“I Did the Right Thing”: An Interview with Mark Udall

 /  May 26, 2015, 11:43 a.m.


Mark Udall is a former United States Senator from Colorado, serving from 2009-2015. From 1999-2009, he represented Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District in the House of Representatives. Udall is part of the fourth generation of public servants in the Udall-Lee-Hamblin family. His father Mo Udall and uncle Stewart Udall were both members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and his cousins Tom Udall, Gordon Smith, and Mike Lee have served on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Senate. Udall ran for a second Senate term in 2014, losing to Republican Cory Gardner. This spring, Udall is a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The Gate's Aidan Milliff sat down with him last week for a conversation about his career in public service, his legacy, and his last months in the Senate that launched his name into the national news.

The Gate: I guess I have to ask, what are your reflections on [losing] the 2014 election?

Mark Udall: Outside observers came to a number of conclusions [as to why I lost], and I have to agree with them. President Obama was twenty points less popular in 2014 than he was in 2010, which was the last off-cycle election. Senator Bennett (D-CO) ran an excellent campaign in 2010, and was barely re-elected.

Secondly, the amount of money that was spent against me was phenomenal, particularly in the key weeks of September and early October. Whether the outside groups and my opponent himself were lucky or whether they planned to spend that much money at that point, we don’t know and I’ll never know. It was at the same time that ISIS, Ebola, Ukraine, Affordable Care Act, Obama (all these words that start with vowels) seemed to coalesce into this feeling of insecurity, a sense that the world was getting away from us and that the President was responsible for it. The case was made over and over again that “Udall voted with the president 99 percent of the time,” which was tied in part to the fact that the Republicans used the filibuster to the extent that we got no legislation passed. Most of those votes were to put judges or executive branch nominees in place, so that set up nicely to make the case against me based on my voting record.

Third, and this is a stunning number for me—I’m not sure how we could’ve seen it or how we would’ve responded to it—although we got out the 2.1 million voters we thought we needed to get out (the more voters that turn out in Colorado, the better democrats do), it looks like eighty thousand more votes were cast for Senator Bennett in 2010 in the red and rural counties of Colorado than for me in 2014. That really stunned me because I’m Colorado through and through. I just thought in the end that Coloradans would see me as someone who reflected their Libertarian, pro-environment, fiscally responsible point of view. But there was a pent-up desire on the part of people in those counties and in the Republican Party to send a strong message to the president, and I was the way to do it.

Fourth, Congressman Gardner ran an excellent campaign in a number of ways, I’ll grant him that, but he also confounded me by running a campaign where his record [in the House] said one thing and he said another on the campaign trail. I could seemingly never get people to see the difference. I thought people would really take a second look at him and his obstructionism when the state needed money after the 2013 floods. Congressman Gardner voted to shut down the government in a time of real need in Colorado, and he wasn’t punished for that. I thought people would see that as irresponsible and not senatorial.

Finally, I’ve been criticized for not running a campaign that defended my brand and presented me as the authentic Coloradan I am, and I’ve certainly thought a lot about that. The rationale was that by showing that Congressman Gardner had extreme positions on women’s reproductive rights, people would see his other extreme positions. It didn’t happen with those swing voters. So sometimes, late at night, I think perhaps it would’ve been worthwhile running more ads extolling my successes and who I am, and how well I match up with the state.

Gate: Charlie Pierce wrote about your senate race in Esquire. He said that people in Colorado were giving Gardner too many points for becoming slightly less extreme than he used to be.

Udall: I would agree, but I’m biased. I’m rooting for Congressman Gardner to actually take the positions and embrace the initiatives that he said he would during the campaign whether it’s on climate change or renewable energy or immigration reform or balanced budget reform where we need more revenue. He claimed he was going to do all of that; here’s hoping that he will.

Gate: Cory Gardner is making a similar transition to the one you made in 2009  He’s going from a solid conservative district to representing a complicated and, on aggregate, moderate state. You went from a liberal district centered in Boulder County to a state that also includes places like conservative Colorado Springs. What was that transition like?

Udall: I loved it. I love the state of Colorado. It’s an amazing state, the best in the nation for every reason imaginable. From the landscapes to the economic activities to, of course, the people and the history. So, for me, it was exciting, meaningful, and rewarding to travel around the state and listen, and to expand my view of the state. I’d already begun to do that because I sat on the Armed Service Committee [in the House], and I was down in Colorado Springs a great deal before I was elected to the Senate, because that’s the heart of the military’s presence in Colorado [Fort Carson, USAFA, NORAD].

I got really fired up after we invaded Iraq. I thought it was totally wrong-headed and have unfortunately been proven right. To find the right kind of national security policy, I believe that we’ve got to be tough, but we’ve got to be smart. We might have been tough invading Iraq, but we were dumb. We didn’t think it through. We didn’t think through the cost to our reputation, to our treasury, in blood or in lives. So [representing the whole state] was in a way a continuation of the work I was already doing because of my portfolio in the House.

I like to say that your title when you serve in congress ought to be, in order of what’s most important: United States Senator, Colorado, Democrat. The one thing I’d put in front of all of that is “your conscience.” You owe it to the people you represent to be as clear as you can about what moral point of view you have on certain questions, and you want to let people know what your conscience tells you to do even if it’s unpopular. It’s like [Colorado] Governor [Ralph Lawrence] Carr, whom we now venerate because he was brave in standing up to those who said we ought to intern Japanese Americans [in 1941]. He thought it was wrong-headed and un-American. For me, it’s always been Conscience, United States, Colorado, then political party.

It’s the best job in the world, being a United States Senator from Colorado.

Gate: I wanted to ask you a question you asked yourself in an interview from 2005 in the Elephant Journal. You started an answer by saying “The long hours, the travel, you’ve got to raise money all the time, you can’t keep everybody happy. Why would you do it?”

Udall: I believe in public service. I believe that if our democracy is going to not only exist but also to thrive, that each one of us has the responsibility to put a little bit of time in. I think maybe I went overboard. As we say in climbing and skiing, I “red-lined the fun meter.” I’ve also had some wonderful role models in my life. My father [Congressman Morris Udall (D-AZ)] gained a lot of attention and acclaim for his work as a public servant. My mother had her own real engagement. She enlisted in the Peace Corps at fifty-six years old and lived in Nepal working on micro-loan projects for women. My wife, Maggie Fox, has been a public servant as a leader of the Sierra Club and as the head of the Climate Reality Project for the last five years. So I’ve got a lot of role models around me. I think it’s in the Udall DNA to find time to serve your community. Now elected office has its particular challenges and in some ways, I’m enjoying my freedom, a little relaxation, and a chance to reflect.

My dad said something similar to that quote from the Elephant Journal a couple of times in his career. He would make people laugh when he talked about it. He had a file where he kept all the angry letters, like, “I hope you get cancer and die a painful death” or “have a terrible day,” and all you can do is laugh and love our democracy where people can say that and not get arrested or worse. Despite that, I saw him get up every day and in the end, inspire people to get involved in public service, particularly young people. In just the twenty-four hours I’ve been at the Institute of Politics, I’ve been inspired by the energy of the students and professors and people who work here. They’re all in. The stories of the demise of democracy and the cynicism out there are, I think, overstated.

Gate: I’m glad you mentioned public service. Multiple people, including your sister Dodie, have described you as “An okay politician, but an extraordinary public servant.” What’s the difference between those two things to you?

Udall: I want to be charitable to the term politician, and I don’t want to glamorize public service. You can look at politics as simply the process of making decisions in any group larger than three people. We all have politics in our lives, and it’s how you make those decisions and how forthcoming you are in the process that determines what kind of politics are practiced. I think my sister is alluding to the fact that I’m not a great “game-player.” What you see is what you get with me. I’m not bad at a poker table, but I’m more interested in getting to yes than I am in coming out on top or getting all the credit. I’m proud to be a politician, and to have been a public servant.

I think the core principal behind being a public servant is that in the end you’re not in it for yourself, you’re not in it to be somebody, you’re in it to get some things done. Some people say, if there were times when I was more willing to play political games, maybe I’d have been re-elected, and perhaps I would’ve found a way to survive in a really tough environment last November. But, I’m proud of what I did accomplish. Again, it’s not to disparage politicians, but I think if you have a public service motivation and you’re passionate about public service, then by definition you’ll be a decent politician. You’re not in the game just to play the game, you’re in the game to make some things happen and to make a difference.

Gate: To the extent that your term in the Senate had a signature issue, it was probably related to your work on the Armed Service and Intelligence committees. Most Coloradans probably didn’t expect national security to be your signature cause. How did you end up focusing on these particular issues?

Udall: We invaded Iraq when I was in the House of Representatives. I thought it was wrong-headed. It was a very controversial vote, and a lot of people said to me, “Mark, if you vote against this, you’ll never be elected statewide. You’re on the wrong side of history.” I did my own research and I kept my own counsel. When we then invaded Iraq—when I was on the losing side of the argument—I supported the effort, but it quickly went bad. I got pretty angry and concerned, and I looked at the Armed Services committee and I said, “You know, they have a budget of over $600 billion over there. The world is changing dramatically. I’ve travelled all over the world, particularly in Muslim countries, as a climber— I’ve been in Pakistan and India and Afghanistan, and I’ve got some on-the-ground experience. I think I’m going to go on the Armed Services Committee if I can win a spot there.”

I went into the Armed Services Committee and I loved it because the men and women who serve are phenomenal Americans. The questions that [the Armed Services Committee] faces are important and complicated, and it was meaningful to grapple with them. I found I had a knack for those questions and could bring my public service mindset—a “politics end at the water’s edge” approach. So it was an important assignment. And then I found that Colorado’s involvement in military missions is twenty-first century: satellites, cybersecurity, the newest kinds of aircraft, missile defense efforts, and the Northern Command in Colorado Springs, which was responsible in part for responding to 9/11. So it all fit a twenty-first century security architecture.

The other thing that was rewarding and heartening and fun for me was that my Outward Bound background and the culture there is similar to the military culture, so I felt in a lot of settings that I made pretty instant friends. Hopefully the officers, enlisted personnel, and the NCOs I met felt the same way. Think of the military: you’ve got a mission that’s bigger than your own self-interest; you start with being emotionally, mentally, and physically fit; you have to know your gear and take care of it; you’re in a team; you’re not paid a whole lot; and you’re defending your country. There’s clarity there, and purity, and the right kind of simplicity. So I found when I’d sit down with the personnel in all the branches, whether in theater in Afghanistan or Iraq or at home, there was an affinity that went both ways. I think it made me a more effective advocate and policymaker for our military and our defense needs. It was a real change-up for a lot of people that I was on the Armed Services Committee, but the more I did it, the more I realized it really fit my interests.

Gate: The work you did on the Armed Service and Intelligence Committees, things like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the release of the “Torture Report”, is likely going to be central to the legacy of your public service career. A lot of commentators, right after you lost the 2014 election, started calling on you to use the Speech and Debate Clause to put the Senate Torture Report into the congressional record Pentagon Papers-style. You ended up forcing the hand of both Senate Democrats and the White House to release a redacted version of the report’s summary. Can you walk through the couple of days leading up to this release, and what that was like for you?

Udall: Let me start by making sure that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) gets the credit she’s due for being a stalwart. She stood up to a lot of unwanted and unwarranted criticism. She had a phalanx of former CIA directors and others coming at her trying to, frankly, find ways to keep the report under wraps until the new majority took office. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who now chairs the committee, would not have been as open to the idea of releasing the report. In that condensed timeframe, there was a series of meetings with the White House team, there were some formal letters that were exchanged, and then there were some informal calls and conversations.

I think it was appropriate to have some skepticism about the White House’s intent, and I made that clear in my final floor speech. With no great pleasure, I called the CIA out for being disingenuous and in fact lying to the American public on a number of occasions. It was high stakes—it was bittersweet in a way because, of course, those were my last days in the Senate, and I was prepared to use every power I had to see that the report was fully released. I’m still calling for the entire report to be released, and I know it will be, hopefully before I’m on the wrong side of the grass. I also think the Panetta Review ought to be released because that became, as you know, a smoking gun when it confirmed that [the Senate’s] analyses and summaries were spot-on—that we weren’t just on a vendetta to embarrass the CIA or conclude that they had acted illegally and even unconstitutionally. The Panetta Review demonstrates unequivocally that the CIA itself knew that this was, to put it mildly, an unfortunate time in its history. That was the mission I was on during those last two months in the Senate: to see the report released.

It was high stakes, and I know that a number of my colleagues were ready to try and stop me. We had a number of strategies; I know some people wanted me to go ahead [and enter the report] anyway. I think where we ended up was a respectful solution. Senator Feinstein and I worked closely together on this, and I wanted to be respectful of the work she had done. I also was well aware—I did the math—that to read five thousand pages [into the Congressional record] would take seven days. I had some allies who probably would’ve helped me, but that would be some kind of a filibuster, or time on the floor. I won’t talk about bodily functions and the need for sleep, but…

I ask every American: read the report. It’s deeply concerning what you will read there. It will appall you, it will turn your stomach, it was deeply wrong. That’s why I wanted the report released. Let’s never do this again. Let’s never do this again.

Gate: There were a couple of times in your senate term when you used language just like that: “If you could see this, it would appall you,” or, with the NSA, “If the American people knew what was going on….” It really speaks to the fact that you have strong positions on the balance between transparency and national security, and that you think the balance is out of balance. What needs to happen to fix that balance?

Udall: It starts with the chief executive making this a priority. The president has an unbelievably challenging job. I mean, how do you set priorities? It’s a hellish job, and I don’t know why anyone would want it. I admire this president; I’m in awe of what he inherited and what he got done, but in my final speech, I also called on the president to do even more to keep faith with what he said in his campaign, which is to create a culture of transparency. Those of us who are former legislators need to keep making that call. Those members who care strongly about transparency and are still sitting in the Senate will hopefully continue to make that call.

Specifically, the reforms to NSA activities that have been proposed by the president’s own board should be codified. I know right now that Congress is grappling with what to do about passing the USA Freedom Act. The Second District Court’s ruling of a week ago is a strong statement about the illegality of [bulk collection of metadata].

But General Alexander is a patriot. He was doing what he was ordered to do. If the law changes, his successor, Admiral Rogers, will follow the law. I asked General Alexander, “Do you want every American’s metadata.” He said “Yeah, but I would just as soon put it in a lockbox.” He said that at a hearing, and he had a little smile on his face. I had a smile too, but one of, “You know what you just said?” I think that changing the law would create more transparency, and I also think the FISA court needs advocates from the privacy point of view, advocates for the fourth amendment.

As far as the CIA goes in transparency, reluctantly but without pulling my punches, I called for John Brennan to step down, and to bring someone else in who could create a culture at the CIA that is more transparent. Now, that’s in the context of them being spies, and being about secrecy. They’re about protecting the country with the tools of espionage, so I understand transparency is difficult, but I would expect the next president to build on this, particularly if it’s Hillary Clinton or another Democrat. The biggest, baddest weapon we have is the Bill of Rights. When we stray from the principles of the Bill of Rights, we always regret it. Throughout our history, with every generation, there’s an instance where we stray and later come to say, “Why did we do that?”. We think it is expeditious at the time, we think it will keep us safe, and in fact it makes it more difficult for us to make the case that America is about openness, transparency, inclusion, and freedom. Trusting in our own inclusionary principles and our freedoms is what will make us prevail in the competitions that are underway—economic, political, and cultural.

Gate: You mentioned Senator Burr. He was critical of your final floor speech because he thought you revealed classified information from the Panetta Review. He said it was only you who “would have to live with that decision.” So, five months later, did you do the right thing?

Udall: I did. And you know, Senator Burr and I are friends, but we have very different points of view when it came to this report. There was a group of former CIA directors and others who said, “If this report is released, it will unleash chaos and protests and our agents will be in danger and the CIA’s work will be undercut.” And I say, with all due respect, show me where that’s happened. I will show you instead people who said “Okay, it was about time.” America is at its best when it acknowledges its mistakes. There are very few other countries in the world that would take these steps. That’s why America is to be admired, and that’s why America will continue to be viewed as a leader. I did the right thing. The things I uncovered were revealed in a proper, legal way that kept faith with my oath [as a Senator].

Gate: Five months after your speech, John Brennan is still the director of the CIA. No one has been prosecuted as a result of the torture report. As you say, there’s more out there in the full, unredacted version of the Senate report and in the Panetta Review. Do you think you went far enough?

Udall: At the time, I went far enough. At the time, I was willing to go further. History may well have to prosecute John Brennan and the Bush and Obama administrations and render final judgment. History has a way of doing that effectively and appropriately.

Gate: Your predecessors, Senate Democrats from Colorado like Gary Hart and Tim Wirth have left you big shoes to fill in terms of what you do after you leave office. Have you gotten any advice from them on what to do next?

Udall: I’ve been fortunate to have those two men as mentors and role models, and increasingly as statesmen. There’s an old saying that a statesman is a dead politician, and I’ve heard people say we need more statesmen. I’m looking at a whole host of ways to continue to make a contribution. I’m considering writing my point of view in a book on the CIA and the torture report. I’m looking at efforts to protect our privacy and protect the First Amendment. Of course, my interest in climate change and energy security is unabated. Stay tuned.

The image featured in this article was taken from Mark Udall's Facebook page. The original image can be found here

Aidan Milliff