants its activities to be as invisible as possible because the scrutiny of the people will lay bare the way things are actually operating.
Congressional oversight is the essence of making democracy fair. Congress tries to pass laws that they think are fair and deal with problems. The executive branch writes the rules and regulations to implement the laws that have been written. That process of writing rules and regulations is arcane and opaque and requires vigilance on the part of both to Congress and the people. There many slips between the lip and the cup, as the saying goes.
Whistle blowers are citizens who are exercising their right of free speech. If they see something in the process that they disagree with, they talk about it with someone. At that moment they have become a problem for the government and can be dealt with in a multiplicity of ways, none of which are pleasant.
My 11-year legal involvement over the release of a tape which I made for The New York Times was the result of an open attempt by the Republican leadership in the House to hide their duplicity from the world. Newt Gingrich said he would not do something and signed an agreement and then got on the phone and did exactly the opposite of what he had said in his declaration. The fact that I became aware of that phone call was truly accidental. I never went looking for it. It was brought to me and I thought the people had a right to know what the behavior of this Speaker of the House really was. Understandably he was quite angry and said “I was violating his privacy.”
At that time, now King Charles had been exposed by a cell phone call to his now wife. Everyone in the world knew that you could capture cell conversations. And the Speaker put everyone on his leadership team in jeopardy by making a call. He gave John Boehner the responsibility of pursuing a lawsuit and the lawsuit was decided with a very novel interpretation of the Constitution. The court decided that I had broken the rules of the House. The Constitution specifically separates the House and its rules from the purview of the courts. That means that when you become a member of the House, you are subject to a set of rules that can be written by the majority with no consultation with the minority by a simple vote on the floor of the House, and that you can be deprived of your First Amendment rights. That is a dangerous precedent to have been set in the House.
Robin Lindley: You have been outspoken on our “Forever Wars” in the Middle East. Many voters appreciate your views on war and peace and the bloated military budget. You mentioned your toughest vote and it involved a yes vote on the US response to the September 11, 2001 attack on America with a Declaration of a War on Terror. Only Representative Barbara Lee voted against the bill in the House. What did you do at this perilous time?
Congressman Jim McDermott: If there is one vote I would like to take again with the benefit of hindsight, it is that one. A group of 30 or so of us went round and round on Yes or No. I gave away my right to object fully to what followed.
The invasion of Iraq and problems with Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan all came from that decision. What we see today in Ukraine and China and Russia is the result of what happens with countries whose economies are built on continual war making.
Robin Lindley: You dedicate the book to the late Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening as well as acclaimed author Karl Marlantes. Morse and Gruening voted against US involvement in the Vietnam War, so I think I understand that part of the dedication. Why did you also mention Mr. Marlantes? I realize he has written vividly about the human cost of war.
Congressman Jim McDermott: Karl and I are good friends and I know the struggles he had to get his novel Matterhorn published. He said to me once,” Jim, if I had a nickel for everyone who has told me, ‘Karl, I feel a book in me,’ I could retire forever.” He encouraged me through the process of writing, editing, and finding a publisher. I finally had to self-publish, and he was an inspiration for my struggle with the book in me. He said, “No matter what happens you can be proud because you did it. Two hundred or two million copies make no difference. You made it to the top.”
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that nod to Karl Marlantes. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency had to be heartbreaking for you. He and his allies worked to undermine American democracy and the rule of law throughout his four-year term. What’s your sense of our fragile democracy today and where do you find hope in these fraught times?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I am worried sick about the midterms because I listen to Kevin McCarthy and I believe he is honest about his intentions. What he says should turn your blood cold.
I listen to people I dislike or distrust as carefully as I do my pals. I find hope in the ability of the people to see what’s happening. Look at Kansas. It’s a red state that added abortion protection into its Constitution by a vote of the people.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that optimistic perspective. What do you miss about Congress since your retirement in early 2017?
Congressman Jim McDermott: My friends and all the trappings of power. People answer your cell calls or emails. I had 16 staff members to help with a thousand details of life.
But what is hardest is the realization that it is so hard for an ordinary citizen to get a change in policy. I pick up The New York Times every day and see something my friends should be aware or know exists but wonder how I can get their attention. It is analogous to being a parent and seeing the peril of your child of whatever age and being unable to get them to see it before the fall.
Robin Lindley: You’re living in France now. Do you still have a home in Seattle? What drew you to France?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I have an apartment in the city of Seattle. I still believe Seattle is the best place to live in the USA since I chose to leave Chicago in1966. I never looked back.
I came to France after I retired to go to a French cooking school. I was single and no one asked me out to dinner every night, so I decided to learn a new skill. I wanted to be able to ask them to dinner.
I came to the Medoc wine region to a town of 661 people and found peace and tranquility. I don’t speak French, so I was not bothered by press and radio and TV. I could unwind after racing at breakneck speed for 46 years. It was a place I could actually think about my life as I walked around in 400,000 acres of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and could concentrate and finish my book.
Medoc wines are all blends of these two grapes with some Petit Verdot. I liked it so much that I bought one hectare of vines (approximately 2.25 acres). I invite my American friends to come taste my vintage.
I have made a whole community of new friends and I’m gradually learning to speak French. The best part, though, is becoming a part of French society. I prefer Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité to life, liberty and the pursuit of my happiness only. Within six months of arriving here, I have full health coverage with a Carte Vitale, which every French person has. Even a long-term visa (one year) person like me gets health coverage. I tried to guarantee this to Americans for 28 years and I never got it done. Here I get in within six months.
They say the French work to live while Americans live to work. It is true. The schedule is 8AM -12:30PM, then closed until 1:30 for lunch, Open up again 2:00-7PM. Then home to dinner. I could go on and on. Do they have problems? Of course, but the only guns are for hunting. On Saturday hunters go out to get wild boar from the fields. You hear a gun but that’s it. Election campaigns take two weeks or so. No huge and long money expenditure to buy your eyes.
Finally, foie gras, fromage and vin rouge.
Robin Lindley: What’s your typical day like now?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Every day starts the same in retirement. You decide what you will do. You take a blank sheet of paper and write down what you are going to do. You are the only one who writes on the paper. I start each day with a cup of coffee, a chocolatine, and The International New York Times followed by a walk in the vineyards. Amazing what a 6000-7000-step walk does for your soul. The rest of the day is yours to enjoy.
Robin Lindley: I read that you are also an artist and enjoy sumi-e painting (an ink-wash technique involving applying black ink to paper in varying concentrations with a brush—ed.). Have you enjoyed making art since childhood? Who inspired your interest in art?
Congressman Jim McDermott: During the Vietnam War, I got interested in Zen Buddhism. I couldn’t meditate but I gradually taught myself to do Sumi-e painting which was a part of understanding the religion. I didn’t think I had any talent until a friend who was an artist encouraged me at age 45.
Tom Foley had given me the responsibility to attend meetings with legislative exchanges with Japan when I came to Congress in 1989 and so I travelled to Japan more than 40 times over the years. I became good friends with a number of Diet members. One told me to bring some of my painting to Tokyo. He took me to one of the emperor’s scroll makers. His artistry in turning my paintings into scrolls raised me to another level and I began giving my paintings as auction items and on and on it went. The Confucian and Buddhist philosophy behind the paintings stirred my soul. “The bamboo is the perfect gentleman; he bends in the wind but never breaks.”
Robin Lindley: You’ve also been teaching at the University of Washington in recent years. What’s the focus of your courses?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I teach because I am recruiting the best and the brightest into government. Our best and most thoughtful should go into public service. I try to teach the things that are in my book. I have had lots of experience and like to share with students because they make me think about what I really am sure of. They challenge me as I challenge them.
Robin Lindley: You could rest on your laurels. What inspired you to teach now?
Congressman Jim McDermott: Keeping your mind alive by continually challenging yourself has been a lifelong occupation and I intend to keep offering what I know to those who are interested. It is fun now because I have nothing to prove and don’t need to compete with others. Gandalf the Wizard said, “You must be the change you want see in the World.” Or was it Gandhi? Ha ha.
Robin Lindley: Legislators and other politicians are increasingly facing death threats and actual violence. You have the recent assassination attempt on Speaker Pelosi in which her husband was assaulted and severely injured. What advice to you have for prospective public servants who are concerned about the escalation of hatred and violence in the political arena?
Congressman Jim McDermott: This question is very tough to answer succinctly. I had three death threats made on me. The first was by mail in a governor’s race. I told the state police and I don’t know the resolution.
The second threat was by phone from someone upset with my advocacy of a tax on a trust baby’s income. I was in Congress and the caller was very helpful in that he called twice and left his name and phone number. He was convicted and served a period in jail.
The third threat occurred because I would not change my support for Hilary Clinton to Bernie Sanders in 2016. The threat was very graphic and was delivered over the phone and then the caller followed up with an appearance at my office where he terrified the employees who were there. My office had bullet proof glass as a result of the previous threats. The police arrested him as he stood outside my office trying to break in by beating on the windows. He was also convicted of a felony.
I think it was von Clausewitz who said, “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition means.” If you enter the political arena, you must be aware that you are going to war. Many citizens have no idea where the interface between diplomacy and conflict begins and, if you enter the arena, there is always the possibility that physical harm may be the result.
I never had or was offered physical protections. We took precautions like door locks and bulletproof glass.
Many people don’t enter the arena because of their or their families’ fear. Courage is a prerequisite for a candidate.
Would I run again? Yes, without hesitation.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your years of service. I really appreciate you bearing with me, Congressman McDermott. Is there anything you’d like to add about your book or your life in Congress and since then?
Congressman Jim McDermott: I have probably said too much already, but I just read Hold the Line by Michael Fanone [A police officer injured by pro-Trump rioters in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol]. It is a terrific book and made me think that my whole career from 1970 to Trump was trying to hold the line for democracy. We are in real peril today.
Since I wrote the first draft I have been reading a fabulous book about a real French heroine. Not Joan d’Arc. Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy by Damien Lewis. If you read it you will begin to see why I live in France today.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your patience and thoughtfulness Congressman McDermott, and for the many ways you have served the country through the years. And congratulations on your lively and insightful new book—a reference on politics and human behavior for the ages. Best wishes on your very active life in retirement.
Congressman Jim McDermott: Best wishes to us all. The world is looking for its soul. Materialism and science and tech have left a void. The turmoil we see around is evidence of people looking for something to believe.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin’s email: email@example.com.
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