Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman didn’t have a traditional background in agriculture before he came to Capitol Hill as a freshman congressman from the 4th District of Kansas in 1976.
LEADING WITH HUMOR: Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman is publishing his autobiography, “Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm and at the Movies,” which is being released June 8. It’s published by University Press of Kansas. (Courtesy of Steve Johnson)
And yet, he says that his time in public service for the farmers of Kansas and the nation — first as a member of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, and then as Secretary of Agriculture — taught him more than he expected. He discusses that and more in his autobiography, “Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm and at the Movies,” which comes out June 8 and is published by University Press of Kansas.
An ag education
“It was the best decision I ever made to go on the Agriculture Committee and get involved in farm policy,” Glickman says. “I would never have been Secretary of Agriculture if I hadn’t been on that committee.”
The late 1970s and early 1980s were turbulent times in American agriculture. And one of the earliest tests of Glickman’s mettle as a freshman representative was the Russian grain embargo enacted by then-President Jimmy Carter in response to the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“When President Carter imposed the embargo on grain with respect to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, there was bipartisan opposition across the board, and we worked together to mitigate the impact on farmers,” Glickman recalls.
Writing farm bills in the 1970s and 1980s was much different than it is today and it will be when the next farm bill is up for debate in a few years, he says.
“Back then, in the 1970s and 80s, farm prices were very low, but the amount of money the U.S. government was putting into agriculture payments was a fraction of what it is now,” Glickman says. Total farm program payments to farmers may have amounted to just $3 billion in the 1970s, whereas today there may be upward of $30 billion in farm payments. The magnitude of government assistance to farmers is much greater, he says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean every farmer is doing better. Many of the programs farmers benefit from today, such as subsidized crop insurance, were ideas that started through work back then.
Bipartisanship then and now
Glickman says bipartisanship 40 years ago was a different thing than it is today. In the late 1970s, Kansas politics were much more bipartisan, with a delegation split pretty evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Glickman says.
“I worked closely with (then) Congressman Pat Roberts, and Sen. Bob Dole,” he says. Along with former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, they worked as a total team when it came to agriculture issues for Kansans, he adds. Partly because everyone should be able to find some common ground on feeding people and taking care of the farmers, Glickman explains, but also because that was an era when there were only three television channels, and local radio stations and newspapers were much more prevalent.
Listen to the podcast: Reflecting on a life of service
“People today are getting their information from advocacy organizations that pull them apart rather than put them together,” Glickman says. “Dole, and Kassebaum and Roberts and myself and others, had the benefit of not having those toxic influences around. We had the incentive to come together for what was best for Kansas farmers and Kansas folks in the cities.”
Glickman says there’s a need to bring urban and farm people together, across the aisles, to continue to have strong programs for farmers and keep the nation fed and safe.
“It’s so important that the Department of Agriculture continue to have jurisdiction over farm programs and nutrition programs,” he says. The food programs bring urban representatives to the table, and the farm programs bring rural representatives to the same table to compromise.
Leading with humor
In his book, Glickman reviews his career and the major moments that taught him leadership lessons. From writing farm bills to implementing policy at the USDA, through it all he says he used humor as a mechanism for building bridges between different sides. That’s why he titled the autobiography “Laughing at Myself.”
“The underlying theme is the need for humor in life, especially self-deprecating humor,” he explains. If you can laugh at yourself, you can reduce tensions and bring people together, he adds.
He details stories of his time not only in public office and as USDA secretary, but also his work as the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, lobbying for Hollywood. He also shares memories about growing up as a Jewish boy in Wichita, Kan., in the 1950s, and how that shaped his leadership methods.
“I had a strange career,” Glickman says. “I was a Jewish kid from Kansas without much involvement in or history of agriculture.” And yet, he was able to learn and work for Kansas farmers.
And that was by following the single most important piece of advice he got from his mother.
“She told me you have two ears and one mouth for a simple reason,” he says. “You learn by listening more than you do by pontificating. Sometimes what you listen to, you don’t agree with. But it might actually make sense.”
Book available June 8
To order Glickman’s book, visit University Press of Kansas. It’s also available via most online booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books & Books, and Indiebound. In Kansas, readers can buy it at Watermark Books in Wichita and at The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, starting June 8.