In this episode of Fireside Chat, we sit down with Bob Kerrey, Former Governor and Senator of Nebraska and President, The New School. In this conversation, we discussed lessons learned during his time as a Governor and U.S. State Senator, the responsibilities of a lead director during a time of crisis, and how the pandemic will change our lifestyles moving forward.
Please note: The number of COVID-19 cases and the situation referenced in this episode were based on reported data at the time of the interview and are subject to change.
Bob Kerrey 0:04
You’re going to see fairly significant changes coming out of it. I think education is going to be different coming out of it. I think healthcare is going to be different coming out of it. I think our food delivery system is going to be different. We’re going to make changes.
Gary Bisbee 0:15
That was Governor Bob Perry, former governor and US senator from the state of Nebraska. Governor Kerry is confident that we’ll see substantial changes in response to the COVID pandemic across many sectors of our society, including healthcare. Governor Kerrey has a wide range of experiences, including being an officer in SEAL Team one and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. We covered lessons he has learned from his time as governor and US senator. He’s an experienced board member, and he provided an excellent perspective on the responsibilities of a lead director during a crisis and guidelines for relating to the CEO. Governor Kerry spoke about the coronavirus being with us for the foreseeable future, which will change our lifestyles. Let’s listen:
Bob Kerrey 1:00
This virus is not going to disappear. We’re not going to eliminate it. There’s not going to be a signing ceremony, unconditional surrender, it’s going to be with us. So we got to figure out how to live with it. And I think one of the things is that we do is to make sure that the supply chain is reliable.
Gary Bisbee 1:15
He believes that we must develop a reliable supply chain for PPE, similar to that developed by the Defense Department. I’m delighted to welcome Governor Bob Kerry to the microphone. Well, welcome to the podcast, Governor.
Bob Kerrey 1:31
Gary Bisbee 1:31
Well, I’m pleased to have you at this microphone for sure. Why don’t we get right into it. And the first topic that I’d love to explore with you is the role of a governor during a crisis. And we’ve seen many governors in the 60 to 70% approval rating as of now. So why do you think that the governors are so well thought of across the country, Bob?
Bob Kerrey 1:54
Well, I mean, they’re first of all their home and they have a significant amount of authority when we have a crisis. And you see it all the time, it could be a crisis of caused by weather a flood or tornado or because they have authority over the guard. But people look to the governor, even when they don’t have authority, they look to the governor and typically grant that Governor moral authority to help them understand what’s going on. And the governor, again, may not have statutory authority over employers, but the employers will look to the governor as somebody not just with authority to talk, but they look to the governor and say, “Look, this is what we need. This is what our needs are.” So it’s a unique situation, by the way, and one thing, Gary, during this COVID-19 pandemic, oftentimes people say, Well, how come we’re not like South Korea or Singapore or something, right? Well, because in 1787, when our Constitution was written, the states retained a substantial amount of authority over decision making, from education to healthcare to a whole range of things, theyve got authority. There’s nothing comparable in Korea to the (power of the) States. And it is true there are times when it makes it difficult for decision making. But most of the time, what it does is gives you a variety of different decision making some good, some bad. And then typically the governors learn from each other. They associate and they’re back and forth talking about, okay, what are you doing to make something work? So I think it’s a it’s a genius, political arrangement, but it’s different than any other country.
Gary Bisbee 3:25
Right. During the time that you were Nebraska governor, what did you feel your most important responsibility was?
Bob Kerrey 3:31
Well, I think it’s trying to answer the question “What’s going on?” So, as an example, I came into office, in fact, I got elected as a result of an economic recession that began in the late 1970s with inflation. And when the chairman of the Federal Reserve broke inflation by tightening the money supply, we had a lot of farms that went broke because they borrowed money and put up their land as collateral and commodity prices were down because it was an economic recession. So explaining and trying to understand, that not by sitting on a mountaintop, but by listening to people talking to experts and trying to get a sense of what the problem was and trying to get a good sense of what the solution was, I’d say it’s the most important the governor has to do. Now, there are all kinds of state agencies, you have to fund and you have to appoint judges and you have to make difficult decisions on pardoned boards. But I think the key thing is trying to answer the question “what is going on right now? And what do we need to do in order to reach that point that we say we want to reach which is a better life for our children and our grandchildren?”
Gary Bisbee 4:35
How tightly does the state emergency powers that the governor’s control of how tightly does that need to be coordinated with the US as a practical matter?
Bob Kerrey 4:44
First of all, it’s almost automatically coordinated as a result of the guard, is partially controlled by the governor, the National Guard, and partially controlled by the department defense. So it’s the President nationalizes the guard all of a sudden the president of the United States as Commander in Chief has full authority. So it’s, in most disasters, you’ve got a significant amount of automatic coordination going on between the Department of Defense and the governor’s office to the guard. But there are other agencies become important. The Corps of Engineers becomes enormously important. The Bureau of Reclamation becomes important, FEMA is enormously important. So a substantial amount of coordination goes on. Even if… let’s take the Small Business Administration, I didn’t have any authority over the SBA. But if we had a national disaster, and we had a couple. If you have a national disaster, the SBA becomes very, very important. So we don’t coordinate but our economic development people have to understand – what are the rules that the SBA is using? Because oftentimes people will come to the state get questions answered, and the more questions we can answer, the better job to the feds are going to be able to do to help us.
Gary Bisbee 5:53
Well, one of the key issues now- you’re referred to it in your terrific op-ed editorial and today’s Wall Street Journal, but that’s was the balance between the state economies and the health of the people? How would a governor parse through that?
Bob Kerrey 6:08
First of all, be prepared to make mistakes. And be honest when you make a mistake and as much as possible to get all the other stakeholders to buy into a presumption that we are going to make mistakes. When we make a mistake, don’t blame each other, make adjustments, and move on. Because if you don’t do that, what happens is that the process shuts down. It’s everybody pointing the finger each other trying to lay the blame off on somebody else. As opposed to, we’ve got a flood, we’ve got a tornado, we’ve got a disaster. We got to get building. And the good news is I didn’t mention this as the most important part of this in a disaster, but people really pulled together. I always say this tornado in Omaha, Nebraska in 1975, and we were about 18 months into business and our business was blown away. I was in New York when 9/11 happened. I’ve only lived in the United States. So I’m not asserting that Americans in this regard are better than other countries. Because it’s made maybe human nature, not just the way Americans are. But Americans… if somebody is in trouble, we’d like to help them. And when the tornado hit in Omaha 75, and when Al Qaeda attacked us in 2001, the city of Omaha in the city of New York became a community. We helped each other. Governments can’t do it all without that impulse to help each other, help each other rebuild volunteer time, and contribute labor, and contribute money if necessary. The government can’t get it done. So before you ever get to what is the governor does, it’s really important to understand that all the governor can do is connected to the willingness of the people themselves to help their neighbor and help somebody that doesn’t even know get through the crisis, get through the challenge. And you’ve seen that now I think with COVID. The different from COVID is we all have to stay inside. It’s harder to help but you don’t have to look very far. You see it in the hospitals. You see it in the food banks, my goodness. You see heroic people helping be willing to run a considerable risk to help, and no crisis is solvable, no leader can ever get through a crisis without that will being there.
Gary Bisbee 8:12
Right. Well, you mentioned the 9/11 crisis, of course, you were one to 10 members appointed to the 9/11 commission, and thinking about particularly recommendations out of that commission. Are there any learnings there for us, Bob, in terms of the current crisis?
Bob Kerrey 8:27
I think so. First of all, it was a very partisan time after 9/11, maybe less partisan than it is today, I don’t know but it was partisan. The R’s and the D’s were at each other’s throats. And they put together a commission that was chaired by two wonderful people, one Democrat, Lee Hamilton, and one a Republican Tom Kaine. And we had no dissenting report, no dissenting opinions. It was a unified report. And we wanted to unify because we felt that the country needed to pull together as well. As a consequence of Tom and Lee’s leadership, and as a consequence of no minority reports, I think the impact was much, much greater. And remember, the 9/11 Commission was stood up after the House did their own examination and the families of the men and women who were killed on that day. They didn’t trust it. They didn’t trust the conclusion. So the 9/11 Commission was set up to be a nonpartisan response to, first of all, tell the story what happened, what was the nature of the conspiracy? How did we miss it? And then what do we need to do to reduce the chances – not to zero and never get to zero in life – of it happening again? So is the nature of Tom Kaine and Lee Hamilton’s leadership and the willingness of the commissioners to set aside what normally would have occurred, which is minority or dissenting opinions that I think enabled Congress to see this as something that they needed to act upon.
Gary Bisbee 9:53
But do you believe that a similar process in this case that is a commission should take place?
Bob Kerrey 9:59
Not now. I like Nancy Pelosi, but I think putting a commission together in the middle of this is not a good idea. I think we’re better off waiting until a year or so we get beyond this like, it’s like, one of the things I think it’s very important to understand with this virus is that you can’t declare war on it. This is not a war. It’s a virus. It’s it’s an RNA virus, this virus has been around a long time, and we’re not going to defeat it. We’re not going to eliminate it, you’re not going to get to a point like we did with polio, where we vaccinate everybody, and there’s no danger any longer we’re going to have to learn how to live with it, and how to adjust. And we’re going to go through a period where our adjustments are going to be more extreme today than then we’re going to have to be a year 18 months from now when everybody is tested. We know who’s been affected, who hasn’t been affected. We’ll get through this, but I think we’re going to be doing things differently than we were previously because nobody wants to die of an infection of this virus. It’s not going to go away. And we’re going to need to have much better collaboration between the state and the feds on public health issues. And I think you’re going to see fairly significant changes coming out of it. I think education is going to be different coming out of it. I think healthcare is going to be different coming out of it. I think our food delivery system is going to be different. We’re going to we’re gonna make changes. I mean, the big one that’s kind of startling is the, you know, the benchmark for oil went negative yesterday, they could they couldn’t give the darn oil away, why? We’re not driving. We’re not consuming as much gasoline as we were before. Now, I suspect we’re going to go back to driving. But we might do it differently. I don’t know. That’s a great thing about living in a country where you’re free to make your own decisions. They’re gonna change the way they buy things and the way they conduct your business. Certainly, if my assessment of it is correct, which is this virus can’t be defeated. We’re not going to have a celebration where no more smallpox victims occur in our country. This is a virus it’s going to be hanging out with its and it’ll probably mutate and come back and different forms again, we’re gonna have to figure out how to live with it.
Gary Bisbee 12:02
Right. Do you think there’s any chance that we’ll form a new cabinet to oversee future health crisis as we did the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11?
Bob Kerrey 12:12
I don’t think so. This is not a one size fits all. Problem. I mean, that’s what happened with banning elected surgery. The assumption that every hospital in America is going to get a rush of COVID-19 patients. Well, they didn’t. There’s some New York, Massachusetts, Detroit, they’re places where there was a rush, Washington State, but for the most part, it hasn’t happened. And even inside the differential between what’s going on in New York City in New York State, people need the freedom to respond differently, not by ignoring it by saying, Oh, it’s a hoax, it doesn’t exist. It exists! It’s a relatively lethal virus. And all it wants to do, I’m describing is have it has a mind but it doesn’t have a mind. Its whole motivation is to get inside to destroy ourselves and I particularly like epithelial cells inside of our respiratory system. So, ignoring it is a mistake, but trying to come up with a solution that everybody has to follow, I think is not going to work either.
Gary Bisbee 13:10
In the Wall Street Journal article published today, one of the things you said I found it quite interesting was, quote, public officials live in fear of not doing enough. Can you dig into that a bit?
Bob Kerrey 13:21
Wow. Well, that’s a personal experience. And maybe the hardest thing in politics to do is somebody gets up in a town hall meeting and said, here’s a problem. What are you gonna do about it? And maybe the most difficult answer is nothing. Because there are times when nothing is the right answer. If the questions focus on what’s the government going to do, because the government can make it worse and I think banning elective surgery is a good example of a very well-intended decision, not by bad people. Well-intended decision that was a costly one. The cost-benefit ratio is decidedly against benefit.
Gary Bisbee 13:54
I think the regional variation in the surge was one thing that nobody was expecting. And you make the point that probably most of the health systems in the country; albeit having COVID patients there really could have continued to do elective surgery and perform urgent surgeries. That’s the crux of your article.
Bob Kerrey 14:17
Yeah, although I want to emphasize that I think is an even worse mistake to describe this as a non-existent hoax. It’s a real virus, it’s a virus can be isolated. It’s a virus, it could be treated. It’s a virus that can kill you. I understand why the political leaders would say, look, quarantine works. And if you look at what happened in 1918, there’s a great book john berry wrote called Great influenza about 1918 and more people died in Philadelphia because they ignored his public health people and allowed large gatherings to occur and the virus celebrated because it was a lot easier for the virus to get inside of the lungs when everybody’s kind of hanging out together. So the worst thing would be to ignore it. To pretend that it doesn’t exist, because it’ll travel. I mean, it was devastating to that 1918 influenza was devastating, very, very remote Indian tribes in Alaska. So if you think “I’m living on a mountaintop, I don’t have to worry about it.” Don’t count on that. So ignoring it is even worse. But once you’ve identified it as a problem, you got to deal with it. I think, the more you allow people to experiment, and try to figure out what works, we’re definitely going to need to do that, as we move from mostly shut down to trying to, I wouldn’t say get back to normal life, but get to a point we feel comfortable that we can gather and we can engage in social activities without having to be afraid that I’m with Gary Bisbee, and he’s going to infect me with COVID-19 I’m going to die.
Gary Bisbee 15:47
Is it frequently the case that states would be competing for those kinds of critical resources?
Bob Kerrey 15:52
Well, I think it gets back to what you said at the beginning. I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like this. If I’m the governor of Nebraska and my hospitals tell me we don’t have enough personal protective equipment, or we don’t have enough testing, and we don’t have… I’m gonna do everything I can to get whatever I need in order to give my hospitals, my medical community what they need in order to test and protect themselves when they’re caring for people. So it’s not so much competition. I’ve heard it referred to as Darwinian, it’s not Darwinian, you’re just doing your job. And it’s why you asked the question, do we need a federal authority- you may need one. You may need to identify somebody that maybe already exists, some agency that already exists, and gives them the authority and give them the money to get the protective equipment to deal with this particular virus or another one that comes down the road. That’s why I say it’s really important to see this as a virus. It’s going to be with us. There’s no endpoint here where Oh, God, we’re gonna have a celebration. We kill every single Coronavirus 19 out there in the world. That’s not going to happen. So it’s likely that the governors of the federal agencies learn a lot coming out of this thing and it’s three years or four months from now you go to the National Governors Association to the Western Governors or Mid-Western Governors, you say, what have you learned from this? What do you recommend we do to decrease this problem we had in this particular situation where we’ve got, you know, we’re asking nurses and doctors and allied professionals to show up and do their job, but they don’t have the means to protect themselves. We don’t want to do that, again. My guess is the governors and the and the federal agencies- they’ll have a solution. They’ll say, Okay, here’s what we get that was wrong. Here’s what we need to do to make sure that that part of our response isn’t going to happen again.
And I see the governors in the East in the Midwest and the West are banding together in each of those regions to develop a regional approach to this? That would seem to be… sound like a good idea to facilitate the learning that you’re talking about, right?
Yes, in the West. For people that are involved with water management, they understand a thing called adaptive management. Take the Missouri River. You got eight or nine states that are in the Missouri River Basin. We agree we’re going to try to manage that river, not as if it’s a fountain or something like that. But, because it’s very unpredictable, we don’t know exactly…so we’re going to talk, we’re going to do a, b and c, to reduce the damage of flood to increase the chances that we’re gonna have enough water available to our communities, but not too much. We need adaptive management to deal with, I think, a long term response, public health response to this virus and others like it. By that I mean, we agree, we’re going to do X, Y, and Z, with the understanding that x might work, y might work, but z might not work. And if it doesn’t work, we’re not going to blame each other. We’re going to tell the people we represent you understand that we’re not perfect. We tried x, y, and z. X worked, Y worked and Z didn’t. And it’s probably as you suggested earlier, X and Y working in some parts of Ohio and y and z work in others. It’s not perfect. So I think what we have to have is coming out of this is not just the resources to keep our healthcare workers safe, and in an environment where they feel like they can do their work without putting their lives at risk. The political leadership has to agree and the public has insisted, that we’re not going to blame each other. I may vote I probably will vote against Donald Trump in November, but I’m not going to make the case that he was horrible, that he didn’t care about it and all these mistakes, whatever mistakes he made, we should learn from them. We should learn from whatever mistakes he made on the assumption that if we were in that position, we’d make mistakes too. It’s true our mistakes, we learn how to do things better the next time,
Gary Bisbee 19:30
Right. Well, let’s turn to the economy. Bob, you ran for president in 1992 when President Clinton became the comeback kid, and it was a time of meaningful recession that I’m sure deeply informed the political debate of the day. What were the key points of discussion during the campaign, about the economy in the recession?
Bob Kerrey 19:50
First of all, we were coming out of the recession shortly after the election. So if you’re looking for who to get give credit for that recovery, you probably give it to George Herbert Walker Bush. His willingness to stand before the Congress, which was democratic at the time and say, “I’ll accept the tax increase if you guys will accept spending reductions.” We passed a budget in 1990. We amended 93 amended in 97. I mean, George Herbert Walker, Bush could take credit for balancing the budget. By the time Bill Clinton left off as we were paying off the debt. And I think that contributed to the economic recovery. There are a number of other things we lowered the capital gains rate, but you know, the economy goes through cycles, I would say the hottest of the political issues then, and it’s only gotten hotter is trade. Trade was, as you recall, the giant sucking sound was the phrase that was used by a lot by third party candidates who did exceptionally well. I think trade was probably the most contentious issue at the time. But as always, when you’re going through economic difficulties like that, you’re looking for solutions, and I think we found them. I give Bill Clinton a lot of credit. But the guy who started the process of moving us from a significant deficit to a surplus was George Herbert Walker Bush and because he did it, he wasn’t re-elected. There’s no question that his support for a tax increase, angered an awful lot of Republicans to whom he promised he would never do that, “No new taxes. Read my lips.” But I think his Patriotism helped us get out of that recession.
Gary Bisbee 21:19
How do you see the economy influencing the election this November, Bob?
Bob Kerrey 21:25
it always does. If we had not been in a recession over George Herbert Walker Bush gets reelected. And unfortunately for him, the economy started to recover shortly after the election. So it’ll have a big impact, and it’s likely that we’re going to have significant unemployment. The question is, how much of that gets attributed to President Trump and right or wrong, it tends to get attributed to the person in power. So I think it’ll have an impact. I think it’ll have an impact on the election. Now, the other thing is going on is you can look at this whole pandemic crisis and all of a sudden you see this thing is global. This is not like 9/11, or even like the financial crisis, it became global. But this one began globally. The question that I think is, at least on my mind, which is how does the pandemic affect broad support for globalism? And I think that they’re the key question is, how do we get trade agreements? How do we do immigration? How do we continue to invest in technology in a way that continues to lift the middle class because it hasn’t worked for the middle class? And they’re asking for something entirely different. It seems to me, and I don’t at the moment, I don’t see… I think both parties are struggling to answer the question, how do we make globalism work besides just shutting it down? It’s like, you can’t shut globalism down like shutting down gravity. So I think that’s going to be a real challenge because all the multinational institutions we put together after the Second World War, I think they need to be significantly reformed for a different purpose and what they were put together to do in 1945-1948.
Gary Bisbee 23:01
Well, one thing is for sure, if you talk to the CEOs of the health systems, they’re all asking the questions about the global supply chain, particularly for life-saving equipment that they have not been able to get ahold of. And there’s a lot of concern that we need to revisit the global supply chain for those critical items.
Bob Kerrey 23:26
Yeah, and I hear the same thing. It is necessarily going to be a response coming out of this. Because you can’t deal with a pandemic, if you’ve got to get all your mask and all your peepee outside the United States. We’ve done that with defense. The defense we’re not in a situation where we’re reliant on a foreign power. We have specific laws, we can’t export technology, if it puts our capacity to defend ourselves at risk. So we’ll probably and we probably should make certain that supply chain is protected. I don’t think it leads to it has to be manufactured inside the United States. But you do have to have supply chain protection otherwise, particularly for those critical items, it might not be important for band-aids for water new some things where it won’t be important. But for PPE, it’ll be, ventilators, and those sorts of things, it’ll be important going forward. And I’ll repeat it, Gary, I mean, this fire is not going to disappear, we’re not going to eliminate it. It’s not gonna, there’s not going to be a signing ceremony, unconditional surrender, it’s going to be with us. And we got to figure out how to live with it. And I think one of the things that we do is to make sure that the supply chain is reliable.
Gary Bisbee 24:32
Let’s turn back home to our veterans, you’re highly informed, I’d say an expert on the VA, what’s happening in the VA now as a result of the COVID crisis?
Bob Kerrey 24:42
Well, I’m not 100% certain on that. I actually haven’t read up or followed exactly what Dr. Stone is doing for VA Health. I do think he’s a first-rate administrator. And my guess is the challenges that he’s having is comparable to other healthcare systems, except that he’s got a very he’s got about seven or eight million veterans that use the VA Health on a regular basis, they tend to be older and they tend to have higher fraction of what’s called comorbidities, people with type two diabetes, coronary artery diseases and other sorts of metabolic diseases, and they’re at greater risk. So my guess is they’re having to respond to that greater risk. And they probably had, like the rest of the country, certain parts of the country where those they haven’t had any problems at all, and certain parts of the country where they have. So it’s a fully contained system. The choice act allows veterans to move outside into either not for profit or for-profit health care systems, but it’s still a $50 billion healthcare system that’s largely self-contained to hire their own doctors and nurses and nurse practitioners and physicians assistants, etc. So I don’t know precisely what they’re dealing with. But my guess is their number one problem is lots of patients that have comorbidities.
For sure, and those patients are more susceptible to illness
And they are tragic stories about what’s going on in our long term care facilities. I mean, there are a number, I did see that there was a couple of facilities that were operated on behalf of veterans and veteran veterans homes of some kind. So again, I think what we’ll, we’ll, we’ll have to do is learn from that what happened, I’m sure they made, they did some heroic wonderful things, and they made some mistakes. So hopefully, we can identify the mistakes and improve our performance next time and be grateful for what we had in the beginning.
Gary Bisbee 26:29
So Bob, you’ve made reference several times to learnings that will inform the next crisis or the next pandemic, at what point the governors actually turn and spend time and resources thinking about that and preparing for the next pandemic.
Bob Kerrey 26:45
First of all, I think the public should take some comfort from knowing that the governors do learn from each other. There are two big Governor’s conferences every year, one in February in DC, where they meet with the President, and one in the summer, where they all gather and learn from each other. They have an agenda and I predict that COVID-19 and the pandemic will be top of the list of their discussion. There is the Western Governors Association, a Midwestern governance Association. And lots of activity going on between the states all the time anyway, when they’re trying to just trying to do a better job yet, do they compete for businesses? And they could, yes, they do compete. But there’s a lot of collaboration going on with the governors and not the dick. That’ll be at that Governor’s level where people are going to begin to understand what do we need to do to live with those fires and minimize the number of people who become casualties?
Gary Bisbee 27:33
So turning to health system governance, you’re the lead director, at Tenant, one of our largest health systems in the country? What’s the role of the board and a major crisis like this with the large health system?
Bob Kerrey 27:45
It’s a really good question. I mean, first of all, is the legal standard of duty of care. You got to you have to meet that legal standard by doing your work and bringing the read-ahead and asking the right questions to the CEO and make it a judgment about whether that CEO is doing a good job or not. I would say it’s probably true with other boards too, but particularly true with healthcare systems is that the priorities tend to shift. We’re still concerned about our shareowners and our stock performance. But you tend to shift your concern now over to your employees, your nurses, your doctors, that people are out there on that front line taking care of people that are coming in. And you tend to think as well sort of connected that about your community. What does my community need and Palm Beach what does my community need in Dallas, or wherever the hospital is, because all of our hospitals, our community hospitals. I would say that your concern is still about your shareowners. But I find myself spending more time in discussions with a CEO, what’s going on with our employees, what’s going on in our communities? What can we do to help establish a not for profit to help our own employees as well as our community? So I think the concern shifts more towards other stakeholders in the company, particularly employees and the community.
Gary Bisbee 29:00
So as lead director, what key responsibilities do you have? Or how do you see your priorities as lead director as opposed to one of the other directors?
Bob Kerrey 29:10
My view is a director needs to know not just what a director is supposed to do, but what a director is not supposed to do. I am not the CEO of Tenant. So if the CEO asked me a detailed question, I’ll attempt to answer the best of my ability, but he’s running the company. My job is to evaluate him and to work with him and help him not to manage the company itself. And if I reach the conclusion that the CEO is not doing a good enough job and should be replaced, I have a duty to be the one that informs the board that I’ve reached that conclusion. So it’s a fine balance between making sure you know what everything is going on and not stepping in and trying to act like you’re the CEO.
Gary Bisbee 29:54
Speaking in general terms, not about a tenant or any other specific health system but one of the questions I’m being asked by trustees these days is what characteristics of a CEO should boards look for, that will suggest strong performance during a crisis?
Bob Kerrey 30:10
The keyword in your question was suggest because you can never be certain. I mean, you can look at plenty of men and women who look on paper to be a great CEO, and they just can’t do the job. You’re forced all the time to be making critical decisions. And you’ve got to be able to acknowledge when you make a mistake because if you don’t what happens, you get paralyzed, you don’t make any decisions. It’s no small set of responsibilities that a CEO has. Secondly, they have to be able to lead. By that I mean, the employees have to feel inspired. They’re being respected. And it’s typically the little things, not the big things. It’s not necessarily well, how much is my comp going up this year? But does the CEO respect what I’m doing does he understands what I’m doing? Does he understand the challenges that I’m facing and so he or she’s got to obviously, in a crisis, they’ll respond. You never know, I could have a great CEO and she’s terrific and everything is going fine. And in this crisis… I’ll just pick something grim… her husband and three of her children die. Now, don’t expect that person to be able, maybe she can… She’s a human being too. And she’s gonna be struggling with this crisis, what’s going on in her life will matter. So all you can do is look at it and get outside references and talk to other people that know them and then push a little bit. How do they do when the bottom drops out? Every CEO is going to face it, you don’t have very many businesses that you look at the graph and it just goes upward to the right all the time. There’s never a moment when the when the graph drops down to the right. And now we’re going through a big crisis. We went through a big crisis in 2008/9 and we’ll get to this one. What I’m certain of is, there’ll be another one somewhere down the road, and they maybe they can handle it and maybe they can’t, it’s not the end of the world that they can handle it. You just have to have as a board member, you have to pony up and say if they’re not doing the job, I got to replace them. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s enormously important thing that a board member has to do.
Gary Bisbee 32:07
Are there similar characteristics to a successful CEO and a successful governor?
Bob Kerrey 32:12
Similar, except that you got a much different constituency group you’re worried about. You get elected as governor. He get selected as a CEO. I always tell people that a CEO can be a benevolent dictator because we have a democracy. A governor can’t be a benevolent dictator. But as a consequence of our democracy, it’s a different set of constituencies, and it’s important to understand them. So somebody says to me, well, I was CEO, I can be governor. No, it’s different. It’s not the same thing. You don’t tell people what to do when you’re governor, you have to persuade them that what you want to do is the right thing. And now you could find yourself saying, This is brilliant, this genius idea, and you propose it to your legislature, and 10% of your house and Senate members support it. And maybe the public doesn’t support what you want to do. And I’ve had many, many ideas that I thought were brilliant that you nobody else liked. Well, if your CEO it’s a lot easier to put them in place than it is if you’re if you’re governor.
Gary Bisbee 33:07
Thinking about, again, politics in the fall, we covered that a bit earlier. But I’m thinking now about the whole mobile voting. And I know you’re been supportive of the mobile voting project. And that picture we saw in in newspapers recently of the huge lines in Wisconsin, do you think that we’ll see a move toward mobile voting and see it in time for the fall elections?
Bob Kerrey 33:31
Oh, I hope so. But fall elections? I doubt it. People are Oh my god, the Russians are gonna hack in now somebody else is going to hack in and out. The Chinese are going to hack in, but we probably have, I don’t know, four or 5 million secure phone calls and communications through the internet by national security people every single year. So it’s a manageable problem. And I think eventually we’ll do it. I think we’ll come up with a way to do it in a secure way. I think you’ll get greater participation if you do it. But most people Importantly, we’ll have an efficient election. I don’t think we’re ready for it. Now, the test case is actually going to be Congress because Congress is sitting in a situation where 530, they’re average age is 60. And I know Leader McConnell doesn’t like the idea of letting them vote remotely. But I think they’re gonna have to do it. It’s one thing to put members of Congress at risk, but they can’t function without their staff. So they may have to figure out a way to do this. That seamless bill that they passed was $2.2 trillion, whatever it was, they passed it by unanimous consent. They didn’t vote. I don’t think either they are the public’s going to tolerate that kind of decision making without an accurate debate and amendments being offered and careful examination of the legislation occurring, which you get with them gathering 535 of them in the well the senate of the well of the house, their staffs are they’re running all over the place, and think of the public, the public doesn’t get access to them. If you want to get ahold of your senator, your house member you got to go knock on their door. You got to go visit them in the home. You got to call them on the phone. Well, that’s inadequate, I think. And I hope they don’t open it up just to say, well, we want to get back in business. If there’s an alternative, and there’s definitely an alternative, Congress could easily set up secure voting from a distance. And I hope they do. Because otherwise, you’re going to put both themselves and their staff and risk
Gary Bisbee 35:19
Seems likely sometime over the next several years that that’ll happen, doesn’t it?
Bob Kerrey 35:23
Well, I hope it happens over the next several weeks, it would not be that difficult to do if they could go over the National Security Agency and give them the assignment of doing it. They’d put a system together immediately. They do it all the time. I mean, it would not be that difficult to set it up. The alternative is nobody actually examining the legislation, nobody actually voting or worse, you push them back into those rooms in a premature way and put them at risk
Gary Bisbee 35:47
On another topic, given the cost of the current crisis to the federal government. I’m thinking back to the Kerry Danforth Commission on entitlement reform. Any thoughts or learnings from that, that you’d want to suggest to the current Congress,
Bob Kerrey 36:03
You know, the story of the Rip Van Winkle story?
Gary Bisbee 36:06
Yeah, but feel free to share.
Bob Kerrey 36:09
Washington Irving wrote this story in the early 1800s. And the whole story was to talk about how things have changed, dramatically, things change. And so Rip Van Winkle goes up to the mountain when he goes up to the mountain, King George is there’s pictures of King George all over the place, because we were a colony of the British. When it comes down to the mountain top is pictures of George Washington. So what happened? We’re dealing with that now. Senator Danforth and I co-chair the Concord Coalition. I don’t know what to say about a $3 trillion deficit. What I do know is that’s all borrowed money. And what I know about borrowed money is eventually you got to pay it back. And at a minimum, you got to pay the interest on those bonds. And my guess is coming out of this and me the first time interest rates go up a bit. Interest on the national debt can be the largest item in the budget.
Gary Bisbee 36:59
Bob Kerrey 37:01
And you don’t get anything for it, I’ll bet you two years of interest on the national debts, I don’t know $800 billion a year. And so what do I get for eight? I get that $800 billion with taxes on American taxpayers. What do I get for that? You don’t get anything other than what we got to get out of this crisis. So I know at some point we’re gonna have to deal with it but right now it’s like a while ago the like the Republican Party was gonna attack democrats for being socialists and after the stimulus bill, we’re all socialists.
Gary Bisbee 37:37
Well, we’ll be back talking to you about learnings from the Carey Danforth commission. I’m sure that it’s just we can’t avoid that but onto your personal background. Most people I would say don’t realize that you were a pharmacy major university in Nebraska. Why pharmacy Bob?
Bob Kerrey 37:55
I love pharmacy, particularly pharmacology it’s changed a lot but I like it. I like to science, pharmacology and so I’m a cognition. I like them both.
Gary Bisbee 38:04
You didn’t want to pursue that as a career?
Bob Kerrey 38:06
Well, no. My joke is the government decided that a higher and better use of my skills, does that make me a member of SEAL Team one. No, we had a little thing called the draft. And I pass my physical and they told me I was about ready to be drafted by the army. I just read human works the cane mutiny, and volunteered for the Navy. Went thought Officer Candidate School and underwater demolition look like a lot of fun. So I volunteer for that. Next thing I know I’m in Seal Team. My life is one moment of serendipity after another, and that happens to be maybe the most important one I had.
Gary Bisbee 38:37
Well, thank you for your service. What gave you the inspiration to run for governor Nebraska?
Bob Kerrey 38:42
Well, probably just generalized beliefs and values of service. I was raised in a Christian church and we were taught that it’s better to give than receive and I can give you lots of examples that demonstrate that case. I believe that you’re afraid of losing something and you’re constantly holding on things and only care about yourself. If you forget the golden rule, you’re going to have a difficult life no matter how much money you got. I believe in service and I had enough experience in the government because I’ve been in business for 10 years, and you got to get permission from the government, variety of different agencies. So I’d worked with political leaders. And in 82, when I ran, it was the number of people who were on the Democratic side thinking about running, they all came by to see me and tell me why they were going to run and then none of them ran, they kind of talked me into it. So there was a number of things that I wanted to do, and I thought I could be pretty good at it. And I thought I would enjoy it. And I wasn’t disappointed. Plenty of mistakes, many things I do differently. But all in all, I got more than I gave.
Gary Bisbee 39:40
looking back on it. What was the most important accomplishment during your term?
Bob Kerrey 39:44
Oh, in the event that somebody that’s thinking about becoming a candidate for office is listening. I would say the most important things are small. There’s a lot of power in the office of the governor a lot of power in the office of Senate. And if you recognize that power and make sure you never abuse it and never let anybody working for your abuser. You can use it power and change people’s lives just by helping them a little bit with a problem that they have with the government the problem that they’re having with their corporation or in my case because I’m a was, at that point relatively well-known entity I visited people who were suffering trauma and hospitals. And it wasn’t like I could do anything for him necessarily but I had the experience of having volunteers come to see me when I was in the hospital in Philadelphia, I knew how important it was to have somebody just lay your hand on you and say I care about you, I want you to get better. So the little stuff is what’s most important. I mean, men and women who were involved in my campaign became friends for the rest of their life. Some of them get down, they got married, had kids, they wouldn’t got married, had kids were not for the campaign. It’s a little stuff that I value the most in terms of the impact on the state. It’s probably the financial reforms that we put in place, how to budget how to set tax rates, how to protect the tension so they don’t get ripped off by people wanting to get access to that money, and then there was a number of financial reforms that we put in place that can go have that long-lasting positive impact on the state. But the one thing that again, in the event somebody listened to you, you got to be very careful not to really care if anybody remembers. I can take you to places in Nebraska, and say, you know, you know why this exists. You know why this road is here, this park is here, this thing, it’s here because somebody that I don’t know that you don’t know, cared about it and helped build it. So it’s not an exaggeration to say we stand on the shoulders of the people that came before and it was a lot harder to be governor in the first 20 or 30 years of the state is a lot harder together during the Depression. So there’s a lot of things that I benefited from the most important of which is we have a spectacular capital that was built with cash during the Depression with Bertram Good. He’s one of the world’s finest architect and designer but you think, How’s it possible they built this thing and they build it to last forever. They didn’t build it to survive a depreciation schedule.
Gary Bisbee 42:00
So on to the Senate, how would you compare being a senator to being a governor?
Bob Kerrey 42:06
It’s different. First of all, it’s healthier being governor, you’re home all the time. And while you’re away from home, it’s harder. You’re away from your kids, you make more mistakes when you’re not at home. But on the other hand, it’s again an event like the Navy, it’s the United States Senate. And it matters. US law matters. What a senator says matters both good and bad. You’re voting on War Powers Resolution, you’re voting on things that affect all 50 states, all 330 million Americans can be affected by a single vote, a single speech. So what you’re left with is a sense of the power of this country and the value of the republican form of government we have and it does put you in a position to be able to help people understand maybe a terrible system, but it’s better than anything else. It gives you an appreciation for the difficulty, but the genius of the idea that we can govern ourselves,
Gary Bisbee 42:54
Governor, we very much appreciate your time. Let’s land here. Thank you again, we’ll enjoy. Listen to this podcast many times.
Bob Kerrey 43:02
I look forward to seeing again
Gary Bisbee 43:04
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Transcribed by Otter