Dan 'The Man' still fired up about agricultural policy
By Ken Root
I interviewed Dan Glickman last week and had a twinge of nostalgia from listening to him draw from his rich knowledge of farm policy and Washington politics and apply it to issues of the present day. No one is better at explaining what we are doing wrong than a politician who is no longer in office. I commend him for the job he did and his keen awareness of all that swirled around him even though he never gave the indication that he believed he was absolutely right in his judgment of events and situations.
Dan Glickman was elected in 1976 as a Jewish Democrat representing south-central Kansas, including Wichita. It didn't seem to fit with the politics of the locale, but he made it work until the middle of the 1990s. I was always impressed with his work ethic and his ability to "read the wind" on political issues. He came across a man who wished he could go faster and do more every day and didn't seem to have an off switch.
He was in good political company, as Bob Dole was the state's senior senator and Pat Roberts joined Glickman in the House of Representatives in 1980. The "Kansas Mafia" as they were known, had a very strong impact on farm policy through the remainder of the century.
The growing conservatism of Kansans, and the monumental elections of 1994, pushed Glickman out of the House of Representatives at what turned out to be an opportune time. President Bill Clinton's goal of "making the Cabinet look like America" had failed and one of the most spectacular crashes was Mike Espy, an African American congressman from Mississippi who was appointed to be secretary of agriculture. I remember, at the time, asking Glickman why Espy had accepted favors from corporations and done a number of unseemly things. Glickman replied: "I guess he forgot that he wasn't a congressman anymore." That answer has always troubled me.
In 1994, Pat Roberts became chair of the House Ag Committee, when the body moved to a Republican majority. Glickman soon occupied a seat on the other side of the table as the Democrat U.S. agriculture secretary. Partisanship rarely got in the way and the result was the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" legislation, which will be remembered as the right bill at the wrong time as agriculture moved from boom to bust in the late 1990s.
"I envy Secretary Tom Vilsack," said Glickman in his visit with me last week. "When I was ag secretary, we had pork prices at 15 to 20 cents a pound and, oh my God, everything was in the tank!" He went on to express how hard his department worked to keep agricultural producers going, but the marketplace then was far different than it is today. Glickman credits ethanol's demand for corn as the factor that has raised the current value of farm products.
Glickman never forgot who he was, or where he was, and went on to serve longer as secretary of agriculture than anyone since Orville Freeman in the 1960s.
In discussing current times with him, he dissected the partisan politics of Congress and commended the House and Senate agriculture committees for their work in getting farm bills ready for full chamber debate. Regarding the expiration of the 2008 legislation, he said: "I'm very surprised by this because it reflects a marked change from the history of getting farm legislation passed." He offered no sure pathway to new legislation other than hope that something would be done in the lame-duck session before the end of the year.
He projected the agricultural and trade goals of the Barack Obama administration into a new term. "You know, my guess is that you would continue to see a government that would focus on exports and biofuels." But he cautioned that a lot depends on whether the president and Congress can work out a budget deal that makes sense. "Agriculture is as dependent on the fiscal situation of this country as anything else we do."
Glickman kept going back to the work of Vilsack, almost like he would love to be there right now and re-engage in the battle. When asked if USDA could be cut in size, he said, "Yes, it can be done but it won't be easy." He then moved into talking about how the department delivers its services and how important it is to have a "real person" interface with farmers rather than a machine, but he also admitted that all government operations are going to have to modernize and economize to meet budget restraints.
It is a great statement of the opportunities afforded by America that the son of a scrap metal dealer in Kansas rose to be one of the most knowledgeable and dynamic U.S. secretaries of agriculture. It is a remarkable and incongruent aside that he then spent six years as the high profile chief of the Motion Picture Association, attacking piracy of intellectual property, but returned to his love for politics and agricultural policy. He could be sipping an umbrella drink on the beach at Malibu, chatting with the stars, but he spoke with Sara Wyant and me while sitting on a folding chair at the Democratic campaign headquarters in Des Moines.
Glickman, in his late 60s, looks good, talks fast and thinks faster. I wonder if he will go back into government, to a carefully chosen, appointed post that requires intellect and energy. If so, I predict he will do well because he still has the fire to do good works.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.