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Interview of Sean O'Keefe by David Zierler on July 17 & 19, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Sean O’Keefe, Professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. O’Keefe describes moving around as a child when his father worked for the Navy. He discusses his undergraduate work at Loyola in New Orleans, and he explains his interest in pursuing a career in public service in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era when there was much cynicism about working for the government. O’Keefe describes his participation in the Presidential Management Intern Program and his work for the Department of the Navy and after that, for the Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill, where he worked on budgetary policy against the backdrop of the Cold War in the 1980s. He describes his work at Comptroller for the Department of Defense where he worked on identifying budgetary waste at the Pentagon. O’Keefe describes the scene at the Pentagon during the Gulf War, and he discusses the opportunity that led to him becoming Secretary of the Navy. He describes his career prospects outside of government after George H.W. Bush lost re-election and the opportunity leading to his professorship at Syracuse University, where he mentored students in public service leadership. O’Keefe describes being named NASA administrator in the administration of George W. Bush and some of the challenges he encountered coming from a defense background. He discusses the tragedy and his strategy in dealing with the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, both in terms of lessons learned from the engineering failures, and the grief that he shared with the families of the astronauts who died. O’Keefe describes some of the ways he attempted to turn the disaster into institutional opportunity at NASA and its impact on the Hubble space servicing mission. He describes his decision to become Chancellor at Louisiana State University, where he focused on building up the school’s endowment, dealing with Hurricane Katrina, and working to keep LSU graduates in the state. O’Keefe describes his tenure as CEO of Airbus North America before returning to Syracuse to teach in his current position. At the end of the interview, O’Keefe reflects on what he has learned about organizational leadership over the course of his career, and what he tries to convey to his students as they prepare to become the nation’s next generation of leaders.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 17th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with the Honorable Sean O'Keefe. Sean, thank you so much for joining me today.
What an honor, David. Thank you.
All right. So, to start, would you tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Yeah. I'm a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I teach in the Public Administration Department and have an opportunity to do work in strategic management and leadership that is a great chance to really build core structure around those kinds of issues, as well as a wide range of public-management related issues overall. So I'm thrilled to get a chance to work with graduate students who have an aspiration for continuing public service.
All right. Let's take it now all the way back to the beginning, Sean. First, let's start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
Well, they were both born and raised in New Orleans and lived as kids not more than maybe a couple of blocks from each other-
-in the same part of what was called the Irish Channel of New Orleans, which was where all the Irish and German immigrants- they didn’t get quite as good billing on the name of the area as the Irish did- who all came to that area as a consequence of job opportunities and so forth. And a family joke has always been that largely it was because most of our ancestors couldn't tell their left hand from the right, and so when they asked where Boston was, they went the wrong direction (laughter) and ended up in New Orleans instead. But, anyway, several generations back legacy from there-
Did they know each other as children?
They did. They knew each other very well as kids. And, as the years went by and they graduated from high school. So, Dad was an engineering student at Tulane University. And after lots of discussion he finally decided at the very end of World War II that it was time that he enlisted in the Navy and did so. And, as soon as the war ended, he was offered an appointment to the Naval Academy. So he was the first of a long series of generations of O'Keefes in the City of New Orleans who left town and actually went off to the Naval Service. Spent a full career in the Navy, and he and my mother were married just after he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1949. They were married for, oh gosh, pushing sixty years before mom passed away. And dad just passed just a year ago. But they were inspirations. And we moved all over the country, exposed to all manner of different backgrounds and interests and everything by virtue of Dad's opportunities to explore a wide range of professional experiences as a submarine engineer, is what his primary avocation was. When he concluded his military service in the mid to late 1970s, he went off to an engineering firm right outside of New York that designed power plants and so forth. That was his interest 'til he was recruited some decade later to be the chief operating officer of the Bath Iron Works, a ship building company up in Bath, Maine, where he spent the balance of his professional career there. And he and mom, once they retired, had an opportunity to pick up and come visit all of us rather than us going to them over those years (laughter). But my parents were powerful influences on my interest in public service, dedication to the opportunities to serve communities and so forth in ways that really was, again, an inspiration and fulfilling a lot of aspirations for how to do that properly. And they inculcated a very strong sense of commitment in that regard.
Now, in terms of how often you moved, as a kid growing up, did you stay in the same place for long enough that you would identify any one particular area as where you spent your formative years?
No, not really. No. About every two years we were packing up and moving somewhere. I think the longest stint we ever had was a little over three. I still have a high school graduation ring from a school that I was in in Hawaii, in Honolulu. In my junior year, I asked my Dad, "Well, gee, should I bother buying a class ring?" And he said, "Absolutely. We're going to be here at least another year." Well, that's not the high school I graduated from (laughter). Then he was shipped off to Connecticut to be the supervisor of ship building there in Groton for the last tour of his career. But it was on that occasion- it was a very, very fortuitous move, as it turned out, the girl who lived right across the street from me is now my wife (laughter).
We got married well after I finished grad school, but we had stayed in touch for that last high school year. And, again, I've been married ever since, so it was an extremely fortuitous move that we made. But, yeah, we moved around a whole lot. And probably the closest place I ever identified with being from somewhere was New Orleans.
My parents still had very extended families there, both of them did. I think I was probably the better part of about twenty-five years old before I realized you didn't need to travel through New Orleans to get to anywhere else. You could bypass that. Every move, every station change, every whatever, we would pack up, go to New Orleans, and then head to wherever it was we were supposed to go thereafter. So it was a routine pattern. So I could be guaranteed that I'd be in New Orleans for extended periods of time at least every couple of years.
Now, in terms of foreshadowing to your own academic interests, did your father involve you in his engineering work? Did he share with you the kind of work he did and what it would take to become an engineer?
Oh, yeah (laughter). He tried mightily and failed at every step. I just had none of the genetic pass-on that he could've otherwise provided to really have an adaptation as well as any proficiency in the area. But I did develop an appreciation for much of the very precise determination that is required of such disciplines. And he motivated, I think, a strong sense of going about solving problems and issues in a very analytical manner. That was an approach, I think, that certainly served me well in terms of a disciplinary framework. But in terms of understanding and having a proficiency in any of the hard skills of what an engineer would require, I realized pretty early on that was not my natural inclination (laughter). Try as he might, but it nonetheless didn't stick with me. It did with one of my older brothers, but not with me along the way. So it was something that, having lived around it and grown up on a lot of shipyards and naval stations and so forth, it gave me an appreciation for an awful lot of the challenges that they were working with. I had privy to a lot of the discussions that he would have that I understood barely a fraction of (laughter). But I understood the imperative they were trying to work to as an outcome and appreciated the manner in which he went about doing that, with the very concerted, dedicated kind of focus that he did. But I guess that was around just the issue of just a broader commitment to national service that I found also very much appealing.
Sean, I'm curious, with all of the moving around and your emphasis on your parents' commitment to public service, in terms of becoming members of communities, they had to get good at that in terms of feeling at home, right?
So I'm curious, in terms of some the skills that you might've learned about building connections with people. What kind of things did your parents teach you, either specifically or just by watching them, in terms of how they were able to root themselves in communities, even if they knew that they wouldn't be there for very long?
Well, that's very perceptive. That was a focus they took to every single opportunity. I think the first step was, in order to remove any lingering anxiety among any of us, they had five kids and I'm the middle of the five, they always promoted the next move as a new experience, an exciting opportunity, something to look forward to. And not necessarily to say how much better it was from where you were to where you're going to go as much as it'll be a new experience. It'll be a new chance to get to know different people, different cultures, different ways of looking at things. And that became a powerful motivation to really engaging in those communities. And my mother was a perpetual volunteer for everything. Every Navy Relief Society program or whatever was going on within the community in which we lived, which involved all the basic kinds of things of rolling up your sleeves and getting involved and doing things that would advance everybody's life, whether it was- she got into Meals on Wheels and all this other kind of stuff. It was just an example of just kind of giving back something to being part of a community that you're in. And that was, again, a reinforcing focus. It was the very ethic that they started with. Both of them were from families in New Orleans that were very heavily engaged in their community, as well.
So, this was remarkable that you had two people, in my mind, and the more I thought about it as I got older and realized with maturity this, how challenging this must have been for them to have picked up from a place they knew very well, that everybody knew each other. It was just a classic kind of ethnic cultural neighborhood in which everybody worried about the people next door and, gee, do you have enough of this, that, and the other thing, and do you need help? All the things that the Ancient Order of Hibernians and everything else would otherwise provide. And, to boot, some of the elders of the ancestors were very active politicians. I came from a long line of folks who were involved in city politics, in the state politics, in the government structure of those communities in a way that I think certainly motivated them to look at that. But the fact they were able to pick up and move to places they had never dreamed to go was an element of being explorers that they found to be really quite energizing. And, as a result, it was less about not liking where they lived—they very much were tethered to the family legacy, as well, but they were very committed to the idea that every place you go to is a new opportunity. And that really helped a lot. And it did promote the notion of not only interest in what else was going on in your community but also a strong sense of volunteerism and engagement and so forth that made blending into new places much easier than it would've otherwise been.
And certainly you picked up some skills early on about how to deal with people yourself in new situations.
Sure. I mean, as a result of that. And it made my acceptance and willingness to look at new opportunities and new experiences in an entirely different way. It was not something I always looked at whatever the downside was. It was more to try to balance that relative to what you think would be intriguing and interesting to do, as well as potentially beneficial for something that could be a place to contribute.
As a result, I was open to any number of different ideas. My dad always taught me the basic principle that I guess every military officer learns as they move through. They rarely have complete control over where they go next, but, at the same time, they do have some influence over how to steer that a little bit.
And so he always adopted the adage of you never turn down a job that hasn't been offered to you (laughter). You don't know what it is that somebody might think you're qualified for that you would never have considered. And so he ended up doing some exciting things and involved in different dimensions of his selected discipline and avocation as an engineer that he looked back on and said, gee, I never would've imagined I'd have a chance to do some of the things that I had a chance to do. And I never dreamed anybody would think I was qualified to do it until they said, yes, you are, and so, therefore, this is where we'd like you to go. And I kind of found a way to adapt that to an entirely different kind of focus in the approach that I've taken to professional life, but it's served me exceptionally well. There are some things I've done that were only possible because I just let it play through to see whether there was really any qualification I could bring to an occasion like that, as opposed to using my own instinctive judgement that said, no, I'd never been qualified for that.
Chances are, yeah, that probably would've been true were it not for a lot of others who might've thought quite to the contrary. So, at least hearing them out and following that guidance and so forth it brought along, was really quite helpful, as well, and it made it feasible. Dad was also a very strong advocate of making a point to find mentors. Find people who you think manifest the kinds of leadership style or disposition or behavioral tendencies or collaborative approaches to how problems are solved, all those things, and find a way to be mentored by them. Make yourself handy to them. Make yourself accessible and useful to something they may be doing so that you get an opportunity to get a deeper insight on how that skillset works. And, again, that was another tremendous idea that he passed along that was enormously helpful throughout the course of my career.
Now, when it came time for you to think about colleges, did you have a specific family connection to Loyola or was this really an opportunity for you to go back to your roots?
Yeah. No, it was a combination of both. Loyola had family connections. There were several members of many generations who had been first of their family to go to college, in particular to go there. And it's a longstanding Jesuit institution there that, again, is also an interesting influence on the way I've looked at things as Jesuits are really incredibly challenging educators, I found. Their whole approach is not to be disciplinarians. In high school, I went through one high school that was a Christian Brothers High School, which they were pretty stern characters (laughter). These were folks that didn't tolerate nonsense and all of that, and everybody had to sit up and fly right and all that. But the Jesuits were entirely different. These are folks who would challenge you. They would force you to think about something. They would force you to understand why it is you think the way you think.
And they very, I think, constructively, taught the characteristic of discernment in a way that we have to really put together a lot of factors to figure out exactly what it is is the most logical approach and the most reasonable approach to move towards some objective and outcome or whatever else. And so, they were incredibly influential in that regard, as well, inasmuch as I never had aspired to be a Jesuit, that's for sure (laughter). But I certainly admired the way that they went about the educational process. It wasn't, here's the information, go memorize it, go repeat it back to me on a test and you'll do fine. No. This was something where they really forced you to put together a construct, analyze why you believed that was the right answer to it, and then justify that upon lots of interrogation (laughter). So, they were taskmasters of the highest order. And then, at the end, they'd tell you all about why you were wrong but at least they admired the fact you went through this thoughtful approach and know how to do that. And that motivated a lifelong kind of approach to that in myself, which, not only that, I attempted to apply as often as I could. And on the occasions when I didn't, I knew why it didn't go right, 'cause that's the way it inevitably worked out.
Now, when you were thinking about graduate school, were you thinking specifically MPA programs or that was one option among many?
That was a fascinating one. A professor I talked to at Loyola in my junior year, who was an unbelievable guy, most of the faculty at Loyola were not Jesuits. There were a few here and there that taught different things in different disciplines and so forth, but they were not exclusive. And among the most of the faculty who were not was a political scientist who was just a very accomplished guy who had been at Columbia and came to Loyola in the latter part of his career, in part because I think his wife had family in the area or whatever and he wanted to retire in the area or something like that, a fellow named Stanley Kelsky who I was really struck by. I thought he was really one of the more brilliant men and so forth that I had the privilege to learn from. And I went to him one day and laid out to him, here's my aspirations, I think. I'm looking at things in the public sector and want to be able to work through this. I'm not particularly interested in the politics of this and running for office and that kind of thing, not as a means to an end. That's not what I'm particularly fond of, but I do see the imperative of public service and the value of public contributions that you can make that, frankly, is towards an objective that's larger than yourself.
Something that means more than the remunerative value or something else that would be motivated with almost any other professional [pursuit]. And so, as I explained this to him and said, this is kind of my general aspiration of this stuff, he said, "Well, you only need to apply one place." I said, "What's that?" And he said, "You need to go to the Maxwell School at Syracuse University." He says, "This is the oldest school of public affairs in the United States. It is the one that has all of the scholars who are looking at the new field, at that time, that had only matured in the previous decade or two, the new field of public administration, public management, how to apply principles of management, leadership, and business construct to a public setting." And he said, "These are the exemplars in the field. It's the top-ranked school in the field. You needn't look any further than that." And I said, "Well, yeah, I do, because I probably won't be accepted” (laughter). So he said, "Okay," he got that, too. "All right. That's fair enough." But he said, "You have to apply."
And I did, thinking that was the longest shot in the world of ever getting in there. And got into a couple of other programs and was almost committed to heading off to a different one very late in the game, in the application and acceptance process, I think it was in late April or early May, the Maxwell School admitted me and said, okay, we're- and I finally realized I was one of the drag-alongs on the back of the admission process (laughter). They needed to round out the numbers for that year or whatever, and I just barely made the cut, but I did get in. And it was a really defining experience. It was something that made a huge difference. And it was all I had hoped for and everything that this sage professor at Loyola had told me it would be. And some of the most iconic figures of the field in the professional discipline were still at the latter end of their careers at the time but were still very much in evidence around the school, and I had a chance to learn from them. And they were remarkable people who just taught some of the principles of the basics of public management and administration of public interests through the efficient and effective means of delivery of programs in ways that I found to be quite energizing. And it has propelled me ever since. So it was one that I think put me in an opportunity to really compete well for entry-level kinds of opportunities and all that in the field that I probably never would've had the chance to do otherwise.
Sean, I want to zoom out a little bit and put your interest in public affairs against a broader backdrop of some of the things that were happening in the United States at the time. In terms of public service, coming off of the Watergate and the Vietnam years, and a lot of the malaise surrounding the failures of the Carter administration that Ronald Reagan certainly capitalized on in his campaign for President in 1980, it's an interesting time and a bit of an against-the-grain kind of time to be interested in public service. And so, I'm curious, as you were developing your own political ideology, your own ideas about civic engagement, looking at these broader areas where a lot of people are feeling cynical about civic engagement and public service, I'm curious if you ever thought in those macroscopic terms as you were defining your own professional identity in graduate school?
Well, that's a great question, and you've nailed it. Because most of those iconic figures I just got done extolling were people who had grown up in the Kennedy years in which everybody was called to serve, and it was viewed as an obligation and a commitment and so forth to go forward and do it. And I started graduate school in the beginning of the Carter administration and had very much the same mindset, that this was just the most challenging time to approach this. And it was one that was really quite difficult. And, again, all the events preceding, the Nixon resignation, Ford's efforts to really try to repair the standing of national leadership and so forth that was part of the campaign agenda that Carter used again him. And, ultimately, he argued, nonetheless, Carter did, for many of the principles of what I thought was required at the time. His campaign mantra was the right one, Carter, of this is all about managing the public's interests properly and being responsible about it and so forth. Then he proceeded to do none of the above(laughter). But it was at least an outline of it, so the thought wasn't wrong, the execution was poor.
And that's pretty much the atmosphere under which much of what I learned in grad school was couched in, was, it's not just a matter of getting the policy straight. Everybody could sit back and articulate this and finally coming to closure and get all the right collaborative methods to find what you think is the consensus view of how you define the objective and the outcome and what's good, what's not, and all that. But you're not going to get anywhere unless you've got a very solid implementation and execution formula that goes with that and have the persistence to do the blocking and tackling in order to make it happen. And that's what we saw played out in that latter part of that decade that the Reagan years brought in. And, in my mind, it was an interesting transposition, because I started in public service in '78 under a program called the Presidential Management Intern Program. It was a brand-new program. It was interestingly devised by a fellow named "Scotty" Alan K. Campbell, who was the last chairman of the Civil Service Commission and first director of OPM in the Carter administration. And he left the Maxwell School as dean to go do that.
So I didn't have an opportunity to be there during Campbell's tenure as being, but his legacy was legendary around the school as being a hands-on practitioner of so much of what was grounded in this high-end set of principles that the school had made a reputation for being able to develop. So I came into that experience by applying for a program that nobody ever heard of before only on the encouragement of someone who, I'll never forget, when I saw a poster on this that said, "Apply for this program," et cetera, it was a two-year internship thing and a fellowship in the federal experience and all that stuff. And, as I was looking at the advertisement for this thing, the question I got was, "Well, do you plan to apply?" And I said, "No. I could never be admitted to this. I don't have a chance in hell of being admitted to that program." And the answer I got was, "Yep, that's absolutely right. If you don't apply you won't be accepted into it” (laughter). So ,the encouragement was, go do it. And to this day, I still don't know how the hell I got in, because it was a very small class of 200 folks who were selected from graduate programs across the country and brought into federal service in relatively lower-end, mid-grade kind of jobs, and spent two years just kind of getting exposure to decision-making process and how things actually, you know, how the faucets got made. And, again, I'm reinforcing the view of what I'd learned from my Dad, the value of mentorship. I had a guy who was my direct supervisor, if you will, who made a multitude of experiences available to me over that two-year period. It would've equated to ten years of experience.
But I had a chance to work at- and, interestingly, it was in the Navy Department. Of all the places that I could've gone and offers that had been made, I kind of went from no job offers to a multitude of them once I got accepted in this program. It was unbelievable. But it was a whole range of different ones. And the one that came in that was most persuasive was this Navy truck command job that was a third-tier kind of organizational set up within the Navy Department for which the direct report that I would be working with laid out this path of professional development that I could do over the course of the next two years. No other job offer I had in the program as a presidential management intern had anything even remotely like that.
Most of the rest of them said, there's your desk, pick up your pencil, you're going to go do the following thing, and shut up and sit down and listen, we're going to tell you all about it. And whatever you learn in the next two years, that'll help you for the rest of your time. This guy took an approach of saying, no, no, no, this is something where I want to develop an analyst coming out of this who can have a broader exposure and understanding to the full range of influences of what contributes to the outcome we're trying to push.
And he says, "I'm not trying to get the outcome I'm looking for; I'm trying to have you understand how that gets made, how that gets derived." So I spent, in that two years, time within the Navy Department, within the Defense Department and the Pentagon working in the office of the Secretary of Defense in the division dealing with all the resource management side of the equation. Went to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House staff for a period. Ended up on Capitol Hill for several months working for a member of the Senate who was on the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. So it all fit exactly right. And so, after that two years, it wasn't a whole lot of this process I hadn't gotten at least some measure of understanding of how, soup to nuts, how that went through the phasing and how it could be derailed at any number of different levels, or reinforced at any number of different levels-
-as well as understanding what the different dynamics were of how each of those organizations had their own pressures, objectives, influences on them. How they had to perform, et cetera, in ways that were really quite uniquely different. There was nothing, no sameness about any of it. And that was fascinating because, in a lot of ways, again, it was part of that great upbringing of being adaptive to damn near any environment made it really quite attractable to learn as much as I could from it. So I felt like I, again, crammed ten years' worth of exposure into two, that just broadened that opportunity. And, when it was over, I was offered the opportunity to stay at the Navy Department as a career public servant, as a GS grade capacity, and stayed there for a year when, out of the blue, I got a call from somebody I had worked for in the Pentagon who said, "Gee, I just got a call from folks on Capitol Hill and working on the Senate Appropriations Committee who are recruiting new staff members. And they asked for somebody who would be young enough that they wouldn't mind working dog hours, that wouldn't mind not making a lot of money at it and would have the capacity to do anything I told them to do." And he said, "And I thought of you first” (laughter).
(Laughter) And, Sean, you're a bachelor at this point so you don't have any of those other concerns, you could just go jump into this?
Oh, no. Oh, no. I'd been married- Laura and I got married right after I finished grad school-
-right as I started the Presidential Management Intern Program.
So, she and I were living in Washington, brand new place. Neither one of us had ever lived there. And it was two years, almost three years later this opportunity came out of nowhere, and it was all consequent to having been through this series of experiences that this really extraordinary mentor, who I had worked for at the Navy Department, had made available. And, when an opportunity came up- so you're looking for somebody with this composite sketch? I know just the stooge who'd take it (laughter). That was me. It was really quite a mind-bending experience to then move over to the Capitol Hill side of this and work on the Appropriations Committee for what amounted to then the longest stint I've ever spent anywhere. I was on the committee staff for eight years and worked in a variety of different staff analyst roles, and then became the staff director of the subcommittee in the last few years that I was there. And it was really quite an amazing experience in that sense. And, again, also influenced by another mentor I came to work with a lot, who was chairman of the committee, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska-
-who was a guy who really had a profound impact on the way I looked at the nature of what we were doing. I mean, this was a guy who was the ultimate example, in my mind, of what you hope your elected officials would be as public leaders, is to think of their community, their constituency, their country first, and their own objectives and aspirations as an afterthought that would otherwise follow if you were successful with the first part. And he was really quite a powerful influence in that respect. And he had a way of treating his staff and those around him in a way that we used to often, among us as staff members on the appropriations staff, would always say, yeah, working for Ted Stevens is- the upside is he treats you like family, the downside is he treats you like family (laughter). It was quite an experience and it was a great opportunity in that sense.
So, anyway, that was a long digression into that. But it was, nonetheless, something that does kind of respond to your initial question of how did my focus change or at least align relative to the policy imperatives of the backdrop of that time. And I guess the short answer to that diatribe is that I was exposed to some extraordinary folks who embraced leadership in the sense of providing professional development opportunity to the advancement, not only of the individual, but also to the organization as their greatest contribution they could make. That everybody's going to be a whole lot better in the place if the way you treat them can accrue advantage to the individuals themselves, but also to their role and their contributions collectively which you can achieve. And that was an entirely different thing, what that backdrop was all about, which was distrust in government and all the other things that were swirling at the time. That's part of what Reagan capitalized on in his election bid, was that sense of real disappointment in the capacity of public leadership to fail before.
And that was the accent that I grew up under, if you will, in the formative phases of my career that was quite opposite of what an awful lot of others walked away from. And the other final point, I guess, would be that what I also found was that it is periods like that, when there is really a low ebb of what the standing of public service is all about, a real distrust of public leaders, a disappointment in the results of what this democratic experiment is all about, and how it failed to come together in the manner in which it should and could. Those are the times when it needs people to be committed to its objectives more than ever before.
When things are rocking and really going and it's all moving in the right direction, that's terrific and it's great for the collective and good for the individual, but it isn't as imperative that the people who are associated with it be deeply committed to its outcome and its purpose, and its broader goal, and can crystallize in their mind that, whatever you do each day will have some impact on others. And so the only thing up to you is whether you want it to be a positive impact or one that was negligent and therefore not as good as it could've been. If you come to the job with that view, you have an entirely different way of, each and every day, taking on some of those challenges with commitment and with the real belief that, if it weren't for the effort you will be asked to put in, it might have a different outcome.
Sean, I want to ask specifically about your work for Defense Appropriations against the backdrop of some of the bigger things that were happening in terms of President Reagan's military spending, things like SDI. How much did that affect the day to day of your work on the hill in terms of national policy, and how much of it was just, this is sort of the things that have always been going on in defense appropriations?
Oh, that's an insightful question, but it requires at least a couple of dimensions to it. I think the first one is that, as an institution, what I came to learn was that the Congress is its best nonpartisan and, to the extent that it is partisan, its bipartisan best in processes like appropriations. And, as a matter of fact, quintessentially with appropriations. In part, because folks say, well, yeah, it's about the money and it's about the resources and who wins and who loses and all that. Yeah, that's part of it. And I don't want to denigrate that or dismiss that. That would be inaccurate. But, more powerfully, the thing that I've learned in the course of this is that there was, at that time and always had been before, an imperative that something be produced, a decision be made to move forward on this. Because the absence of a decision was worse. And the mindset was that, each and every year, the only bill that you could always absolutely, positively count on is enactment of an appropriations measure. If we failed to do it by date certain, everybody runs out of money and the show's over. Everything quits. Well, what we've discovered in the last decade or almost two, is new and creative ways to make that axiom untrue (laughter). Okay? It is just asinine that we've created this situation. But, nonetheless, at that time, it was a powerful motivation that said, we must reach a conclusion. This isn't a choice. And that's Democrats, Republicans, didn't matter who you were. Everybody was aligned behind the proposition that said, this has to happen because if we fail to perform, that will reflect poorly on our public responsibility, on our failure to govern properly, and our constituencies won't forget that. And that was the motivation at the time. And so, God, what an entire, quaint different world it is from today.
But it's the one that had persisted for generations beforehand and gotten even more profound. So, as a consequence, every issue of any significance ultimately was magnetically drawn to the appropriations process, anything of controversy, anything that had to be settled. Otherwise, you'd get folks out there dreaming up bills, having committee meetings and passing measures in committee and so forth that ultimately would go nowhere if it was overly controversial. They'd all be tabled somewhere along the way in either chamber or whatever, and it never would see the light of day. Appropriations had to happen. So, as a consequence, everybody with anything that mattered showed up to make sure they attached it to the appropriations measure as a means to assure some movement, if not resolution, to whatever that issue was. And so, it did attract a wide range of different debates and arguments relating to policy matters that were important, that were of some significance. But that, nonetheless, is the second feature of this whole thing that was really quite instructive, because the first part was the sense of duty and responsibility that you must produce a product. You can't say, oh, this is too hard. Let's wait for a better day. No. That's taken away from you. You must reach some conclusion on it. And it wasn't like one chamber or the other believed one way and the other one didn't, this was a unified view on both sides of the aisle in both chambers. And the attitude was, we must produce something here.
And then, laid on top of that, the dynamism that were no different than we see at any other juncture in our history. There are always seminal differences of view of how we want to go about doing this. And it all depended on not only the construct of- the SDI was highly controversial, no question about it. But it was also one that carried with it a lot of- it was designated as a message to those who otherwise would seek to threaten us that, if they could do that, if those Americans can innovatively come up with something like that, imagine what else they could do, should we compete.
And that was the view that ultimately has been ascribed to the basic resignation on the part of the Soviets to say, we can't match up to this anymore. We gotta find a whole different way to do this. We can't just do this force on force anymore. These characters are way too—Americans are way too creative at figuring out new and harder ways to do some of these things that we can't compete with. And that was part of the philosophy of the time, and it worked. And the way that history played out, it was a huge contributor, something like that. Was it technically feasible? I mean, you can argue that until the cows come in. Had they not started trying at that time, it's arguable that we wouldn't be in a position today where we are of technology development and all the things that have spun out from that. But, in terms of was it a strategic kind of choice, the answer was, positively. This was something that I have no doubt—no firsthand knowledge, but I have little doubt in my mind that debates at the highest levels of the defense leadership and within the White House at that period were largely over—when everybody would raise the question of, can we really do this or not, the answer was, whether we can or we can't, we have to at least appear as though we might (laughter). And that proved to be pretty powerful. And certainly even the thinnest of arguments in that direction proved to be true.
Sean, you were witness and part of real bipartisanship, which today almost seems like an ancient relic, right?
So, to what extent, from your vantage point, is that characterization of how far we are away today relative to your tenure on the hill, how much of that is a caricature and how much of it do you think is real in terms of how far away we've moved from productive bipartisan cooperation on the most important issues?
Sadly, I think it is more real than it is simply a caricature. We've gotten to the stage where, somewhere along the way, the attitude was drilled home that party matters more than the policy belief and principles and everything else that goes along with this as a backdrop to actually serving the public.
And are you ecumenical in your blame of both Republicans and Democrats being responsible for that?
Absolutely. I mean, I think it was a decline over the course of- incrementally over periods that has just diminished that sense of duty, that first and foremost, the objective here is to serve the public. Now, how you argue that and how you debate those issues and so forth is a matter, of course, of where you come from, what your mindset is, what your principles are, what you believe to be inviolate propositions, all that. But it doesn't say you then get the opportunity for everybody to force a Maginot line stalemate for which nothing happens.
That suddenly became- I shouldn't say suddenly. It incrementally, over that period of time, has become acceptable, which is a real abandonment of duty and responsibility of public accomplishment. Now, that said, I mean, every time I wander into this kind of dimension of a discussion, I'm always reminded that when I first got to the Appropriations Committee staff, there were a lot of veterans, staff guys, who wandered around who would talk about the good old days and back when this used to happen and that happened and all this stuff. And now, oh, God, this is really something. It's all degraded. And I try to remind myself of that regularly, that my view of that was, gee, time has kind of passed me by.
So I've realized that I don't want to go too far into this because, lest I succumb to sounding just like the same guys that I remember thinking were, oh, gee, you've gotten tone deaf on what's going on around you. I'm sure there's an element of that with me, too. So I hate to be too judgmental an awful lot on what's happened since then. But it, nonetheless, certainly seemed to have made a real break. And it happened by degrees. And there were any number of different issues that came up that I think prompted that change in the politics, not just of the way the Congress behaves or the way national politicians or local, for that matter, politicians behave. I think it was a change in our own public psychology of this, and much of that has changed. You can map against this a very strong kind of rise of individualism, more of a focal point on individual rights versus individual responsibilities, all those different culture patterns within our society I think have occurred at that same period, and have contributed mightily to this particular circumstance of what's involved. And I'm always reminded, too, that, in the end, when people rant and rave about how members of Congress are idiots and they don't know what they're doing and all that stuff, say, look, there's only one collective of people that are responsible for this, and that's when we look in the mirror every morning. It's us! We're the ones who sent them there.
And don't ever be surprised when people act exactly as you expect them to. They are representative of who we are, whether we like it that way or not. And if we don't like the outcome, then we have a responsibility to go change it. It isn’t a duty on their part exclusively to change their habits. They're simply parroting what we told them, when we insisted on what they do. And it's demonstrated time and time again that members who will return to their district, return to their state, return to their city, whatever it is, and say, gee, I think we ought to go this way, and I know that's antithetical to what the popular view is here, they often find themselves ushered out. Unless they're really good at compelling people to see a different way of looking at the problem, and that's hard. I mean, you're counting on charisma on the part of some of the public leaders that often isn’t there. They are there because there's a constituency that said, we want you to vote this way, you're going to believe the following things. Represent us, and if you fail to do so, we'll find somebody else who will. And then, how the hell can we be surprised when it happens just like that? (laughter)
So a lot of that is kind of hand and glove, I think. It is partly the collapse or decline of the institutional levers of enforcement within the Congress, within the executive branch, et cetera, that have occurred over these past couple of decades. But it's also, I think, a function of how we have changed as a culture, and that contributes to where we are. And I think if we try to just solve one or the other dimension of this, we're missing the opportunity to make real transformational change.
Sean, how did the opportunity come about to become comptroller at DOD, and did you view this as a logical next step in your career path, or was this really a quantum leap in terms of responsibility, particularly in regard to your relatively young age?
Yep. Yeah. I was twenty-nine years old when I became the staff director on the Appropriations Committee. I never imagined that would ever be possible. But I was thirty-three when the opportunity came up to be the comptroller. And part of that was the way it came about was when George H.W. Bush, the 41st President, was elected, there were several- I guess his original nominee to be Secretary of Defense was- geez, I just lost it for a second- John Tower, the former senator from Texas who has been chairman of the Armed Services Committee and, God rest his soul, a really difficult fellow (laughter). Let's just leave it that way. And he was brilliant but kind of a hard guy to deal with in a lot of respects. Certainly principled, all those things, but, at the same time, he was a very difficult customer. He failed confirmation. Today, I mean, this kind of stuff happens all the time, and you see it routinely occurring. At that time, this was an earthquake. This was the first time a President's nominee of a position of that significance was denied to confirm the appointment. And it was very, very unusual, certainly not unprecedented, but it was very unusual for that to happen. And, when it did, it was a complete sea change from all of this.
The answer from the administration when that unimaginable proposition occurred, even a guy who was as challenging as John Tower, there was a whole bunch of reasons I think he failed confirmation, but among them was the fact that he was just one of these people that a lot of his colleagues just really did not respect him. And it was a very difficult situation, but it was one that ultimately turned on that point. So the answer from the new Bush administration at that point was to bring in and nominate Dick Cheney, of all people, who, at that time, had an entirely different reputation. And, even during the course of his tenure as Secretary of Defense, as the one that has developed since his vice presidency. So almost suspend this belief and go back to that period of time and look at the way he was publicly admired as the proverbial adult in the room.
This was somebody who exuded credibility. And I didn't know him well, but I knew enough of him, having sat in lots of House-Senate conferences on various appropriations measures to get to know and watch his style, which was very deliberate, extremely unemotional, very thoughtfully derived. And he would find coalitions of members and, at that time, had an extreme art for working both sides of the aisle very effectively, and was really quite adept at it. Some of his strongest colleagues and advocates over there were on the opposite side of the aisle. And it was his manner, how he did things, and it was extremely compatible with my own sense of things. So, my name was surfaced to him after he was confirmed as somebody to be recruited to be part of his team in the early going.
And so, on the day he was confirmed, I was summoned over to the Republican Whip's office, which was what he was in the House, he was the Republican Whip of the House at the time and went over to his office thinking, he's got an amendment on something and he wants me to make damn sure that my leadership knows this is something that's important to the House or whatever. And I walked in and he said, literally, we were sitting there watching the confirmation vote for the Secretary of Defense, and the votes were coming in and he, seeing them roll up, and he says, "I want you to come on over and join me. I'd like to nominate you to be the comptroller of the Defense Department." And I said, "Geez." So this was a chance to come in as one of the first three folks who were appointed in the administration at that time and confirm and so forth in jobs that would help drive that agenda on behalf of the Secretary of Defense and the President in his capacity, as well, to move the national security agenda forward. And I thought, you don't pass up an opportunity like that one.
And it was strictly by virtue of the fact that I had spent enough time in the appropriations business, there were enough people in the community that knew who I was and said, yeah, he can count to twenty without taking his shoes off and all that stuff (laughter). So, at least I had some currency among the folks that were there that deemed that as important. And even a lot of the folks who were part of the Tower group that did not come in were ones who, when the Tower nomination failed, and they were looking at key jobs and asking them who the people that ought to be in whatever capacities, apparently, my name was usually circulated among that collective in this kind of capacity. So, it was an exact fit. It was the kind of thing I'd been doing. I knew the organization, had spent enough time working with a lot of people in it. As a matter of fact, had spent a very brief time working in that very organization when I was in that Presidential Management Intern program ten years earlier, so found myself coming back over to run the office in a way that was quite a seminal time to go over there and be part of that.
And, Sean, did you go in with a specific mandate to identify wastefulness in the DOD? And I ask that against the specific backdrop of, when you started, the Cold War was beginning to unravel but, of course, it wasn't complete at that point. So I am curious if the changing security framework was part of the imperative to identify wastefulness or redundancy in DOD programs?
Not really, no. This was an agenda item that the President certainly was very supportive of and something he had talked about, of trying to improve the management and focus of the National Security Organization overall. And that was a big deal to him. But the guy who really championed that within the administration in the early going, who was one of those first three people who had been confirmed, was the deputy secretary, Don Atwood, who had come out of General Motors. He had been vice chairman there. And he came in with this portfolio of, I'm going to look at the management structure of this organization and really concentrate on its efficiency, how to make it more effective, how to get the most out of what we can achieve here, eliminate redundancies, all those different things. And so he came in with that agenda as a very dominant mindset of where he wanted to go with much of this, and he was the guy that Dick Cheney looked to to say, you bet, make sure the trains run on time in this place. I'll take care of dealing with my old colleagues on Capitol Hill and the White House folk and the public communications plan and all those other things. And, yeah, I want to get involved in the management, but you've got the primary responsibility for steering it, is what he told him. So, I ended up spending every bit as much time with the deputy as I did with the secretary on a variety of issues.
And, when I came in, it was six months before the Berlin Wall fell. So the Cold War was not at its coldest or its most frozen at that point, but it certainly wasn't seeming to abate a bit. If anything, the same strategy that had served the department well and the nation well over the previous four decades was still the mantra of the day. I mean, here it is. These are the structures. This is how many divisions we need, how many carriers we gotta have, how many air wings ought to be out there, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff. And the only room for maneuvering there was how much more or less efficient you could be, and that's where Don Atwood as the deputy secretary felt like that could be a great combination with me. So, for that first six months, we were really focused on that a lot, and engaged in what he called and then [what] they labeled the Defense Management Review and went through all this stuff. And that was my early indoctrination to all of the structures, programs, everything else we were doing, it was to just drive that out.
So, as much as I had some, certainly, commitment to that by virtue of my own academic as well as professional training all the way through up to that point, this was clearly Don Atwood's initiative and the one that he drove and was the catalyst for. I didn't carry that one with me to advocate that agenda item coming in the door. But I found myself quickly right in the middle of it, and actually steering big pieces of it, too. In November of 1989, all that began to change. You know, when the Berlin Wall fell and everything else accelerated and the pace of reunification of Germany, all these things happened, and the Soviet Union ultimately just imploded. All of that happened in such a dizzying, electrifying manner in which it defied the principal that everybody in the community, not just on this side of the Atlantic but across the pond, were convinced that this would take years to actually unfold. And, instead, it happened, like, immediately, within eighteen months much of that was happening in ways that were really quite profound.
And the argument was spooled up in a big way on Capitol Hill that, wow, this is an opportunity for a peace dividend and we could harvest all these savings from defense and stop buying all these weapons of mass destruction and all that stuff, and go spend it on things that are more noble. And this was a freefall. It was like a decline to the bottom of the pool if you weren't going to be careful. And, concurrent with all this, one of the really most influential leaders who was appointed at the time, as well, was in September of that year, just two months before the Berlin Wall fell, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Colin Powell. And so this became an incredibly dynamic leadership team, between Cheney, Powell, Don Atwood. It was just an unbelievable period in which all the stars aligned and, in sharp contrast to, again, the modern interpretation of the Bush 43 presidency, in which they served as well, during that time, Cheney and Powell were inseparable. They saw things very, very similarly. They were closely aligned. They didn't replicate the other guy's skillsets. Powell was clearly a guy who respected the authority of the Secretary of Defense. You're in charge. But he also viewed his responsibility as the President's senior military advisor to be every bit as important as being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And so he was not a lemming in that sense, he was a real participant in it, and very vocal about how to go about doing it. And he was one of the guys that resisted the wholesale decline within the defense establishment more strongly than most, because he basically realized this was going to be a replication of exactly the same thing we did post-Vietnam. And he had very haunting memories of what that was like, being a very junior officer in the post-Vietnam era in which it was just, morale was deplorable. The condition of the force was awful. The capabilities were in the tank, according to him. I mean, it was a pretty authoritative testimonial to this stuff coming from a guy like Colin Powell.
So it was a very dynamic period, and that's what contributed to all these features. And the way that we came out of that in which the administration, the President advanced an agenda that was cohesive and actually worked its way through was a testimonial of how successfully those guys worked together and motivated all of us to be part of that strategy and that focus.
Sean, in what ways did the Gulf War present you, with regard to your mission, with challenges and opportunities?
It was unbelievable. It was, like, put the whole damn reset of the global dynamic on hold for a minute so we can go fight this situation. It was a surreal experience. I mean, it was just incredible. I'll never forget on August the 2nd sitting in what was called a Defense Planning Board. It was all the senior folks in the department, so the top fifteen or so, going through a variety of different issues and so forth. The deputy secretary was always the chair of that. And sitting there in that conference room going through all this, and Secretary Cheney had come in to be involved in it because of the nature of the topic at the time. We were looking for strategy focuses and whatever else. And, in the middle of it, he was called out of the room and came back fifteen minutes later and said, "The Iraqis have just decided that it's a great time to rename Kuwait Province 19."
And it was stunned silence in the room. Everybody just was—and the only hint of this was in the twenty-four to forty-eight hours earlier, the intelligence reports had been that the Iraqis were massing at the border and so forth, but they had done that multiple times back in the- this was right immediately after the Iran-Iraq War, that had lasted for a decade, ended. And their usual method was to line up at the border and just position themselves, and then just sit there forever. And it was unimaginable that they would just say, oh, no, today's a good day to go. Pull the rip cord and come on it. And just everything got put on the backburner at that point, where everything had to be refocused on how the hell are we going to respond to this, particularly after the next few days in which the President made it quite clear that this was simply not something that we could sit back and tolerate in this evolving period of the New World Order, as it was labeled at the time. And the collapse of the Soviet Union and no longer a bipolar kind of dynamic that was going on, the President knew damn well this was something that really required a US concerted strategic focus.
And what evolved out of that was just- it was just eye watering to see the incredible capability of various leaders to forge all these international consensus and collaboration agreements to then develop a force that would, in turn, if need be, if the Iraqis refused to yield, actually sponsor and mount a very aggressive effort to liberate Kuwait. And that was exactly what the President did, and he was very, very clear in what he wanted to do and how he wanted to articulate it. And he was the first actionable officer among all of them to actually get on the phone and call every leader within the alliance structure and say, this is all the reasons why we need to do something about this. And they joined him and enthusiastically. So, it was a different way of coalition building and all that stuff, and things that were just quite different than what had been practiced in the Defense Department up to that point. And, yet, at the same time, it all melded quite impressively during that period. So it was a seminal time. I've looked back on that on many, many occasions in that period on the fact that there are often periods of time in your life when you look back and say, boy, in looking at it now, I realize that was really a pretty big watershed moment.
And reflecting backwards, I now see its context and so forth. Now, in this case, this was something we knew we were going through one of those moments while we were there. At the time it was happening, everybody engaged in this in any dimension realized this was a really big moment. And so, therefore, it was almost like instant sobriety strikes, realizing the consequences of what you do every day is going to matter a hell of a lot, not just in terms of the impact on the little issue you're dealing with, on the broader scheme of things, because it's all moving so transformationally right before your eyes. And it was something that everybody had had an acute awareness of. I found that stunning to see so many leaders that I was privileged to be around who recognized that's precisely what was happening. And, therefore, this is not something we're going to sit back and reflect on another time. This is something, while you're doing it, you'd better be really solid on making sure you're going in a direction that everybody can support. It was interesting.
Sean, same kind of question for Secretary of the Navy. First, in your position as Acting Secretary, how did that opportunity come around? Was the President personally involved in this decision—
—and was this also yet another quantum leap in terms of seniority relative to your young age?
Yeah, it was pretty wild in the sense that, yes, the President was involved, but the mechanism by which it occurred was the Secretary of Defense called me on my intercom and said, in his usual tone, "Have you got a few minutes to come down and see me?" As if ever the answer to that would've been anything other than, "Yes, of course, sir” (laughter). And I said, "Well, yes, sir, of course. I'll be there in seconds." And I always had a pad of paper on the side of my desk that had every issue, if you look back on Cheney's schedule or mine at that time, there were several occasions in which there were structured, formal meetings in which it was calendared as meeting with the Secretary of Defense or meeting with he and a bunch of other people, whatever. But most of the meetings I had with him were never on the calendar because it would be that way. He'd call and say, "Can you come on down and talk to me for a few minutes?" And the discussion would always center around one issue that he had in mind, but he also had a list of stuff that he wanted to- nitnoid issues that weren't worth the time to make a meeting out of it all by itself. And say, I want you to look at this thing, go call that guy, go take care of this issue, and whatever, but, oh, by the way, the central issue is this one. And I had the same thing. I'd have things that I'd say, gee, that was a great opportunity, when I'd get called impromptu for these things I'm going to tack up all these different issues that are kind of awaiting decision and see if I can prompt an answer now or get a direction or whatever the issue was.
So, I had my little laundry list of things that was always revised and extended from each one of these sessions that I would pick up immediately and take with me knowing that, whatever his agenda was, I'd get a chance to introduce mine. So, I walked in thinking it was going to be the same kind of thing. And he always conducted business in his office around this small table right to the side of where his big desk was that seated exactly four people. And he'd sit on one side of that and whoever the others were would come in, and usually it was just he and I, or he and I maybe his exec or chief of staff or somebody. And I walked in. He motioned to sit down as he always did. I had my little laundry list and I was ready to hear whatever his issue was so I could plow through mine. And he looked at me and said, "I only have one thing on the agenda for you. You need to pack up and get yourself ready"—it was a Friday—"to be ready on Monday morning to report to the fourth deck of this building, and you're now going to be the Secretary of the Navy." And I said, "Excuse me? (laughter) Was there somebody else that was supposed to be sitting here? Did I come in and usurp—" He says, "No. You're the guy. I know where you live. I know you'll deal with the issues because I'm going to tell you what the agenda's gonna be." The President really cares about this. He supports you in that job. That's where you're gonna go on Monday morning." (laughter)
(Laughter) I said, "Okay," in the highest voice I could possibly muster, as in holy catfish, you know. And just a matter of days beforehand I knew something was swirling because my friend Larry Garrett had resigned as a consequence of all the failures of the Tailhook Investigation, which was just an absolute blemish on everything. The reason the President cared was because he had been a Naval aviator himself.
He was deeply involved in this one, but not from a hands-on, I'm going to tell you what to do kind of view. I never got any rudder instruction ever from the President of United States calling up saying, standby for the President. He's going to tell you what to do on this thing. No. I don't know how this recent set of issues, I don't recognize any of that. That would've been the farthest thing from George Bush's mind, would be to pick up the phone and tell somebody what to do for something transactional like this. And his view was, no, you put the right people in the right kind of capacities, confident that they're going to do what you know they think is the right thing to do because you told them what the right thing to do is as a general proposition. And that was the same attitude Dick Cheney had, and that's the way it went. So, while I met with him on a lot of occasions, it was very informational. He didn't ask a lot of questions and there I was. If there was any direction I was going, I got a pretty clear indication of what they were favorable to or not, but I never got an instruction that said, you will do it this way. Take this particular objective and go make that transaction happen. So it was a situation where Cheney just knew damn well that it was a view that I wasn't coming to the job and, again, I don't flatter myself with thinking I was the ideal candidate for this. It was more by process of elimination, the best I can figure, was they didn't want someone coming in with an agenda.
There were plenty of people with agendas at the time who wanted the job. And you could pick it from either side of the equation and everything in between, what they thought was wrong with the Navy or what needed to be defended about the Navy and whatever. And, instead, it was a case where my primary attribute was, I didn't come to this with a known quantifiable agenda that anybody would say, oh, well, now we know where he's gonna go with all this stuff. Other than the fact that people knew in the Navy Department, and I think more generally on the public watchers of this kind of stuff, hey, there was no ambiguity by that stage in the administration, that I was very much involved in the first concentric circle of Cheney's folks that were carrying out the national security agenda. So the scope of the responsibility I had and the visibility I had during that time was sufficient for people to make a conclusion that, okay, well, this is a guy who's got the Secretary and the President's confidence, and this is the direction they want to go. And they're entrusting him with this particular duty. So it surprised the hell out of a lot of folks when I was the guy named that day to go over there. I mean, it's, like, who? What the- what are you talking about? It wasn't like, after they thought about it for a minute, but it wasn't like I was a logical fit for anybody. And there was a whole bunch of people who wanted the job that didn't want to do it.
And the other advantage I had was a technical one. At the time, the transitioning rules for any vacancy were very simply and clearly laid out. Now they're as complicated as all get out given the nature of how they've been distorted and all that. But, at that time, it was, if you'd been confirmed to a presidential appointment by the United States Senate, it is the President's prerogative to send you anywhere he wants you to go for a period not in excess of 120 days at his discretion. And that 120 days is extendable but only under certain conditions, blah, blah, blah. So, having been confirmed for the position- appointed and confirmed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate to a job previous to that and in that sitting capacity at the time, which wasn't like if some other part of your life you had ever been confirmed to such a job, if you were currently sitting in such a job, you could be sent to anyplace the President wanted you to go to do anything at his unilateral discretion.
So, the reason I got picked, among all others, was, hot damn, we get to pick this guy, pick him up, move him into that job, don't go through a confirmation hearing, and he's immediately on the job that day, rather than going through the whole rigamarole of having a confirmation hearing and everybody having a big theatrical playout of what was wrong with the Navy and why the Defense Department screwed up and why Tailhook was such an atrocity, and all the other agendas that were attached to it. The definitions of sexual harassment and assault and everything else at the time. And, remember, this also happened, or you may not be aware or remember, it was exactly the same time or shortly thereafter, I should say, the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he was nominated to be the Supreme Court Judge. And all of this had been played out in absolute extended torture to the administration, to the President, to everybody involved to include Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. But it was a major public display that no one wanted to see repeated. And they figured this might even be the same kind of situation if you nominated anyone for the job and then required them to have to go through a confirmation hearing.
So, I presented the luxurious opportunity to say, oh, no. I could stick this guy in there and he's going to be a perfect cork in the problem. And you don't have to go through a confirmation hearing, and everything can kind of settle down a little bit over that span of time. And then, eventually, there will be a confirmation hearing that would go with it. So, when you put all those factors together, that, in my mind, is what made me the most tractable of candidates, just by pure happenstance. Because, if it happened six months before or six months later, I wouldn't have been on anybody's sheet ever to have been considered for that job. But, because of the convergence of all those events and that set of circumstances in which Cheney wanted someone there who he had nothing but confidence in and trust in judgment, and the ability to pick up the phone and say come on down and talk to me, I want to talk to you about this (laughter). All those converged to make this a very understandable appointment. In the fullness of time, people got the drift of exactly what that was about. And the authority I had in that job as acting was not a damn bit different than it was after I was formally appointed and confirmed in the capacity ultimately. That was a technical administrative procedure. There wasn't a whit's bit of difference between the two.
But I never had any doubt whatsoever that, on the day—the one thing I always found in every one of these appointments, and all four of them I've had in my lifetime- the only thing that's common about every one of the appointments is they're all attended with an appointment order parchment that says, you're appointed to the following job and you shall serve at the pleasure of the President for the time being. The time being could be, like, whoa, time's up. You're outta here. And that's the extent of your tenure. You don't have birthright to any of this. You're not entitled to a damn thing. And, in my mind, it is one of the most—the purest form of the accountability, responsibility, and privilege, all of them wrapped together, of public service of anything I've ever done is realizing every day this is a referendum on what you do. And it doesn't mean you'd be fearful of that; it means you'd be mindful that you're not entitled to a damn thing. And it may be to the benefit of the policy, the organization, the administration, whatever, that you move along on that day and it may have nothing to do with you, or it may be circumstances where it's to those same advantages that you stay right where you are and continue doing what you're doing. Either way, you have influence but not control over that outcome. And that is a sobering thing to realize every day (laughter). It's something that does remind you that it's a privilege to do.
Yeah. Some counterfactual history, Sean. If Bush had won reelection, were you on a trajectory or a momentum that you would've stayed on for a second term in that role?
Certainly, I would have stayed on working for President George H. W. Bush if all he wanted me to do was come clear out the parking lot for him.
He was an inspiring guy. He never gave you anything to do that he wasn't prepared to do himself.
And among historians, I should say, that his stock only rises year after year after year.
Oh, yeah. He was a remarkable man. He was one of these people you just- you'd want to walk through fire for him. He was that motivational and that compassionate and empathetic to the condition of the time. And God knows if he had been a retail politician, he would've won reelection with no problem whatsoever, I think. But that's not his style. He was very much a public servant at heart. His attitude was, it's not about me. It was just incredible. And so his attitude was very infectious among a lot of the people I knew who were around him, and me included. I just found him to be positively one of the most inspirational people I've ever known. So, yeah, there is no question if that he'd had a second term, I would've done any damn thing he wanted me to. And I didn't feel entitled to any one of them, anything of what would be in the offing.
When you did find yourself in the wilderness, what opportunities did you have before you? What did you want to accomplish next?
Well, that was a fairly simple one. It happened so precipitously. It wasn't like I didn't see it coming. Maybe six months off you could see this was just not moving in the right direction. But, amazingly, a year before, Bush 41 was riding an approval rating of, like, eighty-five percent And it just cratered in a really short span of time. And there was a whole bunch of factors to that. That's a whole 'nother dialog all by itself, and none of it would be commentary I could offer that would be authoritative, but it would just be my own opinion. I've never been a campaign guy or anything like that, never worked on a big campaign as an operative or anything else. But there's no question that this was an odd period of time where a lot of things converged.
So, just in that very short span of time I had to reconcile the fact that this was just not likely to extend. And I knew I did not want to volunteer to be one of the transitioning folks, January 20th, we all went out on that date. I've realized, back in my Capitol Hill days, that there comes a point at certain leadership levels where you can't be coy about this. You have to declare what your principles are by your alignment of who you believe you're with. And, while there was never any question, I was always a registered Republican well before this, there was no need to particularly declare myself of that, even in the Appropriations Committee staff rank and file job. When I became staff director, yeah, that became pretty clear. At that stage, in those kinds of jobs, and once you get in that position where you're leading and guiding the direction of the outcome, you've really got to align yourself at some point. And this was the same in this situation.
So I knew I would have to and would want to leave on the 20th of January, although continuing to serve would not have been unpleasant by any means, but it, nonetheless, was not something I was prepared to do. And when asked if I would even consider it, I said, "Absolutely not. You guys won fair and square. You get to put the people in those jobs that you think are going to go carry it out the way you think it ought to be done, and that doesn't include me, so I'm going to be gone on January 20th." But I had aspirations of saying—you know, this happened sooner than I would've wanted. And so, I thought, okay, I'd like to make a comeback at this someday, and knew that there would be limitations to doing so if I went into certain kinds of professional callings. If I went to work for the defense industry or got into any number of different things it would've been viewed as collateral to what I had done, there would've always been the argument revolving door and ethics and everything else that would go along with this.
And I thought, okay, once I get done with the process of elimination, that one being the most obvious, I didn't want to do that anyway, but I thought, okay, that's one way to avoid it. Once I got through the process of elimination of realizing the things I probably shouldn't do if I ever wanted to come back into this in any kind of leadership capacity, I realized the most respectable place you can go is a university, followed only by maybe a thinktank. But universities are- the only thing anybody questions is your judgment (laughter) and your state of mind; you know, what are you doing? But it is something I always harbored the thought of doing. As an undergraduate, at one point, I had fashioned myself as wanting to become an academic until I realized I didn't have the candle power to actually do all the requirements to get there, and I sure didn't have the interest in wanting to be very narrowly focused on some doctoral dissertation proposition that would carry me for five years and research only that. And do it right and get it published and then get in line and look for tenure and all that stuff. I thought, wait a minute, no, no, this is a pattern I don't want to follow. But the idea of going into academic life to a university as an academic, someone who'd been there as a practitioner and had enough academic background to make it pliable- I put a trotline out to see what universities would be interested.
And I was amazed to get a number of offers, a lot of recruitment. So, I had the chance to look at several different opportunities. The Kennedy School wanted me to come up there and made a very thoughtful offer. My alma mater, the Maxwell School, made an offer that was kind of a short-term thing, and they'd never really had an experience lately dealing with somebody coming straight out of administrations and were kind of reserved about how long the duration would be and all that. And I got a blanket offer to teach public finance at a business school at Penn State University, so I accepted that. The University of Kentucky had one, and a couple others. And I thought, man, I'll go to Penn State. What the hell, that sounds like a neat thing. Football's good, you know (laughter). Great place to raise kids. By that stage, we had three little kids, and so it was a great atmosphere to start to raise them. And they were all starting or actually, at that point, the oldest was beginning grade school, so it was a great chance to get all that to work in a great atmosphere. And I stayed there, happy as a clam, for a few years teaching finance and management and stuff at the business school until one day I got a call from my friends at Syracuse that said, we want to get serious this time (laughter). We want to sign you up for this and this, and we have an endowed chair for you, we got all this stuff. And said, okay, fine. So we packed up and moved to Syracuse.
Sean, in some ways when you got to Syracuse, did it feel like coming home academically?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Oh, yeah. It was very much in that direction. It was just very flattering to be recruited back by my alma mater. So it was a great chance to do that. And I felt like, okay, I had had a few years to take my training wheels off in the academic business at Penn State (laughter). So, it was a fun thing to do, and it was a respectable place to go, universities, coming out of public service. And nobody questioned the incentives or the ethics or anything else. And, in filling out my ethics forms every year of compliance with having been a has-been, I frequently would get comments like, God, you're the most boring guy on the planet (laughter).
Boring is good for compliance forms.
That's exactly right. So mission accomplished, and I set myself up for the potential for a comeback, and that eventually did happen.
Sean, I'm curious if you got to know a little bit about the namesake of your endowed chair, Louis Bantle, who he was and what he represented?
Mm-hmm, I did. Lou Bantle was a guy who had- I'm trying to remember the name of the holding company that he had made a fortune at, but it included things like tobacco interests and there was a winery in there. There was all kinds of other stuff that was in this holding company that he ran. But he was a passionate guy who believed- while I only met him once, he, nonetheless, impressed me as a passionate fellow who was convinced that what business needed to know more about was how government worked, and what government needed to know more about was how business worked. And he thought that the collaboration and association between the two sectors was insufficient. And so, he created this endowed chair in business and government policy, which, having been in a business school and having been in the government, they all said, boy, we finally got a guy who matches this (laughter). He was an interesting character. He was very generous with his endowment, and I always appreciated the fact that I was there doing that.
And I also had a chance to—at the same time, in addition to teaching a lot of graduate classes in the field in the areas of finance and management and all these other things that were involved, also had a chance to eventually run the National Security Studies program, which was a program that the Defense Department had set up on a sole source basis with the Kennedy School years before and, for whatever reason, decided to compete it just about this time. So we put together a pretty convincing proposal and won the opportunity to be the professional development university for this program to train civilian and military career officers at the highest levels of colonel and captain in the military in GS-15s or whatever, and then rising all the way to the level of three stars. So there was a series of different programs we had a chance to run that had been at the Kennedy School for the better part of about twenty years, that ended up at the Maxwell School that we ran with a partner institution, with Johns Hopkins University, SAIS in Washington, D.C. So I had a chance to do that, in addition to teaching graduate classes and all that, which got currency and kept me engaged and, well, following through on a lot of the professional development, commitments that I'd learned from everything I talked about at the beginning of all this.
What did you see as some of your greatest opportunities in terms of giving back as a mentor what you had learned as a student during your time at Syracuse?
That's a good way to summarize it quickly. It was exactly that. It was a chance to really practice this professional development commitment in a role that wasn't quite as a mentor per se, although some folks may have viewed it that way. But as graduate students it is an entirely different set of career guidance focuses that they were looking for, as opposed to many of the people that were in these career development, professional development programs for the Defense Department that we had engaged. So it was a pretty mixed spectrum, and it was very rewarding in the sense that you felt like at least you were offering a perspective that could help shape their own view that, quite succinctly borrowed one of those basic principles I talked about the Jesuits bestowed, which is come to understand why you think the way you think and that'll help you define much more clearly in your own mind what your principles are and what your aspirational goals will be. And the two will be more compatible as a consequence. And that was great form, to do just that. I was blessed for having summarily been relieved of duty as a consequence of an election return, nonetheless, it turned out to be a very productive time to kind of reflect on a lot of that, the substance as well as the framework of what it could be. So it was really kind of a neat aspect.
And, Sean, on the flip side of the election question, when you were watching the Presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, were you thinking to yourself, if Bush wins, back to Washington I go? Was that sort of part of your assumption?
Yeah. I had gotten to know Bush 43 very minimally prior to that, his campaign, but I had met him on a few occasions, really liked the guy, and felt very- was very impressed by him. And he manifested an awful lot of the same characteristics his dad certainly did. But, more important than even the kinship there or the association there, in the occasions I had to fairly often connect with Dick Cheney during that time, he, in his own very informal and very understated way, would say, "Don't get too comfortable doing what you're doing” (laughter). So, it was one of those things where he was kind of seeing a lot of this coming, too. I don't think he fashioned himself as a guy who wanted or would come back to public service, but he was equally struck with George W.'s frame of reference and the way he looked at things. And there's an awful lot of other interpretations that have been popularized that I just find to be unrecognizable relative to the guy I know and the leader that I've admired in Dick Cheney, that that was not his motivation. I think the idea that he was going to be picked as Vice President wasn't something he did because, gee, now I get to be the guy who's chairing the search committee and I'll pop myself out as the obvious candidate. No, that was entirely W.'s doing. I don't think Cheney had any designs on that at all, but he did have a tremendous hand, even with no intentions, of coming into the administration himself if the candidate Bush were to win. His view was, I got an obligation to make sure we put the right people in the right kind of jobs in the right circumstances and all that stuff.
So, again, he very implicitly, in the times that I connected with him in the couple of years leading up to the election, told me, "Don't get too comfortable. Just stand ready. Make sure you've got a bag packed. We'll see what transpires." All that stuff. And I got called on to go do different things for the campaign, policy, staff kind of stuff and everything else, and write papers and coming up with positions on issues and all that stuff. But I really didn't have anything to do with knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, or raising money. I mean, that was for sure, I didn't do any of that. But it was something that I kind of anticipated might be possible, and one that, if it were to occur, would be a privilege to go back in, particularly if the leadership was shaken up to be what it ultimately proved to be, which is W. and Dick Cheney as Vice President. It was a very attractive lineup that I thought was starting to form up to do that. I hate to do this, but I've got a- speaking of mentorship, I've got a bunch of folks I agreed to talk to at 12:30 who are part of the current class of the Presidential Management Fellows.
Oh, you're giving back.
Yeah. They got in touch with me a few weeks ago and said, gee, would you talk to this group? We're getting them together and we've got this one segment on it, and you're the one guy who was in the very first class of this program and we'd like for you to spend a little time with them. And I said, "Sure, I'll do that." So, unfortunately, that comes up in about twenty minutes.
So, that's actually- Sean, I think what we'll do then is- that's actually a very good stopping point because, obviously, a big chunk of what I want to talk to you about, among many things, is your work at NASA.
Yeah (laughter). All this has been interesting but not relevant, right?
Yeah. No, but it's great for me. All right. So I'm going to hit end here.
[End Session 1]
[Begin Session 2]
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 19th, 2020. I am so happy to be back for round two with my discussion with the Honorable Sean O'Keefe. Sean, thank you so much for joining me again.
My pleasure entirely, David. Thanks for your patience.
Okay. So, I think we left off at a pretty good place to talk about your transition over to NASA. And so, my first question there would be, looking at your career trajectory, which was quite meteoric up to this point, it made a lot of sense because you remained, in one way, connected to defense issues and appropriations. And so the obvious question is: What was the connection that got you over in this very different world at NASA?
Well, it's much like several of the other stories, I guess, that brought about my appointment in other jobs was it was the circumstances of the times, the events that were occurring at that juncture. And I had joined public service and come into the Bush 43 administration in January of 2001 as Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and served on the White House staff in that capacity dealing with a range of different budget and management-related kinds of issues as the portfolio would call for in the Office of Management and Budget. And it was in a pretty critical time. The administration just coming in was promoting a very significant change to a wide range of different policies moving forward on an economic standpoint. So that was an easy and logical fit given my background, and a lot of this was being at OMB at that time.
But, among the issues that I was asked to work on as part of my portfolio as deputy director was to kind of the oversight of a number of different agencies and departments that were encompassed in the budget that the President was developing for that coming year, in his inaugural year going forward. Among the most contentious was at NASA, in large measure because the outgoing administration had released a conclusion and an analysis that the International Space Station was dramatically over cost and way behind schedule, and used the opportunity, as they were going out the door, to declare that particular problem, in part in recognition to the challenges that all the international partners and the NASA International Space Station program and stepped forward objecting to the delay as well as the increase in cost.
So part of my task was to be the point guy to figure out what this was all about, dive a little more deeply into what NASA was doing. And came to realize this was kind of a standard story that you see on many, many large, complex, large-scale systems, engineering programs where the complexity overwhelms the estimation of not only cost but also schedule in terms of its determination. The program had been underway since 2000 when the first crew of the International Space Station was deployed there. And the development of the entirety of the relationship had evolved over the previous decade so that it had been quite a while getting to this stage. It had been through a few other iterations during that period of the last ten years or so. But it kind of came to a head in the sense that, among the initial partners of the Europeans represented largely by the European Space Agency and its wide collection and consortium of nation states within Europe, the Japanese, the Russians, and the Canadians were all part of this original coalition that had been forged up. And each had their own responsibilities and contributions to be made, either in total or in kind, in terms of the services they would render, and objected to the fact that there were redesigns and reconfigurations, as well as delays in the assembly and launch of those modules to be installed on the space station.
At that stage, it was probably no more than halfway complete relative to where we see it today, if that. And it was still in a phase where the sequence of launches and all the assembly that was required uniquely to be placed in the cargo bay of the space shuttle were flown on regular missions to the space station to then be pulled out of the cargo bay and installed on the International Space Station. Well, the delay in terms of time was significant, but, more importantly, it was a five-billion-dollar overrun that was reported, that, in turn, then said, we either have to find a way to finance that original intention or come up with a different outcome. And, at that point in time, this had escalated to the stage where the foreign ministers of each of those nation states that were engaged were regularly in touch with my old colleague and friend from my Pentagon days, Colin Powell, who had then become the Secretary of State. And heads of state, when they would visit the White House, would raise this issue among the top two or three things that they had on their agenda with the newly inaugurated President.
So the imperative was to do something about this rather promptly, and as all this moved along, 9/11 happened and there was just a whole range of other contingencies that obviously came to the forefront of the most important priorities of the national attention at the time. And the better part of about two months after the 9/11 incidents and all the things that were evolving there that scarfed up most of my time thereafter trying to think through all the engagements and issues that we had to do to be responsive following the terrorist tragedy that occurred then, the President took the occasion, after one meeting, to ask me to standby after it was over. And, as everybody left the room and the doors closed, he said, "I have a new job for you (laughter). I want you to take on- I keep hearing about this issue. It's one that has to be dealt with." NASA is a place that, at that stage- the previous administrator had departed about a month before, and so the place was essentially operating with an acting at the time. And he said, "I need you to go over there and go fix this problem, because it's one of the things that is on the agenda, even with all these other issues boiling, that I need to have resolved."
And I was stunned by this (laughter). This was the idea that, given the nature of this, I hadn't spent an awful lot of time in all the discussions that I'd had with him or with many of my colleagues in the White House staff going through all the mechanics of what was going on over at NASA that I'd come to understand in that previous few months. But, at the same time, I recognize why this would be a potential distraction that would distract from the larger objective that was required for a response to the 9/11 incidents. So this was a nagging issue that obviously needed attention. So, on my way home that evening, I told my family this is what the President had in mind. And my middle kid, I'll never forget it, looked at me and said, "Gee, Dad, that's really fantastic! That's fascinating! But I thought you had to be really smart to be in that job” (laughter).
(Laughter) Nothing like your kids being able to cut you down to size.
No, got it right. It's the source of all humility, that's for sure.
Sean, in this situation, when the President asks you to do something, is it an immediate, yes, Mr. President? Are you in a position to say, let me consider this and get back to you? What's racing through your mind at that moment?
I didn't think I had any option. This was what he wanted done and I said, "Yes, sir." Period.
Aye-aye. I'm ready to go do it.
And, obviously, your reputation as somebody who can fix massive budgetary challenges is already well cemented. Was your sense that the President knew this personally or he was advised that you were the man for the job?
How he arrived at this conclusion would be my speculation. There are plenty of issues that pointed to this, but the Vice President's role in this was probably fairly, and clearly in my mind, was pretty- a significant pathway. Because he clearly knew what my capacity was and capabilities were from our Pentagon experience together. And he had also, when the circumstances arose at the Navy Department, to say, I know just the guy who can go put a fix to the problem here, or at least try awfully hard, and I know where he lives (laughter). So, I'm sure that had a factor in this. But, over the course of that time, since the beginning of the administration in 2001, I'd worked with enough issues that were in front of the President that I think he got a measure of that himself. And, for whatever right or wrong reason that was involved there, he came to the conclusion that that was the case.
And, again, I don't flatter myself in thinking I was the obvious consensus choice from the first moment for this job, because I didn't have anywhere near the usual legacy background that is typically to be found in the pedigrees of most of my predecessors. I mean, they were engineers, scientists, or folks who had come out of a business community that had a tense understanding of the challenges of these kinds of organizations. But, at the same time, what I knew that was involved there was, I guess, an understanding that this was, in part, as part of NASA, the International Space Station was a large-scale systems engineering complex systems challenge of trying to figure out how to manage that and manage a disparate range of partners and players and interests and everything else in order to achieve an outcome. And that, I'd had, regrettably, some experience at leading up to that stage that made that a feasible proposition. So I think if the events were different at that time, I probably wouldn't have been on anybody's list, much less a short list.
And circumstances that changed thereafter, I probably wouldn't have been on anybody's list or a short list either. So it was just that peculiar set of circumstances at the time, the vacuum that was at NASA in terms of leadership at that time, as well as the necessity on the part of the- as far as the President was concerned, that there needed to be a solution to this particular problem to respond to the legitimate concerns on the part of all the partners involved, as well as just the imperative to the agency overall. It seemed to be in a condition of rudderless kind of challenge at the time. So this was one of- let me send in somebody who I think is either qualified to go wrestle with this kind of large-scale issue and collaboration challenge, and he's expendable (laughter). So, this is something you realize all the time, that you serve at the pleasure of the President for the time being. There it is.
Now, Sean, I want to ask, at this point, you already have pretty well-developed ideas of effective leadership style and probably you're sensitive to the fact that you're coming to NASA as an outsider with an informal education from your father in engineering, but obviously not a formal education in science and engineering. And you're probably perceived as a defense guy, and that's going to raise some concerns right off the bat at a place like NASA. And everyone knows that you have this mandate to get the budge under control, right? So that seems to me like a perfect recipe for, this is going to be a tall order if you're looking to get people on board so that you can accomplish your mission. So, with all of that in mind, what's your game plan going in in terms of creating allies from within at NASA?
That's a really good question, and that's a good description of exactly the circumstances I encountered. My middle kid was merely a precursor of the kinds of questions I got from members of Congress and the press and everybody else of, who the hell are you to be in this job? And it was, there was no question, unlike the confirmation challenges of the time we live in today, it wasn't an argument, it was a unanimous confirmation approval. But, leading up to that in all the hearings was riddled with an awful lot of questions that probed the very point you just raised, which is, what do you know about this? And how is it you're qualified to do it, and aren't you a bean counter, and all that stuff. It was a bit of a challenge in that case. And that view was certainly harbored, I'm sure, by lots of folks that were about to become colleagues of mine at NASA.
And an awful lot of suspicion over what the agenda was, but it was nonetheless there. And so the approach I adopted, and in every other situation of leadership that I've ever been in, is to come in initially and listen. Just get a measure of what people are thinking about and what the nature of the challenge is. And I got a pretty good grip on the mechanics of what the problem was and what the issues were all about and why this program, the International Space Station, was in the trouble it was in, and why that affected so many other elements of what NASA did. It took all the air out of the room. So science and aeronautics and everything else all pretty much ended up on the back burner as a consequence of everybody focused on this particular imperative as I walked in the door. And so that was pretty evident.
But rather than make some assumptions about what I thought was the right answer to this, my objective was to spend the first couple of months just listening to what the perspective was across the agency by visiting with all of the associate administrators who were there at the time, visiting with the center directors of the 10 centers spread out all across the country NASA runs, and what their view was of the situation we were encountering at the time and where we're going. But, in doing so, I also asked several questions, but, at the same time, left them with one leading point that I wanted them to reflect on, and then we would regather at some stage in the not too distant future and talk about, which is how do we define more clearly what is the mission and objective of what this agency does?
What are we all about? And, from that, then, let's talk about what we do to articulate what the future ought to look like. What's the strategy we ought to pursue?
Sean, I'm curious if- well, two things: In asking this question, did you get the sense that a lot of people that you were talking to had not really been asked this in a long time, if ever?
Yes and no. I mean, some were kind of stunned to hear that kind of a fundamental question being asked. Others sat back and reflected and said, this is a rare opportunity for me to use this as an occasion to advocate for why I'm doing what I'm doing. So I knew all that would be conjured up, and what you'd get is a combination of folks who would think more expansively about what the agency does in its totality.
And what the foundations were all about, what the history suggested and needed to be, what its origins were. The idea that you'd go back and take a look at the Space Act of 1958 and revisit the reasons why this agency was formed in the first place was an opportunity to kind of reset this. And that's part of what I asked everybody to kind of reflect on in the senior leadership of the agency. And, when we convened, I got the combination of what you'd reasonably expect. It was one part a measure of advocacy of what they were doing and why it was so critical, and I also got some, I think, creative ideas of how you knit all those capabilities together to a whole, to a complete understanding of what the agency should be about, where we ought to go, and how we ought to, more importantly, communicate that and express it externally, in addition to talking to ourselves about that. It was a criticality of having everybody understand within the agency that what we're contributing to is a mission objective that's larger than yourself. And that was fairly easy to do, frankly, given the nature of NASA's mission orientation in everything that they do. The fact that they are very much—all the colleagues and scientists, engineers, technical talent, as well as the administrative management folks are all very much of the mind that this is a unique agency with an awful lot of capabilities and very motivated to do things.
Again, I often observed to different folks who asked the question of me, did you always find yourself having to motivate career public servants to do things? I said, not at NASA. This was a place where- this was a classic circumstance of wild geese flying in formation accidentally (laughter). It was a very, very motivated, extremely energized collective of colleagues who all were passionately committed to what it was they were working on. And that came in the sense that some had developed- many across the agency had developed the view that what I do is really important; what others do, that's of less importance. And so, as we think about what we're going to do, what we're not going to do, it's pretty evident we got to do what I'm doing right now, and that ought to be paramount, and what everybody else is doing, well, that's up for grabs.
And so talking to folks about, wait a minute, this combination of all these things is what really defines who we are. And let's talk about that in terms of how it knits together, how it is, how the synergies can be achieved, how those wide-ranging set of disciplines and expertise can be brought to bear to reach solutions that may be more creative than if any one of us were tasked to deal with them ourselves individually. And that ended up with a pretty crisp statement of what the mission of the agency was all about pretty early on. Within about three months after arriving, that is what came out of that confab, if you will, after a couple of off-sites and everybody grumbled about having to spend time just sequestered in a conference room to do, and parsing of words and arguing and all that stuff. It, nonetheless, yielded a very clear, concise statement that easily could be disseminated within the ranks of the agency, among all the colleagues that were part of the enterprise, regardless of what center they were at or what mission directorate they were in or anything else, everybody knew these were the fundamental principles that were guiding where we were going. And it was easy to articulate externally, to say this is who we are, this is what we do, this is what we're all about.
The next stage from there though, of trying to say, how do you take that now and move it into a broader understanding of what the future ought to look like. And I guess my adherence to the many schools of thought about strategic planning and all the foibles that go along with it is what was the upsides? I mean, it accomplishes several things. Among them was, I guess, the clearer understanding on my part that the way you have to go about doing a strategic future kind of forecast of where you're going is you've got to try to find a way to articulate what the ambition is that everybody shares in some future point, whether it's right around the corner or years from now, and understanding what that means. And it was derived very crisply from the mission statements that were organized. Everybody was easily converged around us after agreeing to what that mission statement looked like. And then, from there what you do is back into everything you've got to do between now and then, and all the steps that have to be taken in some sequence in order to achieve that goal. So the fundamental strategic planning models that I guess I've always adhered to is, once you've set what that end state is, you've got to figure out what all those milestones need to be between now and then to achieve that outcome. And then get about the business of doing them in some sequential order. And the first one on that order was, we got to fix the International Space Station.
This has got to be resolved. And we've got to organize that, not just among ourselves, but with all these partners around the globe who needed to participate in this.
They were not going to be malleable if we walked in and said, here's the new plan; get about the business. Thank you very much. Appreciate you all stopping by. No. You had to go through all the tedium of bringing them into the equation and making sure there was full concurrence on that big piece of the equation. And the view was, once that was accomplished, that would take that milestone off the table and put it into some sequential order, but then, in turn, would also inform what you've got to do with the shuttle program, with the human exploration agenda, the science objectives, the aeronautics programs, the earth science signaling applications, the biomed programs, all those different things that started to come together in a way that, frankly, was not something I envisioned. It was more a process set in motion yielded that outcome which was the thing that—
Now, Sean, on the space station issue, did you take a sequential approach in terms of achieving consensus within NASA before attempting to do that internationally, or did you dual-track that approach?
Pretty much dual-tracked it.
Because trying to reach just an agreement among ourselves, that was- you ended up going to the partners with a single-point solution that they may or may not agree to. And that was fraught with all manner of issues.
So, I thought, no, it's far better to work this concurrently and let's see what the outcome is. And, quite frankly, the advantage to that was that NASA was leading every dimension of this thing to begin with. I mean, there was no question that, with all the partners involved, there were certain programs and certain parts of it and certain elements that had a more dominant international flavor to it than the US. But, as a general proposition, the whole model had been conceived years earlier in the international consortium in which NASA set the agenda and moved forward with it. So that made that particular task not something that was a leap of faith.
I knew that the advocacy that would be there would be largely from the American point of view, and, at the same time, it would also be involved with engaging the cooperation, participation, collaboration, and input of a lot of the international partners, who were extremely engaged. They were really quite- that accomplished another objective, which I wish I could tell you I was smart enough to have figured out. But what became of that was their satisfaction in the idea of being at the table and being engaged in those iterations and feeling like they had a significant input to that, in some cases significant influence to that. And it forged a deeper relationship among all the heads of agencies and so forth, and all the units that were supporting it within those agencies going forward. And I thought it was really quite- it was a beneficial circumstance that really accrued benefit down the road for what happened afterward.
And, in terms of what you were listening to, both internally at NASA and abroad, what was the game plan for where the space station needed to end up?
Well, first and foremost, one of two options that needed to be pursued I made pretty clear in the front going was, either we figure out how to raise the resources to do this that's in excess of what we all agreed to, so I don't care whether it's a bake sale or a car wash or whatever it needed to be, something had to be generated or come up with to generate the resources to make that happen. There had to be a commitment from each of the players to do it. Which, first, we guaranteed that all the partners then agreed to the proposition that, no, where we need to be is within the parameters of what we agreed to as a cost to begin with, and we resized the program to fit in that.
And so an awful lot of exercises in trade space occurred thereafter. Is this really critical? Is this something we've got to have? Is this module what we really needed? All those different features were agreed to among the partners to figure out what stayed, how you needed to reconfigure it, what the launch sequence needed to be in order to accomplish each of those objectives and have concurrence from everybody on how that would happen. So everybody had a good idea of what the next flight was going to include and the one after that and the one after that, and what the scope of all the capability was that we were going to put aboard. And so many things that were- I wouldn't call them nice to have, but were in the mode of not a core element of what constituted the capability of the International Space Station were the things that ultimately were dropped out, or there was the urgency to figure out how to accommodate those capabilities within a different engineering parameter.
So, without bringing out a slide rule myself, which would've been deadly, very dangerous, you know, everybody kind of understood, I got to fit it within this parameter. This is kind of the- what I clearly knew, what I had grown up around and understood to be the greatest motivation for engineering creativity was understanding that you've got a limitation of what you can do in terms of spatial composition and weight and all the other factors that go into this that make the nature of much of the material science work within the space community to begin with.
You've got to constantly be looking at weight, volume, mass, all the other factors that go into this. And those are unforgiving, finite definites. And this is definitive stuff, to the extent you change one variable, it will alter all the others. And that didn't need to be explained to any of the engineers. As a matter of fact, they knew it better than I did by far and away. And so it tapped into their creativity to go figure out how to do that and do so collectively as a partnership among all the players, and they knew the clock was ticking. We had a finite span of time to get this done and move forward and figure out how to make this happen in order to make the launch sequence and all the other things that were necessary for the space shuttle program to accommodate it. They knew there were an awful lot of independent variables.
Sean, I have like a basic comptroller appropriations question. You know, coming from Department of Defense, I'm curious if five billion dollars is five billion is five billion, it doesn't matter where it is? Or is it a relative drop in the bucket at DOD, does that make you have to rethink how you conceptualize five billion at an agency that's working with a much smaller budget? How does that work?
Well, look, I guess I come from the old school philosophy on this which is a billion here, a billion there, before you know it, you're talking about real money (laughter). It doesn't matter what agency or what place you're talking about, it is serious. In my experience at the Defense Department in the comptroller business, and in a leadership capacity running one of the services, I never once ever met anybody who walked into my office and said, you know what, I've got all the money I need. Thank you very much. Everything's just fine.
Everything was a dire emergency, and everybody was threatening to slit their wrists unless they got what they wanted and all that. This is just human nature.
And so, I don't care if it's really large or it's really a small enterprise, whatever amount you're talking about that's incremental above what it is you've got today becomes the absolute imperative in order to see the future going forward. It's the same mantra.
And there was no distinction. You could just close your eyes and it all sounded exactly the same.
In dealing with an enterprise that was not insignificant, in terms of its size, as NASA, at that point it was about a 15-billion-dollar-a-year agency. This was not an assumption of 5 billion added to that in one single year, no. But, of course, at the time of what this was going to require, this was something that, again, offset by international contributions and everything else, this was a case that, nonetheless, still added up to within- you think the NASA agency is the largest independent agency among all in the federal government. And that is larger by a factor of many every other space agency on the planet. So every time you look at these things, it's all relative. And the amount you're talking about is of no less or no more significance in those circumstances. At the Defense Department, a five-billion-dollar problem would not have been viewed as- during my time. I don't know about today, but in my time, it was one of those things, no, that would've been cause for everybody, all hands on deck, five-alarm fire, everybody get a hose.
So it was different, the nuances were different, but the fundamentals were the same.
Now, as you were on your way to amazingly eliminating this cost overrun, in what ways did you need to be sensitive to the fact that, in doing so, you weren't harming the programs, the scientific programs that were fundamental to NASA's mission?
Yeah, that's a good question. And that's another good reason why I was not particularly anxious, and I knew the partners wouldn't be either, to just say, well, I guess we gotta add that to what we've got right now. No. They knew that there was a limitation of how much we could add, like next to zero.
And we gotta do this within the amounts we've already forecast to spend for this effort. So, therefore, it toned down the suspicion of they're about to come get me and take away my program in order to pay for this thing within the rest of the agency. And, again in the motivation on the part of all the other space agencies and ministries around the globe that were part of this consortium was they were relieved of the concern that others within their nation states would be coming back after them of saying, you're telling me we're going to wipe out something else in order to make room for this error and overrun that caused this?
And, what you also find, too, is that, like anything else in the budgeting math, the estimate of the nature of the problem is only proportionate to the amount of time that you're talking about achieving the objective and the method, the process by which you go about doing it. And so it was, again, very straightforward and easier to talk about with an organization of people who were engineers, scientists, and technically oriented to say, what I gotta do is live within the parameters of this particular equation, and then, figure out, how do I change the process, the configuration, all those other things? And, most importantly, cut down the amount of time that it would take in order to achieve that task. All those things motivated that creativity. And just by looking at the equation that way and how the dynamisms of that had to make that possible. It eased any concerns across the agency that unrelated programs would be sacrificed to pay for this.
And, if anything, it had motivated some of those other enterprises within the agency to actually lend a door to try to help figure out how to solve the International Space Station problem. And that turned out to be reasonably successful in that respect, and it came to pass and concluded, in terms of its fundamental construct, by January of 2003. And, within one year after kind of launching down the- no pun intended, after going down a road on this particular path and trying to figure out how to put this toothpaste back in the tube and everything else that would be required to reconfigure this, the solution set to that, as well as the enunciation of we've now got a plan going forward in order to achieve this, converged in January of 2003, which the time that the Space Shuttle Columbia launched, and on February 1st, when it did not return, that changed the whole agenda.
Right. Now, was your sense, once it was mission accomplished insofar as the budgetary achievement with the space station was completed, was your sense that you had been sent in for this mission and you had done your job and that you would be on your way out, or did you get the sense that the President and the leadership in the White House were happy with what you're doing and they wanted you to stay in place?
I never really got that far. Again, slight variation. There was never a point in which we declared victory and mission accomplished on the space station. It was, we've got a strategy to dig out of this hole.
And that was about to be unveiled in January of 2003, and actually it was in February, it kind of was a footnote. It was dimly or scantily noticed, but what took over was the tragedy of what was the loss of the Columbia. So, if there was any thinking about where I was going or what I was going to do next, I was unaware of it.
Because it never got that far, because within days, weeks after having reached this conclusion, when I briefed all this to everybody who were stakeholders inside the administration, in the labs and elsewhere, that this is where we're going, here's the strategy, this is what we're going to do to put a band-aid on this problem and move forward, it was within days, weeks thereafter that the Columbia was lost. So, if there was any consideration of that, it can't have been very deep. My expectation, though, I would tell you, just never having enunciated it at that time, but what I anticipated, I should say not expectation but anticipation at that time, was that I felt like, once we reached conclusion on this particular challenge going forward, kind of righted the entirety of the agency's strategic agenda and where it was going, et cetera.
And this being a component, albeit a big component, of what the agency was about, I anticipated that I was likely either to return to the White House staff as back in OMB again or in some other capacity. But I thought it was more likely that I would be called back into the agency functions again at OMB. Because, at that stage, they had spent a year with a- they still had a deputy director capacity that needed to be filled and worked on. So, as a consequence, I fully anticipated I was probably going to get reeled back in to go do that again. But I hadn't thought about it a whole lot. It was not something that I- it was something I anticipated would happen in the fullness of some period of time. And so, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, don't get too comfortable (laughter).
The reason you got here was by circumstance. There could be other ones that arise that make that something that is transitory, too. But, in the meantime, again, like anything else, any other position I've had, I approached every one of these opportunities independent of the question of how long you were going to be doing it. Again, you serve at the pleasure for the time being, and you don't know how long that's going to be, so you give every day your best effort at it, and you think about it in the context of, whatever I do, I'm going to be leaving to someone else at some stage. And so you've got to leave it better than the way you found it, and whatever period of time that is, you've got to influence that challenge. And this is not something I've really dwelled on. I didn't spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about it a lot and working through that, and I don't really believe, by that stage in the game, many others did, either.
Sean, can you narrate a little bit where you were and what the scene was like when you received this awful news in February about the Columbia disaster?
Yep. This was a day that really changed whole equation.
Must've been one of the worst days in your whole career.
One of the worst days of my life. It was absolutely horrific. I was down in Florida for the landing, had been there for the launch, and I resolved I was going to go back for the landing, as well. And part of that was I didn't do every one of the shuttle missions in that sequence and go to every launch and every landing leading up to that stage. I went to this one in particular because this was a very highly visible, extremely well noticed and covered by every journalist in the world mission because the very first Israeli astronaut was aboard. And so this was a real watershed moment.
And one in which the circumstances of how the timing of this flight occurred well predated me. I mean, this had been put in motion by the previous administration. Ilan Ramon had been a member of the crew for the past two years, and the mission was devised and put together well in advance of the Bush administration coming in. But it turned out to be fortuitous in many respects, and very, I think, representative of the kinds of issues that we really wanted to symbolically demonstrate post 9/11. This was an opportunity to really look at this as- to celebrate an international partnership, to celebrate an international arrangement that the space shuttle program was supporting overall. This was not a mission to the International Space Station, which is part of the reason it got moved around in terms of its timing. Missions were required sequentially in order to install and assemble components and modules on the space station always crowded out this particular standalone mission. So, as a consequence, this crew stayed together and got to know each other better than most of them do, just by virtue of the method. They get to know each other pretty damn well, that's for sure, given the fact you gotta live together for that long. But it was even longer as a consequence of it.
And so just the composition of this crew, which was, again, assembled well in advance of this. You had a Horatio Alger story, Indian American woman who was aboard as an engineer who was on her second mission. You had three Naval officers who were on board, two of which were doctors, medical professionals, and really engaged in the science and experimentation of how medical treatments can be derived from understanding the low gravity or microgravity conditions in which the shuttle operates. And so all these different factors went into it. A couple of Air Force officers. It was a very eclectic combination of backgrounds and talent and everything else. And so, as a consequence, unlike many of the shuttle crews, they were each showcased in a way that many of the citizenry got to know all these members more personally. Certainly, the Israelis got to know Ilan Ramon very well. He was a legendary figure in Israel as it was. He was a longtime Israeli Air Force pilot and all that stuff.
So, as a consequence, all this intensity of focus was pretty clear. And I felt an obligation, a responsibility to actually be there at every interval, too. Met with the crew beforehand, got to know members of their family, the whole bit. And so, when I was there at the launch on the 17th of January, I had gotten to know members of the extended family. It was a huge event in that regard. And, on the day of the landing that was scheduled February 1st, I was back with all the families again, and a lot of the stakeholders and interests and everything else were all there to witness the event, as well as just legions of journalists. This was just an incredibly over-reported event, not because of what was viewed as likely upending the outcome, it was because of the nature of who was on that mission and what it was all about and what was going on. But overlaid on top of that, all of the anxiety, if you will, that was always present after 9/11 that any high-value target would be viewed as an opportunity to make a statement yet again by terrorists who thought to create chaos. And this was viewed as every bit as dominant a high target as a football stadium gathering or the Taj Mahal or anything else you can think of that were iconic kinds of identifiable places and things and events to people. And so the idea of a space shuttle launch with an Israeli astronaut on board on top of everything else became just viewed by the intelligence community, the law enforcement community, everybody that was engaged in this, as something that could positively attract some of the worst elements to make a statement on this. So the security regimen was over the top.
I mean, they had a perimeter that was unbelievable. The Coast Guard was patrolling the coastline off the cape on the day of the landing, as well as on the day of launch. And the air cap that the Air Force ran to keep the air traffic control completely enforced and all that stuff was unbelievable. And then the ground security forces who were there made sure that we had a very secure perimeter and all that stuff. And there were very clear limitations on who could attend and be inside of the Kennedy Space Center proper in order to witness this. But, being there among the stands that are like a football stadium with risers that were there in a section of the Kennedy Space Center to be right there at the landing site, I was there assembled with all the family members and all the other stakeholders and interests that were involved. And I was with the associate administrator for space operations at that time, a former astronaut and turned administrative role, a fellow named Bill Readdy, who was just extraordinary. And he and I were there with all the families watching the countdown clock, getting all the reports of the return and so forth, and everything was completely normal until about ten minutes before landing, which is about the time in which reentry occurs in the atmosphere, and then traced across the terrain on the southeast to land at the Kennedy Space Center.
And if the weather is inclement, then it alters to land out in California at Edwards Air Force Base. But everything looked like it was exactly right, and it was coming in in the right direction and all the reports were good. Reentry had been successful, and then communications was lost. And there was a lot of early confusion over this in terms of what was involved and why we weren't getting the signals and so forth. But, again, being outside, standing there on these risers waiting for the touchdown to occur, we were getting reports from what the mission control folks were looking at, and the countdown clock continued to go down to hit zero from when you were anticipating the arrival. And, I guess, about a minute or so and a half or two minutes before it was to have landed—and, again, these are very precision circumstances. Not because you design it that way but because, as somebody once described for me, the space shuttle has the aerodynamic equivalency of a safe falling from the sky with the door open just to create a little drag. I mean, this is going to come in at a specific trajectory, and the manner in which it does is very easily calculable once it reenters the atmosphere. And, two minutes beforehand, typically there is two sonic booms that happen on every landing, because the leading edge and the tail of the shuttle create, at the point in which you have passed Mach 1, then creates the sonic boom as you come in, and you hear them, two in succession. And Readdy looked at me and said, "The sonic boom should have happened by now."
I go, "What does that mean?" He said, "I don't know what's happening and it can't be good."
And, as the clock hit zero and it started to upward tick in the other direction, it became apparent to everybody in the stands that there was something wrong. The sky was perfectly clear, and we should've seen the orbiter coming in at that point. And it was within that next half hour or so, well, the immediate instinct I had, given the nature of the uncertainty of what I witnessed was, within moments, the atmosphere turned from excitement and elation over the fact the their loved ones were coming home and people everybody in the stands cared about were about to return, and then went to complete confusion over why it wasn't happening right then and there, to then a sinking feeling that this was going to be a tragic day. So the first step, in my mind, was to immediately assure that the families were all escorted from the area quickly and brought to the crew quarters, which is just a couple miles away within the Kennedy Space Center complex in order not to be exposed to all the public reactions at that time—
—and to be in a situation where they felt like they were at least informed, safe, and understood what was going on. So, concurrently, I made that happen, but also followed through on a plan that, again, I wish I could tell you was something that was a long-term, premeditated kind of strategic objective. No, it was more and more of curiosity, which was, on the very first day that I arrived at NASA a year-plus before, among the things I did is I asked for a briefing on, what is the plan in the event that a Challenger-like disaster were to ever happen again?
What would we do? What did we learn from that? What's on the shelf right now that would tell me, this is what we'd do if today something like that happened? And said, I want to have that discussion, that meeting, and whatever briefing there is of whatever there is in two hours. Don't write something, don't prepare PowerPoints. I want to know what's on the shelf and let's talk about it. And, two hours later on that first day, what I saw was not a bad construct. It really was some outline of, here's what we learned, and this is what you need to do in the event of a risk of this ever occurring again. But I went about the business, at that time, of saying, OK, look, what can we do in order to make this even better? What are we going to do starting right now to take this, formalize it, put it in a condition in which it's actionable right away in the event it's necessary? And it included things like doing some benchmarking, find out the progress that you could benchmark against. What do they do? What are their procedures? How do they respond to them right on the spot? Forget about investigating the incident or whatever else; it's, what do you do right when it happens?
And that includes things like nuclear reactor defaults, aircraft accidents, civil aviation incidents, you name it. Chemical plant explosions, whatever, any number of which became really tractable kind of benchmarks to how you compare what they do, what their procedures are to what we do or what we, at NASA, had planned to do in the event of something like that happening again. And the other thing was, how do you put together a subsequent independent and considered objective investigative team to do this? Who is it that would be charged to go take it from there after you do your initial response and all that stuff? And other things, but those were the two big variables of what came out of this exercise that, mercifully, just sheerly coincidentally, started that very first day on the job. And so, months before, about three months before February 1st, what was put together was a pretty solid action plan that you could fit into a small binder, open up page one, and it says: If something like this ever happens, here's the first thing you do, and then here's the second thing, and here's the sequence of events of what would happen. And, on that fateful day, that document that we had test driven, thought about, done all that stuff, just by purely hypothetical incident of what would occur of something entirely different.
Everybody envisioned the idea of what would happen if a space shuttle, on launch, exploded again. That wasn't this scenario. This scenario was it broke apart on reentry. But, either way, it still created the same kind of response parameters and protocols of what was required. And so, as it happened, as a result of that effort that we thought was purely a hypothetical during all the time we were fiddling with that in the months beforehand, turned out to be the most instrumental thing that we had on hand. Bill Readdy had it with him. He immediately opened up page one and said, here's what we gotta do from here. And it even got to the point where we had come to the refinement of establishing who would be on an investigative board or panel to actually go take this on that would be independent from the agency. And they were all named, identified, and they were people who we had talked to beforehand and said, if this all goes bad, if something goes wrong, would you be willing to be in this capacity to do this? And every one of them had agreed; name, rank, serial number, and telephone numbers were all attached to this, and every one of them were called.
And, by the end of that day, they were all assembled, from all the different parts of the country in which they came from, in Lufkin, Texas, where the first pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia were being brought by later that afternoon to begin to stage them for transport to wherever we needed to go with them. It was really quite a day. It was an unforgettable day in terms of just the incredible tragedy that was inflicted on all the families of every one of the crew members, the real despondent condition in which that came to be. Among the things on that laundry list of things you needed to do was call the following command centers and so forth and notify whatever, one of my jobs was to notify the President this had happened. I spoke to him within about forty minutes after it happened and gave him the scant report of what we knew, which wasn't much, but confirming the fact that we had lost the Columbia. And, by that stage, much of the news coverage was lots of images of streaks across the Texas sky that was pointing to something. They didn't know what the hell it was.
And, in those early stages, in talking to the President in that period of time, telling him we've already notified the Homeland Security folks and everybody else to begin to think through exactly what may have been causal, is the first immediate reaction that many had, was this must've been a terrorist incident. Well, that was easily—by the end of the day, we were able to knock that one down because the breakup started at about 100,000 feet. There is no surface-to-air missile that's going to make it 100,000 feet to do that, so the process of elimination kind of dropped that one off the board.
What about a cyberattack, was that a concern?
Sure. I mean, it was one of the ideas that might be possible. But the very first thing that the President asked among anything else is, "Where are the families?"
That was his first objective. "Tell me how they're doing. I want to talk to them. I want to set up a video conference with them. I want to do something to speak to them." As it turned out, the best we could do was an audio conference with them at the crew quarters because the situation wasn't equipped with all the stuff that we do today on Zoom at that time. There was nothing even approximating that. And he did, he spoke to them about two hours later and offered just the condolences of the nation, but also his personal concern for each and every one of them, and his commitment that, I'm going to see this through with you. I'm going to make sure you get the answers you need and that you get resolution to this, to understand why this happened. And know that the reason why this occurred was, nonetheless, in pursuit of what they've all dedicated themselves to do. And we appreciate that deeper than anything that can be expressed. So he set the tone on that day that that became a real- it was still a very high priority, but it became the dominant focus of what I really wanted to be sure would be followed through from that point forward, was an absolute assurance that everything and anything that the agency could do to support those families was made available and promptly. And there are any number of different stories and anecdotes I can pass on with this one, but I'll spare you all of those, other than this one, which was, on the day of the accident, and after they spoke to the President, the families made it an incredibly emotional experience, as you might imagine. But the wife of the commander of the mission was the husband, told me, "We want you to do three things: We want you to find out what happened here, figure out what you've got to do to go fix it, and make sure that what you do after this, that their sacrifice mattered, that it was still pursued. That's what they would want."
"And you need to commit to do that. You have to promise you'll do that." She held me to that regularly.
Sean, I want to ask, as administrator on that day and going forward, obviously, as disconnected you were to whatever the technical or mechanical failures leading to this tragedy, how much did you have a buck stops with you kind of mentality in terms of accepting responsibility for what had happened?
Oh, I mean, just completely. From day one, the weekend talk shows of which I ended up on damn near every one- I flew back to Washington that night and found myself on every talk show on Sunday morning there was. And a multitude of hearings thereafter, and lots of press conferences daily and all this stuff. Every one of them asked the same question, who's responsible for this? The answer was me.
That's my responsibility, and I'm going to find out why, and we're going to figure out how to fix it, and then we're going to return ourselves to doing what they gave their lives for. I followed Evelyn's game plan. She was absolutely right on the mark. And it became kind of a guiding focus of all this, but it started with me and my sense of accountability. The answer, of course, many members of Congress, charitable as they are, always said, well, then, doesn't that mean you're going to resign? And I said, "I serve at the pleasure of the President. If that's his desire, you bet. As of this moment, that's what I'll do." And it was made very clear to me at the White House and every time I met with him on Monday morning and went through this personally, and regularly we had updates for him, and even more so with the Vice President, in which it was made abundantly clear to me that, no, you're not going to get away that easy. This happened on your watch. You gotta fix this.
In terms of the lessons learned and planning for the future, did you ever have a sinking feeling that this would pose an existential threat to the future of manned spaceflight in America and there might not be the next mission to be smarter about?
Absolutely. It would be an overstatement to say that the consensus about the support for NASA was tenuous or anything else. No. I think it's pretty deep across the Congress and within the public generally, the attitude is, boy, what an amazing place that is. It's what we all have aspirations for. That said, it also always is followed by the question of, and so what are they doing these days? What are they really up to? What's happening there? So there's a support but, at the same time, a curiosity about, I don't really know what it is they're doing. And that became pretty evident over the weeks that followed after this, that, why are we doing it like this?
Initially, the shock value that went into this and the outpouring of support and all that morphed into a very critical view of who's responsible, who's going to get hanged for this, who's going to be shot at dawn, all that stuff. And all the accountability arguments that came out after that, right after there was an inquisition of whether I'd resign or not, then the question was, well, who are you gonna fire?
And that went on and on and on in many contexts, as well. But, nonetheless, in my mind, I came to the conclusion that nothing less than the future of the agency was at stake here. It wasn't just human spaceflight.
This was the whole thing.
And the approach I looked at, upon listening to lots of different inquiry that came from inside, not only by members of Congress, but also within the White House, a lot of folks who know the Office of Science and Technology policy and all the other players involved here, all said, well, gee, we may ought to rethink what the mission is, what we do, and what this is all about, and what the objectives of the agency ought to be and all that. And, with that, I went to, on my initiative, two colleagues I got to know very, very well when I was on the White House staff, matter of fact, one of which I had gotten to know back in the Pentagon days. I went to Steve Hadley, who was, at the time, the Deputy National Security Advisor, and Margaret Spellings, who was the President's Domestic Policy Advisor. And, in talking to the two of them individually and then collectively about where we go from this point and how we're going to look at the focus and direction and strategy and construct and all that stuff of this agency, in talking to Steve, again a guy I know from the Pentagon days, but a fellow I'd really gotten to know and worked with a lot in my year on the White House staff on the Deputy's Committee of the National Security Council. I was a member of the Deputy's Committee by virtue of position. And so attended every single one of the post-9/11 NSC Deputy's meetings that occurred, like, every day, and all that stuff.
So, we had known each other very well. And I posed this one to him and said, I've got to get us a construct together. I've got to get some approach together that vets all the different options everybody's talking about rather than leaving this out there to just churn this to death and ultimately have to respond in every dimension leading up to the next budget deliberation or whatever else. We've got to resolve this now and have a policy debate over what's the construct going to be. And I said, "The only process that works with great regularity and reliability of an interagency nature is the National Security Council. So, this is the place where I really want to see if you would take the initiative to initiate this as a space policy kind of interaction. That would really help the case." And, in going to Margaret Spellings, as well, same pitch to her in saying, this is the convening authority that really does draw attention, that brings in all the players we need, the State Department, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the LMD folks, Defense, everybody, and all the other players, Commerce, all the other actors that all have an interest in NASA and space-related policy then are motivated to actually convene in these interagency meetings with the right level of people to really make decisions as opposed to having a debating society to deal with this stuff. And Margaret agreed, along with Steve, to cochair this.
So the two of them, and so the domestic policy to maintain the domestic focus and the civil space kind of flair to this, as well as the process adherence to the NSC is well noted for, that saved a lot of time and organized this debate. And, yes, indeed, when in the construct of all the ideas that came up within that framework, it was convened with pretty frequent regularity of all the different options that were being kicked around. Everybody knew that, okay, I can no longer stay in my closet working on this thing, I gotta bring this out and have it vetted to have any chance of it being adopted. And so it was at least a half a dozen different options that were put forward and developed and formulated, and one of which was existential, one of which called for saying, you know, this has been an incredible history that NASA has had in the last five decades. Isn't it time to retire the logo and call it a great experience but it's evolved past that? Why don't we take all these pieces and chop them up and send them off to all the different departments and agencies for which they would otherwise have a welcome home? Let's put all those parts, the same way it came together back in 1958 was a reverse of what one option actually called for.
And then, all the others, of course, were more rational. So that one was debated but dismissed in fairly in short order. But it was considered. It was something that actually got on the table. It was something folks had to think about. I would've thought that the entire process would've been grossly deficient if we didn't think about that, to at least look at what that stark future would look like without it. And so the fact that it was debated was extremely handy for the purpose of being able to go back to anybody who uttered it again, no, the question was asked and answered, let's move on. Let's find out what we're going to do from here to construct this. And so, what emerged from that, in January of 2004, was the President's articulation of the vision for space exploration.
Right. So, this was a direct response in many regards?
Oh, you bet, you bet. And, in the months that went into all this, we met with him with great frequency, and he was pretty passionate about it. And what's in that document is a strong reflection of his own view.
Sean, in considering the idea of chopping up NASA into its constituent parts and sending it on to the relevant agencies, what did you learn about the idea that NASA was greater than the sum of its parts in deciding that it was the best decision to keep it as a unified agency?
Sure. And, as I said, this was a fairly- an option that was dispensed with in fairly short order.
But it was remarkable that it was even brought up as a possibility, in and of itself that is significant.
Again, it is, and I think the whole, again, the whole process would've been bereft of completion had it not been raised. So, while I didn't instigate it, I didn't oppose the fact that it was there. And it was something that, again, the argument that sold the day, I think, quickly was, look, the reason why this was all brought together in the first place in 1958 was because there were always different parts that, while, exemplars in their own capacities, nonetheless, wasn't ever going to achieve any of the kinds of things that did happen thereafter unless they were all brought together to create a synergy that they could really motivate an outcome of this grander order. No individual part. The Redstone Arsenal would never have let Wernher von Braun build a Saturn V. I mean, come on.
So it had to be- just as an example, this had to be a case where all this was brought together to some greater purpose or else you'd have all these great capabilities that never got applied to things they could've been.
So that was a strong enough argument intellectually that motivated everybody to say, okay, what's the point of that? Why would we want to go too much further down the road? But it was also one that I used as an opportunity to say that this also reinforces the reason why we need to have all these disparate elements of what is in the agency viewing the solution of this particular dilemma and this new challenge to the agency's future, that everybody needs to be in it together. One of the things I learned during this time was that there was a cultural mindset, if you will, that people used to describe in NASA with regularity in the post-Challenger period that many colleagues within the agency were not part of human spaceflight or one part of this or another or whatever would say, those guys at Marshall, the rocket developers, et cetera, they're the ones that created his disaster.
And it hit me all the way through the Airbus, we've got to get rid of this point at which everybody is sitting around spending time blaming someone else or someone who, a part of this organization for having perpetrated this nightmare on all of us. And that culture mindset I realized needed to be confronted internally, not externally.
Was one in which it gave new focus to the whole agenda of creating a cultural mindset of one NASA. And so the mindset that I challenged every one of the associate administrators, every center director, every leader of all the different segments and mission areas and so forth of the agency was everybody ought to have a role of what we're going to do to fix this problem. Solutions can't, won't resolve, exclusively among the engineering community in the Human Space Flight Program on the Space Shuttle Program. There isn't enough hours in the day and enough people to do this. But there are legions of people within this organization who have the engineering, technical, material science, et cetera, expertise to look at what caused this, to contribute to the answer of determining what caused this. And then to forge the solutions to how we fix this. And so we had folks from earth science and space science programs and aeronautics and everything else that were all involved in various teams that were charged to find solutions to this. I mean, one of the real challenging situations, but it turned out to be a tremendous gift, that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, this collective of independent folks that I extolled in the earlier part of the conversation, gave to us, as difficult as it was for everybody to accept and deal with and work through and all this stuff. They were critical. I mean, they were really critical. And it was not a laudatory report in any way, shape, or form. It spoke to not only the technical problem that occurred but also the cultural mindset that contributed to it. And it was clearly, in very short, in very brief, the cultural mindset that contributed to the accident more than any other singular factor is a human frailty that we all have which is, when we see some abnormality happen often enough, we assume that must be normal.
This is the normalization of deviance. Okay? It happens with great regularity in every walk of life in everything we do. And engineers are no less prone to that than anybody else.
The fact that the insulation broke off the external tank and sparked the leading edge and it created a fracture that permitted the plasma gas and everything else to enter the undercarriage of the shuttle and break it apart on that fateful day of February 1st was something that that particular event, of insulation breaking off the external tank, had happened hundreds of times before, and yet it wasn't deemed to be an acceptable incident within the circumstance. And yet, everybody looked at it and said, well, it happened but it didn't have a consequence, so it must not be that big a deal. No. It turned out to be deadly. On that day it was deadly.
And it had a set of circumstances that motivated it to be uniquely, a million and one shot happening on that day, but it did happen. And it was dismissed as being as not a big a deal as it should've been, and even though it didn't fit within the requirements and the way that determination was made. So my commentary to folks in the agency when this particular observation was made by the Accident Investigation Board, I said, wait a minute, we're all guilty of that one. We're all guilty of it. Every time everybody looks at this event of having happened, either in depth or peripherally, we've all dismissed it, even though we know the same facts, which are that this is not within the acceptable parameter of the requirement and yet it was still permitted to happen for decades. For the twenty years that preceded it, it happened damn near every single flight on multiple occasions and it was kind of written off. So it became the basis of saying, don't we all need to look at this particular phenomenon as something that is only unique in the fact that it occurred on this program, on that date, on this particular watch, on this particular reentry of this particular space asset? It could've happened anywhere, and it probably is routinely happening everywhere with what we do. Because everything we do at NASA, by definition, is unique. Every one of these is, hey, don't feel like you're special. Everybody's got a mission that is doing something that probably hasn't been done by anybody before. That's the reason why you got it. That's the reason why you're doing it.
And so we had to have a process that is inwardly focused enough to do this. And so, again, the Accident Investigation Board, for all of its commentary, was really quite just unnerving to an awful lot of the professionals at NASA, it nonetheless was valuable to point out that this was a malady that all of us share and all of us need to get together to solve this problem, and recognize that it's probably occurring in lots of other areas. So, amazingly, it motivated a really strong commitment on the part of folks of a wide range of different disciplines switching the gears from, who am I going to blame internally, to what can I be doing to help find the solution? And, again, I wish I could tell you I was smart enough to have dreamed that up. It was more of a case of that was an outcome because of everybody coming to the page of realizing this was existential. This was all about all of us. If anybody thought that everybody was going to go back to business as usual doing anything, even something totally unrelated to this, they were sadly mistaken, because this was going to consume the focus, the activity, and the cultural mindset that was being debated, not only internally but externally, as well, about, now, is NASA's culture broken, all those things were all part of the public debate and mantra and inquiry from every congressional hearing. And journalists would write articles about it and all this stuff. That then, in turn, motivated, everybody realized, well, this isn't just about them, whoever "them" is, it's about all of us. We've either got to survive this together or sink separately, one or the other.
Sean, it's so clear in your description how you turned this tragedy into a moment of opportunity institutionally. I also want to ask, in terms of the mandate that the astronauts did not die in vain, what was preserved in terms of the science? In other words, what was learned as a result of the Columbia mission that was preserved despite the fact that it ended the way that it did?
Sure. Well, several different attributes, but I'll just focus on a couple of them. First of all, the contribution that many of the science experiments aboard—many of them were various material science activities or agricultural-related kind of things; can you grow things in space, et cetera, et cetera. And a lot of biomedical-related kinds of experiments, as well, all of which ended up contributing to just the emergence of a really focused point once we got the space station fully assembled and on its way, or at least on its way to full assembly over the next several years, to actually construct the science missions to very clearly support the idea of long-duration spaceflight. So, what came out of this was, here's a clear documentation of what happens in this microgravity condition for extended periods of time, and what are the results on a range of different things in the experiments? That, in turn, became a very strong focal point that said, this is something we need to know about, not just because it's an interesting curiosity, but if we're going to spend six months missions on the International Space Station with multiple crew members over long-duration space and oh, yeah, gee, that's going to be nothing by comparison to what it would take to go anywhere else for extended periods of time—we need to understand what those consequences are and how to ameliorate them, how to respond to them in a way that will make this an effective kind of consequence. So, in that respect, it was a real contribution to the scientific focus more than anything else, as well as the content itself of what those scientific research objectives should be.
How did you communicate the President's vision to NASA in terms of where this was headed?
It was easy, he did it (laughter). He came over to the agency, did the speech, and assembled everybody, and we televised it across the agency and elsewhere, across everywhere.
Did you see this as a historic opportunity in terms of seeding the agency with the kind of excitement for the future that might not have existed since the 1960s?
Sure. I mean, it was definitely a moment that could do that, and the President recognized that this was something that would lend great importance or a sense of importance to each of the colleagues within NASA to say, what we're doing here matters.
And he was such a- he and his dad both were such a delight to be around and work for in the sense that they intuitively understood just the incredible motivation that can be brought about by their behavior and the focus they take to things. This was the penultimate, showing up to NASA and actually doing this, the first time any president had shown up to NASA to do this. To do anything, for that matter. And most of the time, every other presidential mission or visit was always out to one of the centers or at hardware or whatever else or witnessing launches or something else. But to come to the headquarters, I mean, this never had happened. But it was just the nature or kind of attitude he had about what was the right time to do things. And this wasn't the only thing. He met with the families of the astronauts, the crewmembers who were onboard Columbia, just a few weeks after the accident in Houston when we had a big memorial service. He and the First Lady came down and had a big memorial service for them there at the Johnson Space Center.
He then met with all the families privately afterwards and routinely did that for every single funeral that was held in the Washington, D.C. area, Arlington Cemetery, for example, et cetera. All the others that were external—he was not in attendance in Amarillo, Texas or wherever, some of the others were born in Israel, well, Ilan Ramon was. But in all the funerals, the three of the seven that were conducted in the D.C. area, the families always came over to the White House and spent, in some cases, up to about two hours with him and the First Lady. No photography, no press statements, no press conferences, none of that stuff. Just being with him privately. He just knew that mattered, and he had that sense about him, and he does have that instinct that demonstrates really why- how you can demonstrate you're compassionate about the issue and empathetic to the circumstance, and try to do what's necessary in order for everybody to resolve through that. It mattered a lot. It really was incredible. I was always blown away by the amount of care and attention he took to circumstances like that. And so it set that tone. The same reason why he showed up to NASA to do the articulation rather than just leave it at the meeting, explain to everybody, here's my decision, here's presidential decision number twenty-whatever. No. He came over, did the announcement, and it fired everybody up, that's for sure. It definitely did.
In what ways did the Columbia disaster color your decision on when and how to service Hubble?
It was really clear. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board was unambiguous in its recommendations and findings. Findings were as follows, and the recommendations were enumerated. And the statement that preceded the recommendations was, "Every one of these recommendations must be implemented to technical satisfaction before resumption of flight."
Manned space flight?
Mm-hmm. Before resumption of any shuttle flight, you gotta do every one of these things. That would be our independent recommendation of how you ought to treat these.
And that was irrefutable. There was no doubt about it. And so those very clear dictates- and when the report came out, there was lots of discussion about every one of the recommendations internally before the report was released. And a lot of people who've had objections to, gee, we can't do that, or this doesn't make sense, or we have to do it that way or something. So everybody debated it endlessly. And, on the day the report came out, the message that every single member of the human spaceflight community got was, folks, the time for debating is finished.
We're done. okay? We've all had our say. We've all had the opportunity to interject our view. We've all helped them shape the outcome and all that stuff. It's finished. So what is written on that paper, when that ink dries, that's what we're going to do without further debate. I don't want to waste any more time going back and arguing it. This is it. Everything we do from this point forward ought to be about how do we implement this, as it is the pathway to return flight. And that's what I said publicly, and what I enunciated to every congressional hearing and every statement made after that, unambiguously, that's it, we will implement this to our full extent in order to achieve that outcome. That's it. No ifs, no qualifications, no ambiguity about it. And so everybody got the idea. And, if you go through those lists, it's less than a page long, there they are enumerated. It says, you must do the following things. And there were a bunch of them that were not going to- it wasn't anything we were doing at the time. All the things had to be devised.
Meanwhile, the science community's objectives of a next Hubble space servicing mission was coming up and everybody said, we've got to prepare for this mission and do the following things and all that. And I said, wait a minute, didn't you hear the last stanza? We're going to do every one of these things before we return to flight. That's what the dictate was. If we go back on that, it will absolutely destroy the credibility of the agency. Nobody will believe it if you say, well, we're only going to implement these and not whatever else. We were only kidding. I said, no, this has gotta be done with absolute certainty or else we'll never be believed on anything else thereafter. And everybody who argues about culture of safety and everything else having been eroded in this agency will use that as a reason to demonstrate why we got into this in the first place. We cannot slide back on this one. And the mantra that- literally, the phrase that was used by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was every flight, you must prove that it's safe, not put the burden of proof on those to demonstrate why it's not. So, okay, we're going to live with that. We had an opportunity to debate that, everybody argued the point, it's finished. Anything less is going to absolutely undermine our credibility and the integrity of the agency. We had to go with this and there it is, so let's get on with it, folks. Let's make that happen.
And so everybody in the community said, well, gee, that means we may not be able to do the Hubble servicing mission. I said, yep. It's possible that may not happen. If we haven't finished these objectives until that time, that may not occur. There is no flight going anywhere, much less one to a place where we can't dock with anything, we can't inspect the damage, all the things these guys got done railing us about in the Accident Investigation Board Report, we couldn't accomplish any of those things. So we're wasting time in this argument. Let's get on with the task of implementing those things and then we can debate whether or not we're in a position to do Hubble or not. The science community wanted a firm answer. They wanted to know, are you going to go or aren't you; are you going to let Hubble die? I said, no, it's not me letting Hubble die, it's we gotta do this in order to do that.
And if we're gonna prove this safe, it put a qualifier in that said prove that it's safe unless it's for Hubble. Okay?
Or prove that it's safe unless it's for this mission or that mission or something else. There wasn't any qualification in it. And so I said, in order to be absolutely religiously adherent to this, we have got to do it that way. And that was a disappointing outcome to many of the members of the science community who felt like, wait a minute, well, surely there's an exception to this. And the answer was, no, there's not. And it all hinged on the engineering estimates of the life expectancy of the gyros and the imagery cameras and all this other kind of stuff that was aboard the Hubble telescope of whether it would survive a fixed period of time. And the debate was that Hubble will be running out of fuel and the gyros will quit operating and the whole instrument will freeze up and it'll go dark in eighteen to twenty-four months from now. That was the engineering estimate at the time. It was wrong.
That estimate was wildly conservative. As it turned out, the next Hubble servicing mission occurred after all those corrections were made in accordance with the Accident Investigation Board recommendations, and it happened three-and-a-half years later. So, it all worked out the way it's supposed to, but boy—
It was patience. You needed people to understand that this was patience that they needed to have?
And they didn't want to give it.
It was as basic as that. It was, I think that's something you ought to have but I don't need to have. You need to exercise that patience, but we don't because, gee, all these factors are going to come into play in which Hubble will go dark, and that's an unacceptable alternative. Yep, I agree. It is an absolutely tragic consequence. That said, if we put the next flight in motion here and launch the next crew, how do we assure any of those families, anybody else, any of them that's onboard that, yes, we've corrected all the things we knew went wrong the last time? You can't do that with a straight face.
There was a speech I was invited to give to a friendly audience of the astronomers' annual roundup that just had hundreds of astronomers in the room there, and it was a chilly reception, to be sure, because I didn't guarantee them that, yes, indeed, we're going to do this mission hell or high water, this is what we're going to do because the world depends on it. And they knew that. When I came in, this had been enunciated well before that and they had argued about it and lots of commentary that- one of the sponsors or the hosts, whatever, before I started the talk said, "You know, you've gotten a lot of withering criticism over this, and this is really something. You have to commit to this."
And I started the commentary off by saying, "Let me tell you what withering criticism is. It isn’t this. Withering criticism is having people look at you and say, 'You just killed seven people because you weren't diligent.' Withering criticism is confronting colleagues within the agency who say, 'It wasn't my fault.' You say, no, no, no. All of us had a responsibility here. All of us stepped up to this and all of us contributed to this accident in some way, shape, or form because we didn't follow through on what it is we were committed to do and what we said needed to be done. All of us have a responsibility for that." I said, "That's withering. That's the kind of stuff that had you come to grips with the fact that you will carry this around for the rest of your life. So you're telling me that we have to risk another seven people to go do something when, in turn, you cannot assure them you've even fixed what you know was a hazard that caused the last time around, because you're mad?"
And it went over very- you could drop a pin in there. It was not thunderous applause, let's put it that way, at the end of it. If anything, it was a polite acceptance of the fact that this was something that was going to be hard.
Sean, what ideas did you develop for the role of NASA in terms of its work in basic science and how its work might relate to broader issues of national and societal import like climate change, like medical issues, like energy? What role broadly defined did you see NASA playing in those national debates?
It's critical. What I came to realize, as well, in the copious amounts of off time and looking at other issues here, was just realized the earth-observing capacity we have, and our capacity to understand any number of different environmental changes and so forth that have profound consequences and so forth is really an incredible contribution to our understanding the data of what we're looking at in terms of the consequence of climate change and any number of other factors that go with that. And so it became part of that- matter of fact, that early mission statement that I talked about that converged around a set of objectives, one of which was protect the whole planet. And this was a statement about how our responsibility needed to contribute to our understanding of what's happening to this whole planet, whether it's a natural consequence or of human contribution, as in negatively, in our behavior of how things are occurring. And I think, over that time, those are the kinds of things that I thought really pointed to the value and the legitimacy of the kinds of things that NASA was engaged in. All of the NOAA programs for earth-observing systems were all the kinds of things, Landsat and everything else, were all part of the earth sciences focus directorate that contributed to this situation. And I get, in part, loosely to the mantra I was giving you a little bit earlier in this commentary of everybody needed to help find the solution. I recall vividly when the two Mars exploration rovers landed, were launched and landed in, actually, January of 2004.
I mean, this was the same sequence of time and all this stuff as all these other events converging. After the first landing of Spirit, which was the first of the two that were launched within weeks of each other, what we realized was the landing was fortuitously- it was successful, but it had some challenges to it. It came in on a ballistic entry and did all this other stuff that was completely unnatural. The chutes unfurled at a later period than they should have. All kinds of things happened. And it made it within—we came to realize after the landing and we looked at all the data and you got it all together—realized that Spirit was, like, within ten seconds of joining all the other missions that had been attempted to Mars in the previous twenty years, of becoming a very expensive crater, because it was coming in at such a hot trajectory.
And so, on the opportunity of landing, prior to that, there was an extended effort to get all the data to figure out exactly how this was going to work, what needed to be different about the Opportunity landing and the Spirit landing, because all the other factors that we've now come to realize with actual data and everything, the folks that I asked to participate in that assessment panel were folks from the Earth Sciences Directorate who understood atmospheric conditions and so forth. And what they contributed was, no, unlike the earth, Mars doesn't have this gradual change in density from the surface of the earth into the exoatmospheric condition. What we have on Mars are pockets in which the atmosphere varies widely in terms of its density. There isn't an engineer who was designing the lander who would've ever figured that out.
So, what was demonstrated on this, and they changed the whole landing sequence. They were able to readjust and adjust the program before Opportunity came in to change the landing profile to accommodate it. And it was a perfect three-point landing. It was absolutely ideal. Opportunity was right on the mark of exactly where it was supposed to go and how it came in and what speed and everything else, because they were able to adjust for exactly those consequences because of the earth science guys. I always credited them for this incredible obvious example that could be explained to anybody. But there were an awful lot of folks looking at individual parts of this would've never said, oh, we're not doing that. It was all in the assumptions that were made before you really understood what the data was.
So, I guess that's a long way but a good anecdote to explain exactly why what NASA does in so many of these different fields is contributory not only to understanding our own conditions here on earth, but also has applications elsewhere. And there is a number of different ways in which we can look at this. For those who would ask, why in the hell are we even exploring Mars? Because, at that time, there were seven missions that were almost unblemished by any success. I mean, it was just a raft of failures that went on in this prior to Spirit and Opportunity landing. So, why are you wasting all this time and money with everything else going on? Look at this, it's a dead planet. What's there? And the answer was no, quite honestly, what the geologists, earth science folks, including the guy who was the principle investigator on the Mars exploration rovers, a Cornell geologist, would tell you is, no, there was a lot of formations on that planet that suggest that the geological formation of that planet is strikingly similar to that of earth.
And something happened in its atmosphere, whatever, over the course of the last X-million years that changed that dynamic. All the features in this suggested waters and atmosphere, there was rain, there was all kinds of other things that went on there and, lo and behold, that's not the case anymore. So don't you think it'd be interesting to know why that may have happened there? Our closest neighbor in this solar system, planetary surface looks an awful lot like ours, to inform what it is we may be doing right now that's changing our fragility to survive by our own habits or because of some trend line that's going on. All of that made exceptionally powerful sense to me. That's a damn good reason to have a great coherence between all the directions at which you put into all of the efforts in scientific research, material science, engineering features, etc., all those different things to the extent you get the most amount of synergy out of that that you can get here at home in ways that is really very contributory to the broader national agenda and global agenda on our own understanding. Long answer, but it's a great question. It really is important.
Yeah. The President's vision for exploration was incredibly inspirational, and it was also incredibly broad. And so I want to ask, how did you go about operationalizing this enormously vast mandate that the White House had put on NASA?
I guess I see it slightly differently. I think the very clear focus of it was that you can debate destinations and where you'd go with all this until the cows come in.
That's fine. And all those are aspirational and they're wonderful kind of objectives, and it demonstrates the curiosity of human nature, et cetera. That said, if you don't have the capability to go do that, all you're going to be doing is talking about it.
What it says very clearly is develop the technological capacity, the technology development challenges need to be conquered in order to achieve any of those exploration objectives. That's what it said. And that's the way we operationalized it, and that's why we set up an exploration directory instead of all these individual, chopped up pieces and parts and went to that. It was all around, what are the obstacles that I need to overcome? What are the limitations that we currently have that limit you from going anywhere? At the point of alignment, just pick Mars, at the point of alignment at the closest point every two-and-a-half years, when Mars is closest in its orbital alignment to the earth, it takes a flat 65-million miles straight line here to there to get there. That's it. In order to get there, we have to travel 360 miles in order to achieve that, because the only means we have of in-space propulsion is to rely on the fact that Einstein, damn it, was right. You apply with orbital mechanics all the way to the point where you've got to do this elliptical flight all the way to your destination. So you got to travel 360 miles to get 65 at its closest point. And all that takes time. It takes you six to seven months to achieve that. Where can we find a way to do- oh, gee, line of sight, straight line, closest distance between two points of straight line, all that stuff. And to get there with in-space propulsion capacity. It doesn't today exist.
We have none of it. The best we've got for any kind of propulsion is the means to move an asset one degree of separation from an asset to be docked at. That's it. The space shuttle always flew precisely at 17,500 miles an hour with no power, 'cause that's the speed which the gravitational condition and the orbital inclination from the earth on the rotation of the earth will constantly carry the object. It doesn't matter what it is, a rock, a space shuttle, anything, it's gonna travel at speeds akin to that. So the only way you're ever going to get to the point where you're going to fly directly to something is to develop an in-space propulsion capacity for which we do not have that.
And, Sean, did it dawn on you that you would need to bring in new blood, new expertise to accomplish these things?
Absolutely, yes. Positively. That's exactly right. That's the logical next follow on that says, well, oh, yeah, if we're going to do that, how the hell do we do this stuff? And the answer is, if you want to achieve that goal, if you want to get into lifting one of those objectives that's being referred to in this vision statement, then you got to find a whole different way of doing things than the way we're doing it today. And it meant recruiting folks out of nuclear engineering-related kind of backgrounds, who knew how to propel using nuclear power to accomplish that. There's only one place that does it in the United States and that's the Naval reactors community.
So, I recruited a guy to be the chief engineer of the Naval Reactors Department at the Department of the Navy. And so, Theron Bradley shows up at NASA suddenly as, okay, we're going to figure out how to figure out propulsion systems, how to do this kind of stuff. Recruited Craig Steidle, who had been a program manager on what was then the Joint Strike Fighter, which was something that was designed to do a whole range of different capabilities built into one asset that said, okay, that's the quintessential example of a complex engineering project. You get to come run this one. And he became the exploration director for it, leader, with no background whatsoever at NASA at all. But a peerless guy who was with a high engineering background that was in aeronautics capability that was widely viewed- everybody through the agency said, oh, yeah, he's qualified for that, that's for sure.
So, yeah, a lot of different- that's just a couple of examples, but those are the kinds of folks that we wanted to recruit and needed to recruit, a different capacity to get together with the talent we had within the agency, which is considerable, to leverage that talent to find different answers to solutions like this. And it was all about how to look at the technology development options to overcome inherent obstacles. And that's a serious challenge. Just in terms of power generation sources and so forth, a lot of folks say, well, gee, isn't what is happening now with commercial space and so forth a really transformative, fantastic new chapter in space exploration? The answer is yes, but it's not transformative. It is a very significant, huge incremental process and product improvement program. Falcon 9 is an unbelievable machine. It's a great launch vehicle and it utilizes a lot of new material sciences, a lot of material science outcomes. It's a completely different composition than what was seen in most rockets previous to it. But, at its core, at its fundamentals, it's still propelled by chemical propulsion and it still utilizes the same basic propulsion model and technique as every other rocket program since Alan Shepard went into orbit.
It's exactly the same. And even things like the solid rocket boosters that land on platforms. That's fabulous! That saves easily twenty-five to thirty percent of the margin. I mean, the bean counter in me is really admiring of the fact that you shaved off that much incremental loss in doing this. But they're using the same concept of solid rocket boosters as what we did on shuttle. And much like shuttle, they were reusable. They broke off the orbiter on the way to launch in the first three-and-a-half to four minutes, dropped into the ocean. The two solid rocket boosters were dredged out of the ocean, thrown on a barge, brought back to the Kennedy Space Center, and went through a refurbishment so you could use them again. What SpaceX has figured out how to do is how to land them on a platform and don't have to go through digging them out of the ocean and refurbishing all this stuff. That's huge! But is it transformative? No. It's a product improvement of massive orientation. It's fabulous; absolutely incredible! In and of itself, it's not a different way of doing business. Launching is not a different way of doing business on Falcon 9. A fabulous machine loaded with new complex technology that is the most modern asset we've built lately, unbelievably great. It's the same kind of principle we've been using for fifty years.
Talk to me when you way I've got an entirely different fuel source, a whole different way of launching, coming up with something that is a one-stage to orbit, not two-stage to orbit capability. All those kind of things, that would be transformation, and that's what he talked about in January of 2004, is find me those technology development opportunities that you can then employ to conquer the limitations to do the same things that Wernher von Braun did when he created the capability to develop a rocket and make this happen, something that never existed before that. And thank God the war ended when it did, because the V-2 would've done an awful lot of things for the wrong side—
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
—in ways that would've been pretty damn scary. But those are the kind of things that animate in us to say, let's identify, what are the long poles in a tent on this? Figure out new ways to accomplish that goal. And they don't all need to have to happen at the same time, but let's find ways to demonstrate them in sequence and ways to do this. So part of what Craig Steidle, for example, introduced as a way to manifest precisely what was in that vision for space exploration was how to develop or use spiral development as a mechanism, frankly much the same way we did in the Mercury to Gemini phase in which Gemini was there as a demonstration of any number of different capabilities to perform EVAs, space walks, to do docking and landing in space condition, all those different factors. A whole range of different things that were demonstrated, in terms of capability, in that Gemini period that led to Apollo as an approach to do this. That is an early, early manifestation of a spiral development kind of concept that Steidle laid out in very structured form of, I gotta prove this, prove that, then look at this next stage and accomplish that task before we can get to this outcome. And every one of them has a step and every one of them is a mode where the act of demonstrating it will, in fact, be progress that people will see, as opposed to, get back to me, I'll let you know when we're all done. I'll see you in about three years.
This was, let's do this in stages and everybody can see what's going on, in effect, get crowd sourcing on what they saw was the outcome or utility of that outcome in order to meet the next step. And it was a strategy that was part of the whole construct that was really embedded in it. So how did we focus it? We concentrated on that dimension of it, which was the central feature of what he talked about.
At the end of 2004 when you were thinking about stepping down, in what ways were you confident, both on the cultural side and the technology side, that the changes you had implemented would be long lasting and durable?
Well, I quite honestly wasn't completely confident that all of it would be sustaining or follow on well after I left. It was more of a focus, I set in my mind a number of objectives but, first of all, as soon as we returned to flight, that's a good time for someone else to lead this place, to take a whole new approach to it, come in with a fresh set of ideas, and approach this in whatever way that would be necessary. Because, what I also learned in every leadership capacity was, after a period of time, particularly when you're in an intense period of time like this one was, you start falling prey to what you think is the rectitude of the direction you're going because that's the way you started it. So you kind of get into a mindset in which you're less tolerant of variations to it because you put some much heart and soul into getting here. And there isn't any corner on the market for that in a place like NASA because everything is just a new development. If it weren't, somebody else would've done it before you ever got there. And so, I thought, okay, I potentially could fall victim to becoming exactly what I spent a lot of time railing against was, stop looking at it the same damn way.
Find what you gotta find in order to introduce maybe an entirely different way of accomplishing the same goal. And if you're not wed to the way you're doing it, you will get to that outcome faster. So, as part of what I did feel like would be a cultural change that would sustain, the construct of how we were going to set it up, the strategies that we employed, the turning the corner on the culture, I think the fundamentals were achieved. And as soon as the return to flight was well established and ready to go, that's when I decided that's a great opportunity for somebody else to be presiding over this.
And, from a personal standpoint, I was flat broke (laughter). It was time I just had to go. Public service was one of those—my first of three kids was starting college. That's tough, and I was barely- I was figuring out which credit card to pay from month to month. And it was just that kind of thing. So, it was a case where my discipline in our own family finance obviously wasn't as good as it should've been. So, I was ill prepared for- that's an honest answer to it. It was partly driven by my own personal situation and the opportunity to go off to Louisiana State University as the chancellor there was certainly a much better condition than remaining a public servant with those absolutely impressive remunerative packages that are offered- not.
There was a danger at NASA that, like you said, you were going to become the problem that you had come there to fix if you had stayed for too long?
That's it. That's right. And that's about what I said.
How did the opportunity at LSU come about?
Well, again, honest rendition of that was, I was approached by a guy I knew actually when I was a graduate student much earlier who had gone on to be an advisor to the current chancellor of Louisiana State University, who had announced he was planning to go back to his home state of Washington to be the president there. Had been on the job so they announced he was leaving. This is Mark Emmert, who is now the head of the NCAA, that's the guy who was my predecessor at LSU. And his advisor was a fellow named Mike Crow, who was now, and has been for some time now, the President of Arizona State University. But he came to me at a conference or something I was doing a talk at and he said- I knew him a whole lot better than he knew me. I was a lowly grad student and he was a doc student who went off to great things. And so, when I saw him there, I said, "Gee, it's great to see you." And he said, "I want to talk to you separately here for a few minutes if you've got the time afterwards." And I talked to him and he said, "Would you even be interested in being a candidate to be the chancellor of Louisiana State University?" And this was in summer of 2004, or late spring, something like that. And I told him, under the present circumstances, no. I said, "I have no intention whatsoever of leaving now for two reasons. We had all the things in motion to finally get back to flight and do all these great things, and we're still recovering from Columbia and I think that the end is certainly within range of how long we're going be able to do it, so I cannot do that now. So, number two, I'm sure not going to leave before the end of this term of this President."
Because anybody who leaves or announces they're going to leave in the months leading up to an election, that automatically starts a big churn within the journalist watchers out there. Folks are jumping ship and all this kind of stuff. I said, "No. I'm not going to be a contributor to that and never would be in any circumstance. So there is no way I'd even entertain a discussion like this until the day after the election. Whatever the results are, talk to me then."
And another caveat I told him was, "And if I gotta go through a big search process and be a candidate and all that stuff, the answer is no, I don't have time for all that crap. I'm really busy doing this and that would require being publicly identified as a candidate anyway, which defeats part of the purpose in all the other things I was doing."
I said, "So, no. If anybody says that I'm a candidate and that gets into a discussion or the trade press anywhere or anything else, my answer will be I'll deny it right on the spot and say, 'No, I'm not.' And that'll be the end of that. If anybody's got any serious interest in whether I do this or not, hell, I'm an open book. It doesn't get any better than what you're already reading about today” (laughter).
I said, "So, what you need to know about me is pretty well known out there." I said, "So if they can't make up their mind that I'm the guy they want and they can make up their mind to do that after the election, give me a call." Well, bigger than life was, the day after the election they called up and said, "We're really interested and would like to offer you a job."
That's essentially what happened. There were a couple of steps thereafter I had to do in November of 2004 to meet a couple of different members of the Board of Supervisors and spend time with the president of the university system at that time to understand the nature of the chancellor's scope and purview and all that stuff. And I did that over the succeeding few weeks. And so, in February of 2005, I assumed the office as LCU chancellor the day after- better yet, the Monday after I left NASA on Friday in February of 2005.
Was your sense that there was a singular challenge that attracted interest in you just like how the President wanted you to go in based on your reputation for budgets to go to NASA?
Oh, no. I don't think the- well, I shouldn't be that hasty. There were a couple of members of the Board of Supervisors, they're trustees, who had expended, particularly the chairman, who felt like they had expended a lot of energy and a lot of support for a strategy that Mark Emmert, my predecessor, had pretty much laid out over the previous several years on how to restore the LSU Baton Rouge campus construct to being the flagship university of the State of Louisiana. And they put a lot of effort into this and organized it and everything else to be around that particular strategy. And so the one aspect that they were anxious to do is to see someone in the job who would feel a sense of responsibility to implement that strategy. Because they did all the construction and the analysis and everything else, and the thought work and the selling it to the state communities and all this kind of stuff, but there wasn't an implementation plan. And they said, we need somebody that knows how to implement something. We need somebody that knows how to be a page turner in how to motivate others to be wrench turners along with that. Which meant that, first and foremost, I had to buy-in to the strategy itself, but secondly, I would view that as a noble cause.
And the answer to both was, yeah, I think it's a damn good strategy. It really was. It was very well thought out, and they had done all the things that I espouse in terms of how you ought to do strategic planning. And how you ought to formulate strategy is get all the stakeholders, everybody an opportunity to put their thumbprint on it, but then make decisions about it that are very clear so you don't get a committee writing this thing. And then, make sure you implement this with great conviction. And certainly, those were all the things I preached. They kind of caught me at that and said, we've heard you say this; is that something you're really willing to do here? And the answer was, yeah, I'm in it; you're singing my tune on it. And it really was a great challenge and a great opportunity but one that I thought very much fit the parameters of what was there, and that's something that was a very compatible reason to go engage something like this.
Second thing was, quite crassly, I guess, their approach—or at least they told me they thought it was crass—was to say, look we want to capitalize on the fact you've got unbelievable name recognition and lots of national, at that time, notoriety for having driven everybody through this Columbia experience. Because I was on the weekend talk shows incessantly and lots of daily press conferences that got televised and all this stuff, hearings, and anything else. And they said, this is terrific. If we were to recruit a guy like you that's got that kind of name recognition, that's going to put some buzz around this. And one of the board members was a guy who owned a whole bunch of communications packages, ran newspapers and television stations and radio stations and all that stuff. And they said, "Hell, just recruiting you is going to be a million bucks' worth of branding right there. So that's what our interest is." And I said, "Fine. If that suits your purpose, great, but there's a lot of baggage that comes with that (laughter). So, be careful, it's not all upside." And they got that, but that was their motivation, in part. But I think the thing that really was substantively the part that was the greatest criteria was, are you prepared to implement this particular strategic construct? And the answer to that, from a very clear management and leadership kind of assessment on my part, was a resounding yes.
This was a noble objective they were after and it resulted in the outcome we were looking for. In the time that I spent as chancellor, we actually achieved the objectives of what was outlined in that strategy. And it brought the university back to a position where it was in the top tier of national universities. It brought it back to a very strong standing as a tier one research institution. Brought it back to the point in which you were recruiting very high-end students in the state who were solid performers who then, in turn, would have a motivation to stay in the state after they graduated.
Because brain drain was an issue in Louisiana?
Oh, it was gigantic. Anybody that was in the top 10% of your class, they left the state, said to hell with it. So changing the admission standards really making a far more rigorous academic construct to this, which it had been. It had just drifted in the previous twenty-odd years to almost an open enrollment status. It was unbelievable. But it had been one of the preeminent universities back in the sixties and seventies, and it just declined in this timeframe. So much of what my predecessor did in devising the strategy was to kind of reverse that, and we did. And it really was very satisfying. And, on top of that, one of the things that was not in the strategy but that I threw into it of my own volition was a capital campaign to raise the first ever endowment positioning that would be greater. I walked into—that was one dismal part of it was the endowment of the university as big and as well-known and as legendary as LSU is had an endowment of a hundred million bucks. That was it.
I mean, that's a rounding error to Yale and Harvard and all these other outfits—
—to lose that much or gain that much on any given day in their endowment portfolio. And so, setting up an endowment that would achieve at least a 750-million-dollar objective over a span of three years is what I said. We did, and it was a hell of a lot of pushing and shoving, but it was frankly, well, hey, imprudent in some respect in the sense that there hadn't been a capital campaign in anybody's memory. If you've got any idea of the culture in Louisiana, the notion behind this was it was a big crawfish boil, and everybody was asked to throw in 10 bucks. That was their idea of a capital campaign. So this was a concerted effort really looking at corporate and personal contributions and raising all this other kind of stuff in order to get some very specific objectives, which there were five enumerated. They were all derived from this strategy to say, we're going to support the funding and do all these things. It worked, and the stage in which we hit the academic standing of back into the top tier of universities, we met the goal of the capital campaign, and we won the national football championship that year.
I said, this is a sign. It's time to go (laughter). So, that's when I pulled the lever and got out.
Sean, however superficial the comparison, I can't help but notice the parallel historically of being an outsider coming in and dealing with a disaster and a tragedy between the Columbia and Katrina. Can you talk a little bit about what the scene was like when Katrina hit for you?
Oh, yeah. Well, my friends always ask me where am I going to go next so they can run away.
Yeah, right (laughter).
Because I seem to have this habit of having stuff either there burning when I get there, or I'll fix that in short order making sure something is by the time I'm there only a short time. It was unbelievable. Katrina, long story short on that one, the effected impact on LSU and the campus was really quite profound in that—I'm from New Orleans, originally. My family is-I told you the first time we got together, we're all from there. So, unlike New Orleans, which was flooded, closed down, and everybody evacuated, not just evacuated; it was just this diaspora that rolled out of New Orleans in desperation. All of the roads from New Orleans through to the north and west of there have to pass through Baton Rouge, so everybody came to Baton Rouge along the way. Some stayed.
What kind of damage did Baton Rouge sustain itself?
A lot of wind damage, a lot of rain, all that kind of stuff, but- and everything within about a 250-mile radius of New Orleans. The power went out for extended periods of time. And, in Baton Rouge, the consequence on LSU was all the power is out except for we had a cogeneration facility right on the campus that generated about two-thirds of the power we typically used. So, as a result, we were the only major institution within a 250-mile radius that was open, and that included hospitals and all this other stuff.
In the state emergency response plan or whatever that they had devised prior to Katrina, one of the roles that LSU was supposed to play was to be a transfer point for folks transported from minimally-assisted living units and some of the hospitals. And so they envisioned something like one hundred people potentially being evacuated to LSU in the event of a hurricane in which an independent living or assisting living home were to be closed down or a hospital was to be shut down. Well, everything around there closed, so it wasn't a hundred we got, we got thousands instead, and anybody else who stopped in on the way. So the contribution LSU made at that time was not only to, within a week, resume activities on campus, but then admitted an additional roughly 6,000 students from all these other universities in New Orleans that had to bail out after one week of classes and automatically just admitted sight unseen. Come on in here, you got a seat. So, it brought the student enrollment up by, like, a factor of about twenty percent-
—in a span of just about ten days to two weeks. But the thousands of evacuees from the area that came through all stopped through LSU on the way because we had taken this particular state mandate for a hundred people—well, we scoped it out to something bigger than that, took the entire Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which was the place they played basketball, and took out the parquet basketball floor, stowed it, and turned the entire arena into a 1,000-bed hospital. And all the doctors from all the closed hospitals came to and operated out of there. And the dominant three-quarters of the cases they dealt with were all maladies that stemmed from dehydration, exhaustion, all kinds of stuff like that, dialysis, all those other things were big time functions of what they had to engage in. So we set the whole arena up for the purpose of supporting that constantly occupied 1,000-bed operation, which was described by the Surgeon General when he came down to visit it, he said, "Geez, this is the biggest single MASH unit I've ever seen."
"This is colossal." And so you had more students, families moving in with their students into their dorms, that kind of stuff, citizens from across the state with no place to go that couldn't get into some of the other facilities who could come camp out at all kinds of different public buildings around the campus that we accommodated. And running this hospital unit and all the things that went with that was the experience that lasted for the better part of about- well, a full semester. Which it started to decline, in terms of demand, around November, December. Having happened in August, this went on for months.
Did you have opportunity to work with your former colleagues in the Bush administration on disaster response?
I did, in ways that really were incredibly beneficial. Thad Allen, who went on to be the guy who dealt with the Deepwater Horizon issues in the gulf and so forth, former commandant, I'd known him from his time as commandant and even prior to that, and he moved to Baton Rouge and actually lived on campus. We found him a room in one of the faculty center dorm rooms that were available there that we let him move into for several months. Bob Mueller, I got to know him, I'd known him and worked with him before in my Defense Department days and then in various opportunities thereafter when he was—and, again, I would spend a lot of time in New Orleans, and I guess he had been a prosecutor working in that area. And he had become the director of the FBI by that stage, of course. And little-known tidbit: LSU, I discovered when I got there, was- LSU runs the central disseminations for all the information on incident reports and whatever to all the state and local communities. So it is the federal repository for all those reports coming in nationally and being disseminated back out. This was a biproduct of 9/11, I guess looking at, how do you establish places where you're going to have central repositories?
So, we were the FBI national repository for all that law enforcement data and information and reporting that, in turn, was sent back out the other way. I didn't realize that was there until I arrived a few weeks after being chancellor. But, anyway, Bob Mueller used to come down with relative frequency, every few months or so, in order to debrief a lot of the folks there on some of the information they were getting and analysis they were doing. And, when Katrina hit, he called me up and said, "The entire New Orleans Division, Bureau of the FBI has been now flooded out, and we gotta find a place for them to operate out of. Is there any way we can do it at LSU?" And I said, "Well, yes, sir, absolutely. We'll make sure of that." And set them all up and had the accommodations for a few office staffing required to run the bureau division segment that had been in New Orleans. But they also had to find a place to put them all up. And probably the most humorous anecdotal story of that period was we found a- or offered to them a fraternity house that had been closed down prior to Katrina as a consequence of some series of transgressions that the members of the fraternity had done.
So they were all evicted, told you're off campus for two years, and all this stuff. And I said, "Hey, I got this frat house that's available. Let everybody move in there." They said, "Great!" So a lot of the FBI folks in New Orleans who had come and been relocated and had been headquartered in LSU for the region moved in there and got in the spirit of the things and renamed the fraternity house Phi Beta Iota (laughter). They'd have pickup softball games with the frat row guys and all this kind of stuff. But I always commented to folks around the state whenever I'd do any kind of public appearances on this stuff, and said, "The comportment on fraternity row has never been better than the time that we had FBI agents living right there."
There you go (laughter).
(Laughter) "Everybody's really squared away and behaving themselves. No enforcement required." So, yeah, I dealt with a lot of the folks in the administration I'd gotten to know and worked with and so forth in ways that were, in some ways, extremely contributory, in a lot of ways kind of hard. It was really a kick. And a lot of the White House staff folks who I had dealt with, I also was able to be in touch with in regularity, and it was regular communications through some of them to the President and so forth. So they got kind of an understanding of what was going on there from my little piece of the equation. But that was a pretty big piece given the fact that everything passed through there. There was lots of activity going on, but it was quite an unbelievable experience. I thought, geez, there was one whole dimension of the Columbia story that was very similar to this. It had great parallels in it and it gave me a real edge of how to deal with this Katrina incident was, one of the things that we did immediately after the accident, on behalf of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, was they wanted the forensic evidence of as much of the orbiter as they could possibly get their hands on to figure out how to back into and process of eliminate all the options of what could've happened. So that required that we literally retrieve as much of the orbiter as possible. And I came to realize within twenty-four hours after having lost it that we're talking about a swath of the wreckage that went 200 miles from just east of Dallas all the way to the Louisiana border, and even a little further in Louisiana, and about ten miles wide. And so we had to pick up all that stuff in a way that, frankly, even if everybody in the agency were to stop what they were doing and go engage in that, would've been just a herculean effort.
And the first objective, of course, was also to assure that public safety was preserved, so the EPA and lots of other law enforcement community folks were involved in making sure that all of the wreckage was protected, that it wasn't localized. It was spread over that whole swath. So, in the end, it took the better end of about 25,000 people over a span that was a concentrated three-and-a-half to four months, just short of one hundred days, I guess, to actually accumulate all the material, everything we'd find. And we ended up piecing together roughly a third of the size of the orbiter, the dry weight of the orbiter. Had it all packaged up and reassembled at the Kennedy Space Center. And that many people from the National Guard, from US Forest Service, volunteers, huge collective of people, talking 25,000 folks who contributed to this, who walked that entire distance to retrieve everything they could possibly find to inform that forensic investigation. Well, one of the things you have to develop in order to organize and orchestrate how you would do something like that required having an incident management unit of some variety and who's in charge, and how do you coordinate all these well-meaning volunteers and all that stuff? And learned all that stuff on a crash course, as a result.
Within a couple or three days of this exercise, I realized I had to appoint people to go take charge of this, that, or the other feature of this, because I wasn't in the area, I was up in D.C. And so, I had to find the right kind of folks to be in coordinating command of this thing, not just because you're in charge but because you got the ability to pull all these agencies together. So, essentially, bringing in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and all these other outfits that were involved or could be involved, and the EPA and everybody else, in order to get the teams together to actually meet a series of objectives, collect up all this stuff, categorize it, and send it off to Kennedy. It turned out to be exactly the same thing we did in Katrina.
So, when this stopped and everybody started arriving on campus after the hurricane, the first step was how to set up an incident command unit. How do you get an organization together that's going to coordinate all this activity and understand what it is you need, what are the—everybody there representing each part of the infrastructure and capacity at LSU who could actually tell you what's our capacity for dining halls, what's our capacity for housing, where do we need to get mattresses, and all that kind of stuff. All those basic blocking and tackling implementation things all could be done by one unit gathering that data, that information, that understanding and then disseminating it as a tasking to all the various folks that we knew we had at our disposal. And, in a lot of ways, it was like just taking a page out of that same Columbia recovery playbook and superimposing it on top of this situation. In very short order, we had an organized situation that was certainly mayhem and lots of people running around and figuring out what to do, but everybody knew how to work through the mechanics of this. And it resulted in the outcome we got, which was, I'm very proud to say, about as successfully as we could've navigated through this in a way that was productive. And, in the process, help thousands of people who were in desperate need of medical attention and everything else survive the experience. And it was something else.
And trying to turn this over to the kinds of people who were expert at it, there was no shortage of doctors and medical staff and so forth from all these other hospitals that all you had to do was get them together in a room and say, what do we need to do and how should we organize this? And they quickly came up with a whole triage operation that made it very, very understandable. It went on and on. I guess a final point, too, I'm really proud of and I want to make sure is at least observed again is the volunteerism I saw during Katrina, again, much like what I saw at the Columbia recovery thing, of just citizens, people and communities who cared an awful lot about this, who just presented themselves and made themselves available to do things—again, this whole medical triage operation was being done in the basketball arena, so it had all the bleachers and stands right there inside the arena. And it didn't matter what time of day or night I walked into that place, that the stands weren't occupied by at least 300 to 400 people sitting there waiting to be called to volunteer their time to take over for somebody on the next shift of emptying bedpans, getting plasma bags, doing whatever. And a lot of them were students and a lot of them were just citizens in the community who would show up at that arena and come sit in the stands and wait to be called. I need twenty people to go do this; everybody would stand up and go do it. And it didn't matter what- I remember walking in there at 2 o'clock in the morning one time and seeing 250, 300 students sitting there. I'm thinking, man oh man, this is- that doesn't happen because you told them they have to. That happens because you have folks who are desperately dedicated to the community in which they live and are looking for some way to contribute to some positive outcome to get out of this.
And that was inspiring.
Same way it was when I'd go to these basecamps out in the middle of nowhere in Texas of these people who had spent the day picking up debris, who were from everywhere, every background you could imagine, farmers and ranchers and doctors and lawyers. It didn't matter. They were all there. Showed up, I'm here to help. What do you do normally? (laughter) Everybody, these folks that show up with food, with everything. Folks who automatically just set up these dining facilities. The parallels of these two cases was striking in terms of how that was done. And so it tells if you harness this incredible capacity of goodwill and well-meaning intentions that isn't motivated because people compel them to do something or order them to do anything, but you have to find a way to meaningfully let them see that they're doing something that matters. That's the biggest obligation, and the only one, frankly, you've got when you're faced with situations like that. It pays huge dividends when you get it right. And, in both cases, fortuitously, we got a lot right more often than we got wrong. And I was really amazed to see, it brought an almost imperceptible sense of confidence around the LSU community that we've gotten through this, we've weathered it successfully, we've helped a lot of people along the way. You know, hell, yeah, this is the flagship university. We can figure out what we can do to make it better.
Oh, I didn't count on that one but, boy, it paid off.
It's remarkable, really, how similar it is in terms of a challenge that was handed your way and what you did with it. It's kind of—
I was just the fortunate recipient of an awful lot of it.
Yeah. The joke is, among your friends, like you said, that see where you're going and run in the other direction, but obviously Airbus saw this and said, you know what, these things happen; maybe you're the guy that should be there if it does.
Yeah, partly. That was an opportunity that I never saw coming. Frankly, it was one step that I made right after I left LSU, the point in which all those things were achieved, and I was ready to get all that kind of tasked around. And just fortuitously got called from a headhunter that I knew from a prior life in Washington who called up, she was somebody who had been in HR and then left and went off to one of the recruiting talent search firms and called up and said, "Hey, I got this great job. Somebody's looking for somebody just like you at General Electric." I said, "That's great. Tell me more." I'm packing up, getting myself ready to roll out of LSU. Talk to me." And long story short, I got recruited to go to General Electric as one of the corporate VPs dealing mostly with the aerospace and engine division segment, really as a known commodity again, the same kind of thing as the LSU thing was. They knew who I was, had some understanding of my background.
And so I spent a year there when I was approached by the Airbus folks at that time known EADS, European Aeronautic Defence and Space Corporation, of which Airbus was a division, but it was a conglomerate of all these different space, defense, and aerospace kind of stuff. And they came to me to offer the opportunity to be the CEO of the US subsidiary, knowing my background and reputation and all that stuff from the NASA days and Navy experience and everything else that went along with that with the Pentagon. Because they were in the midst of—you may have remembered—they were in the middle of a rather spirited competition with Boeing on who was going to provide the Air Force with tankers to replace the existing fleet of refueling aircraft. And so Airbus was a partner with Northrup-Grumman in a proposal to do this. And this would be- if the company won, would be the requirement of the Airbus North American US subsidiary to actually implement this and actually get on with not only producing the aircraft but also providing all the service requirements and everything else, in addition to all the other things they were doing. They were building helicopters and electronics systems and lots of other things.
But they said, gee, for this one big program, we're going to need somebody who knows how to implement something, and asked if I would be willing to do it. And I said, "To be a CEO of a US subsidiary? Sure, I'll take that” (laughter). So, I packed up from General Electric and went to Airbus and spent the next six years doing that. The postscript is, in about a year-and-a-half to two years after I arrived, they did not win the competition and Boeing ended up winning it and the rest is history. Boeing has yet to deliver. This was in 2011. Boeing has yet to deliver a full squadron of replacement refueling aircraft, yet, ten years later. And that hasn't been lost on anybody because what Airbus bid was an existing design aircraft that they had converted from a baseline airframe. It was already operating with several of the NATO allies. So all the NATO allies were flying the refueling aircraft that Airbus produced, and all of the US aircraft are still being refueled by aircraft that were built in the 1960s that the Air Force is forced to keep. That's the sad story of that one.
But, from there, after that program went by the wayside—but that was the reason they recruited me. It was, if we win this, we've got to get somebody to set up the infrastructure, deal with all this and deal with all that, and know how to do that and recruit the people who know how to do that. So, what we ended up doing was, in anticipation of winning this contract or this opportunity for a program, we looked at a facility to set up at an old Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama that could be occupied for, like, pennies on the dollar. You go in and set it up so that we could produce all the aircraft right there, which there was a 7,000-foot runway right there at this location that hadn't been used in years. Great deal. This worked out pretty good. And turned out we didn't need it for that program, but we did need it, as it turned out. About the same time that this particular competition concluded unfavorably, the demand for single aisle aircraft—the usual kind you fly for two or three hours at a clip like a 737 or an A320—the demand for the A320 aircraft went from roughly 400 a year to about 1,000.
So, I said, whew, we gotta figure out some new place to assemble these things. And so one of the places that was selected was this very facility where we were going to build refueling tankers. Well, shoot, skip that, let's put A320s in there (laughter). And that's where they're building them today. So they're cranking out a phenomenal number of- at least were before the pandemic hit, a phenomenal number of aircraft that were built there as well as three or four other locations around the world. But it was the first US assembly location for the Airbus company, and it's still operating great guns today because of that work that was done at the time. So it ended up being for an entirely different purpose, but I was able to convert it to the commercial purpose and get all that cemented up and done by the time I left there in 2015.
And in what ways did that endeavor ensure the long-term viability of Airbus, both globally and domestically?
Well, I think the long-term viability was a much broader corporate challenge. I mean, I was a member of the executive committee, the corporation at the time, every one of the subsidiary units were all members of the executive committee services. It was about ten, eleven members of which the corporate CEO was the presiding guy. And so we'd get together every month to six weeks or so with regularity. You're laying it out, you're looking at all the implantation strategies for various objectives we had in mind. And this was one dimension of that. There were several others. One was resizing the company and selling off certain divisions and so forth. Other cases was adding new capability. But this was a piece of it. I would hardly say it was the factory that made it—the transformative feature that produced until, again, the pandemic hit, one of the most extraordinary growth patterns of any aerospace company. It contributed to it, but it was not the singular reason.
And then back home again. You have two homes, Syracuse and Louisiana. Back home again to Syracuse.
Well, that was motivated by a whole different set of circumstances. One of the incidents that kind of had worn on me in the time that I was at Airbus that was unrelated to my job there, I was involved—I was in a plane crash with my dear friend, my mentor, a guy I had worked for on the appropriations committee years before, Senator Ted Stevens. And he and I and seven others, including my youngest son, were all aboard an aircraft that went down in Alaska while we were on a fishing trip. And he didn't make it, along with four others, and four of us did. And as time kind of went by thereafter- I mean, I had some extensive injuries, some that I'm still dealing with, that required an awful lot of attention and a lot of focus and so forth. And really started to realize over the last several years more honestly, I had a neuro doc who helped me realize that, after a period of time, going through all these repetitive different surgeries and corrective practice, all this kind of stuff, and then, as soon as I'd get out of the hospital, hop on a plane and fly to Europe to attend a meeting and all this kind of stuff. He very compellingly told me, he said, "Look, you just managed to survive something that very few people are lucky enough to do. And with the injuries you had, an even fewer number come out of it anywhere near in the condition you're in." I mean, I'm ambulatory and all this stuff against all the odds. And he told me, "Of the people that I've ever seen who have had this problem, ninety percent of them are either riding around in a wheelchair or they're not here. And you've got everything fully in shape, so you're going to continue to feel a little bit like you've been through a plane crash for a lot of years” (laughter).
"And the question is, how many of those have you got left? So one way to shorten them is to keep doing what you're doing, or you can figure out a way to go do something that won't require you to throw yourself across the pond every several weeks and manage an organization of several hundred that does all kind of different things. So which one do you want to do, it's up to you?" And it took a while for the comprehension to set in and for this big Irish skull to be penetrated to realize, no, this is a good time to get out. It was just about that point that my old colleagues at Syracuse who I had worked with on some occasions a few years earlier came back and said, "Look, anytime you want to come back, we have this endowed chair that we've had a hell of a time filling. Can't find anybody else. It fits this very narrow parameter of what we're looking for, and you fit it to a tee. So if you ever get tired of doing what you're doing or you want to move on to something else, keep us in mind."
And so one day Laura and I talked about that and I picked up the phone and called them up and said, "Remember that endowed chair professorship you were talking about? Where do I sign up?" And so in early 2015 I came back. And so it's a great opportunity to get back into what I really enjoyed doing years before. And, boy, I gotta tell you, it's a fraction of the challenge of running something, managing things, leading organizations and all that stuff. Since this pandemic began, I have talked to many friends, including the chancellor of Syracuse University, and said, let me tell you, I am really glad my experience is in the rearview mirror of doing this kind of stuff, 'cause this is really god-awful, what they're doing, the challenges they're facing now and the issues they're confronting. This is really, really hard. Man, I mean, the exhaustion factor would've hit me pretty quick. So, this is one of those cases where you're best off when you know your limitations. I know what mine are and this was the time in life I needed to finally fold up aspirations and set aside your ambitions and go do something that you know how to do and can make a meaningful contribution at but that won't be something that feels like you stuck your head in a vice grip every day (laughter). This was a good time to end it.
Absolutely. Sean, for the last part of our talk, I want to ask a few broadly retrospective questions that ask you to think about your career as a whole. And the first one is a question about leadership. In what ways has the things that society and institutions have asked of leaders, in what ways has that changed over your decades in public and private service and in what ways has that stayed the same?
Well, I guess the primary changes that occurred that I've witnessed over time is that the community of interests, as it were, that feel as though they have a stake in the success of the leadership or the failure of it, either one, is higher than it was before. There was a fairly straightforward kind of succession selection process, if you will, of who the leadership would be, whether you're talking about a company or various public agencies or, for that matter, universities and whatever else for which there is a set way to do this. You do the following things, check the following boxes, and you'll find your way to those kinds of roles. And what's changed over the last I'd say twenty-five, thirty years I've kind of either been part of or watched it or in the middle of is that there's a dramatically larger number of stakeholders, shareholders, if you will, if it's a company, or community engagement or whatever. Folks that feel like they have a stake in the action and ought to select who ought to be in those capacities in some cases, not all, but in some, but certainly want to pass judgment on the success or failure or the lack of progress that may result from that and make that tone, [it would] be an interesting audience participation poll; they want to be able to be in a position to effect change if they think it's a negative. And that's important. That's big.
The second thing I think that's huge, or I should say has accelerated as a challenge, is the demand for accountability. Now that, on its face, is a good thing. I can never have an objection to anybody in any leadership capacity being accountable for their actions and accountable for their results and so forth. But it is a level of accountability that now is passed out sometimes in the court of public opinion in a way that is far less measured, it has no particular metrics, and is more judgmental based on either events of the time or the subjective circumstances, whatever.
And the consequence of that, in addition to appearing to be somewhat frivolous or indiscriminate, or uneven in terms of its fairness of how it is meted out in terms of the popularity or negative view, but that it has an impact on the collective that works within that organization in a way that has become progressively more and more risk averse. And that's a profound consequence. I mean, I found an accelerated number of cases in which my leadership responsibilities at various enterprises, whether they were a public agency or a private company or a nonprofit institution or a university, anything, was that I had to find myself in defense of people who were colleagues within the organization. Or try to work out how to establish a fair accountability assessment of performance, because otherwise what you create within the workforce, within the community of colleagues of any organization you're in, this mindset that says, well, they hand out the rewards frivolously and they beat up on folks that are the ones who get accused, rightly or wrongly, of having failed at the task. And so they're uneven at that and so therefore I don't know if I want to follow these people. There's a real consequence to that, and it is a very different standard today, a much more difficult standard today that requires less of a- it's grounded less in analysis and careful consideration and much more grounded in perception, emotion, popular view, stampede, whatever that you really have to constantly be sensitive to how it works. And I found as a leadership capacity that took up more of my time dealing with than it did when I first started in leadership capacities.
Over time it just accelerated exponentially. And, again, that has, [in the] main, it's a very good thing to have a very, very high standard of transparency and accountability. I am never going to argue against that. But you've got to really work with what are the consequences when it's exercised poorly. And I guess the other thing that's changed about leadership over time—and, again, in a positive way, but it also has some other consequences, is the ethics requirements, the integrity measures. The standards of conduct, the standards of behavior, the expectations of integrity are measured in a much more elaborate way today, particularly in public organizations.
But even in companies it's dealt with in an entirely different standard. Based on ethics requirements, they've gotten much, much more rigid, much more exacting, much more clarifying in terms of what you can do and you can't do, what's a violation and what's not, and setting out standards that are very, very high bar. And that's good. I can't argue with that, of the integrity feature or the preservation of it or whatever. That said, it's introduced two major complications, and I've noticed this in all four of the appointments I've had, that the ethics requirements and compliance demands to fill out all the information, disclose what you're doing, all that kind of stuff—and, oh, by the way, you can't be this or something else. Or if you got X-amount of dollars, whatever, there are a very limited number of capabilities in terms of your personal wealth, all that kind of stuff, and what you've got to do thereafter, that didn't exist when I first started. When I first went through this, and by the time I finished the last one, the standards of ethics and the standards were much deeper. You almost needed a Philadelphia lawyer to help you figure out all the features you were signing up to. And the compliance requirements were far more rigid than what I ever saw on the front end of the first one I went through. It went up exponentially each stage. And it wasn't because of me, it was just across the board. Every appointment required this. I got through every one of those for only a couple of fundamental reasons. The first one was I wasn't worth a dime. So one way that you avoid conflict of interests is to have no interests, and, boy, I had none. So, as a consequence, I was straight down the line on that stuff. And financially I passed every sniff test.
You told me you maxed out your credit cards. Of course you were financially right down the line (laughter).
I mean, it was nasty. But the other side of it was, too, that anything you did, if it constituted a conflict of interest, any job you went to, any association you had, whatever, needed to be approved, cleared, all that kind of stuff. And that was fine. I didn't have anything that ever got me in any of that stuff, but I know an awful lot of people who did. And an awful lot of the folks, friends and colleagues that I've known who've been through this stuff were even foreclosed from future service as a result of it or were involved in ways that at least made it an interpretative and so therefore their candidacy was either dismissed or discounted based on a set of factors that were absolutely totally arbitrary. And then, the worst part is- what the worst impact, I think, is it positively deters people from wanting to serve. So, when we look around at the caliber of people who are in service today, they either fit the sketch of guys like me who wasn't worth anything so therefore, what the hell, you got nothing he can lose and you got nothing to gain either in the immediacy of it. Or you get folks who are absolutely as well-heeled as anybody you'll ever want to meet who are therefore as disconnected from the citizenry and their communities as anything you'd ever want to meet unless you're the rare cat like Bill Gates (laughter). I mean, everybody else in between, they're completely off that. And that therefore means you got two kinds of people you're going to be recruiting, those who are very young, never worth much, or those who have passed their point—their shelf life on other things and are willing to give back some time to do this. And, in the course of their life, they are no longer representative of who we are as citizens.
I mean, God love them, they did really well, but they aren't necessarily going to look like your average bear that you run into on the street, or any other walk of life or anything else you do. That's an impact. We pay a price for that, in my mind. So, again, first and foremost, to reiterate that a more stringent required, higher standard of ethics is not something I will ever argue about. Having folks who serve with the highest integrity is something we want to assure ourselves of. But, once again, that objective has been interpreted and results in an implementation and set of compliance rules that is having an effect that is pretty serious where folks who no longer look at this and say, yeah, I'll give something back for a few years of my life and then I'll go back to doing what I was doing. No, you can't do that anymore. That's over. Those days are finished. And that's different than what it was twenty, thirty years ago.
And, again, for the most part, and for a very noble and very high-intentioned and well-meaning objectives, I can't disagree. But we've got to look at this from the standpoint of what's the consequence here and how do we deal with that, and how do we make this something that is potentially more attractive coming in and out? But those are really profoundly different dimensions of leadership challenge, motivation, and recruitment in people in a leadership challenge, and qualification to involve yourself in those things. The basic criteria now is, if you had anything to do with the industry for which you had some oversight of, you are barred from life to going to do it later. So, boy oh boy, do you know how many people you're going to get who come in with any experience that know anything about what it is they're looking at when, in the way of making sure that you're not going to let somebody cash in on their experience, you've also foreclosed yourself from anybody that knows much about it.
So, more and more people are going to start looking like me in terms of backgrounds of the less you know about it, the more qualified you are to go do it, huh? Is that the answer? And the reason I ended up there, as I've explained in every one of these instances, was because of a unique set of circumstances that required the skills I did have. And while they may not have been related to those core competencies or core functions of what those organizations were all about, it was- the further up that leadership organization you go, the less and less relevant that is, as long as you know how to recruit people who are good at it.
Every member of Congress who asked me when I was at NASA, what qualifies you to be in this job? I said, well, one thing in particular, one short answer was, one thing in particular that qualifies me is I know I'd never be qualified to be the chief engineer or the chief scientist, the chief technologist, or any of these other capacities that really make out the ordinary depth of capability in that agency. But I sure know how to recruit those kinds of people, and I sure know how to motivate- I've had experience at helping to figure out how to motivate them to work together, and that's what I bring. If you want a chief engineer, that's not me, and I'll never qualify to be in that job. That usually ended the debate awfully. But it was those rare cases where that happened. But now you're going to count on finding folks in which you're going to fit people to meet the circumstance uniquely that don't have a whole lot of depth of expertise in that particular arena but understand the broader challenge they're dealing with. Well, how many times is that going to line up?
I got lucky twice for that to happen in public life, and once in the university. And then the industry guys were just interested in that full body of work as a qualification for leading the company. I didn't spend any time being any one of the rungs that you've got to get to to be there. One of the things, too, that is, thankfully, very similar today about public life and public organizations is, unlike companies, this is a very different contrast, is that, in public service, there's a remarkable willingness to, in the right circumstances and the right conditions and when the stars line up the right way and so forth, or when you're just desperate, to rely on people who are much younger, much less experienced, to give them an opportunity to really develop in ways that are really quite extraordinary. I would've never had a shot of doing a fraction of what I've done had I started out in industry.
You gotta go through every one of these hooks and wires. I was always amused at every business setting where folks say, oh, God, it's a bunch of rigid—they got all these things that we gotta do following and it's just a bunch of bureaucracy and all this stuff. Said, yeah, but, let me tell you, by comparison, you've got this very rigid process where it takes some extraordinary lifting to be even considered for the kind of leadership and responsibility positions that you want. You're robbing yourself of a lot of creative and innovative thinking that. The problem is it doesn't get used well enough today.
But it's still there and I still run into people who are—and still routinely see, what I find in interacting with younger professionals in public service who say, gee, how do I get to some of these minds. Look at the things they're doing. They're in their 20s and doing stuff that are at the level I was looking at when I was at that time. And so that's what's unique about public service, it gives you a shot at some of these things.
And in companies, that's unheard of. It almost never happens.
And, Sean, that actually perfectly gets me to my last question, which is to circle back to something we talked about on Friday. I asked you about coming of age professionally with your interest in public service during a time of great cynicism in the 1970s, right? And so I wonder, particularly in your capacity as a mentor at an institution that is really training the next generation of top leaders in public service at Syracuse, we're now also in a time I think of great cynicism with all of the related crises as they pertain to Coronavirus. A lot of people are disappointed in government on both sides of the aisle. We face great economic uncertainty right now. What a college degree means in the long term, I think, is really up in the air, right? So, looking back on your career and using your powers of extrapolation, what are things that, right now more than ever, young people need to understand as they anticipate a career in public service?
It is strikingly similar in some ways, in other ways it is far harder today than it was in the 1970s, but some of the dynamics and some of the elements are exactly as you described in your question. The confidence in public institutions to provide for the community is definitely on the downshift. There's no doubt about that. And, if anything, may be approximating the worst it's ever been at this juncture. But, in many ways, the mindset, the approach to dealing with that as aspiring public leaders is a couple of things. First of all, to begin, much as I said when we got together the first time, these are the times when these things really matter.
It's not necessarily because it's to your convenience to do this. This is where the—if you follow through and doing it right matters a great deal that you really, operation-wise, your commitment to this and be serious about it, or otherwise save yourself and save everybody else. Go find something you think is going to be more satisfying, 'cause this is going to be hard. This is definitely going to be a real challenge. But in that is an extraordinary set of opportunities that you would never find—anybody would ever hand you anywhere else. It's a direct derivative of the last point we just talked about, about public service has a greater willingness to turn over awesome responsibility to people that very- junior stages, which I have to really look back a long way to get back to junior stage, but, boy, I got some real fortuitous turns on this, but realized I wasn't necessarily the rule, but I wasn't the exception either. This was relatively not standard practice, but it was recognizable practice. And now it's going to happen even more so than ever because everything's on fire. I mean, this is really a time when you really get an opportunity in a period of time where it's going to matter a hell of a lot to put all this commitment you think you've got towards this public objective to great gain on behalf of those who are the beneficiaries. And that's who you're in it for, by the way, after all. Not you. It's for all the folks you do every day or don't tend to every day that it's going to matter to. And that animates a lot of the students that I see. The grad students who really want to get into this stuff are saying, I want to be in a place where it's going to matter.
I don't want to be the best wrench-turning bureaucrat there is at processing whatever it's going to be, I want to be able to look at some real serious problems and figure out how I can make a change that will matter, make a difference to my community, to this group of people, whatever it is. And, OK, that's the reason why you're drawn to this. It's gotta be that this is your time. This is really your time. And at a time when it's very rewarding and everybody thinks it's terrific to be part of this and it's a calling and all that kind of stuff, you're going to need lots and lots of options on that. Plenty of people standing in line waiting for an opportunity like this. In this situation, you're not going to have a whole lot of folks out there pushing you back trying to say, gee, get out of the way, I want to get that opportunity to go throw myself on that inferno (laughter). So, it's a blessing and a curse at this stage to see that because it really does give you the chance to operationalize and, moreover, test whether you were serious, that you really do want this stuff. And you'll learn it pretty quick as to whether that's the case. And if you do find that to be satisfying and rewarding, it will stay with you for a lifetime. There never has been a moment I have ever looked back on it and said, boy, I sure wish I hadn't done that, in these experiences. Would I liked to have done a few of them differently, would I have liked to have made some different decisions there? Sure.
I mean, absolutely. There was never a case in which this was absolute check down the line getting them all right. And the good news was, every time I made a mistake or an error in judgment or failed to act on something, I usually could figure it out within time as to why I blew it and knew, okay, that's where I gotta be mindful and watch for that particular behavior the next time around when I got another chance to. And that's something that you really get a regular dose of in public life.
And, for that reason alone, if you're looking for something that's- you're worried about the tedium and all that stuff, boy, this is for you (laughter). I look back on it and, again, there's a lot of things I think that I wish I could- if I knew then what I know now, how I might have applied that differently, yeah, there's always going to be cases like that.
But I also made it a practice that, in the time that you make a decision, the amount of time you spend looking backwards is distracting from the amount of time you ought to be looking forwards.
So you make the decision you're going to make and adjust it, do whatever you got to do as you go along, as facts change, whatever. But, at the same time, own it.
And that, in turn, is going to bring you, more often than not, to a better place on down the road as a future strategic focus. That hasn't failed me. There are times when I would've liked to have fine-tuned it or whatever, but as a fundamental core proposition, the amount of time you spend churning over what you should've done or might've done or shoulda, coulda, woulda, that's time you haven't thought about where it ought to be going now.
Well, Sean, on that note, it's been an absolute pleasure spending this time with you. I want to thank you for so generously recounting all of your insights and experiences over the course of your career, and this is going to be a remarkable addition to our collection for so many reasons. So, Sean, thank you so much for spending this time with me.
Well, I'm just marveling at the sheer amount of patience you've exhibited over what amounted to over three hours of a second round.
(Laughter) There you go.
So I'm appreciative and very impressed, so thank you, sir.