Today’s guest blogger is Doug Moe, coauthor of the book Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime. He penned it alongside the subject of the memoir, Tommy G. Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor.
I suspect many readers will come to former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson’s new autobiography, Tommy: My Journey of Lifetime, which I coauthored, looking for details on major policies he helped initiate, like BadgerCare in Wisconsin, and, on the national level, Medicare Part D.
The details are in there, and they are often fascinating. When Thompson, as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, helped push through the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, it took a call to the White House from the House floor at 4:30 a.m. Sec. Thompson was there advocating for the bill, and one congressman insisted on talking to President Bush. Every vote mattered, and Thompson put the congressman on the phone with the president. The bill passed narrowly. At nine the next morning, President Bush called Thompson.
“Two things, Tommy,” Bush said. “You did excellent work. Congratulations. But never, ever call me again at 4:30 in the morning.”
I think my favorite passages in the book may be the humorous moments when quirks of human nature are revealed. For instance, during the first campaign for governor in 1986, the Democratic mayor of Kenosha, John Bilotti, let it be known he might consider backing the Republican Thompson for governor in the race against Democrat Tony Earl. The only problem was, Bilotti didn’t want anyone to see him talking to Thompson in case he decided to back Earl, as everyone expected. He insisted Thompson park behind City Hall in Kenosha. Bilotti emerged out a back door, his collar pulled up, trying to be incognito.
“I’m going to go back inside,” Bilotti said. “I will leave the side door open, and I want you to come up the stairs. Don’t talk to anybody.”
Relating this story to me years later, Gov. Thompson said, “See what I had to put up with?” Still, he eventually gave Bilotti a job in his administration.
Then there was the 1988 meeting in Washington D.C. between Gov. Thompson and his top aide, Jim Klauser, and Lee Iacocca, head of Chrysler. The auto giant had recently purchased a large share of American Motors, which operated a big plant in Kenosha but had plans to close it. Talking to a reporter in the days before the meeting, Klauser remarked that Iacocca was “a strange man.” The meeting did not go well. Gov. Thompson felt Iacocca had assured him the plant would not close. Iacocca denied ever doing that. After only a few minutes, Iacocca exploded, and lunged across the table at Klauser, hollering: “I am not a strange man!” American Motors left, but Chrysler agreed to pay $25 million, much of it for job training for displaced workers.
As HHS secretary in Washington, Thompson lost 15 pounds and encouraged everyone in his department to get healthier. He would police the grounds outside the Humphrey Building and occasionally take cigarettes out of people’s mouths. At one point, Sec. Thompson recalled rounding a corner and seeing a man he recognized, a longtime HHS employee, with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. The man was so unnerved seeing the secretary that he took the cigarette out of his mouth and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. The man retired a year or so later, and the day he left, he thanked Thompson and told him he’d changed his life.
“How so?” Thompson said.
“After that day I set my shirt on fire, I never smoked another cigarette.”
Often these humorous stories would emerge while I was interviewing Gov. Thompson – we did more than 30 hours of interviews – about more serious matters. They lightened our conversations, and I hope they lighten the narrative of “Tommy.” It was, in any case, a privilege to help Tommy Thompson tell his life story.
Doug Moe is a longtime Wisconsin journalist and biographer. His numerous books include The World of Mike Royko and Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.