Michael Gross: You were born in ’51. Your parents are second-generation?
Robert Torricelli: Actually, my father’s family emigrated from Corleone, Sicily, and they came to New York operating a fruit business, which went bankrupt, and they moved back to Sicily. While they were in New York the first time, my father was born. So he was born here but raised in Sicily, and then later returned. My mother’s family was half-German and half-English, but the English side had been here since pre-Revolution. The German side, Prussian, came in the late 19th Century. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a steelworker; my father’s mother and father were both in the garment industry.
My grandmother on my father’s side was an early member of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, I guess in the period right after the [Triangle] Shirtwaist Factory fire. My grandfather was a tailor who lost a finger in an automobile accident and committed suicide when my father was very little. My mother’s family were Republicans; my father’s were Democrats. Both parents were committed New Dealers.
RT: Marine Corps. Fought in Saipan, was wounded. Lost hearing in one ear from a Japanese grenade. Grandparents on my mother’s side fought in World War I.
MG: Were they already married, or did they get married after the war?
RT: It’s a movie script. My parents met after my father was wounded. He was in the Naval Hospital in St. Albans, Queens, and my mother had joined the Red Cross. They married, moved initially into my mother’s parents’ house in Clifton, New Jersey, which is why I was born in Patterson, and then moved, bought what was a summer bungalow in Franklin Lakes, and over the years built a house there, and we spent our entire lives in Franklin Lakes.
MG: Do you have an older sibling?
RT: Yeah. Four-and-a-half years older.
MG: Are they comfortable by the time you come along? Did you grow up middle class?
RT: I never remember wanting for anything. I had the feeling of living a life of comfort and being extremely blessed. It was an idyllic setting. It was two acres. I had my own stream, my own lake, endless acres of woods to wander through. It was a very lonely childhood in that there were very few children in the area, but it was a wonderful place to come of age. Looking back, my parents probably struggled greatly. My mother was a schoolteacher and a librarian; my father was a local attorney. Neither ever made considerable money. My mother was obsessive about saving.
MG: A classic Depression mentality.
RT: Right. I suspect they had some very difficult days. But as a child, I was entirely unaware of it.
MG: Did Mom work through your childhood?
RT: My mother worked my entire life. I’m particularly sensitive about day-care because I was the only child I knew in our community whose mother worked, and worked hard. She was very ambitious, and she was an English teacher and then became the school librarian. She founded the school library in Mahwah. She was very involved in her profession. I never remember coming home from after school and having my mother in the house. I was a generation ahead of what is now the modern American experience, and it’s made me very aware of day-care and what life is now like for this generation.
MG: Was your school one of those built for the postwar Baby Boom kids?
RT: No, it was actually built during the Depression. But as the ’60s went on, the town grew rapidly, and there were schools placed throughout the community.
MG: What are your first memories of the world outside?
RT: There was no division between our home and the events of the world. Every evening, dinner was focused on conversation about the events of the day. And I never remember a time in our family when international tensions or economic problems and American politics were not discussed.
My parents were very anti-war, much more so than I ever was. I’m not really a political reflection of my parents. They were very shaped by the War experience and somewhat traumatized by the entire McCarthyism experience. Very sensitive to ideological dogma. Both genuinely intellectuals. My father was a real product of the New York City schools — intellectual, progressive world view. My mother was very much that way, too, although she didn’t live in New York City. So yes, I remember this intense concern about the anti-Communist movement in this country, and I think my parents saw the reality of the Cold War, but were very sensitive to its exaggeration. I must have been in the fifth grade, and my teacher told me one day that in Russia no more than two people could meet on a street-corner and talk — it was against the law. My mother called the teacher and said she didn’t want me hearing any of that crap.
Franklin Lakes must be 15 to 18 miles from midtown Manhattan. But it was Small Town America. I often believe that I succeeded politically because I lived the experience of my own generation. Born after the war, a feeling of relative affluence, though in families that genuinely economically struggled, so some sense of economic insecurity in my environment, in a small-town atmosphere that was overwhelmed by suburbia. Conservative surroundings with influences of race and the Cold War. But I saw both the Civil Rights Movement and the Antiwar Movement meet the borders of our community, cause divisions and eventually overwhelm it. I don’t know how long I’ll be successful in politics. But I always believed I would be successful so long as these experiences of my life typify so much of the American population. That I have lived the postwar generation’s suburban experience.
In fact, when I ran for the Senate, I argued that I was the first of the future to get elected. That for generations, New Jersey’s state-wide elected officials had come from either the landed gentry or they had come from the urban experience. They were either from the Morris County-Christie Whitman set, or they were from Newark or Jersey City. I was the first elected state-wide from Bergen County, I think, in the 20th Century, maybe ever, even though it’s the largest county in the state — from suburbia, and born after the war. My guess is from now on, everybody is. I will bet you that the next Senator or the next Governor elected in this state, and for the next 20 years (all born, obviously, after the War), will be from suburbia, from smaller communities, and ethnic.
MG: Your father was a politician, wasn’t he?
RT: He ran locally, but the town was overwhelmingly Republican. He ran for Councilman and Mayor, and I always saw those campaigns. In fact, in 1965 my father ran for Mayor, and the school ran a contest…all the schoolchildren in the community, at all grades, elected a Mayor for a day. He was running for Mayor as a Democrat, and I ran for Mayor of the day, and I won and he lost. It was a source of considerable humor in the community.
MG: He was quoted saying that you took his losses harder than he did.
RT: I did. Because they knew they were going to lose, and I didn’t understand that victory wasn’t possible. I hate to speak badly of my community, because I admire Franklin Lakes and I love its people, and it’s really the only home I’ve ever known. But it needs to be seen in reality. It was racist, very prejudiced… Franklin Lakes was unlikely to ever elect a Democrat. It certainly was never going to elect an Italian-American.
MG: Was it all-White?
RT: 100 percent. Mostly Dutch, blood English, Protestant. When the first Catholic church was built in the community, it was a source of considerable speculation. There was not a synagogue, but when there was one built even in proximity of the community, it was widely discussed. I remember when I was in high school, a girl joined our class who was Black. Her father was a diplomat in the United Nations. She left after several weeks. Just couldn’t do it. This is hard to believe in northern New Jersey in the 1950′s; I tell people this now, and they’re shocked. I remember lectures when I was in grade school from teachers who taught us that Blacks were better off in slavery than they were after the Emancipation Proclamation, and that real poverty of Blacks only began at the end of slavery. And for all the admiration of Martin Luther King, I can remember teachers spoke about him with disdain.
MG: Kennedy comes along. For a lot of us, politics wasn’t boring anymore.
RT: My parents, being liberals, were decidedly for Stevenson. But certainly, no one in my generation can claim to be unaffected, positively or negatively, by the Kennedy experience in politics. He made it appealing to be in public life, and he made it seem possible to make a difference. I remember coming home from school and being in my home alone and watching press conferences on televisions. Each of those events of the Cold War are a memory that will never depart us. I remember the Berlin crisis, Kennedy’s speech in Berlin. The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most vivid experiences in my life. Watching the television and waiting for the reports of whether the Russian freighter was going to reverse course. Going to the supermarket with my parents, and they carried that list from the newspaper of the things you needed to have in the basement if there was a nuclear war. I remember that on the list was a plastic garbage can to keep water, and when we got to the store there were no plastic garbage cans left. Then my parents set up a battery radio and cots and sleeping bags in the basement, things to store water and a lot of canned food. I think some of it stayed there until we sold the house in 1986.
MG: Space shots?
RT: The school would always have us gather and watch. It was exciting Not only our pride in the country, but the sense of competition. A challenge both against the unknown and against real enemies. It was a defining experience.
Another one is the air-raid drills. The early memories in grade school of huddling under desks or in hallways, away from windows, being taught to keep our hands over our eyes or ears for protection against a nuclear blast. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember this so well, we were going through these drills every day of kneeling under our desks, with our hands over our eyes to prepare for atomic warfare. And I remember my mother telling me that if the sirens go off and you are told to go under your desk, you are to disobey your teachers and run home. They are telling you that you’ll be safe in that school against nuclear war, and it is not true. No one will be safe. Get home. That was ’62. I was 11.
MG: Mom was telling you, “They lie.”
RT: Yeah. My parents did not have confidence in the American suburban public school system of those years. I think in retrospect it was a fairly good school system, but it was not challenging. I think the academic standards were not what they had experienced, my father in the New York City public schools or my mother in her own community, and they were very conscious of the fact that it was very narrow-minded.
The worst experience I ever had is, one day a teacher asked everyone to raise their hand and describe where their ancestors were from. She was trying to demonstrate the breadth of the American experience. Most were from England and many from Holland, some from Germany; then there was me, and I said, “Italy.” And the teacher said, “Class, you’ll notice that Robert’s ancestors are not from Europe.” As much as I always liked politics, geography was my passion. I remember raising my hand and said, “Excuse me, Italy is in Europe.” And she said, “Only technically.” What she was pointing out is that everyone else was from a Northern European experience. They were Anglo-Saxon. I went home that night and said, “Did you know Italy is only technically in Europe? It’s not really a European country.” My father said, “What?” I said, “Yeah. Italy is not really a European country.” And my father said, “Where did you hear this?” And I told him the story. My father was in that classroom the next morning. He went to see the teacher and asked for an explanation. I’m sure it never happened again.
MG: There’s a story your bedroom walls were papered red, white and blue and you had a bust of Lincoln.
RT: My parents were very concerned. Part of growing up in the Cold War experience was a tendency towards excessive nationalism. I haven’t thought of this stuff for years. But you know, being from the New Deal and having lived through the Fascist experience, my parents were not enthusiastic about my early politics. I was raised in this conservative rural community in the midst of the Cold War; my world was about nationalism. And my first political instincts were all very anti-foreign and extremely conservative. And it was to the endless concern of my mother.
MG: Was it peer pressure?
RT: No. I just responded to the environment. We talked about this. The Space Race, the problems of Communism.
MG: I have a clear memory of 1962 as the height of American civilization, that it never was better than that, that America was where we lived, that it had this young President and this glamorous First Lady.
RT: I think on the surface that was all true. I think that the movie script of American life was at its ideal in 1962, though in reality it’s now far better than it ever was.
MG: There were cracks under the surface.
RT: Deep cracks. We were entirely unaware of it.
MG: So you became a super patriot, in essence.
RT: Very conservative. All the way through the middle of the Vietnam War. I was strongly in support of the Vietnam War. I went to boarding school in ’68-’69 or ’69-’70, and I wrote a letter in support of Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War. I always thought someone would find that letter when I was in the early primary contests within the Democratic Party. No one ever did their research properly. Anyway, it was part of this very early conservative foundation.
When my parents added on to their house, my mother told me I could have my room any way I wanted it. I said, “Any way?” She said, “Yes.” So I ordered red wall-to-wall carpeting, painted all the walls blue and all the trim white. My room basically was a library. It had a bed, a desk, and every wall was lined with books. I would get all the duplicates. Publishers would send the library advance copies of books, to see if she wanted to buy them, and any duplicates or books that were misprints that she’d get from the publisher, she’d bring to me. So I had a better library than some small public schools; the entire library was in my bedroom. I had a bust of Lincoln that was very large on my desk, all these books, and then it was red, white and blue. Then on the top was bunting, flag bunting that I draped.
MG: Oh my God.
RT: Well, then, worse: One day in the closet I find this very large flag. Huge. This is great. So I use it as a bedspread. I must have been 10. My mother comes home, and I remember hearing her gasp. It had been her father’s coffin flag. She said, “That’s it. I will not tolerate any more.” This is where I draw the line.
MG: Despite this super-patriotism, you’re also getting these lessons in social progressivism from your mother. She’s pointing out homeless people.
RT: Yeah, my mother brought me to the Poor People’s March of ’68. But she was losing. We would have bitter political fights sometimes on these things. I was rooting for the Democratic candidates that Dad was for, but my instincts were decidedly conservative.
She took me to Washington several times. And earlier, I insisted on seeing John Kennedy, and I made her stand outside the gates of the White House most of an entire day waiting for him to come out, and I remember the helicopter landed, and I saw him get off the helicopter. I stood at the gate, which was then open (it’s not any more) between the White House and the Treasury Department — the social gate. You could stand there and look through the fence. I stood there, I saw the helicopter land, he got out, waved to some people and walked in.
MG: So you were getting mixed messages from your parents about patriotism. Kennedy’s assassination, did it affect you?
RT: I remember standing and changing classes in school, and in the hallways the rumors sweeping down, much of the information inaccurate, but the terrible essential truth of his death being reported, and school immediately being dismissed. Everybody was being sent home. Mostly I remember that a neighbor’s child telling us that it was a good thing, and I was startled that people took their politics to that degree. Then of course, that whole weekend sitting with the family was a shared experience of watching the funeral.
MG: You go from November ’63 to February ’64, and bang, the Beatles are on television, Bob Dylan is picking up an electric guitar — things are starting to change very rapidly.
RT: It didn’t reach me for a long time. I considered the early Beatles an intrusion into American culture. I’m an enormous Beatles fan now, but I don’t remember being captivated by it initially. And the whole Dylan thing I recognized early as part of a subculture with which I didn’t really identify. That all came much later. Everyone will deny it now, but at the end of ’65 and ’66, the Vietnam War was being followed for its progress because most Americans believed in it. I don’t remember any people in our community being against until ’66.
On the wall of our home room into high school, I remember there being a chart indicating the growth of the number of American troops in Vietnam, and the upward spiral of that line was recognized as a positive development. I had a map on the wall of my room of North Vietnam where I would put pins where there had been bombing raids. There are other Americans who now claim to have been against the Vietnam War who I suspect saw it as a positive element for a long time. For me [a change first] happened with getting out of the community, and going to boarding school.
MG: Isn’t there counter-culture in your home town in New Jersey?
RT: A little bit. It starts to enter, and of course, the reaction of the community is abject horror. But it is a decided subculture.
By 1968, a confluence of events changed everything in my life. My father became quite ill, and I was removed from public school. There were real strains in my family financially and personally because of his illness, The relatively rural community was now fully suburbanized. Catholics and Jews entered into the community in great numbers. There was a new affluence in the community that had come with the economic development of the region in the ’60s. There was a mix of ideas and pressures and outlooks that I had never seen before. Within months, if not within a couple of years, I can remember being terribly confused and feeling the world spin around me. By the time I landed in boarding school in September of 1968, with a small class, but from students all over the country and to some extent around the world, I was aware that a veil was being lifted in front of my eyes.
MG: Where did you go to school? Where was the boarding school?
RT: Storm King in Cornwall, New York.
MG: So practically speaking, how does this lifting of the veil affect you? You’ve been the President of your class every year since fifth grade, right?
RT: I think…to be trite about it…this is where the strength or the failure of a parental relationship becomes a real value. The way my world was spinning around my head, I was either going to be destroyed, or survive and be much the stronger. I was removed from the only community I ever knew. There were all these social and political changes. Much of my perception of the world was now being challenged. And I land in this new environment with people I’d never met before. Other than at a bus station I had never known anyone who was African-American. There was one Jewish guy in our community. The whole world was now changing. And so many people that I knew either dropped out academically or had real problems with narcotics, or got involved in the subculture and never survived. I witnessed that every day. Anybody who lived in 1968, in those years, witnessed that among their friends in our generation.
Johnny Carson’s kid was in our class, and I saw him show up in September with close-cropped hair and blue blazer and tie, and leave in a few months in a scandal and military fatigues, with his hair to his shoulders, and everything in between that could have been wrong, was wrong. I witnessed that a hundred times. That never happened to me.
Essentially it was through the strength of my relationship with my mother that I was able to hold myself. I never participated in narcotics. I had strong feelings about them. I started to recognize some of the untruths about what I had seen of the world, and began to grow intellectually and develop politically, gradually enough that I could accept the change. I didn’t fall off a cliff.
Because I think for all the instability in life, a strong parental relationship will help a child do almost anything. I came to believe a lot of things in my life were not as I perceived them. But I believed in that relationship. I never wanted to disappoint my mother. And it was a center of gravity at a time when very few people in our generation had any center of gravity. I was a conservative growing into a liberal. By the spring of 1970–Kent State was what, May 1970?–I’m the President of my class, and I organize a boycott of classes. The headmaster finds out about it the night before, and he has me, two other students and a faculty member in his home at 8 o’clock in the morning before we can organize. The boycott is supposed to start at 8 o’clock. I walk in, and my mother is sitting there. He’d called her during the night. He says to her, “Your son tried to organize a boycott of classes today in reaction to Kent State. We’re not going to tolerate that in this school. He’s suspended for two weeks.” My mother just listens, never says a word, I don’t say a word. We get in the car, we start driving home, and she says, “You did a good thing, it was the right thing to do. You have two weeks. Relax, enjoy yourself, you need a rest.” And we never talked about it again until the day she died.
MG: So you had in the course of two years…a change was complete here. You joined the rebellion. You left the Empire.
RT: I’m a reflection of everything that happened to our generation at that point in the country. I became against the Vietnam War not because I thought it was wrong to fight the North Vietnamese. I remained strongly anti-Communist. By 1968, to me, the War wasn’t worth the price. We were spending American lives to save a country that was not worth saving. So it made me anti-war, but for really a very different rationale.
MG: How did you come to that analysis?
RT: I started seeing people from Franklin Lakes who had been drafted. I followed the news carefully. I was also very caught up in Bobby Kennedy. I was anti-drugs, I was anti- this new music; I didn’t like the subculture. It was so alien from our community. So I had a resistance to Eugene McCarthy. But with Robert Kennedy it was different. I didn’t feel he was undermining the basic things I believed in in the country. We shared the cultural experience.
MG: He’d had a parallel journey to yours?
RT: Actually identical. I read an interview with Robert Kennedy where they asked him, “You’ve become this big fighter for civil rights. Well, how come you didn’t do this before it became fashionable? You were never a big supporter of civil rights.” He said, “I was unaware that there was a civil rights problem.” Now, that’s a startling statement to make. But you know? That’s me!
MG: In boarding school, I assume that as in any collection of adolescents, there were a bunch of cliques. There were the hippies and the druggies and the jocks and the preps. Where were you? Who were you?
RT: That’s exactly the way boarding school is. Boarding school had the most intense politics I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Running for the House of Representatives or the United States Senate, even the internal politics of the Senate, do not compare to the politics of a private men’s boarding school. Because you succeed politically in that school, or you are destroyed. I saw students who emotionally could not deal with the social pressures, who became outcasts, who were ostracized. It is a real struggle. It is “Lord of the Flies.”
I was aware of it from the day I arrived there. I was saying to myself, “I’ve got to survive here.” And I did it by running for Class President. I ran within two weeks of when I arrived in the school, because I felt I had to. I was in this environment where I didn’t know these people.
There was nobody like me, I thought, in the school. Divide and conquer. There were the Arab kids, there were the Oriental kids, there were a lot of Jewish kids, there were the Americans, there were the foreigners, there were the new kids, there were the old kids, there were 15 sub-groups. It was a very small school, with only 140-some students. I allowed each to relate to me. They were each threatened by each other to some extent; none were threatened by me.
MG: Did you worry about being drafted?
RT: I remember talking to my friends, planning how long it would be until we could go. And in athletics, and in our physical conditioning, we related that to this. In my junior year in public school, in a career paper, I wrote a career paper about being a Marine Corps officer. That was my career goal. My mother saw this, and I remember her telling me, “You should see your doctor about your migraine headaches.” I said to her, “I don’t have migraine headaches.” She said, “You’re going to get them. It’s genetic. You should start seeing the doctor.” I’d never had a migraine headache in my life. I remember the doctor saying to me, “What’s the matter?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Well, your mother tells me you have migraine headaches.” I said, “Doctor, I’ve never had a headache in my life.” [laughs] And I could see it occur to him, as it slowly began to occur to me, my mother was creating a medical record.
She’d been in the Red Cross in a Navy hospital after the war, and God knows what she had seen. And she knew how the war had psychologically affected my father. Anyway, as it turned out, by the time I was in college, I had lost my enthusiasm for the Vietnam War. But there was a lottery, and I had a very low lottery number.
I painted houses every summer through college. I had a painting company with a friend of mine. We were all on top of ladders painting the second story of a house in Passaic, listening to the Lottery, none of us taking it seriously. It was of no particular consequence. We weren’t afraid of the war. We would have preferred not to have to fight, but we weren’t upset about it either. I remember those lotteries, and I remember one friend of mine got a very high number, another a very low number, and mine was fairly low. I think they were drafting up to around 10 or 20 or something, and I was in double-digits, so I was gone. But then in ’72, Nixon eliminated the draft. They stopped taking people because they had enough volunteers. I missed by a year.
MG: One of the raps against the boom generation is that we were just a bunch of chickenshits who didn’t want to go to war, and we were against the war because we didn’t want to get drafted, and that once there was no draft, we stopped being political.
MG: This is obviously not your story, but how do you relate to that?
RT: I think that would be truer if not for the fact that the antiwar experience was not the only political expression of our generation at an early age. The generation was also captivated by civil rights and the environmental movement and the women’s rights movement. It was a generation of many causes.
The political problem of our generation is that there was an expenditure of so much energy, and people came to believe that there was such a price to be paid for political involvement in the complications of their lives or careers, that they thought it would be a better course to put politics aside. I don’t know whether they ever will return to it. They have not returned fully to it yet. But politics was not a positive experience for the generation. It was too much, too fast.
If I could choose to come of age in a period, it would not have been during the 1960s. I don’t consider it to have been a positive experience. I think that my generation paid a terrible price. To live in a period of change that affects family and faith and community is very disconcerting to anyone coming of age. The most painful experiences of my life in personal relationships and family relationships I consider to have each, at least tangentially, been affected by the political atmosphere.
The war and the social and cultural changes impacting relationships with parents, peers, sexual mores, made a difficult period of life even more difficult in terms of having those relationships survive and finding new friends and starting a family. I think there’s a tremor from the ’60s that continues to rebound across our life experience. There was an excellent commentary I saw on CNN last night where somebody talked about the first impeachment of the President, Andrew Johnson as a result of the aftermath of how to deal with the Civil War, and that in some ways the impeachment efforts against Bill Clinton are not unrelated to the civil discord in the 1960s. This nation has still not come to terms with the social and political changes that greeted our generation who came of age in the 1960s.
It obviously is a more complicated situation than that, but the analysis is not entirely wrong either.
MG: It was very hard to hang on to things. But it sounds as if you were lucky.
RT: I survived, but I’m also aware that it caused pain in my life. I regret the experience. There’s that quote, you become stronger in all the places you’ve broken.”
MG: Your nickname The Torch comes in here…?
RT: It came from boarding school. My first campaign in boarding school. I was ambitious and I was determined. The Torch seemed to speak to that. All of a sudden I was the Torch.
MG: You went to Rutgers University from ’70 to ’74, I believe.
RT: The years between the worst of the Vietnam protests and when the younger generation settled into its long sleep. The pressure of the draft was removed, but the pressure of a downward economy could be felt.
MG: You were class president there, too, right?
RT: I was elected three times. There was an election about a month after I arrived in New Brunswick. I think 15 people ran, and how I fought. I worked on it full time for about two weeks, door-by-door through all the dormitories. And I won. Through that, I [later] hosted a forum for people running for Governor of New Jersey, and at that forum I met some of the candidates.
MG: Was Brendan Byrne one of those candidates?
RT: Actually he wasn’t. He was the last candidate to enter into the race. I had the other candidates there, and his office called and said he wanted to come, and I said I’d never heard of him and I didn’t know he was a candidate — and it was closed. And of course, within a few days most of the rest of the candidates had dropped out, and he was the nominee, and I went to work for his campaign.
Those years provided an opportunity for someone who was younger to work their way into the Democratic Party because of the deep divide. There was the deep division that was evidenced in the 1972 campaign for President. The bitter fight between Humphrey and McGovern would be witnessed at every level of politics. The same fight that was taking place in national politics was taking place in county and local Democratic organizations. The McGovern and McCarthy people were now out of the protests and looking for positions in the Democratic Party. They were the insurgents. And this fighting provided a chance for anybody to get involved. There were elections for every position in the Party.
The Byrne people then offered me a job running the campaign in my county, in Bergen County, the Gubernatorial primary. Which I took. I ran the headquarters, got out all the mail. And they knew me. This was now the spring of 1973. A lot of the campaign was mail, sending out brochures, and I sent out so much mail so fast from my headquarters, the campaign manager actually drove up one night to see the headquarters. I’m not certain they believed the reports we were sending.
So the election is over, Byrne wins, and they take over the State Party, obviously. And when they take over the State Party, as often happens in Democratic politics, they come up with an Irishman from one county for Chairman, and a woman from another area for Vice-Chairman, and an African-American for Secretary, and down the line. And they have the position for Sergeant-at-Arms available, and they wanted somebody younger, and they wanted somebody from Bergen County, which is where I was from (a big Republican county), and they wanted somebody who was Italian. So I fit the bill. I’m a junior in college, but they made me an officer of the State Party, one of the four officers of the Democratic Party of New Jersey. So from that I had a chance to meet everybody. My position may only have been Sergeant-At-Arms, but I was in the room.
MG: You got involved in party politics just as many people were discovering identity politics.
RT: We were now witnessing African-Americans who wanted their own dormitories and separated themselves in the cafeteria, and had an arising bitterness. It was a very unfortunate time racially.
MG: Absolutely. And it must have very hard even to be a campus politician in that atmosphere.
RT: Yes, very much, because it was very divided and a lot of bitterness.
MG: A lot of other former radicals threw themselves into drugs or hedonism. Did you see that?
RT: Well, the drug problem was evident in causing a division. The students who were very involved in drugs were beginning their dropout. They weren’t involved in the school and were separating themselves, which I think was different than what was going on in the ’60s [when drug users] were central to it, part of it, it was very common. It was not common on our campus. It wasn’t uncommon. But there was·a social division was taking place. When you did drugs, you were different.
MG: They were dropping out and you were digging in.
RT: Right, exactly. I was living two lives. I was very involved in the university, in my academics and campus life, but I had now met his new world. I would on weekends go to political events, and this door opened in front of me and I was rushing through it. I came into the Party through this traditional route, through a Gubernatorial candidate, and as an officer of the State Party. I got an invitation on a silver platter to be involved in Democratic politics. But at the same time, I identified with many of the new people in the Party and I shared many of their beliefs, though not all. Because I had not come in through the anti-war movement.
MG: So you graduate college and you go to work full-time for Byrne. Is that correct?
RT: I actually finished early in college. By Christmas ’73, I essentially had enough credits to finish. So at that point I was really out. It was the middle of the energy crisis, and the Governor offered me a job in his energy office, which I took, and I stayed there through the spring of ’74, which is when I graduated from college. I then served as the Acting Executive Director of the Party to September. That of course was the big year–’74 was going to be the landslide, and the Congressional campaigns were taking place in New Jersey, and the Party was kind of at the pinnacle of its influence. It was a wonderful opportunity for me. The Executive Directorship opened up, and they gave it to me for those months. I enjoyed it. Then I was meeting everybody, and learning the Democratic Party and state government. In August I went to the State Chairman. He became Chairman when I became Sergeant at Arms. I said to him that I’d decided that rather than go to law school (because I was accepted into law school), I’d rather stay as Executive Director of the Party. It was a very important moment. He said to me, “Well, you can not go to law school, but on the day that law school begins, you’re fired.” That obviously was a very important contribution, because it would have been a big mistake not to go to law school. So I got the message, and I went on to law school — and for the first year-and-a-half did it exclusively. I stayed involved in the Party, but I did law school exclusively.
By that point, by the way, I had also been elected to the chairmanship of the Democratic Party in my legislative district. In Bergen County, each state legislative district, which was about 200,000 people or 220,000 people, had a chairman of the Democratic Party. The County Committee members elected the Chairman. I ran for that in ’73. So I was Sergeant at Arms of the Party, but I also ran for this local office, and actually had to run against one of the insurgents, one of the Liberals, a McGovern person — I was running as the Establishment person. I won by 10 votes or so. It was very close. It was a very difficult election. This was a very bitter time in the Democratic Party, and the regular organization people and the insurgents were fighting over everything.
So I go to law school full-time for the first year-and-a-half, and after a year-and-a-half I needed to make some money and I was getting very bored, so I went to the Governor and said I wanted to get involved very badly. It was now getting towards the Presidential year; it was late ’75. I turned 25 that year. He offered me a job in the Governor’s Office as a legislative liaison. I got the title Deputy Legislative Counsel, although I wasn’t a lawyer. I worked in his office, and actually had a desk right outside his door. So again, I saw the world come and go. It was a very small office, and I had a job as liaison with the State Assembly getting his legislation passed.
I was still going to law school full time. People ask me what I specialized in in law school. I specialized in all courses that didn’t meet on the days that the legislature met. I would call in sick. I made sure that every course I took met on a Wednesday. The Legislature never met on Wednesday. Most law school courses met twice a week, so I always missed one day. But I made a compact with myself. I promised myself if I was going to work full-time and go to law school full-time and had to miss these classes, that I would read every assignment completely — and I did. I actually believe I was the only member of my law school class who graduated having read every assignment thoroughly. And I did very well. My grades were good. It proves to me that law school is about reading more than it is about lectures.
So anyway, I finished law school and I did this job.
MG: And the job turned into your career?
RT: The ’76 presidential campaign comes and goes. We now start putting together Byrne’s reelection campaign for ’77. Byrne’s reelect numbers were about 18%. Income tax had come in. His support had collapsed. And the people who had any real political abilities at all had left the office.
MG: Just a natural progression?
RT: No, a lot of rats leaving a sinking ship. It was over. But he was both very skilled and very lucky. He was so weak that he drew so many primary opponents that they divided the vote sufficiently for him to survive. Won nowhere, ran second everywhere, and won the primary. But what happened for me is, when it came time to put together the election campaign, there was nobody left. I was now 26. I had more practical political experience than most people in the office. What’s more, I was prepared to take the risk. I left the office and went into the campaign. I was alone in the campaign for the first month, and the campaign had no money, no staff and almost no support. I always kid Byrne that literally, when we opened the campaign headquarters, I borrowed the money from my mother to put the rent deposit down. We had nothing. But Byrne was a good campaigner. He was right on the issues. I ended up Deputy Campaign Manager; they brought in somebody obviously more senior to be Campaign Manager. Then the Republican opponent self-destructed, made a series of blunders, Byrne wins, in a landslide. I was an important part of this Gubernatorial victory and it was so surprising to people that it drew real attention. And it drew attention mostly in the White House. People were startled that Brendan Byrne survived, and they asked questions about who was involved.
MG: You’ve graduated law school at this point?
RT: I graduated the previous June. It’s now January of ’78. And in the middle of a blizzard I take a train to Washington, where I’m interviewed by Walter Mondale. They offer me a position a few weeks later as Deputy Counsel to the Vice President. And obviously, my life takes a radical change. Being in the White House was a great opportunity for me, the ideal job for me, for any young, ambitious person. First of all, because the Vice President’s office was so small, it was better than being on the President’s staff. They had only 18 professional staffers, so everybody had to do many different things. You didn’t get compartmentalized, like being on the President’s staff.
MG: What were you hired to do?
RT: They wanted to have some staffers who were not from Minnesota and not Norwegian, and they were trying to create a national staff. So being Italian was valuable and being from the Northeast was valuable. But my first assignment was to prepare the Vice President for a meeting with the Cardinal in New York. They asked me some questions about protocol in the Catholic Church, and I said, “I have no idea.” They said, “How could you not know?” I said, “Because I’m a Methodist.” So part of the reason they hired me is because–
MG: –you were Catholic.
RT: But they were too polite to ask. Anyway, I handled a lot of his politics around the country, and I was assigned different states to learn and to follow. I handled some legislative matters on Capitol Hill, which was my first connection with Capitol Hill, so I became introduced to the Congress. And to the process. And probably most importantly, I handled his foreign travel. I would organize his trips abroad.
MG: This is going to take you to Israel, isn’t it?
RT: Yes. This was my first official trip to Israel. It began my long involvement with Israel. We went there to celebrate I guess the thirtieth anniversary of Israel, and I was in charge of the trip. I organized meetings with its leaders, chose a gift, the whole thing.
We did a lot of trips. We were traveling constantly. It is where my intellectual interest in foreign policy gained its practical legs. And included was the trip to China, which also got me deeply involved in Asian matters. We went there to open the first American Consulate in Shanghai. That was still an extraordinary time to visit China. And there were a lot of other trips.
MG: Was there a trip where you were part of the process that ended in the Camp David accords?
RT: When we went to Israel for the thirtieth anniversary, they were beginning to talk about the Camp David process. They didn’t have a name, but Carter was thinking of bringing people together. And while in Israel, the President asked Mondale to go to Egypt and meet with Sadat and sound him out about whether he would come to Washington to participate in it, and he had done the same with Begin while we were in Israel. So what ostensibly was to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Israel became the laying of the foundation as Mondale tested these invitations. I’m sitting there hearing it. It’s a very small operation, but it’s not my accomplishment. . I’m not a foreign policy aide.
MG: How long were you in the White House?
RT: It was about 2 years. I was very conscious that my future was in New Jersey, not in Washington. When I was in boarding school, I participated in this program called Presidential Classroom, where high school kids go down to Washington. I always remember a student rose and said, “I’d like to run for office; do you have any advice for me?” A Congressman from Alaska answered the question, and he said, “The first thing to do is go home. Nobody gets elected from Washington.” I always remembered that. Because in the White House, like in the Governor’s Office, I had a constituency, and my constituency was people in the Democratic Party in New Jersey generally and from Bergen County specifically. I had my own tour going through the Oval Office of local political leaders from New Jersey, and if a town or a county had a governmental problem — in Trenton when I was in the Governor’s Office or in Washington when I was in the White House — I got involved in solving it. From placing people in jobs to solving Medicare problems to making people feel welcomed in Washington. I probably sat more people in President Carter’s chair in the Oval Office than he had members of his own family. I was very conscious that these relationships were important to me, and I maintained a lot of good friends in New Jersey. I also learned about all these substantive governmental problems in New Jersey, because I was making it my business to help solve them.
MG: But somehow you end up in Illinois in 1980. What happened?
RT: In August of 1979, we had just come back from China and Panama. It is clear that Jimmy Carter (this is after the Malaise Speech) is in extreme political peril. Many people had left the White House because the end was in sight. Hamilton Jordan goes to Mondale and says, “We’re building a campaign staff, and you have to take responsibility for at least a state. We’re sending our people out to all these early primary states; you take an early primary state.” Of course, they were all Southerners, and they were concentrating on the southern states after Iowa and New Hampshire. Mondale went to our Chief of Staff, and said, “Will you do it?” and he said, “No.” He went to someone else who said “No” but went to me and I said, “I’ll think about it.” I learned in the next day that they were replacing me and I was off the payroll in a week. [laughs] So they weren’t really interested in my answer.
So I went to Illinois. They gave me $10,000 in travelers checks and one phone number, which was the Reverend Wall, who had been the Campaign Manager for Jimmy Carter in ’76 in the primary. There was no political operation. I checked into a hotel in Chicago. I had never been to Chicago in my life. Actually, I had never been to Illinois. I was in Washington, and I met a kid who was going to college who was from Chicago, and I hired him as a driver, so I could get around town. I had just turned 28.
MG: The Carter campaign was worried whether the Mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, was going to support the president’s reelection, right?
RT: I walk over to see where City Hall is, and I ask where the Mayor’s office is. Some guy in the street points up and says, “That window.” So I look in the line of sight for the Mayor’s office across Daley Plaza, and there’s an old building with a “For Rent” sign on it. I call the agent, went up to a floor directly across from the Mayor’s window, in the line of sight, and rented it, called a billboard company and had a billboard put on the side of the building, “Carter-Mondale Headquarters.” I was the only person in the office, all by myself. And I started building an organization.
I started building a staff from people who were on the fringes of the Cook County organization. They couldn’t get in. We were all in our twenties, and it was an odd lot. But because they were all people on the outside and all desperately wanted to get involved, they were highly motivated. Then Jimmy Carter comes to Chicago. It must be October. I’ve only been there for a couple of weeks. And I meet him in a big hotel in downtown Chicago, and he’s with Mrs. Carter, and he’s speaking at the Cook County Democratic organization dinner. I remember this so well, because I was so nervous. I had never really had a conversation with him before. So he asked to see me, and I go into the suite, and he tells me he thinks we’re in good shape in Illinois, Mayor Byrne has told him that she’s going to support him, and he’s the speaker now at the Cook County Organization dinner that night.
I said to him, “Mr. President, I don’t have a good feeling about this.” Mrs. Carter snaps at me and stares at me and says, “The Mayor has promised support. I talked to her today. It’s in good shape.” Then I said, “Well, excuse me, but I just went to the Mayor’s office to introduce myself, and I noticed that there are four photographs on her desk — of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy and her husband.” I said, “I don’t know if she has any children, but they didn’t make the cut. This can’t be good.”
No one had ever run an insurgent campaign against the Cook County Democratic organization. If they weren’t for you, you just let it go. There was the County slate for delegates at the National Convention and nobody else. McGovern didn’t do it, McCarthy didn’t do it.
So he goes to the dinner that night. It goes well. Carter is well received. I thought, “All right, maybe I’m wrong.” But if I am, I just made a big mistake with the President of the United States. I’m his campaign manager here, and I just told him he’s losing the most important endorsement of the Presidential campaign. This isn’t going to look good.
A week goes by, and Jane Byrne makes an announcement. She’s for Ted Kennedy. Now, the importance of this is that after Iowa and New Hampshire, all the primaries are in the South, so he’ll win them. The first one when you come north is Illinois. That’s the showdown. So we now had an insurgency campaign, and the decision I get back Hamilton Jordan is, “We don’t care about tradition. The President of the United States has been wronged. We’ve been lied to. This is wrong. We are running a delegate in every district in the State of Illinois. No matter who you have to find, you find them and you run a delegate.”
MG: It’s war.
RT: The first thing that happens is, everyone cancels every appointment I have. I remember Danny Rostenkowski calling me. He had promised to run for delegate, and he called and said to give the President the message that we’d have to find somebody else. I said, “Don’t you think you should tell the President personally?” He said, “no.” No one will be seen with me in public. And I’m not exaggerating. If less senior people are willing to talk, they will not do it in a public place. And no one will enter our campaign headquarters.
MG: So you start meetings in the back of coffee shops?
RT: And basically saying to county leaders, “Give me somebody; just give me a name.” And most would not give me a name. So I’ll tell you what I did. Someone would walk in the headquarters and say they’d like to volunteer and stuff envelopes, and I’d say, “We appreciate your volunteering; would you also run for delegate?” I put together a combination of housewives, college students, any name I could find, and came up with enough names to get the President covered in every district in Illinois. And as they say, the rest is history. Carter wins Iowa, he does well in New Hampshire, he sweeps the South, the campaign comes north, and then there’s the Roger Mudd interview and the Kennedy campaign is in trouble…
MG: Kennedy self-destructs.
RT: Right, and we win Illinois big. The Kennedy campaign effectively ended in Illinois, because he lost this big northern primary. Carter later faltered himself, but mathematically it became very hard to lose the Convention after Illinois. So we won. I left the campaign actually, and enrolled at Harvard in the middle of all this for graduate school. I also got married. I got married that January, enrolled in the Kennedy School and stay in the Kennedy School through June. I’m out of the campaign. I was exhausted. I thought I had done my duty at that point.
MG: And your wife also works in Mondale’s office, right?
RT: Right. So we moved to a charming little townhouse on Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill, a wonderful townhouse. I really enjoyed the Kennedy School. I got a chance to take all the courses I was afraid to take in college because of wanting to go to law school. Anyway, it gets to summer, and I get a call. The primaries are over, Carter has enough delegates to get renominated, but Kennedy has a tactic. He wants to challenge the rules of the Convention.
MG: This is where you butt heads with Harold Ickes, isn’t it?
RT: Right. And here’s what happened. Hamilton Jordan offers me the job of running the Rules Committee at the Convention, the Chief of Staff of the Rules Committee. Danny Inouye, my now-colleague, is made Chairman. He’s fond of Carter, but he serves with Kennedy, and he’s very careful. The Carter people want to control the Convention, obviously. Control of the Convention means control of the rules. And it’s the judgment of the Kennedy people to try to change the rules. They can only win the nomination if they can free delegates. If delegates on the first ballot have to vote as they were elected in their primaries Carter wins. I see it as an extraordinary opportunity. So I run the Rules Committee, the hearings, the votes in the committee — and obviously we win. But it was extremely bitter. My counterpart in the Kennedy operation is Harold Ickes, who runs their Rules Operation. But we did very well, and we win.
It was highly visible, the outcome was in doubt, and this meant I got a chance to demonstrate that I had some abilities to make a case, and it tested the qualities of organization. And obviously, I met the leadership of the Democratic Party in the whole country.
So anyway, we win this fight. The election is obviously in real trouble. But I run New York City, which also proved very valuable for me. So I take the assignment of Campaign Manager for New York City for Carter-Mondale. I haven’t finished the Kennedy School yet, so I’m commuting from the Kennedy School, doing the same thing I was doing in law school. I’m going to the Kennedy School as a full time student and I’m running the campaign full-time. So I’m going back and forth to Boston on the shuttle, trying to juggle both. We obviously lose the election. But I’ve run a campaign in New York, which was invaluable to me in running for office in New Jersey, because I met the financial leadership and political leadership of New York.
MG: Did you know that you were about to run for office yourself?
RT: I always knew that.
MG: But there is a big change happening in the country, and obviously it’s symbolized by that election.
RT: Yeah, it is. None of us really understood what was happening. We knew Carter had some problems in his Presidency. But there was a sea change politically taking place which none of us saw coming. I remember the night Ronald Reagan got nominated, Hamilton Jordan said to me, “Jimmy Carter is the luckiest man in America; they just nominated the one man who can’t beat him.” The Carter White House did not understand what was happening. I remember the day the hostages were taken [in Iran] when I was in Chicago. It was just another event. None of us understood the political ramifications of what was going on.
Anyway, the election is over. I go back and finish at the Kennedy School, and in January I accept a job at a law firm in New Jersey. When I come back, [my wife] Susan and we’re looking for a home, I accept at the law firm, and I choose it in a Congressional district near where I had grown up but not in the same area. I knew where I wanted to run, which was more Democratic. And two weeks before I start work in the law firm I get a call. Mondale has accepted a position in a law firm, and as part of the deal he gets to bring one associate. That associate would be paid by the law firm, do partial legal work, but otherwise will travel with him around the country and around the world–preparing for ’84. So I meet with Mondale, and he tells me he doesn’t understand what happened in the ’80 election, he does not understand the Reagan phenomenon, and he wants to take a year and travel all around the country and around the world, he wants to build relationships with world leaders and study some of these problems in depth, wants to spend time with farmers and business people and Wall Street.
So I now enter into a one-year graduate course in American politics. We go from steel mills to farms. And the same thing happening abroad, foreign leader by foreign leader all around the globe. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Just the two of us. I sat there listening. But by October of ’81, I remember I’m in Tokyo, in a hotel with Mondale, and I was exhausted, and I really wanted to go home. I had this sense that I admired Mondale, but I did not believe that he could be President. He was grasping with these issues, but I wasn’t sure he was capable of the transformation. I thought the Reagan phenomenon was much more profound. I had the growing sense that the 1980 election was not a mistake. It was a reflection of what was really going on in the country. Many Democrats believed it was an aberration, Reagan got elected because of the Iranian hostage crisis, [Carter's] malaise speech, but that with Carter removed, things would return to normal. I did not believe that any more.
MG: What did you learn in that year?
RT: That there was enormous economic and cultural tension in the country, and some of the economic problems were profound. Reagan now was at a very low ebb, if you’ll remember. After his first year in office, at least until the assassination attempt, there were some real political problems. So Reagan did not look politically insurmountable. But my sense is that his radical conservatism was here to stay.
MG: Why do you think he appealed to so many people, and particularly so many people in our generation, in our age group?
RT: Reagan offered a strength of leadership, and there was a real disillusionment with Government, and a sense that problems were not going to be solved with Government solutions.
MG: So what did you do?
RT: I told him I wanted to go home. I remember one night I woke up in a hotel and I called Susan and I said to her, “I don’t know what city I’m in. Do you know where I am?” It turned out I was in a town in Ohio. And I said to her, “I can’t do this any more.”
I had started working with members of the legislature in New Jersey. We were going through Congressional redistricting. I looked at the numbers, and I began to study the map of New Jersey. I worked with some other people who were also interested in running for Congress from the same area. We put on enough pressure and enough influence that a Congressional map was drawn that made a race competitive. Not a sure win, but it was at least competitive. It looked to me like there was a less than even chance to win, but if you did everything right, you could win. I came home that January, of ’82, and did the same thing I did in Chicago actually. I opened a little storefront headquarters, put a big sign on it, started building a staff and raising money, and I gave it every hour, every ounce of energy for the next year. It was the entire focus of my life. In May I started walking door-to-door. I went to 75,000 homes. And obviously, I won.
MG: Did you say, “Okay, now my life begins.”
RT: I felt liberated, because I’d spent all those years working for somebody else. For someone who wants to make a contribution, and there are things you want to say, to always sit and listen and not be able to speak is difficult. I felt that the country was changing, and I thought in some ways, being from suburbia and somewhat more moderate politically, I thought in some ways I was a part of those changes.
Anyway, the campaign was very successful. It was obviously very difficult, but it raised a lot of money, based on my relationships through those years. I think I was the only Democrat in the country to raise more money than a Republican incumbent and win that year. And actually, the race was not close, as it turned out. I won by 13,000 votes, I think — over 52% of the vote-against an incumbent. The things that people say you can’t do, we did. So that brought me to Washington.
It was a victory [the Democratic Party] did not see coming; it was a surprise to them. And it gave me a little bit of notoriety right away. They were curious about this person who won. Because I got no help from the national Party and no help from the Congress. They did not contribute to my race. They didn’t think I was a winner. But remember, I had some preexisting relationship from all those business with Mondale. I knew Foley, I knew Rostenkowski. When I got there, they were very helpful, and I asked for the Foreign Affairs Committee, which they gave to me.
MG: In the next four to six years, you’re dealing very much with environmental issues and with Central America policy particularly.
RT: Middle East and Central America. But more Middle East in the beginning, because I was on the Middle East Subcommittee, and they were very active years in Israel. It was when we were building an American foreign aid program towards Israel after Camp David. The United States made a different level of commitment. Then towards the late ’80s, I became much more involved in Central America — the War in El Salvador and the Contra War.
MG: A lot of people who had been anti-war protesters in the ’60s and ’70s, found the whole Contra-Nicaragua situation to be a way to continue expressing themselves. But others backed away from it. Why do you think that happened?
RT: Obviously because there was not the level of American sacrifice. If American lives had been lost in Salvador, I think it would have been rekindled. But many of the newer members of Congress had just emerged from the Vietnam experience. Some were veterans of the war, some were veterans of the streets. Vietnam was central to the debate over Nicaragua and El Salvador.
MG: And a lot of the debate was refighting Vietnam.
RT: There was very much the sense that the United States was committing itself in defense of these despotic regimes. The human rights abuses were deplorable. They not only were wrong on the merits, but were also on the losing side. I argued at the time that human rights abuses by dictators of the Right or the Left weigh equally with me, that I couldn’t defend the Salvadoran government because of the way they were abusing their own people, and I couldn’t defend the Contras because I considered it a violation of the rights of the Nicaraguans, but I certainly couldn’t defend Fidel Castro. He was in every way an oppressor of his people as the right-wing governments were in Central America. The dictatorship of the Right or the Left were the same to me.
I feel very vindicated by history. Ronald Reagan was wrong in Central America. These regimes were despotic, and social change was required to prevent Marxism, and these regimes did not represent Communist threats to the United States. The threat was to human rights and everything that was decent. So we felt vindicated on that, and obviously what happened with the Reagan economic program and massive deficits were a vindication as well economically.
MG: Yet, in the larger picture, the one thing I think nobody has been able to take away from Reagan is the fact that in those years the “Communist menace” falls apart.
RT: It did, and I don’t deny Ronald Reagan his part in the fight against Communism. But it was a bipartisan fight that had gone on for more than forty years. His massive new military spending may have had an impact. But Communism defeated itself. Winning the war against Communism meant preventing a world war and allowing Communism to ripen and die on the vine.
MG: The mid-’80s were also the beginning of the political scandal culture. Politics took a very nasty turn right at the point you come along. You had the House Banking scandal, Gary Hart, then you move to ’89 and you get Jim Wright.
RT: Civility in American politics was evaporating. Things were deteriorating rapidly in the Congress. I think the changes in the culture left people somewhat bewildered. People not only didn’t understand what was happening in the economy that was threatening their jobs, but they also didn’t understand what was happening with their children in their own homes. This kind of social tension usually is a result of change; whether the change is good or bad doesn’t necessarily matter. And this was reflected in the Congress.
MG: There’s a tremendous conflict between the progressive tradition of the boom generation and the conservative present.
RT: The generation has been proven to be politically schizophrenic. The Baby Boom generation was on the cutting edge of civil rights, came of age in the anti-war movement, but became an important part of the foundation of Ronald Reagan’s New Conservatism, and then again rears its head in the promoting of Bill Clinton and the rebirth of the Democratic Party. It politically had never been able to find itself completely. But every time when the Baby Boom generation has taken a turn, it has changed national politics profoundly. [In the Reagan era] the Baby Boom discovered economic opportunity. It turned its back on politics for a time and basically wanted from politics what Reagan offered — less government, less taxes, and some sense of strength and security. He was the right answer for the Baby Boom generation in those years. It proved to be a mixed blessing for the country. Obviously, with the deficits, I think it really threatened the long-term economic health of the country.
MG: You’re counter-programming the prevailing political culture during those years, aren’t you?
RT: Why I survived during those years, when many of the people I was elected to Congress with were defeated, I think, [is because] I was always somewhat more conservative than most of the members I was elected with. I was always more conservative on taxes and considerably more conservative on national security issues.
MG: Indeed, you were identified really rather early as one of the key figures of what they called the New Democratic Centrism, weren’t you?
RT: I supported a lot of the military buildup. I supported the M-1 Tank, the MX Missile, I was against the B-1, but I supported the B-2.
MG: And you were a hawk on the Gulf war.
RT: I wasn’t a hawk; I was the Democratic sponsor of the resolution. I made the closing speech. It had a lot to do then with defining me when I ran for the Senate. People now knew that I had been against the Bush tax increase, for a balanced budget, supported the military buildup, and was the Democratic sponsor for the Persian Gulf War, as well as someone who had a reputation as being pro-choice, pro-gun control, for more education spending. I think much like my generation, I reflected a fiscal conservatism, a belief in a strong foreign policy, but also, I was culturally progressive.
MG: The generation came to the position that you had held for quite some time.
RT: That’s right. This was not a calculation. This represented who I genuinely was. And my generation and I found each other.
MG: Now, correct me. You lost your seat on the Intelligence Committee because–
RT: This is another major episode in my career — the Jim Wright affair. Jim Wright was in trouble, I had developed a friendship with his chief of staff, John Mack. During this, Wright was doing these briefing sessions on the case with his lawyers about why he did not violate the rules and so forth. I went to one of these and picked up on the evidence, and started to present the case back to them — how I would argue it. John Mack came up to me one day with Wright, and said, “Would you argue our case before the Ethics Committee.” And I did. Gingrich obviously was the force on the other side. Well, Wright lost the case. I had argued the case strenuously, and believed he lost on the politics, not on the merits. Jim Wright was defeated politically. The actual legal case against him had little merit. But anyway, in the course of this, Wright promised me a seat on the Intelligence Committee.
MG: How did you lose it?
RT: Steve Solarz and I were the leaders in the Persian Gulf War, and Tom Foley came to the Foreign Affairs Committee and asked us not to vote for a favorable resolution to the Persian Gulf War, and Solarz and I argued back strenuously, and he was furious. And in the Congress, there is retribution. I thought I was in line to become the Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which really changed my career, because when I didn’t become chairman of the Campaign Committee, and then I suffered the setback in the Intelligence Committee, I began to plan leaving the House of Representatives, and it was either going to be retirement or a run for another office. So by ’96 I had lost interest in the House of Representatives. I didn’t see a career there for me. And I began to plan a private life. I started talking to people about being in real estate development and investment banking. I was not running for reelection in ’96. Then in the middle of that, Bill Bradley dropped out.
I felt that I was stagnating. I stayed in the House of Representatives too long. I was no longer growing. I didn’t feel challenged and I wasn’t growing. Even my mother before she died said to me, “Your problem is that you’re not getting tough competitors in your elections, and you’re not challenged so you’re not growing.” I remember that hurt me very deeply, but it was very true.
MG: And Clinton’s election didn’t energize you?
RT: No, I had met him, but I wasn’t close to him, and I didn’t feel a part of it.
MG: Isn’t this the moment when you morph into a celebrity as opposed to a politician? I don’t want to overstate this, Senator, but–
RT: Well, in the sense of American celebrity, because I got involved with Bianca [Jagger]. I became socially more active because I wasn’t feeling challenged in my career. I was working hard as a Congressman, but I no longer thought about it as my life’s work. I was going to find a private life.
MG: And Bianca comes along three-four years after your divorce also, right?
RT: I met Bianca during a hearing on Nicaragua. I was now Chairman of the Latin America Committee. It must have been during February of 1993.
MG: And in that whole experience of suddenly being a bold-faced name, strangely, you are once again riding parallel to the culture. Because we are very much into celebrity culture now. Was there anything about it that interested you, that engaged you?
RT: Bianca had a very important impact on my life. Because I was disillusioned with the Congress, I didn’t know that I could make enough of a difference to justify these years of my life, and I didn’t see an opportunity to play a larger role. But Bianca took a great satisfaction in life from helping individuals. She could walk into a war and see death all around her and save a single child and think it’s a triumph. And she believed in public policy, in its ability to change the world. We had this experience where we brought these children from Bosnia. And all of a sudden, for all my frustrations with life or career, we had these children who had cancer or heart diseases that we were taking out of Bosnia, we were placing them in hospitals, some are living, some are dying. It was a profound experience. I got enormous satisfaction out of making a difference.
MG: This is an embarrassing question to ask, but I think I have to ask it: Did you ever wake up one morning and go, “My God, I’m going out with Mick Jagger’s ex-wife”?
RT: You know, I didn’t know who Bianca was. When she walked into the hearing, my aide said to me, “That’s Bianca Jagger; she’d like to testify.” I said, “Who is Bianca Jagger.” Then she came up and asked if she could meet with me privately about the problems in Nicaragua, and I said, “Sure, later today come by the office.” But I was captivated by her. She is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and so completely genuine.
MG: That’s really amazing. It’s during this same period that the off-term election, and Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America happens.
RT: It is a tragedy that Gingrich and the Contract With America succeeded in ’94. But the Democratic Party of 1994 didn’t deserve anything either. It didn’t represent anything, we couldn’t come to an agreement on anything. Our caucus meetings were a series of brawls. The party, ironically, lost because it suffered from being too big. It included ideas that were too divergent, so there was no coherence in a policy. So we failed on campaign finance reform, we didn’t represent anything in education, there was no real plan to end the deficit. For all the problems Bill Clinton may have presented, he was a real service to the Democratic Party. He brought a coherent message and some focus to our work. And the ending of the deficit problem liberated the Democratic Party. As long as the deficit dominated American politics, people couldn’t think creatively about education or health care or dealing with any other American problem. That was Bill Clinton’s dominant contribution. He liberated the Democratic Party.
MG: What was the appeal of the conservatives who came to Congress in ’95?
RT: The Gingrich people? They had a simplicity of message and they had a coherency — and they also were thinking creatively. The Democratic Party had stopped being creative. Much of what Gingrich offered may have been wrong, but at least it was new, so people started to think again about the things Government could or should do.
MG: You get into a big tiff with Newt, don’t you?
RT: My worst fight with him was about the CIA matter in Guatemala. We’d actually gotten along fairly well until then. But there is no having a relationship with Newt Gingrich. If he sees an opportunity to gain a single step by your destruction, he’ll take it.
It was a terrible time because I felt I had done the right thing. I had never before had the experience where I knew I had done the right thing but I was paying a negative price for it. People have said to me, “You must have really agonized over this; you got information that a CIA operative had been involved in murder; the CIA continued to pay the person and hid the crime; you must have agonized about revealing the truth.” But the fact is, I didn’t think about it for a minute. I got this information that this person had been involved in a murder. The woman gave me this compelling case. She had chained herself to a statue in Guatemala City. She was now on a hunger strike outside the White House. And all she wanted to know is whether her husband was dead. This American citizen, suddenly her husband has disappeared, she can’t get any help, there are other suspicious cases. I never hesitated. But I felt abandoned and in real jeopardy. The Clinton Administration offered me almost no protection, although I knew they agreed with what I did. People were cowered by the intelligence community, which was an America I was unfamiliar with. The intelligence community genuinely has intimidated parts of this government. People would prefer to remain apart from it. And I felt a lot of friends in the Congress abandoned me, too.
MG: You were looking for purpose again, weren’t you?
RT: Yeah, very much. You could find satisfaction helping individuals. All this woman asked me is, “Is he dead?” and all I said was, “Yes,” and people who were telling you they don’t know have known for months that he’s dead — and they also know who killed him.
MG: Net effect, it was not a negative for you, was it?
RT: Yeah, but I couldn’t see that then. I was in real trouble. You could say there was no negative, but it cost me $100,000 in legal bills. I was being threatened legally, and Newt Gingrich was attempting to sanction me in the Congress. All this for doing what any decent person would do; it was both permissible by law and morally required.
In the end I was vindicated. The Ethics Committee, on a bipartisan basis, dismissed the case; the Justice Department basically told the CIA to go to hell. But it was very difficult and very expensive, and I had to raise the money and do a legal fund. I thought it also jeopardized me politically. In the end, it didn’t. In the Senate race, I discovered something about people, the degree to which they will respond to their perception of courage; and they thought that I had some moral strength, and people responded to it. But that was difficult to see during the worst of that period.
MG: Did that help propel you into the Senate race in any way?
RT: No. I had this enormous frustration, again, really identical to what I had had in ’81, because I thought I had a lot of things to say, I had learned a lot, and I thought I understood my generation and some of what was going on in the country. I felt that in the transition from the Carter to the Reagan years, and now I felt it again during the Contract With America and the new beginning of the Clinton period, that there was a message on reform and education, of discipline and accountability, on the means of ending the deficit and the technological changes taking place in the economy, on the role of government in capital formation, on an emerging American role in the post-Cold War period. I was exploding with things I wanted to say and do. And ’96 emerged as a chance for me to do this.
MG: And you win.
RT: And I win in one of the most difficult U.S. Senate races in American history. Per capita it was probably the most expensive race in American history.
MG: And one of the nastiest, too.
RT: Very-very difficult.
MG: Your opponent said you were financed by racketeers and drug-users?
RT: It was awful. It deteriorated daily. It only redounded to my benefit because it deteriorated to the point of the absurd. The charges became so ridiculous that they lacked any credibility, and ended up contributing to my level of victory.
MG: And you walk into the Senate, into the meanest season ever.
RT: It was, and it remained a difficult time in the Senate. But there was a level of civility in the Senate that had long since departed the House of Representatives. And more than that for me, there was an ability to influence policy and to achieve things in the Senate that was very difficult for any but the most senior members of the House of the Representatives. So it became a fulfilling experience again.
MG: But you walk into the Senate, and suddenly Bill Clinton is being accused of every single sin of his generation. Whatever the worst that’s been said about the Baby Boom, Clinton is being accused of it.
RT: The cultural divide of the 1960s, which we thought had been healed, was always present. What happened with Bill Clinton was always going to happen. The changes in sexual mores, drugs, lifestyle, and even politics–that was a breach that was never crossed and it is still a wound in the American society. The Baby Boom now becomes dominant, and the country has matured some. I don’t think that means the country is forgiving about moral lapses, but it has a different perspective.
MG: How do you mean?
RT: Bill Clinton has committed some moral offenses, and the pain of his family and his breaking of his marriage vows are serious. But all morality is not reflected in sexuality. Bill Clinton has also fought to get people health care, to get children educated. There are people working who have the satisfaction of employment because he’s President. Morality is a broad concept. I understand his failures. I hope some of us will respond to his successes. And I think my generation sees it that way, that morality is broader.
MG: Many Baby Boomers, while they are offended deeply by Clinton’s behavior, also say to themselves, “You know what? Twenty years ago I might have acted that way, too.”
RT: There’s some of that. But frankly, I didn’t, I was always a little more conservative than my generation. But I don’t spend my life sitting in judgment of other people either. Life is difficult and it is complex, and people do make mistakes. But I also believe that there is not this sharp contrast between private and public morality. Some senators fight for segregating children, defend tobacco companies, and must be at variance with their own conscience in defending our gun laws. People live and die by those moral lapses. I don’t weigh that on a different scale than Bill Clinton’s regrettable transgression.
MG: The generation that preceded us would not have been so willing to forgive these moral transgressions. There’s a difference now — something’s changed.
RT: Yeah, there is. One, I think that in our youth we lived through a time when people who we cared about made a lot of errors in their lives, the social and cultural pressures around us led good people to do bad things. And we’ve also witnessed our own growth. My generation has been at different ends of the political spectrum, and I think both represented the best in American moral values and suffered some of its lapses. It’s left us all somewhat more understanding, but also led us to be better people.
MG: So in a way, Bill Clinton is us.
RT: He is us. The best and the worst.
MG: The thing that really fascinates me, is that during the impeachment battle you emerge as one of Clinton’s chief supporters in the Senate, supporting a man who didn’t support you and whom you didn’t support in ’92.
RT: Right. And with whom I have no particular relationship.
MG: How did this happen? Is this partisan?
RT: My friends think it’s very ironic, because, one, I am more conservative, and as I think Bianca would tell you, suffer from a bit of excess sense of morality with this kind of stuff, but for me, it really was an offense to my sense of what was fair and an offense to the Constitution. I thought for partisan advantage, people were prepared to dismiss very important Constitutional principles. This fight wasn’t really about Bill Clinton for me. It’s about the Constitution and principles of law. The Starr Investigation was an outrage to due process in this country. My greatest fear about America has always been that these constitutional principles to which we claim such allegiance are so easily dismissed if it is not personally or politically convenient. A society’s real commitment to principle is tested when it doesn’t suit your purpose.
MG: Maybe I’m going to overstate here, but you really do feel that this was a case of an attempted cultural coup d’etat?
RT: Very much. It was a purposeful misinterpretation of a provision in the United States Constitution for partisan advantage. No one can genuinely argue from an historic perspective that the offenses of Bill Clinton rose to an impeachable offense as envisioned by the forefathers.
MG: Your role in the Party now is Chairman of the Senate Campaign Committee.
MG: And your job there is?
RT: Recruiting Democratic candidates around the country, running their campaigns, and finding them resources.
MG: You promoted Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Senate in New York. Is that a way of focusing attention on Democrats in these upcoming campaigns?
RT: Very much. It is a defense of the seat in New York. Hillary Clinton can win the seat of New York. Second is the impact on the Senate and the politics of the country. Hillary Clinton immediately becomes the major focus on all these issues from day-care to education. She’ll change the national agenda if she enters at that level. And third, I think she becomes a critical component of the Democratic Coalition, refocusing on creative ideas and dealing with the practical problems of families and children.
MG: Isn’t she actually far more Left than you are?
RT: Oh yes, much.
MG: And that’s okay.
RT: Sure. My role as Chairman of the Campaign Committee isn’t to try to duplicate myself in the Senate. I believe the country is better served by a Democratic majority in the Senate. Even if people have different concepts of the Government role in day care and health care and education and social justice, as long as it’s within the Democratic Caucus, people are basically committed to the objectives. My guess is I would oppose a lot of what Hillary would propose. We’ll probably have difficulties on some of these issues. But I prefer to be fighting with somebody about how we get children in day care as opposed to fighting with some Republican who doesn’t believe the government should even have a role.
MG: Last question. This is a generation that used to sing along with the Who and say, “I hope I die before I get old.” Now the generation is in power–
RT: Well, it’s just beginning. Clinton is the beginning of probably a long series of Baby Boom Presidents.
MG: Do you think this generation has grown up, is growing up, will ever grow up?
RT: I think that the inner conflicts in this generation is a sort of plague that will continue. That it is of many minds, because it came of age in such a period of transition; that it will always be a tormented generation to some extent. It would be unusual if it had been any different.
MG: And yet you think that despite that torment, it will continue to be the sovereign power in this country.
RT: Yes. Because as you look at American politics, power is not handed off generation to generation in any logical sequence. Particularly generations gain strength or dominance because of their historic experiences. For example, the Civil War generation dominated American politics for decades. The World War Two generation dominated American politics from John Kennedy to George Bush. They were molded by a common experience that gave them its purpose and strength. The Baby Boom generation is very similar. I suspect Bill Clinton is the first American President of this generation, and we won’t see the last for thirty years. It has a core of strength to it because of both the successes and the failures. Remember that the World War Two generation didn’t have all one purpose either. They had different philosophies and different goals, but they had an inner strength. Ours has an inner strength, too. We were born during the dawn of the Nuclear Age, we lived during this Cold War that dominated our lives, the inner cultural tensions from civil rights to the drug problems. It would be unusual if the generation did not have some deep divisions and tensions. But it certainly has strength.
MG: Can you define that strength? What is it? What have we got? What do we have to offer?
RT: We came of age early. We’ve endured pain and defeat. But also understand that politics matters, and we’ve seen history change because of people. That gives you purpose.
This generation didn’t just change politics. It also changed the economy and technology. It is changing everything at once. As a result of the Baby Boom generation, music, business, technology and politics will never be the same. We changed everything at once. We brought enormous economic and technological change because of our creativity. But there will be a return to political awareness, and it has begun.