Tommy Thompson Describes Lessons from His “Journey of a Lifetime”

There are few people in recent Wisconsin history – maybe all Wisconsin history – who could work a crowd better than Tommy Thompson, and he showed he still has that ability in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday that was interesting, insightful, provocative and entertaining.

Elected four times, he was governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001, followed by four years as health and human services secretary in the administration of President George W Bush, Thompson, now 76, spoke on the day after his autobiography, Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime, written along with journalist Doug Moe, was released officially.

Thompson spun stories about how he went from being a bashful boy from a low-income family in the small town of Elroy to a confident young man with a burning interest in politics, how he won an upset victory over an incumbent from his own Republication Party to get a seat in the state Assembly, and how he rose within the Capitol.

Two things that stood out were regrets from his long political career.

The less surprising one was that he didn’t run for president in 1996, the year Bob Dole won the Republican nomination. (Dole was defeated by incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton that year.) Thompson’s career as governor was at its peak and he had a substantial national profile. But he got talked out of running by some of his close aides. He said, in retrospect, that was his moment.

The more surprising regret was that so many prisons were built while he was governor. He thought, at the time, that the right thing to do was to take a hard line on punishing criminals. “We got caught up in the hysteria of locking them up,” Thompson told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy.

The large majority of people who are imprisoned end up being released back into society, Thompson said, and they need more help than they now get while in prison to deal with problems such as drug and alcohol addictions and weak education backgrounds. More needs to be done to enable to get jobs and establish stable lives after release.

Thompson now advocates increased vocational training programs in prison, maybe even turning an existing prison into a vocational school. “We lock up too many people for too long and I want to change the dynamics,” Thompson said. He said he’d love to return to being governor for a few weeks, long enough to push through change the prison system.

Thompson also expressed regret that political life now isn’t what it was a few decades ago, when people from opposite sides of issues could differ and debate, but still be friends. He spoke highly of some of his Democratic opponents of the past and of what he gained by involving Democrats in working on solutions to issues.

Gousha asked if Thompson is optimistic, given the state of American politics currently. “Yes, but we have some problems,” he answered. “We have become so polarized in America that we don’t listen. We talk, but we don’t listen, we think that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. . . . That’s what we’re lacking now, the civility. We’d rather tear down than build up.”

But overall, he said, “I’m optimistic because we are Americans and we have never allowed this kind of distress or things to fail us. We’ll be stronger tomorrow than we are today. We just have to get over this (thinking that) ‘everything is pointed to me, I’m the only person who knows anything.’”

To listen to the one-hour program, click here.  

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