Homeward Bound

Having announced that he won’t run again in 2022, U.S. Senator Rob Portman ’78 is going back to Ohio.

Bistro Cacao, a French restaurant just a few blocks from the Capitol, is relatively—and safely—filled with diners on the April evening I sit down with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to discuss his recent bombshell announcement: After seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, stints in the Bush administration as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget, and two terms in the Senate, he’s retiring. At 65, the Cincinnatian is, by D.C. standards, in his prime, and he won his last re-election in 2016 with ease. Some pundits perceived his announcement, along with those of other sober GOP legislators, through the lens of D.C. dysfunction, while others took it as yet another sign that the GOP post-Trump is hostile to those who refuse to worship at the altar of the 45th president. As various GOP colleagues popped by to say hello—Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Todd Young of Indiana—Portman dined on salad and rockfish while we chatted about his career and what comes next.

Why are you leaving office?
Well, first, I’ve been here off and on for 30 years, so I think it’s time. Second, I do feel like my brand of politics and my style of working with the other side, trying to get things done, it’s hard to do these days.

With a 50/50 Senate, theoretically—especially with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) refusing to get rid of the filibuster—somebody like you could be more powerful than ever.
In theory. I met with Joe a lot for the Covid bill, and yet I was not successful in convincing other Democrats to take a bipartisan approach. I met with the president for two hours, along with eight other Republicans. It’s frustrating, looking at the broader political climate that we’re in. When I announced that I would step down, I said that both sides have moved more to the extreme and I got into this business to try to find that sweet spot. It’s a trade-off. I’ve never loved politics, to be honest. I did this job because I really thought that was what it was going to take to make a difference. And I have been able to accomplish a lot, which is getting harder.

Is there any scenario under which you could envision running for president in 2024?
I don’t plan to run for office again.

When you say you haven’t loved politics, what do you mean—the horse-trading, the backroom deals, the glad-handing and the brown-nosing?
I love people. I love the constituent part. 

You like going around and campaigning.
Yeah. I love it. I did a factory tour last week, which I haven’t had a chance to do because of Covid, and I just loved it because I could get out and talk to people. Covid has made it harder to do the parts of the job I love, but what I don’t like is just the politics. I don’t like having to sell myself again and again. I’m more of a policy wonk, and I’m in it to try to make a difference. Politics is a necessary evil. It’s the constituent stuff I love, putting together coalitions of people to accomplish things. There have been some important bills signed—taking on the opioid crisis or human trafficking legislation, work that made a difference.

You’re still going to work on those issues?
I’d like to. I think I can be effective on the outside on some of those issues.

How could you be more effective on the outside?
Yesterday, for example, I spoke at a panel at the McCain Institute on human trafficking, and I was the only elected official speaking. Others were doing their part on the outside. I never expected to be in politics this long. I’ve been in politics starting right out of Dartmouth.

Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal wrote that “It really is something that we’re living in a time when ambitious people leave the Senate to get things done.” Do you agree with that sentiment?
I’m going back to Ohio full-time. I love our little family business, the Golden Lamb Inn, a historic inn in Lebanon, Ohio, which is in a rural area north of Cincinnati. It’s the oldest continuously operating business in the state. Been in our family for 96 years, but we struggled during Covid. My brother and sister and I own it. Part of my life will be that, but I also want to do some things in the nonprofit area. The last time I got out, I taught at Ohio State. This time I may want to do something on the academic side, probably not teaching because that was really hard.

Do you plan on making Dartmouth part of your post-Senate plans in any way?
I like coming to campus and meeting with students. I hope to have more time to do that.

How did you end up at the College?
My dad went. He was a World War II veteran, so his experience was very different than mine. Mine was five years of doing all these interesting things. His was about two years, accelerated classes.

You graduated in 1979?
I was in the class of 1978, but I took full advantage of the Dartmouth Plan. I was able to take a fall semester off my sophomore year and work for my congressman, Bill Gradison (R-Ohio). I didn’t know if I was a Republican or Democrat or independent or a Libertarian or a vegetarian, as John McCain used to say. But I knew that I liked Gradison, and I liked the way he handled himself. He was a thoughtful, policy-oriented Republican who took a lot of input and made decisions based on what was best for his constituents. Sixteen years later I succeeded him in office. We stayed in touch through the years. The Dartmouth Plan gave me that opportunity. I was able to work on his campaign in the fall and then work in his office. 

The Dartmouth Plan also enabled me to get deeply engaged in immigration to the point that when I graduated, I got a job right away with a joint commission on immigration reform. I also took time off and wrote my undergraduate thesis on the issue of immigration, based on working with a bunch of Mexicans who were cowboys along the border. 

And you went there?
I went there for three months. I got a social studies grant from Dartmouth. I was an anthropology major.

How did you get the idea to do this?
I took six months off to kayak the entire length of the Rio Grande when I was at Dartmouth—from southwest Colorado all the way to New Mexico, 1,200 miles to the border, all the way to the Gulf, with the Ledyard Canoe Club, and sponsored by National Geographic, a kayak company, and a car company. No one had done it before. This was the idea of one of my classmates, Tony Anella, who lived in New Mexico. On that trip I started to focus on immigration.

Because you would stop and meet people?
Yeah. We met people all the time because they were crossing the river right in front of us. One night we ended up at a ranch because our resupply truck couldn’t get through so much private land down there. We were paddling when suddenly we were dive-bombed by this airplane. We thought it was just some crazy Texan. Turns out it was the owner of the ranch. The two Dartmouth students from our supply truck were in the airplane trying to find us. They came down to the river that night and yelled and we went up to the ranch house and spent the next two hours eating. We were starving. We hadn’t had a real meal in a long time, and we slept on the floor. I noticed the next morning when we got up and started to meet everybody there were a lot of workers, about 20 who were from Mexico. I spoke enough Spanish to ask them where they were from. “De dónde eres?” They were all Mexican. It was a fascinating situation. I thought that here we are in America, we’re right on the border, and all these guys from Mexico were working on the ranch.

When I got back, I called the ranch owner and said, I’d like to come work for three months. He said, “Oh, okay. Now you’re going to live in a bunkhouse with the cowboys. That’s what you want?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love that.” So I did it and wrote my undergraduate thesis about them and why they chose to come to the States and how they felt about going further north or not and their culture and so on.

How did you learn Spanish?
I took French all the way from kindergarten through the Dartmouth [language study abroad], when I went to France. When I knew I was going to go down to the ranch, I took Spanish 2 because I was already speaking some Spanish that I’d picked up. Then I went to the border and worked for three months with these guys who spoke only Spanish. I took a textbook with me, a Spanish textbook. It was survival. I learned pretty quickly because I had to. When there was a bull coming up behind you—“Para atras Roberto, cuidado”—you know? These things I never would have done in a normal college experience. 

As somebody who has worked on immigration reform, it must be frustrating. You can never really fix the problem, which is the poverty and violence that cause people to flee to the United States. 
Republicans have gone to the border and Democrats have gone to the border. I think there’s been only one bipartisan trip—the one I organized because I wanted it to be something that focused on policy and solutions and therefore bipartisan. I went this March with Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Homeland Security Committee. We asked the ranking member and the chair of the subcommittee on appropriations to come. So Sen. Chris Murphy  (D-Conn.) and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) came, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asked if he could join us. It was a very helpful trip, and we got to see a lot of the surge of people coming across now.

From that we have a five-point proposal we’d like to see some bipartisan action on. There are a number of solutions that are quite possible, but in this environment it’s very difficult.

In March 2013 you were the first Republican senator to publicly favor same-sex marriage, after your son told you he was gay. Do you think you’ll be remembered for that?
At the time it was a big thing. I remember my political advisors huddling around me and saying, “We’ve got to do a poll.” I said, “We’re not going to do a poll. I’ve made my decision. I’m just informing you of it.” After I made the announcement, they did do a poll. The results said you can’t win the Republican primary. Yet between 2013 and 2016, the ground moved underneath us.

The world caught up with you.
The world caught up. It ended up not being a big issue. I had three primary opponents, and they focused on that issue, but I got 85 percent of the vote, which I am told is the most in modern history in an Ohio primary. They had a good political issue in 2013 that became less effective by 2016.

Most Senate Republicans remain opposed to same-sex marriage.
I think all but three or four of us. I hope I am remembered for it because I think it’s important. I also was involved a little bit legislatively: When the bill to prohibit LGBTQ discrimination—ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act]—came up for a vote in the Senate in late 2013, we had to get 60 votes. I worked with the Democratic author of the ENDA bill to find the Republican votes. We did it by making some slight changes in the legislation to help protect religious liberty. We got it done. But the House, at that time in Republican control, didn’t move it. 

And the response at the time?
So, I’m marching in a parade on July 4, a few months after I’ve made my decision. A guy comes out of the crowd, grabs my hand, you know, shakes my hand, and won’t let go. He’s aggressive, pretty strong, and he gave me a really hard time about my decision. My team is like, “Oh my God, there’s going to be a fistfight.” But I just said, “Look, people should be treated as they are.” So, I walk a block or two down and we come to a yard where five chairs are set up with all kinds of American flags and other patriotic paraphernalia around them. And a guy comes up, shakes my hand, and says, “Thank you for what you did.” I say, “Thank you.” He says, “I’m gay,” then gestures behind him to his lawn and says, “so are all these people,” who then break into applause. So in the space of 15 minutes I got both reactions! Another one I remember is marching in an opening day parade in Cincinnati and I’m getting feedback, mostly negative, and one guy yells out, “You have betrayed your Catholic faith! Go back to your Catholic roots!” I’m a Methodist.

Another time I’m at a fair and this guy, I’m shaking his hand and he won’t let go. He says, “I cannot believe that you have defied the Bible teachings of Jesus.” I said, “People just want to be treated as they are.” We got into kind of a heated debate. Finally, I said, “Sir, maybe if you knew more gay people, you would have a different view.” You know what he said? “My son is gay.”

Do people still say negative things to you?
That first year, probably two dozen times in a year. Someone would come up to me, usually at an airport or a dinner. On the other hand, a lot of young men told me they were grateful. They’d say generally the same thing: “Thank you. Because of what you did my Dad accepted me” or “You gave me the courage to talk to my parents.” That still happens to me. Usually it’s, “My folks are Republicans too, and I’m not sure they would have ever accepted me but when you did it, they did.” And sometimes they start crying. Then, of course, I start crying.

The Republican Senate primary in Ohio to replace you is going to be like Fear Factor in terms of who can be the Trumpiest candidate. We see candidates who know better saying and tweeting ridiculous things. Do you recognize the current Republican Party?
Donald Trump is very popular among Republican primary voters. I saw a private poll of Republican primary voters in Ohio showing 84 percent approval for the former president. I’ve got a lot of friends in the party who are fiscal conservatives who believe in our ideals: limited government, individual initiative, free markets, and so on. 

Trump certainly got the party to reexamine some of its previous orthodoxies on trade and other issues.
I was a big supporter of tax reform, which he signed, and which, by the way, was more us—Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), me—than him. And he helped me a lot combatting human trafficking, and he helped on the opioid crisis. He got a lot of good things done, but the style and the personality…[trails off].

The incentive structure in this town is way off, I think it’s fair to say. And certainly people in my business are part of that.
The incentive structure in politics is to throw out the red meat from the left or from the right, because that gives you fundraising opportunities as well as the ability to win a primary, which increasingly is the determination as to whether you become elected or not. In other words, primaries play differently than general elections. And the incentive also is to do so to get on the cable news shows, because what they generally prefer is controversy, not policy.

I don’t really fit into that motif, or that approach, because I’m focused on the boring stuff like policy. When you’ve had me on you’ve let me talk about policy, which I love. But on many shows, as you know, I go on and they just want to talk about Donald Trump or the partisan issue of the day and not about the policy.

Not that I disagree with your criticisms, but can those generalizations about the news media also be seen as giving the public what it wants?
Yeah, I think it is. But I think the press has a responsibility to focus on policies that affect people’s lives, despite the pressure that they get from the advertisers and the viewers to sell controversy. And that’s where I think there’s a lack of accountability today or interest in taking that role seriously. I get it, because particularly the print media is in deep, deep trouble financially. I used to have 12 reporters who followed me here from Ohio. Now there’s one. 

But you get kind of whipsawed. Today, we had a press conference and the first question came from a guy who always asks me about Trump. He drives me crazy. I say, “I hope you’re not going to ask about Donald Trump because I just gave you 20 minutes of all the things I’m doing this week and all my bipartisan initiatives.” So, what was his question? “Do you agree with Donald Trump that Major League Baseball should be boycotted” blah, blah, blah. I spent four years in that situation. I can get you 60 examples where I disagreed with Trump publicly. I was on that tightrope constantly. 

There have now been four impeachments in U.S. history, two of them in the last couple of years. You voted against conviction on both.
Of the four, I voted on three of them.

You voted to impeach Bill Clinton. Why were his offenses worse in your view than Trump’s? Or did everyone just put on their team jerseys and vote that way?
Well, no. I think with regard to Bill Clinton, it was a very specific issue. I’m not defending my vote because I think I’d do it over again. I might look at it differently, frankly.

Former House Speaker John Boehner says he regrets his vote to impeach Clinton.
Yeah. You know, Clinton did lie, and it was very specific. Perjury was proven, compared with the Trump stuff, which was the conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky—which I said at the time, you recall, was inappropriate and wrong. I was very clear about that from the start, but I didn’t believe that it rose to the level of taking away the people’s opportunity to express themselves at the polls. And the second impeachment, Trump was already out of office, which I think would have been a dangerous precedent to set. I do worry that this is going to be a pendulum swing when Republicans take control again, which they will at some point, and there’ll be a temptation to do the same to a Democrat president, which I think is too bad.

The events of January 6 were horrifying to watch. What happened to you?
I didn’t feel unsafe because the Senate was not breached while we were in there, unlike the House, where a lot of members were in the chamber. And I trusted the security folks. I’m one of the co-chairs of the investigation, so I need to be careful here, but we weren’t at all prepared or ready. 

Did you know how bad it was inside the House?
Yes. I knew that things were likely to get violent. And I expressed that, actually, to our Senate leadership, for what it’s worth, about 10 days before. I was hearing from people who follow the intelligence that there was likely to be violence. I was disappointed that we weren’t better prepared. That’s one of my concerns, that we don’t prepare the Congress for that kind of infiltration. There was no training on how to deal with people who are rioting. Most officers didn’t have helmets or certainly the body armor they needed. We were just very ill-prepared for the reality, whether it’s right, left, center, whatever. This could happen again in the future, so we have to be prepared. [Editor’s Note: On May 28 Portman voted in favor of the proposed January 6 commission, a measure that failed to pass.]

A few weeks later you announced you would not run for re-election. Did the insurrection play a role?
No, I can’t say it did. I was very discouraged by it, very upset by it, and I insisted on speaking that night. We came back to the chamber late, and everybody was wanting to hurry up and get it over with. I insisted on speaking, and I’m glad I did. I not only said my duty under the Constitution was to certify the election results, but I lamented the assault on democracy and said it was extremely important that we show the American people and my constituents that these rioters were not going to disrupt the work of the Senate.

What did you think of your colleagues in the House and Senate who went along with the lie and voted to overturn the results?
I was very disappointed because I believe our constitutional duty was clear.

Was everyone in your Senate office okay?
I was in constant communication with them, and they were fine. They stayed in their office. I left the Senate chamber when I got a report that the outer perimeter had been breached. I attempted to go down to my hideaway and I was blocked from going to my office. That’s when I saw things were serious. I saw the vice president hustled out, not just out of the chamber, out of his office. I was worried about him. I spoke with the vice president that evening and thanked him for saying he planned to certify the results. I thanked him for his courage in doing that.

How do you want to be remembered?
That’s not important to me, it’s important that things got done—on the opioid crisis and retirement savings and more. That’s what I care about. Not about me having a legacy but making a difference in people’s lives.                      

Jake Tapper is the host of The Lead with Jake Tapper and the chief Washington, D.C., correspondent for CNN. He is also a DAM contributing editor. 

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