September 4, 2008

Congressman Mark Udall on Religion, Health Insurance, Education and Climbing Everest.

At the Spot Climbing Gym. Photos by Tom Henwood.

“Make It Fuller: A Conversation with Congressman Mark Udall,” from elephant journal’s Summer ’05 issue.

Congressman Mark Udall is political royalty. Often called the “Western Kennedys,” the Udalls have been in the public service racket since their Mormon ancestors sought out religious freedom in the barren, Wild West. Udall, executive director of Colorado Outward Bound for 10 years prior to running for Congress, is well-known for working both sides of the aisle—for, despite his liberal leanings, always seeking to unite partisan interests around a greater vision of what America is and ought to be. And in a Washington rife with extremists on both ends of the spectrum, this talent has not gone unnoticed—Udall finds himself an oft-talked about candidate for Gov’ner, Senator, President—for anything and everything high and mighty. We, the people, it seems, want folks who can “disagree without being disagreeable,” as Udall likes to put it.

We met at The Spot Bouldering Gym where Udall, a longtime mountaineer, took off his wingtips and put on his old, battered climbing shoes. ~Waylon Lewis, ed.

Waylon H. Lewis, for elephant: I myself want to get involved in politics—at least until I know better. So it’s exciting being with you. I’d like to start with education, which is something that’s dear to my heart. I went to Whittier and Mapleton—great schools in Boulder. And I’m part of S.O.S., the Save Our Schools community. It seems to be a nationwide trend: smaller, neighborhood schools—like churches—are being closed in in favor of big-box schools.
Representative Mark Udall: It’s a dynamic which we, number one, should be aware of and two, take every step possible to redirect. Think about our form of government: the Founders believed that the government that works best is that which is closest to the people. Schools are institutions where we all come together to decide what our future is going to be.
          Education was an intellectual exercise until I had children in the public school system. It’s a one-shot process. You don’t get do-overs with your children’s education. It struck me that the smaller the class size, the more opportunity for students. That is not always the case: you can have larger classes where people are inspired. But considering my background in Outward Bound, 20 years with an educational institution, people were taught in a group of eight to ten people. The instructor has a sense of each individual, can tailor the approach that they’re taking to each student. The potential for positive outcomes is greater. I applaud what [S.O.S is] doing. I would like to give any help I can.
            There’s a lot of talk now in the federal government about accountability, responsibility, results, which I agree makes sense. But if we just fully funded Special Ed—which we only fund 40 cents on the dollar—you would see an enormous influx of resources into public schools, which would help them meet the mission that we’ve set for them. It’s not all about money, but it’s important. We haven’t even allowed public schools to stay apace of inflation in many states. Particularly in Colorado.
ele: You sponsored an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education act to keep class sizes down.
Rep. Udall: My initial inspiration to run for public office—outside of the fact that my family has a tradition of public service, it was infused in us as we grew up—was going to my son’s third grade class. There were close to 30 third graders in that class. Given my background with Outward Bound, what I knew of my son and his school, I thought, “We ought to find a way to make small class sizes happen.” So in my first campaign I talked a lot about smaller class sizes. I offered an approach in the legislature that would have taken some of the surplus dollars at that time, [laughs] and directed them into school districts that wanted to lower class sizes, particularly in K-6. Because that’s where, if you will, the software is put into the hardware. It’s our potential. A lot of studies show that that’s where you have the maximum effect with small classes.
We need to make sure we don’t rush to embrace the latest and greatest educational approach and forget the important role that small schools play. Because they’re more than schools, they’re a gathering place. If you have a solid neighborhood school, you’ve got a safer, culturally richer community. People in the neighborhood work together. Function follows form. You know all of this.
ele: No, that’s great. Mapleton is a strong neighborhood, but it still feels like a ghost town when you’re around that school. There used to be hundreds of children and parents, and many of them would go to cafés or bookstores after school, spend money in the community. S.O.S. also talks about the traffic—students will walk or bike to a neighborhood school. There’s community.
Rep. Udall: You may be aware of the Safe Routes to Schools Initiative. The bicycle community is supportive of it. The idea is to provide routes to school for children to walk or ride their bicycles without being subject to the hazards of traffic. Children are outside, exercising—addressing basic concerns about the health of our children. In the transportation bill in Congress there are monies and technical expertise available to communities that are amenable to it.
ele: Switching gears: everything in the news about you lately was whether you’d run for Governor or the Senate. It seemed like your decision [not to run for Governor] was based on wanting to stay involved on a national and international level in such an intense period of our nation’s history.
Rep. Udall: That’s correct. Now, let’s keep in mind that I’ve got a job right now. [Laughs, laughter]
ele: Yeah, right. You’re part of the House of Representatives, 435 members. In the Senate there’s 100.
Rep. Udall: A Senator represents an entire state. A member of the House represents a portion of the state. In my case, the district that I represent is the best in the country.
ele: I agree.
Rep. Udall: It’s the best of Colorado—high prairie and high tech, the mountains and the University of Colorado.
I feel the country’s future is less certain than the state of Colorado, though we have some real challenges here. In particular, the on-going threat of Islamic totalitarianism or fundamentalism, which results in terrorist activity like the terrible events of 9/11 is going to need smart approaches. While it’s important to be tough—there are people in the world that would come after us—you have to be smart about how you use your resources, how you get at this threat. Part of it is reaching out to that part of the world, providing the moderates—the ordinary people who practice Islam just like ordinary people practice Christianity and Judaism and Buddhism—a chance to take back their religion.
Domestically, there are enormous challenges that we’re reducing our ability to meet under this present Administration. The great deficits we’re running: our national debt is unsustainable. We have 45 million Americans who don’t have health insurance. This is not just a moral issue, this is an issue of enlightened self-interest: if every American isn’t able to perform to their highest level, then economically, politically, we become weaker. Our leadership role in the world won’t be what we want it to be.
All of those challenges add up to a decision, with the support of the people of the 2nd district, to pursue a run for the Senate in 2008 where key decisions are made such as treaty ratification, Supreme Court Justice nomination and energy policy, to name three.
If you look at the challenges we face, the conflicts in the world, our environmental concerns, they’re interdependent. I have a commitment to finding a way to energy independence. My credo is that we didn’t so much inherit the earth from our parents, as we’re borrowing it from our children. All paths lead to and from environmentally sensitive, cost-effective, job-creating new energy supplies. It’s right there. Much like we made a commitment in the ‘60s to put people on the moon, we could make this commitment.
All of that is decided more or less at the national level. As a Senator you have a long reach, a ready-made platform from which to advocate for and work on public policy changes that will make the world safer, more environmentally-friendly and keep it livable for our children, which is in the end what motivates me. My friend Senator [John] McCain puts it well—in order to build his self-respect, he’s had to dedicate himself to a cause greater than his own self-interest. At this point in my life my cause is serving this country in a way that keeps faith with our traditions, values and principles. Right now the crowd in Washington is in some ways playing pretty fast and loose with our history and our principles and the direction of the country. So, yes, it worries me.
ele: From a personal angle, with your public service, to the extent that one serves, one gives up privacy. You give up what many people would want for their lives. And if you’re a Senator you’re going to give up even more. So what about public service is personally rewarding?
Rep. Udall: You lose a lot of your privacy, you’re traveling back and forth to Washington, not sure what time zone you’re in from day to day. I’m [in Washington] three, four nights a week. I make 30 to 35 round trips a year. The jet airplane is both a curse and blessing. [Laughs] Campaigns are expensive. In the House you’re always in campaign mode, because two years go by quickly.
So why do all this? Because of the model of my father and my grandfather, my uncle and my mother, all public servants in their own right. My grandfather sat on the Arizona Supreme Court and was the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. He died in the late ‘50s. He was a civil libertarian, deeply committed to civil rights. It was his ruling in the late ‘40s that removed the obstructions that were in place for Native Americans to vote in Arizona.
I come from Morman stock. I’m not a practicing Morman, but the Mormans at their best are dedicated to public service and community involvement. If you think about their movement west—because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs—they came to a place like Utah, which was barren desert, and made it flourish. They didn’t do that because they all went their own individual ways. They did that because they worked together.
ele: Which is also an Outward Bound principle.
Rep. Udall: Exactly. It’s this great Western combination of individualism and communitarian mindset. You never know when you’re going to be with a small group or out on your own in a natural world that can be so beautiful and yet so harsh. You better know how to work together because it’s the community spirit that builds the towns, hospitals and schools in the West. In that spirit my uncle Stewart served in the Congress, was Interior Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson, and well known as one of America’s greatest conservationists.
ele: He doubled the size of the National Parks.
Rep. Udall: Since he left the Cabinet he’s written and lectured about sustainability. And he wrote a book recently, the Forgotten Founders. He takes to task Hollywood and the myths it’s created about the gun fighters and miners. It was the people standing on the wooden sidewalks in Dodge City watching the gun fights that built the West. They loved the spirit of the West, they came here for a new beginning. They didn’t come out here to get in a big fight with whoever was hanging around. That was counter to what they wanted to do: build a life for themselves and their families.
My father Moe served in the Congress for 30 years. He was a candidate for President in 1976, came close to winning the nomination, then went on to a career in Congress where he was known for his reformer instincts. In his opinion, there was no human institution that couldn’t be made better. He was also head of the Interior Committee and was well-known for his conservationist successes.
ele: And having lost an eye when he was a young man, he was still quarterback, played pro basketball!
Rep. Udall: Yeah..! In the late ‘40s there was a Nuggets team. He met my mom, she was a native Coloradoan. There’s a story about him playing in the NCAA tournament. The opponent’s team had scouted him. They told the man defending him to play him to the left, because he didn’t have a right eye. And my dad scored 16, 18 points—a lot of points in those days [Entire teams would often score 30 points per game —ed.]. The defender just lost it, started yelling, “It’s not true!” So my dad pops his eye out and says, “This thing doesn’t work very well for me, but if you’d like to try it?” [Laughs]
ele: Then he flew planes in World War II..!
Rep. Udall: In the Army Air Corps. I think that’s where I get my adventurism. My mother was as adventurous as my father—going off to Nepal like she did in her late 50s, volunteering in the Peace Corps, studying Buddhism, helping women with micro-loan projects, helping Royal Nepal Airlines—she’d been a pilot earlier in her life. I remember she would just throw us all in an old International and take us down to Baja, California, up to the Four Corners area. Her father was a cowboy who came to Colorado in 1913, started a business here and was the first outfitter in the Rocky Mountain Parks. My mom spent her summers hiking, riding horses—living in the outdoors. My dad did the same thing in northern Arizona. That’s where we got this interest in the outdoors.
ele: Our magazine tries to focus on those trying to live good lives that are also good for others. So I’m wondering where your family’s sense of public service comes from.
Rep. Udall: 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? The example of my father. The belief that public service is something worthwhile (of course, there are many ways to be a public servant, not just serving in public office). And this emphasis on inspiring others. Because that’s where you make change. It’s not just what you do, the magazine generates enthusiasm and commitment on the part of other people. I saw my dad go out everyday wanting to inspire somebody to make a difference. In the end that’s what it is. To show people that they can make a difference and be involved. I have days where I’ve got to dig deep to find that, which is why I feel so fortunate living here. Being outside, taking care of myself physically and spiritually is imperative—which fits with the mission of your magazine.
ele: Prepping for this interview, I read a great quote where you were talking about recreation. You were saying, “Put a hyphen in there, it’s re-create.” Is recreation where you find solace from your busy mind, your responsibilities in life?
Rep. Udall: Last night I went for a walk for an hour, on the Mesa Trail. The sun was setting. The end of the day for me. My opportunity to reconnect, re-create if you will and get ready for this week.
ele: You’ve climbed almost every 14er, right?
Rep. Udall: I’ve one left. I climbed the third highest mountain in the world in 1990, Kanchenjunga. It’s on the border of Sikkim, Tibet and Nepal. It’s one of the world’s most sacred mountains. Local people believe that spirits inhabit the summit. Kanchenjunga means the five treasure houses of the world and in the lore of that area there are precious stones and metals on those summits. The local people believe that if a human trod the summit, you would have natural and human disasters of enormous scale. The first team that climbed Kanchenjunga, a British team, kept faith with tradition and didn’t stand on the true summit. And when I went there in 1990, we made a commitment to keeping that tradition. I stumbled onto the summit alone, after climbing for almost 18 hours, the last eight or ten hours alone because my partner just ran out of steam. Fortunately, because I was so on the edge, physically, mentally, spiritually, and even though you’re really running on instinct at those elevations, 28,200 feet, I still could recognize that standing on that very summit was an invitation to fall five to eight thousand feet, never to be seen again. So I stopped 10 feet away and the views were, as you can imagine, phenomenal. Although my feeling at that point was, “How do I get out of here?!” [Laughter]
One of the things that struck me in my time in Nepal and Tibet was the way religion is just a part of people’s daily lives. It’s not a separate activity. I remember when we were doing Mount Everest in ’94…
ele: You tried to climb Everest.
Rep. Udall: Yeah. We had sherpas on our team. Their respect for the mountain…we always had plenty of…pujas?
ele: Yeah, offerings.
Rep. Udall: Offerings. Rongbuk monastery, devastated during the Cultural Revolution, was famous for climbers. It was the approach to Everest, so every climber had to pass through it. 15,500 feet. It was ransacked by the Chinese. We were trying to do a little to help rebuild it. Solar panels, some money. And the monks came up from the monastery to do a puja for us. I remember a couple of occasions during the ceremony, one or the other of us would do the wrong thing with the offerings, we would sprinkle the barley flour over the rice or something. And the monks—they would just laugh.
ele: They didn’t freak out.
Rep. Udall: My sense with churches is it’s not always as relaxed and easy-going. That’s probably my bias. But it interested me, there, the way it’s so much a part of people’s lives.
ele: Well, in America, historically, our religions—Christianity, for the most part—have been very much a part of our community life. That seems to be changing. Religion is becoming a little more partisan…like many things.
Rep. Udall: Mega-churches have become popular, particularly in suburbia where you have 10 or 12,000 members. They’re like malls. They’re full-service communities. You have childcare, you have training sessions on all kinds of topics, you have the church itself, you have places to eat—you can spend quite a bit of time there. It says something about people’s need for community—but it’s also this American commercialism mixed with religiosity.
ele: It’s a little sad. I went to Sunday School in downtown Boulder when I was a kid. We’d get out of church, and we were instantly in the community. Come Easter, you saw people all dressed all over Boulder. It’s nice, mixing it up.
So, going back, why do you climb, if not to get to the summit?
Rep. Udall: Much like life it’s the journey, it’s what you learn on the way up. What you see from the summit informs how you live your life in the valleys below. I like that there’s one 14’er that I haven’t climbed because there’s always another mountain, always another goal. But in the end as much as I love lying on the summit of a 14er in the middle of July for hours or standing on one in the wintertime when it’s 30 seconds on the top and then you start to turn around and head back, it’s a reminder that life is about the journey, not the destination.
Without forcing it, I try to refer back to my Outward Bound experiences, and use climbing as a metaphor for life. I think if I return to the self-wisdom I hopefully generate and then apply that in my life, your relationships, with my children, with my wife and then in my work, I don’t think you can go wrong. How do you include these experiences back here in this other world? We used to say in Outward Bound that we’re out in the real world—climbing mountains, running rivers and traveling the deserts. It is a real world because if you make a mistake, you don’t pay attention, the injury is pretty harsh. But this is a real world as well. So it’s trying to blend those two.
I can be private. There’s nothing better I’d like to do to than be outside all day and maybe not say much at all. Be my own companion. Then I come back in this world and I may spend much of my day talking, and hopefully listening. But it’s those contrasts that make my life rich.
ele: There seems to be a lot of cynicism about government and about media—our basic institutions that have made America a fantastic country. On both sides: the Republicans think it’s a liberal media and the Liberals think it’s a corporate-owned media. Asking people in the weeks leading up to this interview what I should ask, I got strange reactions. A lot people said, “Oh, government.” Their attitude was, “There’s no point, it’s all corrupt.” Do you find in your personal experience that you have to make compromises you’re uncomfortable with?
Rep. Udall: I’m still learning. That’s the tension not only in the political realm, but in life: how you stay true to what you believe but also be respectful of other’s beliefs. That may be the definition of bipartisanship, and there is a lack right now.
ele: That certainly seems to be the impression. You have a reputation for being bipartisan, like Mr. McCain. Moderates seem to be a dying breed right now.
Rep. Udall: I think we are bordering on as much lack of respect, as much cynicism as we’ve ever had in our history—except for the Civil War.
ele: You’ve said that the red state, blue state thing is almost like Civil War talk. You were talking about how most states were actually purple states.
Rep. Udall: If you look at the major public policy initiatives in the country’s history, they’ve always had a measure of bipartisanship. In the end people had to set aside their own partisan beliefs. The Founders called them factions. They worried that factions would not remember that the country’s interests were larger. That’s where we ought to be putting our emphasis and our energy.
ele: A concrete example: what if I am in the House and I’m voting to drill in the Arctic, how do you relate to me?
Rep. Udall: It’s hard. But you always can find something in common with that person. Try to understand why they think that’s what we ought to do. And at the same time, fight to keep that from happening. It’s about trying to reach out, trying to explain why it is important not to drill in the Arctic, what the other options are. I’m going to work with that person or that group down the line. To scorch the earth over one difference, as strongly as I feel about it…when that vote was held, I felt physically sick. It’s such a mistake to reduce what we should leave our children, particularly given that we have other steps we could take that would fulfill that theoretical amount of oil we’re going to find there: by raising mileage just one or two miles per automobile, by aggressively promoting liquid fuel production from biomass, from grasses and wood products…The enzyme technology that’s now available will let you take wooden baseball bats and make fuel. But I’m not going to give in to those baser instincts—demonizing people—even though I disagree with some of the things that they think.
ele: That’s where long-term solutions are going to happen: can we learn to work together?
Rep. Udall: We have more in common than we realize. Part of what’s going on is there’s such a desire to hold onto power right now. People have lost track of the fact that it’s about how you use that power. And because the country is so closely divided, the stakes feel more magnified. There are significant threats facing us that have nothing to do with whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. There are also significant opportunities out there. We could create jobs, protect the environment and make the world a safer place if we pursued these energy alternatives.
So I guess, in the end, I’m an unreconstructed optimist. I can’t help myself. Most days, six out of seven, the glass is half full. Let’s try to make it fuller. That’s just who I am, constitutionally. The role models of my parents and others around me that give me that kind of inspiration.
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