with Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire
To Make a Difference 
Sen. Bob Smith talked with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION in Cedar Rapids on June 13, 1998 during Sen. Chuck Grassley's breakfast at the Iowa GOP First in the Nation Gala and State Convention. 
Smith | News

  • QUESTION What is your first political memory?

  • QUESTION Was there somebody who was particularly helpful or influential in getting you started in politics? 

  • QUESTION What do you remember about your first campaign for public office?  

  • QUESTION What has been your most satisfying accomplishment as an elected official? 

  • QUESTION What has been your greatest disappointment as an elected official? 

  • QUESTION Describe a defining moment in your life. 

  • QUESTION Do you have a framework, a formula, or a set of criteria for thinking about the proper role of the federal government?

  • QUESTION Americans seem disengaged from national politics. Is this a problem in your view, and are there any steps we can take to get people more involved? 

  • QUESTION What is the greatest challenge facing the country today? 

  • QUESTION A lot of people are thinking about running for the White House. What do you offer that sets you apart? 

  • QUESTION What do you do for fun?

  • QUESTION How does Bob Smith win the nomination? 

What is your first political memory? 

SMITH: Let's see, I would have been 11 I guess, I made a bet with a kid in my class that Eisenhower would beat Stevenson in 1952. And the bet was, this fellow had chickens, this kid, he was raising chickens, and I didn't have any chickens so I bet him a dollar versus the chicken, so that if I won he owes me a chicken and if he won then I owed him a dollar. So, of course, Eisenhower won. So I came home and I told my grandfather about it because I lived on his farm, and I told him that I had won the chicken. And he said well then you need to collect… He got me in his car, and he says where does this kid live. I told him. We drove over, drove into the yard, told his parents what happened. His mother said you go down there and pick out any chicken you want right out of the hen-house. And so I did. 

I don't know if it was the first memory but it was certainly one of the more important ones. My grandfather was very politically astute, and that's where I learned my politics. And that's really the first election that I had any involvement in or any real knowledge of. 


Was there somebody who was particularly helpful or influential in getting you started in politics?

SMITH: Yeah, I think my grandfather was the one that motivated me into it. He is…as I said in my remarks this morning I don't have a dad--my dad died when I was 3 years old and I was raised by my grandparents while my mother worked. So my grandfather was a Republican and we talked a lot of politics around the house, and that's where I really developed my interest in politics. [Smith's grandfather was a farmer who lived in New Jersey; Smith grew up as a kid in New Jersey before he moved to New Hampshire]. 



What do you remember about your first campaign for public office?

SMITH: It was a very interesting campaign. I was a teacher and I got out of teaching and one of my former colleagues who had been a vice principal at the school, I felt was being unfairly attacked, unfairly discriminated against. He wanted to be the principal and they denied him that. So it became an issue in the school board election. The incumbent school board member was against this guy and I was for him. I felt that this individual was a good person who had been real good to kids and deserved to be principal. And the other member that I ran against--the incumbent--voted against him and denied him the opportunity. So it really became the dominant issue of the campaign. And out of I forget how many thousands of votes were cast I won by 200 in a very intense election. That's where I got my start--a school board election in what they call a regional school district--about 7 towns. 



What has been your most satisfying accomplishment as an elected official?

SMITH: Well a lot of things. I was the first Senator ever to visit North Korea. I went there a few years ago; I went to Pyongyang, North Korea. Nobody had been there since the war, no Senator. It was a mission looking for MIAs. We were able to get 11 sets of remains back from the North Koreans. It was a very interesting trip. That was certainly a highlight. I mean there are other things but that is certainly one of them. 



What has been your greatest disappointment as an elected official?

SMITH: When you're in the Senate, where you need 50 other people to agree with you to pass anything, you get a lot of disappointments.



Describe a defining moment in your life.

SMITH: I think probably the defining moment was my father's death, because it so dramatically changed my whole life. I didn't know it at the time… My father was a naval aviator, Annapolis graduate, had survived, come all the way through the war after having all kinds of combat missions…died right at the end of the war. And I think had he lived I probably would have been a Navy kid, you know we would have traveled around. My father was definitely a career officer. Instead, because of his death I wound up growing up on a farm in New Jersey raised by my grandparents. I think those down-home values, those values that you pick up by learning responsibilities on a farm, I think have clearly had an impact on my life. I mean I don't know what my life would have been, traveling from naval base to naval base. 

Certainly my marriage was a defining moment--married to the same woman for 31 years. This tremendously supportive woman, who really, I could never do this job without her. I mean, I've watched so many marriages fall apart in Washington because the stress is just so great. But she's very understanding of this, so I'm very fortunate in that regard. So I think those are two things.  



Do you have a framework, a formula, or a set of criteria for thinking about the proper role of the federal government?

SMITH: Simply put, I think the less role the better. I think the federal government today has evolved in way, way too much…well beyond what the Constitution ever intended. I think what we see today, and it happens frequently in the legislative debates we have--like the tobacco bill. I mean it sounds good--help children--but we're going to…raise $700 billion in taxes from people who smoke cigarettes to do what? Those people, if they're hooked on cigarettes, they're going to smoke, and so that's money that's going to be denied their kids or denied perhaps some other way that they need 'em, and then we're going to wind up creating more social programs. 

People who take these positions do so with good motives but the results are bad. In America, America is a free society…we should be allowed to make free choices including smoking cigarettes. I don't smoke, but if people want to do that that's their choice. And I think we should have that right. And we have the right to succeed and the right to fail in business. And I think the government regulates to much, taxes too much, takes too much of our earnings… So in simple terms, the lesser role of the federal government the better. There is a key role for the federal government in certain areas, as the Constitution says--the matter of national defense, promote the general welfare, and so forth and so forth. But I think we've gone way beyond the Constitution.  



Americans seem disengaged from national politics. Is this a problem in your view, and are there any steps we can take to get people more involved?

SMITH: I'm very worried about it. I think that in politics throughout my lifetime there's always been a certain degree of cynicism. You can go all the way back to Mark Twain or even beyond that. But Mark Twain used to make jokes about politicians. You always hear jokes about politicians being dishonest and all that. 

But I'd like to go back to the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." I've patterned my campaign after that movie. I'm the Mr. Smith that went to Washington. Jimmy Stewart, in that movie, was the man who came to Washington, who saw a corrupt system, a system of compromisers and unprincipaled people--this is the theme of the movie--and he succeeded, he made it happen. And I think today we need that kind of faith in our leaders and we need that kind of faith in our people and we don't have it. And the reason we don't have it is because of what we see happening in politics. 

I'm a teacher by trade--I'm not a lawyer--and when I go to schools--high schools, grade schools, whatever--I listen to kids and they're pretty perceptive. They're honest, they're totally honest, especially the grade school kids. And they see this stuff with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and all these things swirling around and it turns them off on politics. Normally no matter which party has the presidency you could go into a third or fourth grade class and who do you admire most? Some kids may say their father and their mother, but when you get out of their household they would say the president of the United States and I think that now that's changing and Bill Clinton to some extent has been the cause of this. So every time there's corruption or somebody does something wrong and it becomes a very prominent news issue then I think it contributes to the cynicism. 

And I think with Bill Clinton the problem here is not so much what he did as it is not facing up to what he did. He's the president of the United States; he's the leader of the free world. Lawyers aside, he should come forth and say this is what happened. I'm your president, you deserve to know what happened. Instead we're playing legal games. And I think the president, by doing this has contributed to the cynicism and the turning off of especially young people into politics. And I think it's a serious problem that could ultimately harm our Republic. If the American people lose faith in their political leaders, lose faith in the system, lose faith in the desire to participate in the political process, we're going to be in trouble. 



What is the greatest challenge facing the country today?

SMITH: We've lost our moral compass. You lose your sense of morality, your sense of what's right and wrong, you're standing in quicksand. You can't build a building on quicksand. You have to know what's right, what's wrong, what's constitutional, what isn't, what's good, what's bad… If you don't have that kind of grounding you can't build for the future. 



A lot of people are thinking about running for the White House. What do you offer that sets you apart?

SMITH: The way I see it is I'm a new face. 

I'm an old warrior. I've been in the trenches for 14 years fighting for the Congress for most of the issues that all of the American people, certainly many of the people here in Iowa have talked about--pro-life, supportive of lesser government, less taxes, reducing crime--typically Republican issues. I've lived it. I've been in the trenches much like Teddy Roosevelt, there in the dust and the dirt and I think I've done a good job. 

I think the people of Iowa maybe looking for a new face. We see a lot of retreads here, people that have run, and I'm not making any aspersions on anyone, but we hear a lot of people, leap-year conservatives, every four years they come back and talk about how conservative they are. …I bring because of my own background, the character, the integrity, the commitment, the principled commitment, to make these changes. 

Let me just conclude on this point. I have that faith. [In my speech last night] I talked about the guy who was walking along the beach with his friend. And there's a starfish on the beach, thousands of them. And he picks up that one starfish. And the friend says are you really think you're going to make a difference; there are thousands of starfish on the beach. And he picks up another one and he throws it in and he says, well, it'll make a difference to that one. You see that's the kind of faith you need. You have to have that faith that America is good, that people are good, the documents are good--the Constitution, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence--those are good documents. Follow those documents, people are good, have that faith that America is good and will work. So that's what I'm about. 



What do you do for fun?

SMITH: I love to fly fish. Every time I get a chance I have a little hideaway in New Hampshire where I go with no phone. My sons go with me usually, sometimes my wife, and we fly fish. I also like to play golf. I like sports, you know, to watch pro baseball, football, basketball, hockey. Yeah, I'm a sports fan. I get recreation, relaxation out of watching a good game or going to one in person. Physically I work out, I have a treadmill, and I'll turn the news on and work the treadmill. 



How does Bob Smith win the nomination?

SMITH: This goes back to the image game. The image game is somebody in the media… For example [Gov.] George Bush has never done anything to become a candidate other than to listen to people talk about it. Why is that? Well because he's the son of a president, has the same name, so people talk about him. So I think what those comments really show or demonstrate is we're playing the image game. 

The truth of the matter is if somebody is impressed with a candidate and supports that candidate and somebody else tells a friend and a friend, he can become a major force in no time. And I realize that the odds are long but it doesn't bother me. I'm the guy with the starfish. One at a time…one vote at a time. I'm prepared to do it. 35 days in Iowa since January 1st; I'll spend another 100 days in Iowa at least... 

[At this point an Iowan comes over to praise Smith for his speech at the Gala the previous evening].  

When I first ran in 1980, I'd go into a room like this and 90 percent of the people'd be for somebody else and you'd know it. But what I noticed last night was people went out of their way, like you just did to walk over… 

…The fact that somebody else, because the media says is some quote unquote big name, I don't think that means anything in Iowa. In Iowa I don't think that is that relevant. Because it's a caucus state and people are going to respond… And I think if it was an image situation where you've got a state like California, where you couldn't get out and meet thousands, enough people to make a difference. Even if you met 25,000 it wouldn't make a difference. You meet 25,000 here, it will make a difference. 


Copyright 1998  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action