DENVER — Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm is sitting in the courtyard of his home, looking at the daisies and geraniums thriving under the deep blue Colorado sky and talking about Otto von Bismarck, first chancellor of the German Empire.
"He said something like 'political genius is hearing the hoofbeats of history and grabbing at the coattails of the rider as it goes by,' " he recalls. "The trouble is you often hear the wrong hoofbeats and you often grab the wrong coattails."
Lamm, governor from 1975 to 1987, is fretting these days over whether he is hearing the proper hoofbeats. He is expected to announce Tuesday whether he will seek the presidential nomination of the fledgling Reform Party, founded by Ross Perot.
To do so, Lamm knows as well as anyone, would be a risk. He could go down in history as either a Teddy Roosevelt or a Henry Wallace - a serious third-party contender or a provocative footnote.
He also has to deal with the mercurial Mr. Perot. For now, the Texas billionaire remains firmly seated in the saddle of the organization that helped him garner 18.9 percent of the vote in 1992. Lamm can only grab at coattails.
"This could be historical," he says, adding with characteristic candor: "I could end up with egg all over my face. I could be remembered both as Governor Gloom and Don Quixote."
Lamm acquired the Governor Gloom label because of his penchant for predicting dire things while he was in office. So is he too gloomy? "It depends on how the future turns out," he says. "If America rights itself, if the stock market goes to 10,000, if we don't have a problem with competitiveness in the future and entitlements aren't going to be a problem, then people are going to say, 'Lamm, boy were you wrong.'"
The silver-thatched former governor doesn't know what his future holds, but he does know he will not run against Perot. "It does not seem prudent or wise," Lamm says, "to take on a billionaire in his own party without any money." The whole notion of Lamm, a lifetime Democrat, running for president in Perot's right-listing party, might be considered preposterous anyway if not crazily quixotic.
The first to agree is Lamm: "I could get 5 percent of the vote or I could get a plurality. If America is as ready for this as I think it is, then we'll do all right. All we need is a plurality of Americans who say 'enough.' But it could be I have completely misjudged the water."
Lamm is complimentary of Perot - notably of his determination - but he is brazenly candid about him, too. "I don't feel deferential to Ross," he says. "I admire him for what he is, but I don't think he is the best person to build the party. And I'm the first to admit that I'm not the best person either. Maybe we can find a third person."
On the downside, Lamm says he brings controversial issues to the table but on the upside, he brings passion.
The odd couple
So far, with the Reform Party's first convention just over two months away, Perot and Lamm are the only possible candidates. It's an odd couple: the wealthy industrialist who burst upon the scene as a quasipopulist and the lapsed Democrat ("I'm politically homeless," says Lamm) who takes a more sophisticated approach. There is, of course, successful precedent for third parties. "Bull Moose" candidate Teddy Roosevelt got the most votes ever (27 percent) in 1912.
Missing from the debate, says Lamm, is a thoughtful discussion of "how we compassionately balance the budget. The problem is neither political party is equal to the magnitude of America's problems."
He calls the nation's current financial situation "like Greek tragedy. It's fiscal McCarthyism."
Walt Stone, a political scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder (UCB), sees the potential for the Reform Party and/or Lamm's candidacy as "unique" because it could be a step toward institutionalizing a third party, which almost never happens.
What makes Lamm's involvement turn heads is his outspoken, no-blink, full-speed-on-the-curves approach to the country's problems. "The hour is late and we have a nation to save," says Lamm. "We are heading for trouble. No, not trouble, disaster."
But Lamm doesn't stop with this kind of generality; he traffics in specifics.
Among them: We must raise the retirement age to 70 and reduce cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients (coping with aging, says Lamm, will be as "massive an adjustment" as the civil rights issue has been), increase premiums for Medicare, do something about too-expensive civil-service and military-retirement pensions, adjust farm subsidies downward, put a sharp pencil to sugar and tobacco price supports, and have term limits for elected officials.
He plows on: There are too many Veterans Administration hospitals (about 175), and the truth is, he says, 80 percent of their work involves nonservice-connected ailments. Immigration doesn't escape Lamm's cold-eyed conclusions: "We cannot accept all the world's huddled masses." Therefore, Lamm says, the country must choose whether the nation gives "first priority to its own poor or are we going to give our first priority to the world's poor?"
In a recent speech, he said, "We must crawl out into the political no man's land where everyone is firing at you - because that is where many of the solutions are to be found."
Basically, what Lamm does is stake out positions - routinely thoughtful and sound but controversial - that manage to offend virtually every American voter in at least one significant way. He shrugs: "We all swim in our past."
Professor Stone says this straight-talking approach "looks very attractive stylistically" but makes electability a pipe dream. Lamm counters that "we do not have the luxury of merely tinkering at the margins."
The most popular governor in Colorado history knows that he has written so much (he authored or co-authored five books while governor and has written numerous articles and papers over the years) and spoken so much and done so much (for example, as a young Colorado state legislator, he led the fight for the first liberalized abortion law in the country) that he is a target for critics outlined on the horizon against the setting sun. "It's like Luther said," explains Lamm. "'Here I stand; I can do no other.'"
In the World According to Lamm, both major political parties may be in for a fall. They could be the "Berlin Wall of the '90s. They just don't know it. The seeds of discontent with the public have been sown [to the point] where we're going to take over one of them." Sixty-two percent of the populace would like a third choice, says Lamm.
Rodney Hero, another UCB political science professor, says Lamm likes to "think of himself as a big thinker, a visionary. There is almost a mischievous quality to him, but it is not born of insincerity. It's not so much about winning and losing but about the game being played in a significantly different way."
And that, at bottom, is what Lamm hopes for: a serious discussion of difficult issues in a forthright manner leading to workable and sensible solutions.
A political Paul Revere
Lamm is appalled at the malfeasance of his own generation. "My mother and father built the interstate highway system," he says. "My generation hasn't even adequately maintained it. They fought a war, they fought Hitler, they fought a Depression, and they paid their own way for the most part." Not us, he says.
And therein lies the problem: Americans like to hear the truth about everything except when it adversely affects them personally, emotionally, or financially. Lamm says all he is calling for is "modest sacrifice for 10 years."
Lamm was born into a prosperous family (his father owned and was president of several coal-mining operations) and educated early on in a one-room school house in Barrington, Ill. "We were such a small school we had to let girls on our softball team," he recalls. "We didn't like it a bit. But we had to because we didn't have enough functional males."
He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin in accounting. A life-altering educational experience came when Lamm asked a woman student there to have coffee. She said she had to go to class but invited him to come with her. He did and says "there was this little white-haired lady named Helen White who started talking about this dude named Shakespeare. That class changed my life. It led me into the world of books."
He subsequently earned his law degree at the University of California at Berkeley. Since being governor, he has been a teaching fellow at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and currently is the head of the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver.
He says the things that mean the most to him are that "we've raised good kids [two], we have a good marriage [Dottie], and I'm healthy. After that, it goes downhill fast."
Perot has been saying he wants a "George Washington II." Lamm told Perot last month that "I went out and bought a new mirror and looked at myself every which way and I don't see a George Washington II in there." He says Perot laughed and said that was OK, that he could support him.
Lamm falls silent, perhaps listening again for hoofbeats. It was also Bismarck who said, "Politics is not an exact science."
World According to Lamm
Balancing the Budget:
"The problem is, neither political party is equal to the magnitude of America's problems." The financial situation is "like Greek tragedy. It's fiscal McCarthyism."
Graying of America:
Coping with aging will be as "massive an adjustment" as civil rights has been. He would raise the retirement age to 70 and reduce cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.
"We cannot accept all the world's huddled masses." The country must choose whether it gives "first priority to its own poor or are we going to give our first priority to the world's poor?"
"We must crawl out into the political no man's land where everyone is firing at you - because that is where many of the solutions are to be found."
Baby Boomer Malfeasance:
"My mother and father built the interstate highway system. My generation hasn't even adequately maintained it."