Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Catching Up with Mitch

Selfie time with Mitch Daniels (right) (Purdue University/Alex Kumar)
A conversation with ex-governor Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University

West Lafayette, Ind.

Mitch Daniels is remarkably unchanging, both in his looks and in his views. You would recognize him at 100 paces. He looks basically the way he did when he was a Reagan aide. He thinks basically the same way too — one of the last of the Reaganite Mohicans. Today, he is president of Purdue University, and I’ve arrived at his office for a conversation.

Daniels has had a busy, multifaceted life. He was born in 1949, making him 70 today. He went to Princeton University and later to Georgetown Law. He worked as an aide to Richard Lugar, the longtime Indiana senator. Then he was in the White House, with Reagan. Leaving the White House, he headed up a think tank, the Hudson Institute. Then he worked as an executive for Eli Lilly, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company. In the first two and a half years of the George W. Bush presidency, he was budget director. In 2004, he was elected governor of Indiana. In 2008, he was reelected. A lot of people wanted him to run for president in 2012, but he declined. In January 2013, the day his second term expired, he became president of Purdue. Moreover, he started writing a column for the Washington Post two years ago.

“You must never be bored,” I remark to him. “I never have been,” he says, adding, “I’m gonna run out the string of jobs here sometime, and I hope to finish never having been bored.”

I imagine he likes being around young people. He does indeed. “That’s why I’m here,” he says, “as much as for any other reason.” He has long had a test of whether he will like or appreciate someone: Does the person in question like kids, and, specifically, other people’s kids? “Here I am,” says Daniels, “surrounded by 30-some thousand of other people’s kids. It’s certainly one of the top two or three joys of the job.”

I have read that he eats with them, in dorms, Greek houses, and other places. “I had dinner last night at a fraternity house.” I have read that he works out with them. “I’ll be headed to the gym after we talk.” And that he attends football games with them. “Football for me is a full-contact sport. I go around the stadium and thank people for coming. I always stop to see the band, and see the other team’s cheerleaders, and see what’s going on in the student section.”

All of this is both “fun and functional,” he says. He learned a long time ago that, while you respect the roles and authority of people working under you, you have to be in touch with the “ground level” yourself. There, you will get information you might not otherwise get, and it will be unfiltered. He has always encouraged his subordinates to follow Don Corleone’s rule: “Bad news first.” Sometimes, though, he doesn’t get it, but he is likely to get it from the consumer — as he did in his Eli Lilly days — or the citizen-voter — as he did in his gubernatorial days — or the student, as he does now.

During his tenure at Purdue, he has been known across the country for keeping costs down — and runaway costs are a scourge of collegiate life in general. When Daniels was White House budget director, Bush nicknamed him “the Blade.” He has been a blade here at Purdue, right? Daniels responds that he’s not sure he deserved the title in Washington or deserves it now. Maybe people give him too much credit. I suggest to him that Cap the Knife would say much the same. “I bet he would,” says Daniels. (Caspar Weinberger — later Reagan’s defense secretary — was budget director under Nixon, in 1972 and ’73. His nickname, “Cap the Knife,” was a play on “Mack the Knife,” the song from Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.) Nevertheless, says Daniels, he can point to areas, both in Washington and at Purdue, where “we were able to limit the amount of someone else’s money that someone was spending without good effect.”

Parents must appreciate him, I say, for fighting tuition creep. They are his current constituents, in a sense, along with students, their children. True, says Daniels, but don’t forget the alumni. They are appreciative too. He elaborates: Purdue, for all its academic excellence, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), is a public university. What’s more, it is a land-grant university. “This is not a place where the children of wealth and privilege have by and large come. It’s a place where the kid off the farm or from the small town or from the inner city has come.” Alumni, says Daniels, appreciate that the Purdue administration is looking out for the student and his ability to pay.

People at Purdue disagree about anything and everything, says Daniels, but one thing they agree on is: “We would like this place to be affordable and accessible to people who can meet our standards, no matter where they come from.”

How about political correctness? Is it a problem here at Purdue, as it is on so many other campuses, notoriously? “It is a phenomenon,” says the president, but not the problem it is elsewhere. “We have every stripe of opinion here — thank goodness.” Some of the opinions are extreme and strident. But, according to Daniels, no one is allowed to shut anyone else up. Free speech is emphasized, along with civil disagreement. In fact, these things are stressed during freshman orientation. The orientation includes skits in which students and faculty participate, “demonstrating how one expresses disagreement,” Daniels says.

In January 2015, the University of Chicago adopted its famous statement — the Chicago Statement — on freedom of expression. The ideas or rules therein are known as the “Chicago Principles.” They say, in a nutshell, that academic freedom will not be impeded, and that members of the community will carry out their work in a spirit of toleration and pluralism. Princeton adopted the Chicago Principles for itself. Then came Purdue. Daniels says he “xeroxed” the principles as fast as he could. Since then, almost 70 universities have followed suit.

It occurs to me to ask Daniels, “Did you feel free to express yourself when you were an undergrad at Princeton?” “Oh, sure,” he says. “Of course, at that time, free speech was a banner of the Left,” so “there has been a role reversal.” Back then, crusty college administrations were thought to be stifling free-spirited, left-leaning students. Many of those left-leaners went on to be stiflers themselves. Yet some of them still hold the banner of free speech aloft, and Daniels cites two of them: Professor Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, who was the driving force behind the Chicago Principles, and Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008. Both of them have been guests here at Purdue.

Daniels thinks that “this worm is turning somewhat” — that the speech-stiflers are losing ground, thanks to their ferocious excesses. I ask, “Are we seeing a righteous backlash?” “Tentatively, I think we do see one,” answers Daniels.

‘I stay away from partisan matters,” he says, referring to his Washington Post column, just as he does in his capacity as president of Purdue — “religiously.” He tries to find subjects off the beaten path. For instance, an October 2018 column was headed “I’ve Met People of All Stripes. I Have My Motorcycle to Thank.” That does not mean he doesn’t address governmental issues, however. And one of his favorites is the national debt: the red menace.

That comes from the title of a major speech he gave in February 2011: “Debt Is the New ‘Red Menace.’” The old one, Communism, could not destroy us, but the new one, red ink, well might — and the danger comes from inside our own house (and House). In my observation, no one in politics cares about this issue, in either party. It is indeed an “orphan issue,” says Daniels, a fact that concerns him greatly. “Look at the failed regimes of history. As often as not, this is what undid them. They took on obligations they couldn’t pay back and collapsed economically and societally. They were plunged into an emergency situation that they could not tax or otherwise oppress their way out of.”

In a long and eloquent sentence, he says that, before it is too late, he hopes we will see “a great act of political leadership and statesmanship” whereby “a person or a movement brings a consensus or a sufficient majority of Americans around to those steps that will be necessary — which because of our delay will be much more jolting than they needed to be — to keep us from going broke as a country.”

He believes that help can come from most any direction. From “some independent person,” for example. In “our now-fractured politics,” he says, “I think the door is more open than before to third candidates, third movements, third parties — something.” Yet, in a column last August, he called for a Democratic Nixon. Only Nixon can go to China, they used to say. Maybe only a Democrat can tame the monster of debt? Can persuade the public to beat back the new red menace?

A Democrat, he tells me here in West Lafayette, “enjoys favorable presumptions, just by virtue of the label. If you’re a Republican, the stereotype is you don’t care about ordinary people. I spent many years in public life working to refute that every single day. Yet it is a millstone. Conversely, Democratic candidates have some negative presumptions that attach to that label, but it’s assumed they have a heart of gold.”

Daniels does not like the word “entitlements” — at all — remarking that you will not find such a notion in our founding documents. But it is the accepted term, and will have to do, for now. Everyone knows, says Daniels, that entitlements are the drivers of the debt. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits — they are all “noble undertakings,” he says, and most of us can agree that there ought to be a safety net that keeps people from falling into the gutter. But if you let these noble undertakings “run away,” he says — go out of control — then you will not have enough money for the destitute, or national defense, or anything else that is vital.

I say to him, “Was Simpson-Bowles a good idea?” “Yes,” he says, emphatically, before I can get the complete sentence out of my mouth. He continues, “Was it the very best idea? No, because I don’t know what that is, and I’m sure there were other things that I might have done, or that someone else might have done, but . . .” “Was it better than what we’re doing now?” I interject. “Oh, my gosh,” says Daniels — yes.

“Simpson-Bowles” is a shorthand way of referring to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Obama in 2010, and chaired by Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democratic politician and university president from North Carolina who had been a Bill Clinton chief of staff. When their report came out, it was promptly rejected by both sides, Republican and Democratic.

This rejection was “such a wrong turn,” Daniels says. “We had a president who commissioned the report and walked away from it at the end, and I think that was such a shame. Erskine Bowles still has the best single sentence about the fix we’re in: ‘We face the most predictable economic crisis in history’ — meaning, it’s all there in the arithmetic.”

And talk about a Democratic Nixon, potentially: Barack Obama had “great field position,” says Daniels. He was in a position to say, “Look, we would rather we didn’t have to make some of these changes, but we need to do it in the interest of our children, in the interest of our future” — but no.

Sitting with Daniels, I return to the 2011 speech, the New Red Menace speech. He delivered it in Washington at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. On that occasion, the governor (as he was then) was introduced by George F. Will. When I mention this, Daniels smiles. CPAC had been asking Will to come speak, and he said he would be pleased to do so — provided they asked Daniels to speak and he could introduce him. “Since I believe he is the greatest journalist of our era,” says Daniels, “I have never found a compliment more gratifying.” He adds that he has read Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility, and now understands “what the term magnum opus means.”

In that speech, Daniels said that collapse would be, among other things, cruel — cruel to the poor. He emphasizes that point again today. Mitt Romney did much the same when he campaigned for president in 2012, to little applause. Daniels says, “If you want to know what I think the right set of answers is, I’ll be happy to tell you. But if we can’t do that, then I’m willing to hear second-best or third-best. I have no interest in standing in the rubble of our republic proclaiming ‘I told you so,’ or ‘You should have done it my way.’” Just bite the bullet and get it the hell done, in other words.

Writing in his column last October, Daniels quoted Jim Edgar, a Republican who was governor of Illinois for most of the 1990s: “Good government is boring.” Too true, says Daniels (although his friend George Will, introducing him at CPAC, spoke of the “charisma of competence”). Daniels believes there ought to be a consensus around one thing. You may think that government ought to be very careful about what it gets involved in, as he does. That it ought to be limited to its enumerated responsibilities. Then again, you may favor a larger, more involved, more expansive and more expensive government. But whatever it is, you should want government to work well.

“I was always preaching this to our folks in the state administration,” says Daniels. “One reason to do things well is that people paid for them, and they deserve it. A second reason is, we want them to have confidence. If we can actually get you in and out of a Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch, as we did here, in under ten or twelve minutes, if you have to go at all; if we send you your tax refund, which you have lent to the government at no interest, in a week or two rather than months; if we can build the roads we promised to build and never did — it will build public confidence that the gang can occasionally shoot straight. Then, when we come along with the next suggestion, people may listen to us a little more intently.”

Good government ought to be a good sell. But that’s not necessarily the case. Being a free-marketeer, Daniels believes that “incentives tell you almost everything,” in economics and other spheres — and “the incentives in politics rarely lead the practitioners, whether left or right, to concentrate on the kind of grungy work of making government happen and making it efficient.”

He and I talk a little about the two parties and the shrinking of their “tents.” The country seems more polarized by the day. And the parties’ presidential nominations are controlled by their “edges,” says Daniels. In a column last May, he wrote that candidates like to “massage the erogenous zones of extremists.” They like to “underscore the stark difference between Us and Them.” Here with me, he puts in a good word for the smoke-filled room, that much-scorned venue of yore. “Why were people in those rooms?” he asks. “What were they doing there? They were trying to pick someone who could win, and that meant someone who would have broad appeal.”

Daniels notes that, right this moment, many Democrats are “openly wringing their hands,” because they sense that the process might produce a nominee “with whom a broad majority could not get comfortable.”

At the end of our conversation, I pump Mitch Daniels for a Reagan story or two. He gives me one — one he has often shared, to illustrate something larger. In 1986 or so, somewhere out West, Reagan gave a speech that went like gangbusters. As the crowd cheered, Reagan left the stage and someone in the wings said, “Mr. President, sounds like they want an encore.” Reagan laughed and said, “Oh, no: The first rule of showbiz is, Always leave ’em wanting a little more.”

Everything ends sometime, Daniels observes, matter-of-factly. This job of his at Purdue, which he loves so much? It will end by and by. The question for all of us, he says — whatever it is we’re doing — is, “How do you want it to end? Do you want to go out like Sandy Koufax or Willie Mays? Now, I idolized Mays, but he played a few seasons that were not at all up to his standards.”

He continues, “If you’re fortunate enough to finish an assignment — I don’t care if it’s your first job or the end of your working days — if you’re fortunate enough to finish the assignment and you’ve still got your mojo and you haven’t run dry of good ideas and you’re leaving things in better shape — like they taught us in Cub Scouts: Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it — then that’s a cause for celebration, and that’s the way you want to think about it.”

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