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LaHood’s memoir focuses on working ‘both sides of the aisle’

The Honorable Ray LaHood
 

(The State Journal-Register) – For many people, serving in Congress would be lifetime achievement enough.

Add onto that an initiative to bring civility to an increasingly uncivil institution, service as presiding officer during the impeachment of a president, and a seat on the intelligence committee during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then throw in 4 1/2 years as one of just a handful of people who have served in the Cabinet of a president from the other party.

For Ray LaHood, all those experiences come together in a memoir due out later this month, “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics,” covering the Peoria native’s two decades of elected and appointed service.

“If you look at my tenure in Congress, you’re not going to find any major piece of legislation,” he said during an interview last month at the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, alongside co-author Frank Mackaman. “When you look at Ray LaHood’s record, you are going to be able to look at seminal things that took place during the time that I served” and instances where he was at center stage for some of the defining moments of the 1990s and early 2000s.

As the title suggests, the overarching theme is seeking comity and greater understanding between parties in the nation’s capital that seem farther apart today than ever.

“You can’t really get anything done unless you have relationships on both sides of the aisle,” LaHood said. “That’s the whole definition of bipartisanship.”

That’s the thread running through chapters starting with LaHood’s efforts through three bipartisan retreats to stem the tide of vitriol that pervaded Washington in the late 1990s. Though the initiative started big, it never attracted House leaders to make any substantial changes to how the institution operated, and colleagues gradually lost interest.

But it created a cause for which he became known, and he credits the endeavor for his Cabinet appointment.

“I think people recognized that if there was anybody that was bipartisan, it was Ray LaHood,” he said. “That wouldn’t have happened without our efforts at these bipartisan retreats.”

‘Team of Rivals’

The friendship he developed with then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel — later President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago — helped as well, and it was built on a foundation of bipartisanship, including shared dinners.

That carried through into his time as secretary of transportation.

“I think you can talk to any member of Congress that served during my time and they will tell you that we were as bipartisan as any Cabinet member,” LaHood said. “Part of it was because we had those relationships as a former member of Congress. But part of it was because I felt that’s what Obama wanted his Cabinet to do, not just be for one party but really try to make things happen in a bipartisan way.”

The book also delves into plenty of lesser-known topics.

Perhaps most substantial is the brief — and quickly extinguished — “draft LaHood” boomlet that cropped up while the lawmaker was presiding over the impeachment debate for President Bill Clinton in the House in late 1998.

Bob Livingston, the presumptive House speaker, unexpectedly announced his resignation in an emotional floor speech, and in the moments of chaos that briefly followed, a key House Democrat offered to round up support on his side of the aisle if LaHood wanted the speakership.

“I think that speaks more to the fact that … people viewed me as somebody who could be bipartisan and was fair and did do it by the book, by the rules, not giving an inch to either side,” LaHood said of the discussion that he quickly extinguished.

Hours later, fellow Illinois Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert emerged as the consensus choice.

LaHood also discusses his experiences in the Cabinet, where the promise of Obama’s election — a “Team of Rivals”-style panel of advisers similar to those described in the book of the same name about Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet — gave way to the political realities of day-to-day governing.

Cabinet meetings, for example, are scripted affairs, not freewheeling sessions to share ideas. And LaHood found himself overseeing a department with a massive task — spending tens of billions of dollars of stimulus money — while Obama’s focus was drawn to the economy and foreign affairs.

‘Living history’

The writing for the book also followed an atypical pattern. LaHood and Mackaman started in mid-2007, during the end of LaHood’s last term in Congress. Mackaman essentially drafted a series of interview questions for LaHood to respond to, creating a “living history” vibe to it.

“Ray set the agenda, and after the process he described, I would go back into the archives (of the LaHood papers, housed at the Dirksen Center) and try to bring support or illustration to the argument,” Mackaman said.

They picked back up after LaHood left the Cabinet and returned to private life.

The result keeps a conversational tone but is also replete with end notes citing specific sources for events, conversations, travel and more.

That allows the book to be used in college classrooms teaching students about the ideals of leadership, including at Bradley University’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service.

But LaHood hopes it also speaks to those who don’t yet know they’re interested.

“I don’t know if 25 or 50 years from now someone in Washington is going to want to look at some of these issues,” he said. “But if they do, there’ll be a book they can use as a resource.”

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