Shaun Illingworth: This begins an interview with Mr. Edward Scott on April 25, 2014, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with Shaun Illingworth.
Francesca Di Ciara: ... Francesca Di Ciara.
Connor Staudinger: ... And Connor Staudinger.
SI: Okay, and thank you very much for coming back.
Edward Scott: My pleasure.
SI: We had a great first session and this will wrap up your career in Veterans Affairs and the law. To begin, can you reiterate how you transitioned from your work in the Mental Health Project to working with the Committee on Veterans Affairs?
ES: Okay. At the time, I had three children and a wife. The Mental Health Law Project was looking at some hard times financially and seemed to me it'd be a good idea all around for me to take my salary burden out of there and look for something else. At the same time, a man I knew was taking over as the Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He wanted me to come on as the General Counsel, the number two person on the staff of that committee, working under the chairmanship of Alan Cranston from California. I thought that was a good opportunity. I talked to them about the range of programs in the VA--housing, the home loan guarantee programs, education programs, VA healthcare and the disability compensation and pension programs. That all seemed like good, similar programs that I was interested in as a general matter and thought it'd be interesting to see them in the veterans' area, being a veteran myself at the time. [Editor's Note: US Senator Alan Cranston, a Democrat, represented California from 1969 to 1993.]
SI: Did you have much experience in Veterans Affairs, other than personal?
ES: No, and very little personal. [laughter]
ES: Didn't really have any [need]. I didn't get any VA benefits until I got a flu shot sometime around 1994 and that's the only VA benefit I ever got. [laughter] Luckily, I didn't need any.
SI: Tell us about transitioning into this new role as the second-in-command, the top lawyer on the staff of the committee.
ES: The second-in-command, yes, on the staff of the committee.
ES: Well, that's a pretty huge learning experience. Luckily, there were two staffers there when I went onboard who had been there with some experience for quite some time, who were carrying a lot of the burden while I was getting up to speed. My immediate boss was very creative, a very intelligent guy. I had been to law school with him. So, he carried the burden of the staff for quite some time and gave me projects to work on and I just eventually learned it, was able to function pretty well before too long.
SI: Do you remember some of those early projects that he put you to work on?
ES: Yes, one of the first was the VA's budget. This was in the very early years of the Budget Act that Congress was living under [the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act]. So, the limits were imposed among various programs, overall programs. There's the caps put on by the budget committees. They weren't binding, but they were influential with the Appropriations Committee. Appropriations Committee gives out the real money. So, there was a process for the authorizing committees to make to the Budget Committee their recommendations for veterans' programs for the upcoming year, and then, make those same recommendations later on over to the Appropriations Committee, in essence. So, my first job there was to go through the VA budget, talk to people in the VA, look at the various programs, see whether they could need additional funding or whether they were adequately funded or what adjustments needed to be made, just set a program out, I think, and how to budget for any legislation that we would be considering. So, I had to get familiar with that, too. What our legislative agenda was for the year, we had to build into our budget proposal sufficient funding to take care of any new programs or any enhancements of programs. So, that was the first job. It was a big job to go through the whole VA budget. The funny thing is, I think around that time, the budget was somewhere around seventeen billion dollars a year for the entire VA. I have no idea what it is now. [laughter] I don't know if it's under a hundred billion or not, but it's probably up in that range. Things just grow and grow. [Editor's Note: In the 2015 Budget Proposal, the VA was allotted $163.9 billion dollars.] So, that was big and that, of course, gave me immediate exposure to the full range of programs, because every program has a budget line item, so, what the budgetary effects would be. So, we would make those proposals to the Budget Committee. Then, if we needed to make an amendment on the floor, if the Budget Committee itself didn't provide adequate funding for the VA, in our view, then, we would propose to Senator Cranston and he'd do a budget amendment on the floor of the Senate. We did that from time to time--I forget whether we did that the first year--but that gives you immediate exposure to the process on the floor of the Senate as well. Then, as we went through the year, I was working primarily on healthcare programs that first year. The other fellow I mentioned, his name is Jack Wickes, from Indiana, who'd worked for the previous chairman, who had been Vance Hartke from Indiana, he did most of the entitlement programs, like the GI Bill and disability compensation, those programs for a while. [Editor's Note: US Senator Vance Hartke, a Democrat, represented Indiana from 1959 until 1977. From 1971 to 1977, he was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He was succeeded by Alan Cranston.]
SI: For the record, it was 1977 when you started there.
ES: '77, right.
SI: Okay. Dealing with those areas, what were the major priorities in this post-Vietnam time period? What were the major healthcare issues?
ES: The major issues at the time were, first, from our committee's standpoint, readjustment counseling programs for Vietnam veterans. Before I had gotten there, we had had a series of hearings about veterans' experiences after coming back from Vietnam and having nightmares or disturbance or difficulty at readjusting to civilian life after being in that jungle warfare in Vietnam for a year. Some of them were wounded, but a lot had mental wounds and we were just starting to determine that. I think PTSD had not yet been recognized in '77. I think it was a year or two after that that PTSD was first recognized as a problem and was identified primarily with Vietnam veterans, although it covers a wide range of life-threatening events that can cause PTSD. [Editor's Note: In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.] So, we were focused very much on readjustment counseling. There were a couple of other items that went along with that. One was authorizing the VA to contract for community-based alcohol and drug programs. A lot of Vietnam veterans were in need of that sort of program. They couldn't, or necessarily didn't want to, go to a VA hospital somewhere that might be distant. We wanted to be able to get the VA the authority to provide alcohol and other substance abuse programs through community providers right where the veterans lived. So, those were two programs primarily aimed at Vietnam veterans that our committee had been trying to pass. It had passed the Senate a couple of times; the House Veterans Affairs Committee was having none of it. So, we'd been at loggerheads with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs over these issues and went through that in '77-'78. I forget which number Congress that was, but '77-'78 was the first Congress that I was in. In the Winter of '78-'79, we had some informal discussions with the Veterans Affairs Committee on the House side and, eventually, convinced them and they convinced us--we sort of came together. We took some things from bills they had been passing that we didn't want and they took the readjustment counseling and the alcohol and drug programs, community-based programs, that we wanted. So, in '79, the legislation was enacted to set up the Vets Center programs. They are now nationwide; right now, there are 232 of them nationally. Of course, we started out, they just had to be built one by one. They were typically storefront sort of centers removed from any VA hospital. The VA was primarily a hospital system at that point, not much of an outpatient care program--not much in the way of clinics, that is. So, it was essential, to deal effectively with Vietnam veterans' issues, that the VA have a presence where the veterans could get to them easily. So, they started setting up these Vet Centers, primarily with staffs of, like, four or five, if they had one team, or they'd be nine or ten if they had two teams. These would be teams that typically would include some combat veterans, an administrative person and a receptionist, maybe someone who had like a master's in social work or a psychology degree, people to provide a professional level of response to the issues that Vietnam veterans were having. Originally, they were set up to basically be a welcoming place where veterans could go, discuss the problems they were having with readjustment to civilian life and, whether it was employment or psychological, have them deal with it on an informal basis, no need for any diagnosis of anything, like you would need to get into the healthcare system itself. So, these were very sort of veteran-friendly establishments that were set up. Right now--I just looked up some figures a couple days ago--they're treating around, or they have around, 320,000 veterans a year visit them. Forty thousand of them are veterans diagnosed with PTSD and, of course, these range from, believe it or not, World War II up through the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. That was one of the first things that was surprising about this, that I found out early on, was that these programs were set up on a time-limited basis. I think the first time, they were set up, like, for four years, maybe five years. They had to be renewed pretty quickly after they were just getting their feet on the ground. One of the things they had found was that World War II veterans were coming in, veterans that Vietnam had sparked something in them in the way of memories or behavioral issues, that they were in need of or could benefit from this sort of informal counseling. So, the Vet Centers were seeing them. They were technically authorized to do so and one of the very early battles we had over it was whether to open eligibility to all war veterans. We had a fight over that on the Senate floor, which we won. Then, the House accepted that also. That was sort of an eye-opening, early experience as to the lifelong effects of exposure to combat and what it can do to you in terms of your mental equilibrium and the sort of care you can benefit from.
SI: Going back to when the bill was being put together and working with your counterparts in the House, what was the cause of the disagreement? Was it mostly about the budget or was it just that the two parties did not agree on this issue?
ES: Oh, the basic difference was the attitude towards Vietnam veterans.
ES: Vietnam veterans weren't as welcomed as the World War II veterans. The World War II veterans came back, big parades, "We won the war." Vietnam veterans had a harder go of it, just in terms of public acceptance. It was, I think, with Vietnam veterans that the country learned to transition from judging the veterans by the war they're in and just treating the veterans as returning Americans. You can have any view you want on the Vietnam War, but don't judge the warrior based on that. You look at the veteran in terms of what his or her needs were. He or she gave part of him or herself for the country and the country was obligated to that veteran from then on, without regard to what anybody thought about the particular war that the country sent them out on, because they don't send themselves. The House just had a different view at the time. They had more of a World War II veteran's look at things--you come back from the war, you come back and you get a job, you go to school and you readjust. That was basically the World War II experience, although it wasn't everybody's experience.
ES: Those who didn't, they just, well, were sort of ignored, or more easily ignored, from World War II; probably a smaller proportion had these sorts of difficulties and there were a lot of differences between Vietnam veterans and World War II veterans, in terms of their ability to readjust to civilian life. So, it was just a different attitude towards Vietnam veterans on the House side at the time, whereas we were much more pro-meeting the special needs of Vietnam veterans and the House wanted to stick with traditional programs and traditional approaches to things. They didn't see the value in setting up little Vet Centers, where they weren't right under the thumb of a hospital director and that sort of thing. Also, they were very skeptical of diverting VA resources away from traditional medical care and using those funds to set up a program that they didn't believe in.
SI: Would you say that this prejudice against Vietnam veterans was equally distributed among the parties or was it just an overall feeling?
ES: Well, prejudice against Vietnam veterans is a little harsh, I would say.
SI: Or lack of sympathy?
ES: Yes, not understanding what their needs were or being quite as sympathetic to what their needs were at the time. I mean, I knew all these people. I mean, they were all good people. Eventually, almost everyone was won over to the fact that the Vet Centers were responding in the way we hoped that they would and veterans were coming to them in the way they hoped they would. It was largely Democrats were more in favor of these programs. The Republicans were more skeptical of them, and continue to be. Eventually, the veterans' organizations came in and became big supporters of them, which they hadn't been before, which also was [a hindrance]. If they had been big supporters of them before they got established, that legislation would've gotten through the House much more easily, but the old line, like the VFW and the American Legion, they didn't take to these programs right away. They were more traditionalist also, at first. Eventually, they became very strong supporters of these programs.
SI: Why do you think the Senate side was ahead of the curve? Was it because of Senator Cranston or other forces there?
ES: Yes, it was a combination of two things. One, there was a Vietnam veteran named Max Cleland. He was a very effective spokesperson for the difficulties that Vietnam veterans were having in terms of--he talked about it in terms of "little time bombs," invisible time bombs inside a veteran who came back from Vietnam. You didn't know when these little time bombs were going to go off and that person was going to have very difficult issues, which were later called PTSD. They used to call them "nervous from the service" or what the heck's that ...
SI: Combat fatigue?
ES: Combat fatigue, yes.
SI: Shell shock.
ES: Yes, shell shock; those are the old words. They're not medical terms, but those things were around and people, everybody, recognized them in veterans at times, but they hadn't made their way into the medical profession very well until the late '70s, which sort of coincided with our efforts. Anyway, Max Cleland actually, after testifying before the committee on those issues, came to work on the committee staff. He left the committee staff just before I came onboard and he became the Administrator of the VA. He became the head of the VA, and then, later, was a Senator from Georgia. He was a triple amputee and a charismatic figure, just a fabulous talker and could give a great speech. So, he was a very interesting guy to be around. [Editor's Note: Joseph Maxwell Cleland, a Democrat, served as the Administrator of the VA from 1977 to 1981. He then represented Georgia in the US Senate from 1997 to 2003. As a US Army captain in the Vietnam War, he lost both of his legs and one arm.]
SI: Give us a sense, in your position, what were you doing regarding these initiatives? What was your day-to-day experience like?
ES: The day-to-day work, well, I guess I would go through the legislative cycle. Through the year, first, you'd start off with the budget thing, after you had talked amongst ourselves and with the veterans' organizations with respect to some legislative proposals that we were considering making. So, we would talk up those things amongst ourselves. This would be in November, December, talk to some of the people in the veterans' organizations about whether they could support something like that or what refinements they would have for that basic idea, and some people in the VA, get sort of their ideas, informally, as to what they thought. So, these ideas would boil down into actual legislative proposals, build them into the budget; then, as soon as we're done with the budget, arrange, set up hearings on them. So, we would set out a schedule of hearings. In that, the day-to-day job there was arranging for witnesses, getting them lined up. You wanted to have people who would speak in favor of it, and then, maybe the other side would want to have somebody speak in opposition or not. It all depended on the issues. Then, you'd start having staff meetings with the staff members of other members of the committee, talk to them about the ideas we're going to be proposing and they might have input, also. Then, the bills would be put in and we would schedule the hearings throughout the spring and the summer. We would arrange--we would let the VA know, well in advance, what hearings we were planning--our tentative schedule, so that people from the VA and veterans' organizations could make plans. We would practically always have a VA person present at a hearing to comment on any legislation or on the budget. Then, veterans' organizations, give them a heads up, "You'll probably want to testify on this." Then, we would go out and find subject matter experts or people with a particular personal expertise on the issues and get them to come in as witnesses, also. So, you'd line up a hearing and a hearing would typically run four or five hours, but you'd have that all spaced out. The VA witness would be first, and then, the veterans' organizations, and then, the individuals would testify. To prepare for that, you'd have to get the Chairman of the committee prepared, in terms of his statement and the questions he would be asking and brief him on the statement and on the questions, so that he would have familiarity with what he'd be discussing with the various witnesses. The other thing to be prepared for was, there would be times during the hearing when the Senator would say, well, like, either [to] my boss, Jon Steinberg, or, if I'm staffing him for the hearing, "Ed Scott would like to follow up on those questions." Then, he would rely on us to be more extemporaneous or reactive to what witnesses would say without having to brief him as to what our ideas are or how we should pursue any particular lines of questions with them. Then, so, that's sort of the hearing phase. Then, once you'd had a hearing on some of the legislation, or pieces of legislation, you'd schedule a meeting of the committee. Then, you'd have your more intense meetings with the Veterans Affairs Committee staff on both sides. Staff of the members of the committee come in and discuss the legislative proposals we would put forward at the next meeting of the committee, get their views, get their questions, find out whether their boss is going to support it or not. Then, we'd get a fair idea of how the meeting's going to run. An optimal committee meeting in either the House or the Senate is one where there are no amendments, no opposition. You come in and you meet, you bless the legislation and you ship it off, and then, the committee writes--the committee staff writes--the report on it. That happens once in a while. Then, you get some issues that members don't agree on and you get some opposition to them and you have to have a debate among the committee members, and then, you have to vote. You never want to be surprised by a vote, never want to lose a vote--that goes for the floor and for the committee. So, we tried to do our best to engineer all of those, so that things would move along smoothly and you'd make an efficient use of the Senator's time, but, if need be, if you had to spend time on an amendment, with the Senators there debating it back and forth, you would. One of the other most important--I was just reminded of it--that is getting a quorum. The Veterans Affairs Committee was not what we called an "A" committee. The "A" committees were the Appropriations Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, Armed Services Committee, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, the big programs that deal with the nation as a whole, dealt with international relations as a whole. We were dealing with a segment of society, the VA and veterans' programs in general. There are veterans' programs in the Department of Labor, for example. It was always hard for us to get a quorum together for our meetings, but you had to have a live quorum, you had to have people in the room. So, that was another part of the job, dealing with their staff, making sure that they were going to have their guy there at ten o'clock or at ten-thirty, whatever, [so that] we could get a quorum going. Once you get the quorum, then, you could open the doors and they can leave, but you've got to get that quorum to get things going. After that, they can leave their proxies.
SI: You mentioned that opening the Veteran Centers to veterans of other wars became a fight on the Senate floor.
ES: Yes, it did.
SI: Was that an example of something that surprised you?
ES: Oh, well, we knew in advance.
ES: This was Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming. He wasn't a big supporter of the Vet Centers to start with--not an enemy of them, but his judgment was that, "Yes, they're okay, but you don't need to go around, you don't need to expand them and they shouldn't last forever anyway. I mean, these are readjustment," in his view, "these are readjustment programs for Vietnam veterans," and they got set up in 1979. Everybody was out of Vietnam in '73. In his view, "Programs run into the '80s for a little while, and then, you close them down. Everybody should be either readjusted by then or their problems aren't the sort of things that you could deal with with Vet Centers anyway." So, that was sort of a philosophical difference. It was a genuine just not seeing eye-to-eye. You can't say that Senator Simpson cares any less about one person or another--it's just that he had a different point of view as to what the best approach is to dealing with their issues. So, yes, we had that battle on the floor and didn't have to fight quite as hard with the people in the House to get acceptance of it. [Editor's Note: US Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican, represented Wyoming from 1979 to 1997.]
SI: Do you guys have any questions?
FD: I do.
SI: Go ahead.
FD: Do you think that your work with politics in general and the veterans in the Mental Health Project changed your political views? Do you think you became more conservative or more liberal than you were before?
ES: Oh, I'm probably more liberal. I always sort of thought, "I want to be middle-of-the-road." It's nice to be independent and listen to both sides, but I've become very liberal and I don't see much in the middle-of-the-road. When I was there, from '77 to '93, Democrats and Republicans had genuine disagreements--but both sides always worked to work them out. Both sides wanted to govern. They wanted to govern their way, but the bottom line was, programs were important, whether it was national defense or veterans' issues or urban issues or education issues. You couldn't just disagree and be disagreeable. You had to work together and people were friends. That changed during the '90s, very remarkably. It happened very quickly, but, just from where I served in the middle '90s and my discussions with people who were still on the Hill then, things changed dramatically over that period of time. There just wasn't the cooperative atmosphere, in a sense that, well, if we were going to bring a bill to the floor, you always wanted to get a time agreement for your bill, in order to find time for it on the Senate floor. The Senate floor, the time of the Senate floor is gold to a committee staffer. Getting your bill on the floor with your chairman and having the opportunity to debate amendments, debate the bill and have it acted on, can't take too much time, because the Appropriations Committee and the Budget Committee, all these other committees, are bringing their legislation, too. You have to get your stuff done and you have to get it done before it gets too close to the end of the session and you can be killed by a filibuster, which wasn't too much of a threat back when I was there. So, you would go to the other side and say, "You've got two amendments that we know of. How much time are you going to need for that?" He would say, "Probably an hour on each side," or, "This one, probably half hour on each side. We only have one or two people to speak on it." So, you'd have a time agreement on members' amendments. You'd go to the floor and you'd work these out every time. Now, it was only in the early '90s that I had that difficulty, but we always agreed on those things, worked them out and you get the bill to the floor. Everything's done in a gentlemanly, or gentleperson-ly, way and in a polite way, a courteous way, and you moved it. You said all the things you want in terms of the controversies involved, critical of your opponents' position, but you didn't make it personal and nobody took it personally. It was all philosophical differences, from whether it was budgetary or psychological or just philosophical, in terms of programs that worked and didn't work. It was never anybody that wanted to shut the government down or anything within a hundred miles of that. Over time, my exposure to the programs made me more liberal, I guess.
SI: In 1981, you experienced your own change with the Reagan Administration coming in.
ES: Right. [Editor's Note: Republican Ronald Reagan won the Presidential Election of 1980 against President Jimmy Carter and took office on January 20, 1981.]
SI: How did that affect the committee and its work?
ES: Everybody thought that President Carter had a real good chance of losing. Nobody in the Senate, that I knew of, expected the Republicans to gain the majority of the Senate, but they did. Here, again, that next morning, once we learned of it, I called up people on the minority staff, the Republican staff, and said, "Hey, congratulations. Let us know how we can be supportive and we'll be working with you." The Republican staff, at the time, was sort of sleepwalking. I don't think there had been a Republican majority in the Senate since the '40s. So, these people were used to being a very small staff minority that had very few issues they had to take the lead on, because we wrote the reports for the committee, very seldom did they write a dissenting view on those reports, that sort of thing. So, it seemed strange that they would now be taking over and taking control. So, they had to assume an attitude where they would be in control. We had to assume an attitude where we were not in control, but a very interesting aspect of it was, early on, this was this Republican-Democrat issue again, Alan Simpson called me and my immediate boss to meet with him. We met in a great, big committee room, away from our daily work load and that sort of stuff, so, away from the office, in this big committee room. He put his feet up on the desk, which was his style, a very earthy guy. He said to Jon and me, he said, "I've been here for," I guess it was four years, said, "I've been here for four years and, now, I've got a damn chairmanship." He says, "I really don't have a staff to do this work," he says, "and I haven't been able to become an expert on veterans' issues or the VA." He says, "I'm going to need some help." He says, "How about we agree that you fellows staff me, be above board, be honest, straightforward with me? You staff me for the year, for a year or so, until I can get some people onboard and they can learn the ropes, and then, we'll move on from there." We said, "Sure," and we went back to Cranston, Senator Cranston, to advise him that that was the approach that Senator Simpson had made. He actually hired one of our staffers to come and work for him, which was a good thing, real good thing, because we had gone from, like, thirty to thirteen, as far as our staff was going. We were looking for jobs for people. We were very happy when he hired one professional staff member and an administrative staffer. So, that worked out, but that was just an illustration of the way things worked back then. He knew he could come to us and he would watch for us not being honest, of course. It's the old "trust but verify" days, but he gave us pretty free reign in terms of proposals. We'd go to him with proposals that were essentially things we had done for Senator Cranston, but we thought he would want to do in his own right. With budget, we went to him with budget proposals that he wouldn't necessarily have agreed to before, but see if we can work on an agreement with him, so [that] we could have one that both he and Cranston would agree to. It helped that he and Senator Cranston were both very good friends, on and off the floor or in and out of committee, whatever. They turned out to be very, very good friends. So, the transition, from our standpoint, was a very good one. We just, in a sense, kept doing our old jobs of helping a different person organize things and help bring along his new staff, orient them to the programs. They got up to speed pretty quickly with both us helping them and the VA staff helping them, familiarizing them with programs, and so forth. So, it was a year or so that we actually did that work for Senator Simpson. [Editor's Note: From 1981 to 1987 and 1995 to 1997, Senator Alan Simpson served as the Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.]
SI: What were your impressions of Senator Cranston? What was it like working under him?
ES: Well, we worked under sort of broad guidelines. We had a good feel for him as sort of a moderate-liberal Senator. He wasn't way out there. He had a good relationship with the business community in California, had some Republican supporters in California. So, he was sort of a middle-of-the-road guy and ran as a sensible, pragmatic Senator, not a philosophical firebrand, but we also knew he was very sympathetic to veterans' issues and wanted us to be very pro-veteran in our work for him. So, within that framework, we could identify issues and sort of develop responses to what we saw as problem areas that needed to be addressed, either through oversight or through legislation. Once we had our ideas pretty well crystallized, we would run them by him and his Chief of Staff, sort of get our marching orders, "Go ahead," but very sort of loose day-to-day management of things, within those general guidelines, with him having to approve the overall directions and the essence of the legislative proposals.
SI: How would you rate the Reagan Administration's view towards Veterans Affairs and how did the overall effort fair during the first term? In the early to mid-1980s, how were things going, basically?
ES: Well, the Reagan budgets--remember, David Stockman was the Director of OMB--they were pretty stringent on VA programs. We typically wouldn't accept their budget and we would have substantial add-ons to their budget and, in order to get the budgets actually enacted, you both had to deal with the Budget Committee, and then, with the Appropriations Committee. [Editor's Note: Republican David Stockman served as a US Representative from Michigan from 1977 to 1981. He was then appointed as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, serving until 1985.] William Proxmire from Wisconsin was the Chairman of the VA-HUD Subcommittee throughout the whole time that it was a Democrat there. He was also influential as the ranking Democrat on that subcommittee. So, we could deal pretty effectively with his staff and he in turn could deal effectively with Jake Garn, Senator Garn from Utah--remember, he was the one who went into space. You wouldn't remember, [laughter] but Jake Garn was a Senator from Utah and he was very active with NASA on the Appropriations Committee. [Editor's Note: US Senator William Proxmire, a Democrat, represented Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989. US Senator Edwin Jacob Garn, a Republican, represented Utah from 1974 to 1993. A former Air Force pilot, he supported the financing of NASA and flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985.] Let me see--throughout the Reagan years, we were pretty successful in getting some add-ons for veterans' programs, because we'd have very strong support from the veterans' organizations. So, we could pick off enough Republicans to win floor votes or have the threat of winning floor votes. So, we fared pretty well during the Reagan years. The budgets rose a little less than what we'd have ideally wanted, but the VA got by pretty well during those years. I would say, just to back up a little bit ...
ES: When I came on in '77, that was right after Life Magazine had done a tremendous exposé of the awful conditions in VA hospitals at that time--not just they weren't up to standard, they weren't up to what you'd find in the community, both from the standpoint of cleanliness, nutrition, basic medical care. We took it on as our responsibility to provide incremental increases to the VA's healthcare budget over the years. So, we would go back to the VA, after they submitted a budget that they could've gotten through OMB and the White House, and, behind-the-scenes, work with them as to where they could use additional funds to make additional improvements. We did this together with the House Committee. Sometimes, the House Committee was even more fortunate than we were--or just had more success--in getting increments done than we were, but we worked together, both Veterans Affairs Committees, because we recognized that need throughout the VA healthcare system, to start bringing it along and getting it up into more of a first-class hospital system than it had been. [Editor's Note: Life Magazine published a landmark exposé on deplorable VA hospital conditions in its May 22, 1970 issue.]
SI: It may be a different article, but I have heard other Vietnam veterans talking about seeing an article in Life Magazine where they really depicted things very poorly. There were rats running around.
SI: On some of the beds.
ES: Yes, I knew some of--I wasn't a Vietnam veteran myself, but I knew Vietnam veterans--and some of them would just talk about just the awful conditions that they had been in. Some of them were spinal cord injured veterans in need of a wheelchair and in need of a lot of care that they just weren't getting in the middle to late '70s and on, until the system as a whole got up to where it is today.
SI: Agent Orange was obviously a major issue.
ES: Yes, that was a big issue.
SI: When did that start to become an important point?
ES: Soon as I got there. I mean, that was a burgeoning issue, one that nobody had the answers to, in terms of what does the science show in terms of exposure to dioxin, knowing it came out of these planes that were spraying vast swaths of the jungles of Vietnam. The reason they were doing it was to kill the vegetation in order to deprive the Vietcong and Vietnamese of cover, so that their positions were more exposed and our troops were safer from being ambushed by virtue of these areas that were cleared of vegetation. I don't know how effective that was, but that was the idea. So, they dumped a lot of Agent Orange. So, then, people started attributing diseases to exposure to Agent Orange. There was no science to go one way or the other, so, what [do] you do? So, our immediate response was to set up--provide funding for and a legislative authorization and legislative direction--to do more studies of the effects of exposure to Agent Orange and/or dioxin, the big ingredient within Agent Orange, and provide Vietnam veterans with access to VA care without having to prove that their condition was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. There was really no way to divide Vietnam veterans up into those who were exposed and those who weren't exposed, because it was in a broad area. It was at Air Force bases; there were people who loaded the stuff on the planes. Obviously, stuff like this, to the extent it could survive within the vegetation--it even got down to the point where Vietnamese were using the old fifty-gallon drums that the stuff had come in for gasoline. After the Agent Orange and these drums had been discarded, they were using them for gasoline. So, they say you could get exposed to Agent Orange by virtue of the mopeds, all of the crowding in the taxicabs, all in the traffic jams in Saigon, other places in Vietnam. So, there's no way to say that you were or you weren't exposed, to some significant degree, to dioxin. There were no markers. You couldn't take a blood sample from someone and say, "Oh, you were or you weren't exposed to dioxin." It just wasn't in the system in a technical way like that. So, we were left with these huge quandaries. So, we set up the best we could, talking with the National Academy of Sciences and with the VA medical researchers as [to] the best way to approach these things, same goes, talk to the veterans' organizations, to what they would support and not support in this area. So, we passed the first legislation that gave the automatic eligibility to Vietnam veterans for anything they came to a VA hospital with, unless it were clear that it couldn't have been caused by an exposure in Vietnam. So, if you'd been in a car accident and you came in with a broken arm, you didn't get VA eligibility, VA care, by being a Vietnam veteran, for that. I think they would treat you anyway as an emergency, but so that we made that sort of arrangement for Vietnam veterans. That legislation still exists. Then, the studies started to come in, throughout the '80s, to add to whatever existing scientific knowledge there was. It was a very troublesome, very controversial issue that we had to deal with throughout the '80s and '90s.
SI: Do you think that the Veterans Affairs community reacted as quickly and as well as they could or was there any dragging of feet?
ES: I would say, by and large, people acted as quickly as they could. A lot of veterans' advocates went way out beyond what we viewed as plausibly, scientifically supportable, in terms of all the things that could be attributed to exposure to dioxin. So, there was a huge argument on the fringes over that, which led to some very huge legislative battles in the early '90s, but I would say, by and large, within the limits of what you could know at the time, yes, people were sympathetic and willing to do what they felt was the right thing to do for the veterans. Congress actually enacted, from my standpoint, very liberal legislation to deal with it, although, to deal with it in terms of disability compensation, the legislation wasn't enacted until 1991, after being subject to huge battles in the earlier part of the '90s and back in the '80s as well, but it was a huge battle in 1990.
CS: Shifting gears a little bit, I remember reading about some of the sexual assault programs for sexual assault in the military. Were you involved with that and, if so, what was your role?
ES: In--I think it was 1992, yes, '92--the Vet Center program had been well-established and they had begun seeing quite a few women veterans, seeing women veterans from Iraq as well as Vietnam, quite particularly nurses from Vietnam who had showed up at the Vet Centers, but it was more--this issue came out more--in terms of Desert Storm women veterans. A woman who was on the staff of one of the Vet Centers came to us and said that among the women veterans that she had seen who had come to the Vet Centers, about a third, I think she said it was about a third, of them were complaining of sexual assault in the military while they were on active duty. We were stunned by this. In '92, we had the first Congressional hearings on that issue and there was another guy and I who put that together. We reached out primarily through this woman who worked at the Vet Centers and she knew of women veterans from Desert Storm who had complained of sexual assault and the way they hadn't been dealt with by both the military and the VA, who were willing to tell their stories before a Congressional committee. So, we interviewed them and set them up as witnesses and Senator Cranston and I had those hearings. As I said, they were the first time that the VA, or that the Congress, had had a hearing dealing with that issue. I was realizing that was sort of a shock to me, because women had been serving in pretty good numbers, increasingly good numbers, over the '70s, '80s and early '90s, but that issue never had come up to that level where it'd actually have a hearing. It was quite shocking to find that there had been no others, at the time. This was also the time of the Tailhook controversy, where Navy pilots had had their parties, I think it was in San Diego, and there were some women servicemembers who complained about the way that the Navy pilots had treated them at their conventions. Wherever they were having them, they were having big parties and the women had been abused at them. There was an Inspector General report at the time that I thought was a terrible report. It was just a whitewash of sexual trauma issues in the military. [Editor's Note: In September 1991, at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, active, Reserve and retired Navy pilots attended the convention for the Tailhook Association. At the hotel, drunk members sexually assaulted women in the hallways and participated in other lewd acts.] So, it was something that I followed. So, in any event, what we did with that was, we put together a legislative response, which the VA opposed, but not very strongly, and some veterans' organizations were willing to give us some support for it. We got it through the Senate with bipartisan support and it gave to, at the time, female veterans who complained of having been sexually abused, or raped or sexually assaulted, in the military the right to get VA care for the consequences of that, if their treating physician or other mental health professional agreed that the trauma was likely the result of the sexual assault in the military. So, the woman didn't have to apply for disability compensation and be found in an administrative hearing to have suffered that assault and prove it to the satisfaction of the adjudicator that there had been that assault. All she needed was a mental health professional in the VA to agree that it was likely, and so that, then, she would have the care. Very surely, the "women" part of that was knocked out, because we quickly learned the men were subject to being sexually assaulted or harassed, not in as great numbers by any means, but they were also subject to that. Along with that, we put in legislation to require the VA to take further steps to expand their services for women veterans and establish women veterans' health coordinators at all their facilities, so that there would be an advocate for women's health care at VA hospitals and other clinical facilities. So, we tried to move the ball down the road and get women greater acceptance within the VA, because, again, you don't run into any opposition that is ill-meaning or mean-spirited, you run into traditional attitudes that you've got to break through in order to make improvements, sometimes. So, the '92 legislation set up the healthcare eligibility for mental health services and, later, that was expanded to include physical health also, in case there were any physical consequences that were resulting from their sexual trauma while in military service. Another statistic I looked up was that, currently, the VA says that one in five of the women veterans that they see claim to have been sexually assaulted or harassed during their military service. Other studies show much higher numbers. One study showed thirty-three percent claimed they had been raped or attempted to be raped in military service. Another showed thirty to forty-five percent just having some form of military sexual trauma--they've actually come up with that acronym, MST. I've noticed that's in the literature now. It's not a diagnosis, but they're a category of women who claim, or men, who claim MST. According to the VA, one in one hundred men claim to have been sexually traumatized during their service. That was one of the things that I worked on hard and I felt like it moved in a good direction.
SI: It seems like you faced a problem that you could face with a lot of other issues, where you are dealing with aftercare, dealing with the results of the assaults, but any issues related to prevention or that sort of thing would have to come from the military side.
SI: Did the Veterans Affairs community try to address that issue with the Armed Forces at that time?
ES: The Armed Services Committees, like the military, were not proactive.
ES: In the early to mid-'90s, and I lost track after the mid-'90s. So, I don't know. Obviously, they're more active now, although it's still a controversy.
SI: Sure, yes.
ES: Obviously, with this whole issue of, "Who should prosecute?" whether it should be the chain of command or whether it should be outside prosecutors to handle sexual trauma cases, in terms of going after the perpetrator or the alleged perpetrator. So, these things continue to be issues, but, on the Veterans Affairs Committee, you really have no say, other than what you put in the committee report, saying, "This is a big issue where the data is not looking very good." You didn't want to get at odds with the Armed Services Committee, but you wanted to talk to them anyway and try to do what you could.
SI: I was going to ask if you faced any pressure either from the military or the Armed Services Committee when this became an issue you were trying to raise awareness about.
ES: Well, in terms of my own--I became Staff Director in the Spring of '90, Staff Director and Chief Counsel for the Committee, and then, was there throughout '91 and '92 until March '93.
SI: Okay. At that point, did you face any pushback from the Armed Services Committee or the military?
ES: In terms of what we were doing? no.
ES: In setting up VA programs to deal with the issue, no, not a thing.
SI: Now ...
ES: But, obviously, we weren't making any headway with them, either. They were not going after the issue of sexual trauma in the military until later on.
SI: How did the First Gulf War affect the Veterans Affairs community? Numbers-wise, it was not that large of a war, but it presented some unique issues. What was its impact on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the VA?
ES: Well, two things; one was employment. It immediately became a big issue, because we were sending National Guard and Reserves over and these were people who were being pulled out of their jobs. These weren't people volunteering to come in--these were people being pulled out of their jobs, and then, later, being returned to civilian life. We had to fortify the protections they had in getting their job back, both as a substantive matter and procedural matter. So, here's where we were working mainly with the Department of Labor and with the Armed Services to build transition programs to get these people back into civilian life. That hit pretty quick and pretty hard. What also hit pretty quick and pretty hard was a lot of support for Iraq veterans, Desert Storm veterans. So, that was a much different picture than we had for Vietnam. There was nothing we could think of that we couldn't have gotten through the Congress after Desert Storm, because the country had such a [commitment], as a whole, was open arms and people couldn't do enough for them. So, that's not to say we went wild with that, but it was easy to get legislation through, except in the employment area. We had the Federation of Independent Businesses--these were your small business people--they were the ones that complained a lot about having to give veterans reemployment rights. If you've got thirty, forty employees and somebody goes in, they're in the National Guard, and then, they get called off, it's a burden to take them back on. So, we had to work those issues pretty hard in order to get a good outcome from the veteran's standpoint, but that was the general story. The other big issue was, again, environmental concerns. There was the issue with the oil fields being set on fire. There were dumps outside Army bases, just all the garbage, everything they wanted to dispose of, was set on fire. There was concern that there might've been some chemical warfare munitions used at some point, because they were coming back with issues that VA doctors--and Army doctors, didn't matter, any doctors--were having a hard time figuring out what the basic cause was and what diagnosis they should have. They were coming back with symptoms that just didn't fit the existing medical diagnoses easily. So, that was the big issue. It was Agent Orange all over again, without knowing, without even having a handle on what the causative factors might've been. So, we quickly drafted laws that authorized studies by the National Academy of Sciences and others to get into these issues of the exposures to the oil fires, etc. They got after those right away with studies, practically all of them inconclusive, which made life uncomfortable for everyone concerned, because you wanted to be helpful, but you never want to go far beyond what the science would support. You have some obligation to the government itself and the American people at large as to the size and expense of veterans' programs and keep them focused on the real issues, real issues that military service may have caused, always giving the benefit of the doubt to the veteran. So, you're always out looking for what is reasonable doubt as to whether a particular condition might or might not have been caused by an exposure that the veteran had during military service. So, environmental causes of physical conditions and reemployment rights, along with readjustment issues--I remember, about a week after Desert Storm, a Republican friend of mine was on the phone with me, he says, "Well, we're not going to have to worry about readjustment counseling, are we? They didn't shoot back." I said, "Well, we'll see," but a lot of Iraq veterans began showing up at the Vet Centers and needing [help] and, of course, then, later on, through the Second Iraq, they needed them even more, of course. [Editor's Note: On August 2, 1990, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded neighboring Kuwait to secure its oil fields and key location on the Persian Gulf. Operation DESERT SHIELD began on August 7, 1990, when the first US forces arrived in Saudi Arabia, at the request of its leader, King Fahd, who feared an invasion by Iraq. Operation DESERT STORM, the US-led, UN-sanctioned coalition force assault on Iraqi-held territory, began on January 17, 1991, and concluded with a cease-fire negotiated on March 1, 1991.]
SI: Before we talk about your transition to the Administration, are there other issues from your time on the Senate Committee staff that stand out, either things you are really proud of or hard losses that come to mind?
ES: No. I guess what we were proudest of overall was improvements in the VA healthcare system. I think by the '90s, it was in pretty good shape. It got really improved in the first Clinton Administration, from my standpoint, by virtue of who became the Undersecretary for Health at the VA. [Editor's Note: President William J. Clinton served two terms as President from 1993 to 2001. From 1994 to 1999, Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer served as the VA's Undersecretary of Health.] I was there at the time and I saw this guy at work and he was fabulous--that and I've seen the readjustment counseling. Well, we addressed a number of [issues]--education benefits, we enhanced considerably. Later on, there was a whole new GI Bill, but we didn't initiate that.
SI: What about the Montgomery GI Bill?
ES: Yes, we had to work very hard to get the Montgomery GI Bill enacted. Here, again, it was Republicans and Democrats working on both sides of the aisle on that issue. Our staunchest ally was Armstrong from Colorado, William Armstrong, Senator William Armstrong. Well, you know Senator William Armstrong, a Republican from Colorado, he was no flaming liberal. He believed in the Montgomery GI Bill. Our opponent was John Glenn. He was the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee that brushed up against, or, I guess, he actually funded, provided funding for, the GI Bill--didn't actually provide the funding, but he felt, from his standpoint, the money we were putting in the GI Bill was money that would be better spent on other defense matters, rather than being allocated to the VA to pay for a more expensive GI Bill program, even though their budgets weren't merged at the time. He was a real opponent of it for a long time. Eventually, he came onboard with it as just an education program. He could support it as an education program, not as a veterans' program, because, as a veterans' program, he saw a rich education program as taking people out of the military. He would see people being in for three or four years, having the opportunity to get a good education, so, they're going to leave the military. He'd rather keep the good people in the military and not be drawn off by a good GI Bill. He eventually, at the end, came around and supported the Montgomery GI Bill, I believe as just good for the country as an education bill, but there were people on both sides of the partisan divide of that issue. [Editor's Note: US Senator William Armstrong, a Republican, represented Colorado from 1979 to 1991. US Senator John Glenn, a Democrat who was the first American to orbit the Earth, represented Ohio from 1974 to 1999 and served as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee from 1987 to 1995.] It was interesting to see. It was a good battle. Senator [Representative] Montgomery worked his tail off getting it through. He was over on the Senate floor. Members have rights on the floor in either body. He would come over and he would buttonhole Senators to try to get their support for the Montgomery GI Bill. So, that was a very good experience. [Editor's Note: US Representative Gillespie "Sonny" Montgomery, a Democrat, represented Mississippi from 1967 to 1997. In 1985, the updated version of the GI Bill, the Montgomery GI Education Bill, that he sponsored passed through Congress.] It was a very good experience in terms of legislative maneuvering, which we really needed for the Agent Orange issue, which came along in '90-'91. That was a huge battle, as far as legislative process. All veterans' issues came to a grinding halt in the Summer of '90 over the Agent Orange issue. A majority of us in the Senate wanted to proceed with a bill giving certain rights to Vietnam veterans for Agent Orange exposure. There was strong resistance on the Republican side to that, headed by Senator Simpson, and the House was opposed to it. The House had the backing of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans. We had the American Legion and the Vietnam Veterans of America. This was a battle royale. What it eventually led to, and this was partly my fault for not getting the bill to the floor earlier, was that I tried to get time--I talked about these time agreements--I had tried to get one with the Republican staff on this in about July or August and they weren't agreeable to it. So, I tried to work with them as to what we would need to change in the bill and get it in shape, so that we could get it out of the Senate, because, moving into August, the Senate's time gets very precious. They're going to be leaving in the early fall, so, you've got to get your bill out of the Senate and into conference with the House and back and pass it again. Eventually, Senator Simpson was able to use the floor to block some of that legislation as a filibuster. He wouldn't let it through. Then, he would try to get the other part of the legislation, the veterans' disability compensation cost-of-living increase, through. People on our side, particularly Senator Daschle, who was a Vietnam veteran and a big advocate of Vietnam veterans' rights, he wouldn't let any legislation go out, any veterans' legislation, go out of the Senate unless it had the Agent Orange remedies in there. [Editor's Note: Thomas Daschle, a Democrat, represented South Dakota in the House from 1979 to 1987 and the US Senate from 1987 to 2005. He served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam War.] So, we had Simpson blocking the Agent Orange remedies, Senator Daschle, with Senator Cranston's support, saying, "Nothing's coming out of the Senate unless it has that in it." I became Staff Director in the spring of that year. For my first year as Staff Director of the Veterans Affairs Committee, we did nothing. [laughter] We enacted nothing. I was in despair. I'd think, "God, you've got to be the worst Congressional staffer ever. This has never happened." As far as the VA and the veterans' organizations, everybody around could see why it had happened. There's nothing I, as a lowly staffer, could do. Senator Cranston couldn't do anything. He couldn't get any floor time from Senator Mitchell to bring the bill to the floor without a time agreement. [Editor's Note: US Senator John Mitchell, a Democrat, represented Maine from 1980 to 1995.] He wasn't going to let a filibuster take up three days of the Senate while you had all the Appropriations bills and everything, and the Armed Services bill and all the rest of it, to get through before the session was over. So, that was horrible. Then, over that winter, we had these knock-down, drag-out staff fights about what to do and we eventually got together and agreed on a quasi-scientific basis for getting the thing resolved, which, in part, sort of kicked the ball over to the National Academy of Sciences, but it really didn't work that way, because they took a very narrow view as to the legislation. All they would do with respect to scientific studies, according to the statutory formula which we enacted, was that if there were scientific studies that raised the possibility of exposure to dioxin giving rise to disabilities, and it didn't matter whom--the original studies were, like, Swedish farmers and some others--where exposure, pretty intense exposure, direct exposure to dioxin led to some health problems later, the Academy said, "Well, there you go. There's a study that supports exposure to dioxin, doesn't matter that the levels of exposure were high, causes certain diseases." Then the VA feels it has no choice but to service connect them." So, some things got service-connected early on. Then, there were studies of veterans on the issue and, particularly, there were the RANCH HAND veterans--these were the people who loaded the Agent Orange and rode on the airplanes, they got drenched in Agent Orange--as to whether they had suffered any ill effects and the initial studies were, "No, they hadn't, not from Agent Orange." So, those sorts of things just bedeviled anybody who wanted to come out with a pro-veteran but still somewhat scientifically sound position, to be able to move ahead under the guise that you're giving the veteran the benefit of the reasonable doubt. [Editor's Note: Under Operation RANCH HAND, US Air Force C-123s dispersed the majority of Agent Orange deployed in-country between 1962 and 1971.] I think people can always question whether the doubt had been raised to a reasonable extent or not. I think that argument can go on for ages. For example, prostate cancer among Vietnam veterans is covered now. Well, I don't think you'll find a greater incidence of prostate cancer among Vietnam veterans than you will of any other population in the United States, but they'll be entitled to VA care through the Agent Orange rubric. So, it eventually went very far--lung cancer and some other things were on there, too.
SI: I am curious why the DAV [Disabled American Veterans] was against this legislation.
ES: I think--I may have misspoken. I know that the House had very big organizations. I know we had the Legion and the Vietnam Veterans of America. They had the VFW. The DAV, I think, was looking at the issue of service connection. They represent service-connected veterans. I think they, at the time, were taking a dim view of the concept of service connection being diluted as they saw the original Senate proposals being advanced. So, I'm pretty sure that that's what that was, but it was big players in the veterans' community squared against other big players in the veterans' community and Republicans against Democrats on both sides and, really, the House against the Senate. There was a guy, a Vietnam veteran, on the House side who also had a doctorate in the health sciences and knew epidemiology. We had our own epidemiologist, too. So, we used our epidemiologist to come up with the best thing we could come up with in terms of a scientific rationale and solution to everybody's problem.
SI: Let us take a break.
SI: We are back; thank you very much for your patience.
ES: Not at all.
SI: You wanted to go over a few items from your time on the Senate committee.
ES: Yes, well, in the Senate.
ES: One thing that had to do with the committee and that was the judicial review of veterans' claims. We established a court. Our committee had been, for a long time, in favor of a court and we had passed legislation several times, the Senate had, to establish an independent court system for reviewing VA denial of veterans' claims for disability compensation, or any other benefits, and, eventually, got that enacted in 1988, something like that, yes. So, that was one thing that I wanted to mention there, that we were able to do. On the non-vet side, one thing that, again, illustrates the way people used to work together was when they started doing research on AIDS. Well, my Senator was from California and I was doing health issues, health and disability and Peace Corps issues, for him at the time. Somebody who was working under me had contacted the head of the Public Health Service about the possible need for additional funding for AIDS research. We were able to get a number from him as to the additional amount that they could well use for research projects at NIH on the AIDS issue. So, we went and talked to Senator Lowell Weicker's staff. This is while the Republicans were still in charge and Lowell Weicker was the Chairman of the appropriate subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. He was agreeable to accepting an amendment by Senator Cranston to increase funding for AIDS research. That was the first Congressional add-on for research in the AIDS area. The other thing that we were able to get done on AIDS was that we passed--our committee reported out, the Senate passed and Congress enacted--legislation, the first legislation, on AIDS. We outlawed any discrimination against veterans who had AIDS and were coming to the VA for care. We were concerned about the VA being--there were, supposedly, no cases in the military at that time and that sort of thing--so, we were worried about the mentality in the VA and we got the legislation enacted regarding it. It did more than just outlaw discrimination--it had to with research at the VA and sort of boosted their awareness of and role in treating veterans who had AIDS. That was interesting, and so, those were the things I wanted to add a little comment on. [Editor's Note: US Senator Lowell Weicker, a Republican, represented Connecticut from 1971 to 1989.]
SI: You mentioned that Senator Cranston, given his constituency, that this was a cause he was particularly interested in.
ES: Oh, yes, California, San Francisco was a real center of concern and interest in AIDS issues. He had always been a very active Senator in terms of Civil Rights of gays and equal rights generally.
SI: Were there other forces besides Senator Cranston that were aiding you in this?
ES: Well, Lowell Weicker didn't need to be sent two wake-up calls. I mean, from then on, he took over the AIDS issue in his committee or subcommittee, Appropriations subcommittee, did very well in terms of making sure that the money that could be used productively in NIH was. So, he was very active, a very good fighter for programs that deal with AIDS. Well, I don't remember particular allies. The only thing I can remember, or the thing I remember most, was Senator Jesse Helms talking about AIDS being like God's punishment for a sinful lifestyle. That was a low point for me in terms of the Senate. I couldn't imagine how a Senator could be that cruel. Having seen the effects of AIDS and the way people were suffering, for somebody to get on his high horse and say that, I thought, was a terrible thing. So, that was the opposition, but there was no other Republican opposition to it. I mean, the legislation we did on AIDS moved easily through committee and through the Senate floor. Nobody came to the floor to fight it. So, in general, people were willing to put their shoulder to the wheel on the AIDS issue. [Editor's Note: US Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican, represented North Carolina from 1973 to 2003.]
SI: I will ask this now, because it probably covers this period, but, also, when you were in the Administration, after "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" comes into effect, how were gays and lesbians viewed by the Veterans Affairs system? Was there much prejudice against them at the time? Was there a "witch hunt mentality," as seen in some of the services?
ES: No, I wouldn't say in the VA. I was never aware of any, by that time, in the VA. They seemed to deal with it straight up as a medical issue and that was it. I think they did a pretty good job with AIDS. I don't think there turned out to be any real discrimination or real backlash.
SI: I meant, at that time, if it was learned or revealed that a veteran were gay or lesbian, could they lose their benefits?
SI: No, okay, they could not.
SI: All right.
ES: An active-duty person could get booted.
ES: Before then, but, if you served and you got your discharge, you were a veteran for the rest of your life. That's it, yes.
SI: Tell us how you went from the Senate to the Administration in 1993.
ES: Yes, I was a big supporter of Governor Clinton's race for the Presidency and, having just had twelve years of Republican Presidencies, all of a sudden, here's a Democratic President. Me being a Democrat, I was interested in the jobs opening up, possibilities at that level. So, I applied and I was really more interested in doing that than I was staying on at the committee and doing the same work that I had been doing there. I just thought it'd be a better move for me than me working for Senator Rockefeller. I've got nothing against him, but I just felt like the Administration would be a better experience for me. [Editor's Note: US Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, has represented West Virginia since 1985.]
SI: You became the Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Congressional Affairs.
ES: Congressional Affairs, yes.
SI: I would imagine that you must have worked very closely with your former colleagues.
ES: Yes, absolutely, yes.
SI: Can you give us an overview of what that job entailed?
ES: There were two parts to it. One was being an advisor to the Secretary on Congressional issues and policy issues in general. I had known the Secretary in his previous life. He was with the Disabled American Veterans. He had been the Executive Director of their Washington office. So, he was the head of their people who lobbied the Congress and the people who provide services to veterans. So, there were several occasions where I'd gotten to know him quite well. He and I had respect for each other. My having had the sixteen years in the Senate, I had a wide range of knowledge of veterans' policy issues. So, he and I would discuss them, privately, quite a bit and, in staff meetings, I was free to express my views and he was generally very receptive. So, I had a very good relationship with the Secretary. [Editor's Note: Jesse Brown served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1993 to 1997. A Vietnam veteran who was wounded in action, he was a leader of the DAV. He died in 2002 of ALS.] So, that was one side, but the other side of it was sort of the care and feeding of the Congress, which is a very serious job. The one cardinal rule is, you never wanted a member to find about anything in a VA program in his state or district in the newspaper or on the TV or radio. If there's something happening in a member's district that we know about that is likely to become news or of interest, it was our job to get that information to them, and that'd be the two Senators and the Congressperson involved, and, generally, to keep them posted. Now, this would be particularly the Veterans Affairs Committees and the Appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over our programs, to keep them informed about what we were doing, what legislation we might be proposing, what our positions would be on legislation and just making sure that they're up-to-date and informed. I stumbled on that one time, to my regret; well, a couple of times, I didn't stumble, but the VA did some things that got members very upset and those can be very uncomfortable phone calls, [laughter] when you get a member calling up and raising hell with you. So, the job was really to maintain good relationships with the Hill and the biggest part of that is keeping them informed. I had mentioned earlier that the VA healthcare program got a big boost. In that period of '93-'94 was when it actually happened. The Administration picked a guy who had been the Director of Public Health for the State of California, a Republican, to be the Undersecretary for Health, the top position in the VA for health. His name was Ken Kizer. He just did a fabulous job of reorganizing the VA, setting up these regional networks of facilities and services that could work together to provide, maximize, the services being provided. That was one effort. His second effort was to provide more and more in the way of outpatient clinics and community-based clinics, where the VA would contract with service providers to provide VA care, so that the VA could send veterans to them that were in places that were convenient to them, closer to their homes. He set up a very transparent system of evaluation of these regional directors and hospital directors, or VA medical center directors, so that everybody knew what they were going to be judged on and how they'd be scored in terms of their work. This whole reorganization, it was a massive thing and part of it called for closing some VA facilities, always a very, very controversial issue, but he was successful in the way he operated. He was so above board. He was a dream to work with, because my view was, "Keep the Congress very much up-to-date, no surprises. Bring them in on things. If there's something they ought to be participating in, making their views known on, get them involved as early as you can." Well, he was that way and even more. I mean, he was just great to work with, because he laid out all his plans, and then, he would send these tentative plans that he hadn't adopted yet. He would send them off to the Hill and say, "Here's what we might do," send them to the veterans' organizations, "Here's what we might do," and then, get feedback on them and maybe make some alterations, get the necessary flak, people's dissatisfaction, get them out in the open, deal with them, and then, move ahead. The other extreme of that is organizations that try to do everything within house. "No, we're going to do this. We're going to do that. Now, don't let it leak out now, because that'll get somebody angry. It might upset them if they knew we were headed in this direction," and they work in a very secretive fashion. Well, Ken Kizer was just the opposite. He was a dream to work with and he did an awful lot for the VA healthcare system. It's a very good system right now; back in '77, it was dreadful. So, that was a nice change to see over the years.
SI: In interviewing veterans from World War II on, the VA gets mixed reviews.
SI: Depending on what era you are talking about. Did you have to do any public relations push to convince veterans that things had changed?
ES: No, not in my role. I didn't do that. The Secretary and the Undersecretary for Health carried that load.
SI: Okay. You brought up the issue of closings and how controversial that could be.
SI: What about getting projects placed into certain Congressional districts or other political concerns? Was that something you had to deal with frequently?
ES: Well, not really frequently, but [we] closed the hospital in Nebraska. Sometimes, it's so obvious that a hospital ought to be closed. They're treating so few people. The veterans could be better treated in another VA facility not that far away or, if they couldn't be cared for there, in community hospitals under contract with the VA. Still, veterans' organizations and local Congressmen typically fight those things, those sorts of moves. The only way to do it without too much uproar is to be able to demonstrate what the positives are, just is go to the people affected, the Congressman and the veterans' organizations in that area, and say, "Here's the way veterans are being treated. You've got that hospital there, but the range of care is very, very limited. They really can't do surgeries. They don't have the backup for it. I mean, it's a facility that is just a drain on the VA. With the same resources or less, we could be treating your veterans here, over at a facility that's going to provide them better care. If that's too far, they can't make it because of their conditions or whatever, we'll provide care for them through the community. The workers, here's where the workers will be able to go, but operating that facility just makes no sense and it's not good, not the best thing, not the best use of the available resources for the veterans." You just lay your cards on the table, and then, try to keep taking the next step. We had--the one example I can think of in Nebraska--the Congressman met with the Secretary and we toured out there in the state and he supported it. It was the only time I ever noticed a Congressman who actually did do it, but it was largely a result because everything had been so above board and transparent. There are other closures and shifts of missions and that sort of thing in the VA medical centers that have been accomplished, but with a lot of fighting. So, the people in a geographic area get very possessive about their VA facilities. They're hard to change and they do like to get new ones, but nobody gets a hospital where it doesn't belong. That's just too big a deal. That's too much money and ongoing resources to happen.
SI: You mentioned that you ran into some surprises every once in a while that would involve a phone call from a legislator. Do any of those spring to mind, an example of what would set off a Congressman or Senator?
ES: Oh, could be anything. [laughter] Arlen Specter had been the ranking minority member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. For a while, he was the Chairman of the committee, also. I got to know him quite well and we were making some changes regarding the VA Medical Center in Scranton. The day before the news came out, I told both the office of the Congressman and Senator Specter about it. Specter got to the media first and, the next day, that Congressman let me know that that's not the way you do things. This was a Democratic Congressman. Something was happening in his district and I let a Republican Senator get the news and get it out first. That was pretty early on, so, I never made that mistake again. That was a very unpleasant call to get from a Congressman. Later on, we became friendly, but it was a real sore spot. So, things like that can happen. [Editor's Note: US Senator Arlen Specter represented Pennsylvania as a Republican from 1981 to 2011. In his 2010 campaign, he switched to the Democratic Party and lost the primary.] Another one I remember was the Director of the VA Chaplain Service. There had been a tradition in the VA, the chaplain service director would serve his term--I don't know whether it was four years or three years or whatever--but they could count on getting a renewal of directorship of the Chaplaincy of the VA. So, you're running the chaplain service for the whole VA. There had never been an African-American director of the chaplaincy in the VA. Secretary Brown saw himself as having one shot at naming the top VA Chaplain, because he wasn't going to stay for the whole eight years and be around to appoint anybody the next time that their term expired. So, instead of renewing the existing chaplain, who was from Massachusetts, he appointed an African-American, the first African-American to be Chaplain of the VA. Well, that didn't go over with Congressman Moakley in Massachusetts. I got a memorable phone call from him and people in the White House, who said he should never cross Moakley like that. They warned me ahead of time and I told the Secretary that the White House was advising against that. They weren't going to block him, but they advised against it, taking on Moakley, but he went ahead and did it and Moakley got madder than hell. That was interesting. Nothing could be done about it at the time, so, he just vented. [Editor's Note: Democrat John Joseph Moakley represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives from 1973 to 2001.]
SI: You have to be the person that takes that.
ES: The spear catcher.
SI: Yes. [laughter]
ES: Yes, I mean, if you're mad at the VA, if you're in Congress and you're mad at the VA, you look in the phonebook and, if you don't want to call the Secretary or he is not available, "The guy at Congressional Affairs, get him on the phone." Yes, so, you don't want those calls.
SI: In your position, did you have to deal with lobbyists, either from the veterans' organizations or others?
ES: Well, I maintained good relationships with the veterans' organizations. I always had them at the committee, ninety-five percent of the time, a very supportive relationship. I would call on them for support when particular issues would come up, see if they'd give us a hand. So, I just maintained those relationships, but my work was really superfluous. The Secretary, when I was there, Secretary Brown, having been the Executive Director of the DAV, had established himself as a rock star in the veterans' community. I mean, as far as veterans' organizations went, he belonged to all of them. He was a high-ranking employee at the DAV, but he was a member of all of them and they all knew him. He would go to a convention or he would just go to a VA facility or whatever, the people would line up for his autograph. I mean, you'd think he was Mick Jagger or something--Bon Jovi, trying to get up-to-date [laughter]--but he was phenomenal. I mean, people loved him, and so, nobody else needed to cultivate the veterans' organizations for the VA. He had established that.
SI: Obviously, the growth of the healthcare system and its improvement was a big issue, but what are some of the other big issues that you had to deal with during your time in office?
ES: Well, we went over Agent Orange and the Persian Gulf veterans' issues and sexual trauma issues. So, I think we've pretty much hit on all the highlights, the readjustment counseling. That was particularly [important], the PTSD in Vietnam veterans and PTSD has become a bigger and bigger issue.
SI: You were working on the same issues, just from a different position.
ES: Oh, you mean at the VA?
SI: Yes, at the VA.
ES: When I was at the VA, yes. Well, we sort of turned over a leaf. The VA had become very sort of reactionary on legislation that granted additional benefits, tending to say that things were all right the way they were or, "We've got a handle on it. We'll be dealing with this issue--we don't need legislation to interfere with what we're doing." So, we did help the stance [become] more in line with, "Here's an issue. Let's not drag our feet on this. Let's get out in front and move with the issue and get out there." Secretary Brown was very much in line with that sort of thinking. So, we were--the Administration was--proactive with regard to the health concerns of the Iraqi veterans, either Desert Storm or the Persian Gulf War II. One example of that might be, well, would be, spina bifida. Now, again, this is Vietnam, a Vietnam veterans' issue, but the National Academy of Science had pointed out that exposure to dioxin can cause the birth defect of spina bifida in their offspring. Veterans' family members had never gotten service-connection with the VA as a result of anybody's exposures or whatever happened to them in the military, that it might have affected them. So, that was the initial legislation--and the Administration backed it--to provide benefits to children with spina bifida, children of Vietnam veterans who had spina bifida. That's sort of an illustration of how far we would go in trying to respond to the potential or possible needs of Vietnam veterans, but the Administration backed that. I helped Secretary Brown work hard for Congressional support for that legislation, finally got it enacted.
CS: What do you think was the main motivating factor for the reformations within the VA? Do you think it was Vietnam? What would you say, in your experience?
ES: Reformation, in terms of improvements?
ES: Recognition throughout the veterans' community, both veterans' organizations, like the Legion, the VFW and Disabled American Veterans, and some members of Congress, that we weren't, that the nation was not, doing a good enough job for the veterans. So, people were willing to work toward making improvements. They came sort of gradually up until the mid-'90s, but there was improvement all along. It got to the point where one Chief Medical Director of the VA said, "People complain about the VA system if they don't get in. If we have the capacity and can bring them in, people are satisfied with their care." That was sort of true. Then, in the '90s, you expanded greatly and provided a lot more care. Their main issue now is mental health care, mental health care services, that they're having a very hard time providing adequate quantity of services. Well, there's just so many mental health professionals in the country and the VA can't hire enough to bring them in to meet the needs of veterans. They're not doing a really good job at this point on mental health services for, particularly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. To me, that's the one major shortcoming of the VA healthcare system at this point. I think, otherwise, it's a really good system. If you went to a VA facility, you'd be impressed with the equipment, the quality of the staff, everything. The VA was one of--I didn't have anything to do with it--the VA was the first organization to really establish electronic medical records systems throughout an entire facility, and then, start moving that model into other facilities. They adopted the electronic medical records real quickly, or more quickly than the rest of society. The big problem with respect to records in that area is getting the DoD computer systems and the VA's computer systems to be able to relate easily. So, there's a sort of breakdown in information flowing from DoD to the VA, so that the veterans can quickly get the services they need once they become veterans and go to the VA, so that the DoD information flows easily into it, is compatible with the medical system. That's been an ongoing problem for a couple of decades. I can remember dealing with it in the '90s, just trying to get moving. It's a real conundrum.
SI: You mentioned several times how the legislature in both houses went from a rather congenial relationship to a lot of acrimony. How did that affect your job at the VA, or did it?
ES: Well, things were more contentious. When I was at the VA, it didn't have a really big effect on my work at the VA. It was more like seeing the Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate--I could see their relationships falling apart, not working the way they had formerly. Things were much more contentious. They were more contentious when the Secretary would testify. He'd get very rough treatment from Republican members of Congress when we're going up to testify. So, I got out in '97 and '94 was when the really big break came and I didn't work on the Hill after that, so, it really didn't affect me all that much, but I've been very much aware of it ever since.
SI: Do you have to be confirmed in this position?
SI: What was that process like?
ES: Well, when you go from being the head of the staff of a committee to being a nominee appearing before the committee, you're appearing before the Senators you've just worked with and had good relationships with, so, it was a cakewalk. It was very nice. My mother and father were there. People usually bring some of their relatives to those confirmation hearings, especially when they're not going to be confrontational or controversial. Mine wasn't, so, it was just a very nice experience. They were very good to me there, overly nice, yes.
SI: Did you feel like the Clinton White House was supportive of what you were trying to do?
ES: Oh, yes.
ES: Yes, budget issues are always a concern. There's always a tension between the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House, and federal agencies who go there and try to convince them that their needs have to be met. So, budget issues were the one source of concern where the Director of the Office of Management and Budget says, "You're not getting all you're asking for. We're cutting you back to such and such." Secretary Brown's approach to that always was that he would take--you get a budget for your current year, and then, they've got projections for the out years. "You get this budget this year and here's what your budget is for the four out years for that." He would always get his budget for this year and didn't care much about the out years. So, he used to irritate the Office of Management and Budget when he'd go up on the Hill and say what he needed in the current year, generally satisfactory, and then, the people would question him about the terrible budgets in the out years. He said, "Well, we'll litigate that next year. Those aren't real numbers." Then, the people in Office of Management and Budget'd just go crazy, saying, "Those are real numbers. You agreed to them." [laughter] It was a good ploy--he always got a very good current year budget--but he had to sort of face the music on the out years. People would criticize him, but he would say, "Don't worry about it. We'll deal with next year's next year," pretty good approach, as it turned out, but that was the one major thing where he would have to deal with things that weren't entirely friendly.
SI: Why did you decide to leave in 1997?
ES: Well, I was finished with my career. One thing that was influencing me was that I knew that Secretary Brown wasn't going to stay all that much longer and I wanted to leave when he left. So, I left a couple months ahead of him and I had another job lined up that was pretty interesting that I wanted to do, at least give a try. So, I knew that I could do some things after government service and I just thought it was time to start doing them. I really didn't want to stay at the VA any longer after the Secretary left. Actually, I went and worked with him for a few years.
SI: What did you do there?
ES: That was a government consulting sort of job. He had a lot of good contacts. So, he did government and business consulting, and so, we would just work on various projects for organizations, some involving government work, some involving work in the veterans' area, which, under the ethical rules at the time, we could advise them as to what to do, but we couldn't represent them. The Clinton Administration took the position that they had, like, a five-year rule, that you couldn't go back and talk to people in the agency where you worked until you were out of government service for five years, but they dropped that on the last month of the Clinton Administration. They revoked that rule, but it affected me for four years. I couldn't talk to anybody in the VA about--I couldn't represent any potential contractor, represent anybody else before the VA, after that.
SI: Do you know why they dropped it in the last month?
ES: Let people work. [laughter]
ES: I guess they figured that there would be a change in administration and it just didn't [make sense]. For these Democrats to come back to organizations being run by Republicans didn't make all that much sense to say, for five years, they had to stay away.
ES: Because that was when George W. Bush took over as President. So, they revoked that one, turned them loose.
SI: How long did you work for this consulting firm?
ES: I guess, let me see, just for a couple of years. He and I both got sick. Tragically, for him, he had Lou Gehrig's Disease.
ES: ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.]. He went into a real sharp decline. Just before that, I got hospitalized with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which hit me real hard at first. I was coming back while he was going downhill and he eventually died. So, I worked with him for a couple of years, and then, I started doing the nuclear stuff. [Editor's Note: Guillain-Barre Syndrome results in a person's immune system attacking their nerves, resulting in loss of feeling and mobility.]
SI: Can you tell us a little bit about that?
ES: The nuclear?
ES: This was a brainchild of Senator Cranston. His avocation--he was devoted to two things, public financing of election campaigns, which he felt was crucial to a democracy, and you can see today the influence that money is having, and the second one was the elimination of nuclear weapons. He thought both of them were crucial to the future of the world. So, he worked in the nuclear area pretty constantly after he left the Senate. He left in '92. I got back in touch with him in 2000. He contacted me and he said that the anti--the people who were trying to reduce the nuclear threat, reduce nuclear weapons or work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, all that--are organizations that can't really lobby, but there was this provision in the law where veterans' organizations could lobby. He was wondering how we could set up an organization in that specific part of the law, a veterans' organization, and have it be totally free to lobby on nuclear issues. So, I talked to some people that I knew and we set up a couple of meetings where he agreed to do fundraising and be sort of behind-the-scenes for the organization. We would set up an organization, and I was going to be the executive director of it, that would work on nuclear threat reduction issues, which, at the time, were mainly--they still are--making sure that nuclear weapons grade materials are adequately secured from possible leaking out to rogue governments or to terrorists and trying to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that people have aimed at each other, which has always been just totally insane. For us and the Russians to both have thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at each other, I mean, if we ever got that [far], ever lost our cool and set these things off, it'd be the end of the world. I mean, maybe you've read about the nuclear winter that would descend upon the world, everything up in the air and radiation everywhere, just totally nutty framework that the two countries allowed themselves to get into and are sort of backing out. They're getting down to where there'll be less than two thousand nuclear warheads ready to go in an instant's notice pretty soon, but even that treaty doesn't have rule enforcement mechanisms. The two sides continue to work, even with this Ukraine thing going on or whatever else goes on. They seem to be able to keep working on the nuclear reduction issues. I hope that that continues under the Putin regime. I'm not so confident that it will. I think, at some point, he'll just say he wants to have a new Soviet Union and he's just not going to go back and reduce his standing as a fearsome nuclear power. So, I don't have a lot of optimism on that. That was something Senator Cranston really wanted to do. We set the program up in the Fall of 2000, and then, in December of 2000, he died. So, he never saw it come to fruition, but that was in operation for seven years.
SI: Let me pause for a second.
SI: What was your day-to-day activity when working for this organization? What was the name of the organization again?
ES: It was called the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign. We worked with other organizations in terms of developing factual issues and stances as to what are the best next steps and that sort of thing, but we were free just to go right to members of Congress and try to get friends on our side and find members who were interested in pursuing the issue and give them information. We actually turned that sort of thing into a manual, nuclear threat reduction manual, where we had individual chapters, like we have a chapter on North Korea, a chapter on weapons of mass destruction other than nuclear weapons, nuclear testing. There's still not a total ban on nuclear underground tests. So, there's no universal ban on nuclear testing ratified by the US. We always worked heavily on that, but there are always enough Senators who won't go along with it, who would block it. The thing was, the agreement by us and Russia and most countries was signed more than fifteen years ago, I'm sure; it just can't get ratification in the Senate on that. We would do things like try to increase the budget for nuclear threat reduction efforts, mainly in the area of helping the Russians and other countries that have weapons grade materials, get them gathered up and placed in secure areas or, if they don't have secure areas, send them to countries that can take care of them. A lot of that material wound up in Russia under agreements whereby they take these materials and downgrade them. You can go from highly-enriched uranium, which you could make an atomic bomb out of, and blend it down to low-energy uranium, which isn't usable for nuclear weapons, but is usable for nuclear power. I forget the exact numbers, but over ten percent of the electric power in the United States comes from nuclear materials that Russia has blended down into non-weapons grade, and then, under agreements with them, they ship it over here and we use it in power plants. There are a lot of issues around that area of trying to eliminate the production of weapons grade materials. Nuclear reactors produce material, plutonium, which doesn't appear in nature. It only comes about through things like nuclear reactors. So, we've got to keep making progress, so that we don't keep producing weapons grade materials. It was just too much. When you look at humanity in terms of thousands of years and hundreds of years, we've got a lot better chance of humans surviving if there are no nuclear weapons than if there are, because, eventually, they'll get used if they're not eliminated.
SI: Did you always feel this strongly about it or did it come after your career?
ES: No, it came after; I ignored it, but, when Senator Cranston called and I became interested in working with him on the issue, then, I started reading, reading and reading and talking to some other people. I got very, very interested in it. I remember, early on, I would read this stuff and I'd say, "Holy Cow," and I'd say to my wife, "Look at this." She would look at it and her hair would stand on end. She said, "How can you sleep?" It's very scary stuff. There have been times that we've been close to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union because of miscalculation. I think it was Norway, or somebody, sent a rocket up out of a submarine or something and the Russians were concerned that it was a US missile headed towards them. They started arming their nuclear weapons and were getting ready to launch a strike. It was only through phone calls that a nuclear exchange was averted. Nuclear exchange is a polite way of saying, "We didn't launch thousands of [missiles]." I mean, when you just think of what a nuclear weapon did to Hiroshima, the nuclear weapons we have now are forty, fifty times as big, more explosive than that, and there are thousands of them. It's just crazy. I once talked to a Republican friend of mine who had been with the CIA for a long time. I said, "How many weapons do you think the United States needs in order to have a nuclear deterrent?" He said, "One." [laughter] I mean, nobody wants to attack the country that can launch one and it will get through. This is getting very sophisticated, but the big issue in the nuclear weapons area is first strike capability, where you can hit the Russians so hard that you hit their launch facilities before they have a chance to launch a counterattack. They were very concerned about us getting that capability, because it involves the rocketry and all the electronic stuff that might help you achieve that first strike capability. They're concerned about that as they reduce their levels of nuclear weapons. Their concern, "Will we have enough nuclear weapons, around four or five hundred left, would we actually have the force necessary that we could launch a counterstrike so that we could never get knocked out by a first strike by the United States." That's one of the sticking points; that and Israel are the two sticking points. Israel has nuclear weapons and the possibilities of them giving them up--heck, they don't even admit they have them. I mean, the idea of how you would ever get your arms around that issue, so that there'd be a total elimination of nuclear weapons, is challenging, way beyond our capabilities.
SI: How did the Bush Administration react to what you were trying to do? Were they in opposition?
ES: Well, they weren't in opposition to us, but they didn't even know we existed, our little organization, doing lobbying for increased funding and little incremental [boosts]. In fact, we were able to get some stuff enacted in the way of studies and the like and legislation that would require them to move towards some agreements that could be helpful. Basically, we critiqued their positions on things, like the idea that they wouldn't talk to Iran. So, we had a chapter in this manual I was talking about, one on North Korea and one on Iran. The one on Iran was, "So, yes, you don't like them, but you're never going to stop them from producing nuclear weapons if you don't talk and negotiate with them," but the Bush Administration would not negotiate at all with Iran about their nuclear weaponry, same with North Korea. In 1993, when the Clinton Administration came in; no, no, I'm talking about Bush's first year.
ES: Yes, George W. Bush's first year, South Korea came and visited the United States. We had--the Clinton Administration had--worked out this framework or agreement with North Korea where there was give-and-take in terms of us giving them materials, nonnuclear materials, for power production and their agreement was to allow inspectors in, not proceed with production of nuclear weapons, all that sort of thing. The framework was in place. There had been disagreements and a slowdown in implementation, partly our fault, more the North Koreans' fault. Colin Powell went, wanted to keep that framework alive and wanted to take that stance with the South Koreans when they visited here in 2001. We knew that the South Koreans also wanted us to take that position and continue negotiations with the North. However, the White House flatly turned down Secretary Powell and disappointed South Korea. They said, "No, the North Koreans don't keep their word and we're not going to do anything with them. We're not going to talk to them." They get named the Axis of Evil. That was about the only thing that we did with North Korea. So, we were very critical in our little booklet about that; didn't have any effect, but that was the sort of thing we would do. For those on the Hill who are interested in taking up these issues, nuclear threat reduction issues, they had a resource there that they could open and find articles of interest on all of these topics. There were three of us writing on that at the time.
SI: You did that until 2007.
ES: Yes. I launched it as the Director of the program, and then, I was gone for over a year because of this illness, and then, when I got back, I was Head of Congressional Relations for that organization. That was until 2007, 2002 to 2007.
SI: After 2007, did you retire?
ES: I retired.
SI: All right.
ES: Yes, nothing after that.
ES: It was interesting--I worked for the two Obama campaigns. I had been used to writing position papers on veterans' issues, on nuclear issues, that we would make available to the Democratic Party, writing chapters for books that people would use on campaigns and that sort of thing, all at this very top level. So, it was fun for me to do door-to-door canvassing and phone banks, to get involved at the local level working for a Presidential campaign. That was real fun, did that twice.
SI: Is there anything from your time either in the Administration or afterwards that we skipped over that you want to talk about?
ES: Nothing occurs to me offhand, pretty much it.
SI: Do you have any questions, Francesca?
FD: Do you have children?
FD: It seems apparent that you worked pretty consistently until your retirement. I am under the impression that you worked a lot.
FD: How did that affect your family relationship?
ES: Well, my family relationship was really very good, four children. The oldest one is a Korean. I was Director of the Peace Corps in Korea and we adopted a child. He's the oldest one. I took my role as a father very seriously, so that I worked and I was a father and a husband.
FD: Did you ever get your children involved with your work?
ES: No, never got involved, no. It was more me getting involved in what they were doing or just being there for them. I suppose, if I had to do it all over again, for a lot of the time, I worked too hard, just because of circumstances, that I was putting too much time in on the job. Our peak was always in the summer, when, as I was saying, we would pour legislation out of the committee. Then, we'd have to write a report, a little book about this legislation and why it was so wonderful and what people thought of it, etc., and then, preparing to try to get legislation through the Senate, and then, after that happens, negotiate with the House in order to get a final bill. Then, when you get a final bill, you do all the materials that you need to do for that, for the Congressional Record, all very time-consuming, a lot of work. I used to kid that--I used to listen to the Baltimore Orioles on the radio a lot, in Washington, DC, before the Nationals came to town--that if I went home before the Orioles came on, I had really had a good day and left work early. It would start at seven. So, if I was driving home and they weren't on the radio yet, that was terrific. If I was driving home and the game was on, "Ehh;" if the game was over, that was kind of late. It was really late when they were playing on the West Coast and I was driving home and the game was over. [laughter] There were a few nights that we worked through the night and had stuff ready that we had to do the next morning. That was crazy. That was just because we let things get delayed and boggled, too much of a crush at the tail-end. We didn't do that the years that I was Director, Staff Director for the committee. I just knew we had to space stuff out, that you can't be that inhumane. So, we never did that when I was responsible for it, but things like that happen sometimes, that you have to work these long hours, and they still do. God, if you went to work at the White House--I mean, people who work at the White House are the worst. I mean, I knew people there, they have to be there at, like, seven in the morning and, if I'm staying late, I can find them there, I can get them on the phone. They're there until eight or nine. They don't sleep enough. They don't leave the office soon enough to possibly get home and get a good night's sleep, but they have to eat dinner and be a family person, and they work on Saturdays. They get some time off on Sunday, a lot of them, but it's a grueling, grueling job. It's just awful. Leon Panetta was the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton Administration, and then, he was Chief of Staff of the White House. He said his problem at the Office of Management and Budget was, he didn't have enough time to go to the bathroom, he said, but, when he went to be Chief of Staff in the White House, he solved that because he didn't eat. [laughter] You can almost work that hard. Those are crazy jobs, very demanding. [Editor's Note: Leon Panetta served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget from January 1993 to July of 1994, then, as the White House Chief of Staff from July of 1994 to January 1997.]
SI: Did you encourage your kids to go into government service or some similar field?
ES: No, I didn't really try to direct the kids into any particular line.
SI: Is there anything else about your life that you would like to discuss or any outside activities or interests, community service?
ES: Well, I don't do it anymore, but, back when I was running a lot, I used to do work with the Achilles Track Club in Washington, DC. That was where we'd work with disabled athletes, the wheelchair racers and blind runners, people with any sort of handicap, some stroke victims, things like that. That was very satisfying work. I guess I did that for, I don't know, seven or eight years, but, when I went to work for the Administration, I just didn't have the time. [Editor's Note: The Achilles Track Club, now known as Achilles International, was formed in 1983 by Dick Traum, a leg amputee, to promote athletics for other amputees and handicapped athletes.]
ES: I couldn't count on being available when I was there. When I was working in the Senate, I was working long hours, but I could fashion my week a lot, so that I could do that sort of thing. In '93, when I went with the Administration, I couldn't do it. That was the end of doing that.
ES: So, that's my life. You've got it. [laughter]
SI: We appreciate you sharing with us and thank you very much for all of your time.
ES: Not at all; a lot of thanks goes to Rutgers for what I've gotten out of life or anything I've been able to contribute, started right here.
SI: Have you been active as a Rutgers alum?
ES: A little bit. I go to, not the planning meetings, but I go to events in the DC area and I contribute and I go to football games, keep in touch with some of my classmates. My ex-roommate, he and I and our wives are going to be going to the spring game tomorrow. We both have season tickets. So, I stay very much in tune. I talked to some people at the Office of Development for the School of Arts and Sciences regarding Rutgers issues and their efforts to get more activity going in the DC area; a lot of Rutgers graduates in the DC area.
SI: Sure, yes.
ES: They could have more activities. So, I'm interested in that.
SI: I was curious, when you were in government service, I know we have an office of federal relations, or something like that.
ES: Right, yes.
SI: They try to bring students in. Did you work with any Rutgers students in either the Senate or in the VA?
ES: Not in my official capacity, no.
ES: I have given a couple of talks to groups, I think recent graduates in the DC area or, I don't know, maybe seniors. I've talked to Rutgers people about life in DC, how to get a job in DC, networking and how you go about that in Washington. So, I've done some of that, actually came back and talked. Oh, I did teach a class once.
ES: Journalism class, when I was Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs in the VA, taught a journalism class. I didn't get in trouble, like Julie Hermann [current Athletic Director of Rutgers University]. [laughter]
SI: Was that for a full semester or as a guest lecturer?
ES: No, I taught one afternoon.
ES: Yes, I came up just as sort of a guest lecturer sort of thing, just tell them what we were doing. That was fun.
SI: Thank you very much, we appreciate it.
ES: You're very welcome.
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Reviewed by Jesse Braddell 6/29/2014
Reviewed by Shaun Illingworth 4/13/2015
Reviewed by Edward Scott 4/21/2015