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Science & Medicine

Dan Glickman On His Career And 'Laughing At Myself'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dan Glickman had a long career in Washington as a member of Congress, agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration, and then head of the Washington office for the Motion Picture Association. And it wasn't that long ago when he says the qualities he tried to uphold - a sense of humility, a willingness to laugh at himself, work across the aisle and compromise - were critical to his somewhat unlikely success as a Democrat elected in deeply Republican Kansas and the grandson of Jewish immigrants, no less. And yet the world he describes in his new memoir seems, at times, like ancient history. And the memoir itself is an urgent appeal to bring those qualities back to our politics. The book is called "Laughing At Myself: My Education In Congress, On The Farm, And At The Movies." And former congressman, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman is with us now to tell us more about it.

Mr. Secretary, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAN GLICKMAN: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Why this book now?

GLICKMAN: Well, you know, I'm in - out of politics for a while, but I still care about what's happening to this country. And I watch the discord and the - kind of the partisan vitriol that's endemic in our national politics, and, you know, it's not all bad. The end of the world is not here. But there does not seem to be a lot of fun in politics anymore. And so I decided that I would write this book about my own life experiences and how self-deprecating humor made a big difference in my life and how it allowed me to build bridges, not burn them and be more successful than I would otherwise be.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that is, though? I mean, you argue about - I mean, a major theme in the book is the importance of working relationships, even friendships, if you can manage it, with people who disagree with you, which you say was critical during your time in Congress. And you argue throughout the book that things are different now. Why do you think it's different? Do you think the people seeking office have changed? Or you think something else has changed?

GLICKMAN: I'm not exactly sure why. I just know that it's - the environment is more hostile. And what's troubling to me is, is that when I served, by and large, politics was fun. And the people were fun. We got along well together. We got along well with people from the other side of the aisle. And I'm not telling you it was nirvana. There was often a lot of serious conflict that took place. But it was a much more relaxed atmosphere than it is now, and part of this has to do with this just frenetic raising of money that's just become endemic in our political system.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's interesting that a lot of the issues you worked on are very much back in the news, including the whole question around equity for farmers of color. You were in the House Agriculture Committee for years before you took on the role of agriculture secretary. I know you talked about this in the book, but I'm still having a little trouble understanding, like, why it was that these farmers and their concerns were invisible for so long. I'm still sort of puzzled by why it is that the kinds of just really naked discrimination that these farmers face just did not rise to the level of public concern before. Why did it take so long?

GLICKMAN: It's a great question. You know, I was on the House Agriculture Committee for 18 years, and I don't think we had one hearing in 18 years on the issue of discrimination against Black or other minority farmers. And it may be that when I was on the committee, there were few, if any, minorities on that committee. And so maybe the issues didn't come up because of that particular reason.

But when I got to the Agriculture Committee after I had been sworn in and the first day I came to the building, the Agriculture Department, there was a demonstration of African American farmers. And I was taken back a bit by - I mean, I knew a little bit what was going on. But I was taken back a bit by the intensity of the demonstration and the feelings of discrimination.

But the cases really didn't remain fully settled until much more recent times under the administration of Tom Vilsack and recent congressional action. So I can't tell you really why except it was kind of out of sight, out of mind. And it just wasn't a high priority for the Agriculture Committees of either the Senate or the House to deal with it.

MARTIN: You know, in the book, you also take your party to task, though, when it comes to how they view rural voters. And I don't mean this to be kind of a moral equivalency here, but I'm just saying, you also say, on the other hand, that Democrats have pretty much abandoned any hope of winning in the rural sectors or their districts. And they focus their resources almost exclusively on urban areas. Why do you think that is?

GLICKMAN: I think the issues could be - maybe it's cultural issues. I think the issue of gun control, you know, just didn't play as well in rural areas. Some of the cultural issues didn't play as well. But I wouldn't say that was an absolute uniform thing. One of the things that I found on the Agriculture Committee is, is that we were able to balance the needs of farmers with the needs of hungry people. And all the feeding programs came out of the Agriculture Committee. So we did have a good rural-urban coalition on food and farm issues in the Agriculture Committee, and we continued that in government. But certainly demographically and politically, the Democratic Party has not focused, until very recently, on trying to win these heartland rural states.

MARTIN: But I'm trying to figure out, though, what is the solution here? Because the book is a - really a plea for people to consider other points of view. So on the one hand, I take your point that a lot of working relationships have thrived in the past. But just - like, on the question of gun safety, I mean, should just Democrats just stop talking about it? I mean, the - a lot of their voters think it's a vital and urgent matter, and that's what they expect their elected representatives to do. So I'm just trying to figure out, like, how - based on your experience, you know, what should they do?

GLICKMAN: You know, half of life is showing up and just listening. So, you know, presidential candidates of the Democratic Party need to spend time in heartland areas, in rural areas and just be there and listen to people, and vice versa as well. That's not a magic answer to the question that you asked me. But what I did find in my political life is when I went out and talked to people and told them what was on my mind, they would at least respect what I was doing. And I think we've done less of that in recent years.

MARTIN: That is Daniel Glickman, former secretary of agriculture, former Democratic congressman from Kansas, former chair of the Motion Picture Association, and now the author of "Laughing At Myself: My Education In Congress, On The Farm, And At The Movies." And it is out now. Mr. Secretary, Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

GLICKMAN: Hey, Michel, it's been great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.