A Conversation with the Secretaries

January 10, 2009 05:27 AM


Gathered in person for the former Secretaries of Agriculture event, in the inverse order they served, were (from left): Mike Johanns, Ann Veneman, Dan Glickman, Mike Espy, Clayton Yeutter and John Block. The discussion was led by Farm Journal Washington and Policy Editor Roger Bernard and former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm.
Former Secretaries of Agriculture (from left) Mike Johanns, Ann Veneman, Dan Glickman, Mike Espy, Clayton Yeutter, John Block

On Dec. 3, 2008, Farm Journal and Farm Foundation teamed up to host the historic "A Conversation with the Secretaries" at the Food and Agriculture Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. Much to our delight—and those in the audience—seven of the former Secretaries of Agriculture participated in the event, the six pictured above in person and Bob Bergland by video. The lively discussion, which was moderated by our Washington and Policy Editor Roger Bernard and former Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm, focused on advice the former ag chiefs have for President-elect Barack Obama's USDA leader.

You could feel the excitement in the room as the officials took the stage to be seated for the evening's event. Once things began, you could tell the night was going to be special. And indeed it was.

The historic gathering centered on the former Secretaries of Agriculture, officials who spanned five administrations and 25 years of Cabinet experience.

Despite the depth and breadth of topics discussed, the former ag chiefs revealed little of their political views. It wasn't a group of Democrats and Republicans—it was a group of former government officials who discussed the issues that will face the next person to occupy agriculture's top post. Their interaction with each other was a display of nonpartisanship that has been so lacking in Washington.

As the event unfolded, the former USDA chiefs focused on issues facing the next Secretary, with many zeroing in on the importance of trade. They urged the next Secretary to make sure that trade opportunities remain for U.S. agriculture, given that we cannot consume all we produce.

Quickly establishing a team is another of the key things that several of the officials said would be a big plus for the next USDA Secretary, especially now with a transition from one party to another. John Block, who served during the Reagan administration, said getting a staff in place will help avert dumping those the winning party thinks need to be "thanked" for one reason or another into the department. Mike Espy, who served in the Clinton administration, echoed that sentiment and stressed the importance of tapping into the expertise of the solid career bureaucrats who populate the department.

It was also an evening where seasoned veterans of Washington revealed a more human side of their terms in office, using personal stories to drive home their serious points. Block told of his first Cabinet meeting, at which he asked President Reagan about lifting the grain embargo against Russia, a campaign promise the President had made. Block noted that a couple of fellow Cabinet members nearly tore his head off for asking that question. Block's advice: Find out who your friends are in the Cabinet.

Dan Glickman, who finished out the Clinton administration at USDA, said he used to add personal touches to memos sent to the President to try and build a rapport with the chief executive. His advice: Get to know the President well if you don't already.

Espy said he once had plans to downsize USDA and mentioned to the press that he wanted to close a specific county office in West Virginia. He quickly got a request to meet with the powerful Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who pointed out that the office in question was run by a relative. Espy noted that the office remains open to this day. His advice: Maintain a good relationship with Congress.

But perhaps the most succinct and pertinent advice came in the Secretaries' answers to a final question about what advice they would offer the Barack Obama administration. Block urged them to "stay in the middle of the road" and not be pulled into either the "left" or "right" ditch. Clayton Yeutter, likening the Obama election to those of Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, said the new administration should "inspire the world and the United States." Espy urged the Obama team to resist "lobbyist creep" and not let special interests have too much say.

In addition to the six former ag chiefs who participated on stage, Bob Bergland joined the panel discussion via video from his Minnesota home.

Glickman called on the Obama administration to get us out of "this economic pessimistic period we're in. Do that and they'll be heroes for a long time." Ann Veneman noted her global travels during the campaign and urged the Obama team to "look at your role in the world … see how to best play that global leadership role." But Mike Johanns perhaps summed it up best: "Forget red states. Forget blue states. Forget the states you won or lost. Be the President for all the people." 

How You Can Watch the Roundtable

There is no substitute for listening to the fascinating discussion yourself. If you'd like to watch "A Conversation with the Secretaries," tap into these options:

  • Because C-SPAN taped it, you can watch it on the Web by going to www.c-spanarchives.org and searching for 282668-1. Then, click on "Flash Video" on the right side of the page. You can also buy a DVD while you're there.
  • Watch it during one of two showings at our free seminars at the National Farm Machinery Show. See page 10 for times.


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