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George Hanks Brown, known to everybody he’s ever met as Hank Brown, is not retiring. He probably never will. But he’s beginning to reflect on his extraordinary and quintessentially American career. After working his way through Colorado University and, some years later, its law school, he volunteered to fly combat missions in Vietnam, worked as a lawyer and corporate executive, and then ran for Congress. At the age of 40, he won a seat from Colorado’s northern district. He served five terms. In 1990, he won a Senate seat. He served one term.
Hank Brown’s years in Washington were, at first, regarded as unremarkable. (He had played offensive tackle for the Colorado Buffaloes, after all, not running back. He was the very definition of a workhorse.) Later, his D.C. years were regarded as laudable, for reasons we will explore in a moment. And now, in the full sweep of hindsight, many regard them as somewhere between memorable and mythological.
Between 1980 and 1996, Brown’s reputation on the Hill was marked by three characteristics. First, his work ethic. To equip himself for his legislative duties, Brown earned both an accounting degree and a second law degree at night. (It is the contention of most representatives and all senators that they have no spare time whatsoever.) Word began to spread that young Brown even read bills before voting on them. He became a go-to guy in the GOP caucus.
Second, his collegiality. Brown saw other senators, all of them, as colleagues rather than enemies. He was approachable on almost any subject, unbendable on only a few. His colleague from Wyoming, Senator Alan Simpson, summed it up this way: “Hank is one of the few people I know who can tell a man to go to hell in a way that makes him look forward to the trip.”
And third, Brown’s fidelity to the governing principles of the country. Amiable to the core, Brown was inflexible in his devotion to a constitutionally based and constitutionally ordered liberty. There would be, from the fashionable media, no strange new respect for Hank Brown.
In 1996, Brown announced that he would not be running for reelection. Professional Washington buzzed with speculation. Senators give up safe seats as often as All-Star shooting guards leave the NBA for the priesthood. There were two schools of speculation. The first, by far the larger faction, assumed that Brown would quadruple his income by lobbying for some more-or-less hygienic special interest. (Former senators tend to be lottery picks in the K Street draft.) The other faction thought Brown might be gravely ill and wanted to go home, where he could die in peace without the Washington Post yakking at him every morning.
Brown had other ideas, of course, but in leaving D.C., when he did and how he did — in his mid 50s and as a prohibitive favorite for reelection — he provided a contemporary model for the citizen-legislator. He came, he served honorably and effectively, and he returned to the plow. His example stands as a model for generations to come — and as an entirely unintended rebuke to his former colleagues.
Over the past two decades, Brown has served as president of three American universities, most notably at his alma mater, Colorado University (where he may be the only former member of the janitorial staff to have later occupied the CEO’s office). At Boulder, he stabilized shaky finances, pushed out incorrigible faculty members, and tranquillized an institution in turmoil. He then moved on, having secured his second reputation, this time as a citizen-educator.
Hank Brown sat still for this interview only because he’s been slowed recently by a broken bone or two, incurred as he dashed between board meetings. These remarks have been edited only for clarity (of my remarks) and abbreviation (of his).
Possibly relevant disclosure: Our mutual friend, the legendary Rudy Boschwitz, says that Brown and I are mahutin, which is to say, in Yiddish, that, by virtue of a Brown child marrying a Freeman child, Brown and I are now non-blood relatives. I am in no position to contradict Amb. Boschwitz and probably wouldn’t even if I were.
Freeman: You once made a famous bet with Ralph Nader. Remind me. What was that about?
Brown: Nader had offered to donate $10,000 to a charity designated by any senator who would read the WTO treaty and then take a test on the contents.
Freeman: How long was the treaty?
Brown: With associated materials, it ran to 10,000 or 11,000 pages. I favored the treaty at the time and was the only senator foolish enough to take up the challenge.
Freeman: Who won the bet?
Brown: The test turned out to be pretty easy, and I was able to answer all the questions. In the process of reading the material, I became convinced that it was a flawed treaty and changed my position.
Freeman: Well, we have established your diligence, as also, perhaps, the indolence of your colleagues. As a garden-variety voter, I have always wondered: What percentage of the bills did you actually read — and would that have been a high-water mark for the Senate as a whole?
Brown: I read all of the measures that came out of my committees — Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Oversight. Of the others, I read summaries, and, if I had questions, I would read the measures in detail.
Freeman: And your colleagues?
Brown: Most members would read summaries prepared by staff. Generally, the Senate was better in that regard than the House. In those days, Senate Democrats allowed proxy voting in committee, which meant that few members felt obliged to attend committee meetings.
Freeman: The first time we met was when you, along with Al Simpson and Arlen Specter, were leading the charge in Judiciary to confirm Clarence Thomas. As I recall it, the attack on Thomas stalled after Democrats took their best shot at his qualifications and philosophy. It was only then that charges of sexual impropriety emerged. In rough outline, that was the same scenario that played out in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. What were your thoughts as a spectator, after being a key player in the earlier struggle?
Brown: Chairman Biden had delayed consideration of the Thomas nomination in what appeared to be an effort to allow opponents to organize. The efforts by Democrats to delay the Kavanaugh hearings appeared to have the same purpose. Both nominations involved charges that had not been made until years after the fact, so they were difficult to authenticate.
Freeman: Were you expecting the attack on Thomas?
Brown: Democratic nominees under Clinton received a significant number of Republican votes, even though we did not agree with their philosophy. Our thought at the time was that we had a responsibility to ensure that the nominees were qualified, but that the system depended on us respecting the president if they were qualified.
I should note that when Thomas was confirmed, a number of moderate Democrats supported him. Smearing folks you disagree with is a sad practice that threatens the foundations of our representative democracy.
Freeman: You mention Chairman Biden. Candidate Biden likes to make the point — at least he likes to make it on odd-numbered days — that he is able to work not only with liberals but with moderates and conservatives as well. You worked alongside him for a number of years. Was that your experience?
Brown: Senator Biden is a pleasant, outgoing individual. He was consistently one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate. To hear him described as a moderate could happen only in Washington, D.C.
Freeman: For an unrelated project, I have just screened six hours of campaign tape on Joe Biden. As you might expect, an original thought did not once interrupt the partisan boilerplate. But there was another problem, a problem not unknown to those of us of a certain age. The word Biden was looking for was, more than occasionally, hidden in the back of a closet. You’ve watched him for more than 30 years. Is he up to the job he’s applied for?
Brown: I never observed in him the qualities of intellect, vision, exceptional integrity, or savvy that are required in an effective president. I will be surprised if he survives the primaries.
Freeman: I have to ask you about another former colleague. Hard-shell conservatives see Mitch McConnell as a deadweight on the Trump agenda, a reluctant warrior for the cause, while left-wingers like to portray him as a lickspittle to the president. I’m guessing that you don’t share either view.
Brown: Mitch is the ultimate good soldier. He is a solid conservative. Folks forget that the leader can only pass items that can draw a majority vote. With a thin margin in the Senate, he’s limited by the moderate Republicans.
Freeman: One more political matter and then we’ll get to the $64 question. The great state of Colorado used to produce a steady stream of national-caliber Republicans — Pete Dominick, Bill Armstrong, you, and others. Now it produces Democrats — Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Jared Polis, and others — and is generally considered a blue state. What explains the Colorado change, and can it be reversed?
Brown: Colorado has always been fiscally conservative and somewhat liberal on social issues. Republicans have gained by a shift of Catholics away from Democrats, but Democrats have gained from the tens of millions of dollars each year from the Stryker family and others. The Democrats have outspent us by five and ten to one in some key races. In addition, our press is liberal, and many of our newcomers come from California rather than Kansas and Nebraska, as in the old days. The state is still a swing state, and if we get competitive funding, Trump could win here in 2020.
Freeman: Good to know. One last question and, remember, you’re under oath. You’ve been president of three universities. Leaving aside those three shining anomalies, is it your considered opinion that a year of higher education is worth $50–$70,000 to a young American?
Brown: Some universities have such a strong reputation that they may be worth $50,000-plus, but those are very few. Many teach students to think of themselves as victims in this world and do more harm than good. Most students would be better off working full-time to gain experience and going to night school to earn a BA.
Freeman: Thanks, Hank.