vision 2020

A Long Talk With John Hickenlooper

The 2020 hopeful on marijuana legalization, getting vetted to be Clinton’s VP, and learning from Kurt Vonnegut.

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper after his campaign kick-off rally in Denver on March 7. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images
Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper after his campaign kick-off rally in Denver on March 7. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

“Well, a friend back in Denver referred to me as an extreme moderate,” says John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who’s now running for president, sitting on a hotel restaurant barstool overlooking 57th Street on a recent Friday morning. The Democrat, who’s in town to raise money and hit the TV circuit before returning to the campaign trail — he was on CBS earlier in the morning, and will fly to New Hampshire in a few hours — is trying to gain traction in the crowded primary field as one of the more middle-of-the-road options. But Hickenlooper is also trying to get enough attention so that he can share his unusual life story: After being laid off from a job as a geologist, Hickenlooper opened a brewpub, the Wynkoop, in Denver, before serving two terms as mayor, then governor. He’s been trying not to get sucked into some of the thornier national debates along the way: A few days before our conversation, he stumbled over Joe Scarborough’s question of whether he considered himself a proud capitalist, amid the now-familiar 2020 version of socialism version capitalism. Then again, just a few days later he came out against the Green New Deal.

I’ve been struck by how many different times I’ve read now that you’re a fan of, and have read and reread, Machiavelli’s The Prince.
You get a chance to have the real truth.

Hit me.
Um, so I’d never read The Prince — I had in college, I kind of half-read it. But when I became mayor, I got roasted by the I Have a Dream Foundation, and one of the people who roasted me was my chief of staff, who’s very smart — [now-senator] Michael Bennet — who had read it a number of times. And he went through and said, “John Hickenlooper is so successful as mayor, [but] he’s kind of a naïve person from business, trying to be successful. And let’s examine how closely he resembles the advice that Machiavelli gives in The Prince.” It was insanely funny. But that’s when, basically, I thought, “Huh, this is something. I gotta watch The West Wing, and I gotta read The Prince.”

Okay, so is it true that you’ve studied it closely, or has this all been blown wildly out of proportion?
No, I read it. I’m a very slow reader, I’m moderately dyslexic. So over the course of six months I read it. I was also reading Team of Rivals. I was reading, you know, a bunch of stuff right when I first became mayor. I never read a bunch of political stuff when I was in the restaurant business. I read mostly about marketing and, like, sales. And cuisine.

Did you have a pre-presidential campaign reading list?
Again, I am such a slow reader. I did try and listen to “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” where they talk to some political figures and put them in a funny light. David Axelrod has The Axe Files. I listen to some of those. You know, Pod Save America. Different perspectives on politics. But mostly, I don’t even get to listen to too many podcasts, just because when I’m in a car driving somewhere, I’m usually on the phone talking to somebody, or I’m sending texts.

In your book, you mention that when you first ran for mayor, you went around and talked to a bunch of different mayors, including on an East Coast tour. Did you do anything like that before this presidential campaign?
I talked to a number of people about what the presidency looks like. I’m trying to think of who wouldn’t mind me saying their name. Well, I certainly talked to Bill and Hillary. I talked to [former senator and presidential candidate] Gary Hart, he’s a Coloradan. I talked to [former Transportation secretary and Denver mayor] Federico Peña, I talked to [former Interior secretary and Colorado senator] Ken Salazar. I talked to, let’s see, [former Denver mayor and Carter administration Health Department official] Wellington Webb. People I knew and trusted who had been mentors to me, that had been in the political world for a long time.

What does Gary Hart have to say about today’s politics? What were his words of preparation for you?
You know, he was so savvy. I don’t think there’s brilliant, earth-shattering advice, but it was really pragmatic. In other words, he said, “Everyone’s gonna always push you into making decisions for tomorrow.” He says, “Keep that long perspective.”

So how have you used this long-termism advice so far, as you’ve been rolling out your candidacy?
Well, I look at it in terms of: One of the most important — if not the most important — aspect of being president is the role as commander-in-chief, the responsibility for the nation’s safety and security. And obviously disregarding the advice of the top experts in both intelligence and military capability, that’s a terrible thing. At the same time, alienating our strongest long-standing allies is a terrible idea. But it’s not enough to just say that what President Trump is doing now is so debilitating. We should have a vision of where we want to be with China in ten years. And how do we get there, right? We don’t have protocols for cybersecurity right now. If there’s an incursion, there’s a breach of our cybersecurity, at different levels of that breach we don’t have protocols the way we did with military, from the Cold War. Think about Ebola pandemics.

Think about climate change. If we don’t have global relationships, we will not be able to resolve those and really head off some very, very bad consequences. So ten years down the road, that means we’ve got to be maybe not partners with China, but we gotta have a working relationship. We have to get to a point where they’re not stealing our intellectual property. Or they’re not cheating on the treaties that we have in place. Where we have some level of trust and, you know, we have certain shared goals that are explicit and non-transactional in nature. It’s one thing to say, “Here’s what we should do tomorrow,” in terms of Russia or China, or North Korea. But longer term, where do we want to be in 10 years, and 20 years?

It’s certainly a school of thought that this is one of the biggest problems of the Trump administration, that there’s no long-term vision. Do you subscribe to that? Or is something else the great ill of where we are now, in your view?
Perhaps the worst quality you could ascribe to a presidency is it’s impulsive. And he is impulsive, right? He clearly overrules the wise counsel of the smartest and most informed experts in the world, and he ignores them. Not only that, he ridicules them. Right? Diminishes their standing, not only within the White House but within the broader, you know, intelligence community. That’s reckless.

I want to go back to Hillary Clinton, for a second. I don’t think many people realize how seriously you were vetted, or how close you got, during her vice-presidential selection process. What was that experience like?
Well, the actual vetting, where I came to New York, I mean it was almost six hours. I had a couple breaks — bathroom breaks. But, you know, they knew everything. And I had supplied everything about myself already: my business life, my private life, everything. And they left no stone unturned. And that level, where you have to be really focused for a long period of time? I found it stimulating. I think that, you know, the things I brought to the table were probably different than anyone else. And certainly in that vetting process we discussed that. But the vetting process, just like a lot of American politics, I think the vast majority of the questions, and the direction of the vetting, was to try to disclose any bad thing that could come from my past.

When I first started the vetting, there were three top lawyers — and they all donate their time, these are $500, $3,000-an-hour lawyers — there are three on video screens, and four in the room. And the first thing said was, “Thank you for writing your book, because you saved us a great deal of work. That being said, maybe there are one or two things you maybe have to answer for.” But anyway, I think the vetting process, as is often the case in politics, was looking at: What’s lurking that we can’t see? What’s hidden that is potentially damaging? Obviously they were looking at the positive opportunities as well, but I think most vetting doesn’t put as much effort into, how can we take the opportunity and advantage, and what things do we have to add to maximize that?

Well, okay, but was that focus on finding the negatives as opposed to the positives a question of the vetting process overall, or was that this campaign, specifically?
No, from what I’ve heard — I’ve asked around, with a lot of people — I think that was, you know, pretty standard to all vetting.

So what did you learn from Secretary Clinton herself, and from the ’16 experience? You spent some time with her, she went out to Colorado a few times.
She is one of the smartest policy experts on almost anything. Things that I go do deep dives in. On apprenticeships, and how we’re going to train the workforce of the future, she could go back into the 1980s and go back to the whole evolution of workforce programs in both the federal government and various state governments. Um, but I also saw that, you know, trying to answer all the policy things in the campaign is, it’s a burden. It means you give these long speeches that not everybody buys into.

You know, let’s be honest. Secretary Clinton had a foreign government hack into her email and publicize it. Well, WikiLeaks hacked into it. The foreign government went in and tried to, you know, take down her campaign through, you know, fake news and bots and all that social media effort. She had the FBI actually come out and make allegations ten days before the election, that turned out to be baseless. No one’s ever had that, you know, not to mention billions of dollars in attack ads that had been going on for several years against her. And she still won the popular vote, and she had gotten close to winning the Electoral College. People are quick to criticize her, but, you know, I think by a lot of measures, despite all those obstacles, she almost won. So I’m not gonna criticize her.

I have tried to condense and make more concise when I’m giving remarks to groups of people. I’m trying to get down to under 12 minutes. My goal is to give the essence of what I’m about: Why am I in this campaign? Why am I doing this? To make sure that that is what people walk away with.

It’s funny how many national profiles describe you in terms of the political “middle” — “Man in the Middle,” or “Middleman.”

How does it feel to be an “extreme moderate” today?
I don’t think that labels are especially useful. And I say that because, take the environment. I would hold our accomplishments in terms of reducing the risk of climate change or diminishing the effect of our pollution on creating climate change up with any state in the country, if you go back and look on a per-person basis. On, like, methane, we’re the only state that passed methane regulations, and it’s significant, right? By addressing methane in Colorado, it’s the equivalent of taking 320,000 automobiles a year off the roads. It’s now being rolled out as a national policy in Canada. Methane’s, you know, something like 40 times worse for the climate, climate change, than carbon dioxide. We’re the only ones that took it on. We’re now closing two coal plants and putting in its place wind, solar, and batteries. No one’s ever done that before! So we’re not gonna have natural gas as part of the thing, and the monthly utility bill’s gonna go down. We got that done. We took our Volkswagen diesel settlement money and put a big chunk of it toward creating a network of rapid-charging stations for electric vehicles. And then we talked to all the Western governors — there are now ten states that are integrating their plans together.

Now, is that moderate? I talk about these successes in a moderate way because I want the next success, right? I don’t want to diminish the people who disagree with me. But I think, in terms of progressive achievement, I mean you tell me, go down the other candidates. Who else reduced teenage pregnancy by 60 percent? Through collaborative efforts, we got to all that universal health-care coverage in a bipartisan fashion. Is that moderate? Not really! It’s pretty progressive.

Do you think carrying this “moderate” label hurts you in this primary?
It depends on how it’s used, but perhaps. You know, labels generally divide people and they also objectify. In other words, they make it easier for someone to discount what they disagree with. So much right now, these are pretty complex issues that we’re talking about. And to say that someone’s a moderate or a liberal or a progressive, I mean, it’s hard to pigeonhole these big, complicated issues into those kinds of categories.

You might even say socialism versus capitalism.
You might even say that.

Were you surprised at how much attention that moment on Morning Joe got? People seemed to think it said a lot about today’s Democratic Party that someone with a career in business was unwilling to describe himself as a capitalist.
Yeah. I mean, I was making a point that labels do us all a disservice. And I was gonna stick to that point.

It can be hard to stick to your point in a pointed TV interview like that.
It is. Well, especially because they get a benefit in, if they attach that label, they’re creating news, right? And all of a sudden that news is gonna be picked up one way or another, whichever side you come down on. My answer, eventually, was that it’s not my first choice of a label, and, again, I’d much rather be called an “entrepreneur.” That’s really more what my nature is. I grew up thinking a “capitalist” was the kind of soulless part of the economy, right? All they cared about was making money. Is that true? I don’t know. It’s a label! So I don’t even like using it in that context.

I’m curious about your critique of the cable news world. What did you make of the DNC’s recent decision not to have any of the Democratic primary debates on Fox?
I think the more information, the better, and I think getting the Democratic message out to everybody’s probably a good idea. So they have very good — they’re obviously very good — reasons for why they made that decision. They don’t want to reward bad behavior, as my mother used to say when she was preventing me from the things I wanted. But my inclination would be, yeah, let every network have a shot at taking one of these Democratic debates, and make sure that the people who watch that news channel [can watch, so we] get to reach as many people as possible.

So you would go on Fox News if they called you right now, then.
I go on Fox — I don’t know, well, I don’t do anything weekly — biweekly, or let’s say monthly. I try to go to all the news feeds, because I think our problem is not getting too much information to the people. There’s a lot of people that really care about politics right now, and that’s a good sign. But they’re still a small fraction of the population. My wife told me that 2 percent or 4 percent of American people actually donate to a political campaign. It’s teeny, it’s so small.

How annoying did you find the 2017 rumors that you would run on a joint ticket with John Kasich?
Well, it wasn’t annoying as much as it just wasn’t fact-based.

And that’s not annoying?
It’s a little annoying.

I’m not trying to put words into your mouth, or sentiments …
I understood where it was coming from, because I think there’s a hunger right now in America for some level of bipartisanship. They want us, especially in Washington, to find some common ground and make progress. I felt I had to find a Republican governor — because [governors] are the ones that implement healthcare — and Trump would come in, and he had a Republican majority in the House and the Senate. And I was determined to try and protect, you know, that expansion of Medicaid that we did in Colorado and in so many states, like Ohio. And it was actually one of the other Republican governors who said, ‘You need to talk to Kasich.’ And that was the key. Without him and myself together, arguing that we could improve the Affordable Care Act — that we should not dismantle it — without our efforts, John McCain absolutely would’ve gone ahead and signed the bill to take the ACA out of business.

And that bipartisanship is where those suggestions, and where those rumors, started. It was just because it was so successful for us to just work together on something. I mean, John Kasich and I disagree on a bunch of stuff. But on many of the basic, fundamental issues around health care, we are locked in. He’s Catholic, obviously he has issues around choice, but demonstrating that Republicans and Democrats can work together, I think, is more important now than it’s probably ever been.

On health care, I’m sure every time you’re out in Iowa or New Hampshire people ask you about Medicare for All, and the Bernie Sanders proposals in particular. I’ve heard you talk about those proposals plenty, but in your mind is the problem with them that they’re not realistic? Are they good aspirations? And is it good political strategy to talk about that, in the long run?
I mean, that’s a good question. I think you have to have some grounding in what’s possible. But as you point out, aspirational goals are also valuable, and I think that’s something we should always recognize, even if something can’t happen tomorrow. I disagree with Senator Sanders. You know, 160 million people having their health care through private insurance, most of them through their business — it’s hard to imagine people walking away from the system they know and feel comfortable with. But that being said, you know, long term, we had a public option, and that option was some form of either Medicare or Medicare Advantage or some different opportunity for people who didn’t qualify for Medicaid but couldn’t afford real insurance. And over time, that system really worked for people, and more people naturally migrated to it. I mean, having those aspirational visions out there of a more efficient system of delivering health care? We’re at 19 percent of GDP. That’s double the average of all the countries in Europe, and our outcomes are worse. That should bother every single American in every corner of this country.

Can we talk about your friendship with your father’s old fraternity brother Kurt Vonnegut (who you met randomly, as an adult)? Do you think much about his writing these days, given the political …
Absolutely. You know that was one of the most magical experiences of my life, to have read everything he ever wrote. You gotta understand, my dad died just after I turned 8. He was my mother’s second husband who died, and my father was this amazingly funny, charismatic guy. He was kinda goofy. Thick glasses, but a wicked sense of humor. Kind of dry, but a wicked sense. And people just loved him. His battle with cancer was over two years. When he died, people didn’t want to talk about him in front of my mother. And I was so little, I was 8, so no one really talked to me about him. And then they’re out of the habit of talking about it, so in a funny way, I learned more about my father from Kurt Vonnegut than I did from most of my family. And I remember some of his language. He called my father an “invariably kind and funny young man.” Just such a beautiful way of expressing it.

When he died, every single novel he wrote was in print. Very, very few authors can you say that about. And if you go back and look at his books, it doesn’t say how tall any of the characters are, or whether they had blue eyes or brown eyes. Doesn’t say what color their hair was. And I asked him about that one time. He said, “You think you need that to understand the questions of morality that affect all human beings and affect mankind?” I was like, “Well, Kurt, no, I mean …” And he goes, “Well, maybe you should go read the Bible. See if you can find any adjectives in the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament.” And it’s true, there are none. He was so concerned with, you know, the questions about common human decency, and what he saw in Dresden, and how that colored his life. He told me one time that I had mentioned that I learned within six months of opening my restaurant that if I walked into the restaurant in a bad mood, I was cranky, pretty soon bartenders, line cooks were all cranky. And so I learned to change my mood. And he laughed and he says, “But that’s the key. You’ve got to remember, you’ve got to be very, very careful about what you pretend to be. It is true, as a person, what you pretend to be is what you’ll become.”

You know, he had lots of friends in politics. I said, “I’m gonna run for mayor Denver. And you know, Kurt, I was hoping maybe you may endorse me.” And he went, “John!” And he could be so gruff, he went, “John! If I endorsed you, I have to endorse everybody …” and his voice lowered an octave, and he was just kind of grumpy, grumpy, grumpy, and I said, “Well, Kurt, I just asked, don’t think you have to — absolutely, don’t, don’t, don’t think you have to do it.” He said, “Oh, well that’s good, just make my life painful.” The next day, I get a fax. At this point — up until the past couple years — he never used email. He loved faxing things. And he sent me a fax and says, “I don’t believe in endorsements. I believe in hope. I hope John Hickenlooper is the next mayor of Denver.” And so we printed that out on bookmarks and then handed them out at all the libraries, figuring most people in a library live in that city, and most people will be voters if they’re going to a library. It was so much fun.

In Cat’s Cradle, he has this word, “karass.” All the people you’re connected to, that some of them you never even meet but are somehow connected to. I told him, I said, “You and I were in the same karass.” And he smiled and he said, “I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word, but it’s pretty close.” He stuck me in his last book.

What was that like?
It was surreal. It was really beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. Not because I felt, like, celebrated or accomplished, or anything. But I felt like I somehow was in the presence of greatness and the, kind of, inner world. Obviously he mattered a great deal to me, but, in some way, I mattered to him.

You just said you’re careful about what you pretend to be. I’ve heard you talk plenty about optimism — it’s all over your book, which is literally called The Opposite of Woe. So how is that going in this environment, especially with the task ahead of you? Do you find yourself actually optimistic, or are you forcing it?
No, I mean, I’ve always been an optimist in a funny way, and that’s my mother, her influence. She was widowed twice before she was 40. So she felt you didn’t have a choice. You had to accept responsibility. No one else was gonna make you happy. Whether it’s drama club or sports or academics, you had to figure out something you can commit yourself to. That commitment would bring you together with people, that was where joy in life would reside. And I think that creates an optimistic framework. Almost all of the great successes of life, that’s got to be cored in optimism. So that’s one thing I don’t have to pretend. It’s just, it is core to who I am.

So what do you have to pretend?
Um, you know, sometimes I have to — it’s not pretend — but, well, I have to invest time in people I violently disagree with. Because, you know, trying to explain to them why they’re wrong and I’m right is meaningless, is useless. And it’s just hollow if all you do is talk about it, you know, actually trying to hear people differently. It’s frustrating sometimes.

Let’s say you’re elected and there’s still a Republican Senate. I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t have to deal with that more than ever when it came time to try and pass some of these policies you’re talking about.
The bottom line is that, (a) I think I’m gonna win; (b) I think I’m gonna have a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. But on the chance that there’s a small Republican majority, I think there’s some things — again, universal background checks — you’ve gotta just muscle through. But again and again and again, trying to get bipartisan support, in many cases, allows you to get to a better outcome. It may not be the better outcome with respect to what you think, but in terms of bringing the country back together again, we’ve got to begin finding stuff that isn’t dividing us, that can come and bring us together. And that means, you know, taking more moderate — incremental, not moderate — steps toward, you know, a better place.

Well, what does that look like on something like universal background checks, in your mind?
I’ve got kind of a formula for how we did it in Colorado. It will be going state-by-state, and a big part of that is just demonstrating, of the 50 percent of the gun purchases you can get to, who are we catching? And it turns out in Colorado in 2012, we got 38 people convicted of homicide who tried to buy a gun and we stopped them. You add up all the different categories — burglars, sexual assault — there were 3,000 violent criminals who tried to buy a gun in 2012 in Colorado, a state of 5.5 million people. So this is one where you go state-by-state and you take your state data and let people, let the local Republicans look at their constituents and say, I think it’s okay to have 38 people convicted of homicide who want to go buy a gun. Before you know it, you’ll have a national legislation around universal background checks. I feel very confident about it.

When you think back to your experience with marijuana legalization in Colorado, what lessons do you take from that process when it comes to the nationwide implications for the issue?
Well, I think that states are the laboratory for democracy. And even though I disagreed with the direction and the vote of the people of Colorado, I think my job as governor was to do everything I could to see if we could make that succeed. And I wanted to make sure that if it failed — which I was very worried, that there’d be a spike in teenage consumption, I worried there’d be a spike in people driving while high — no one could come back and say, “Oh, well, they were trying to sink it.” In the end, we haven’t seen any of those things that we feared. We still have a black market. We still have a lot of work to go. We didn’t get out in front of edibles. No one anticipated that edibles would explode. But it took us a year, we got our arms around it.

Sure, so would you advocate for legalization to continue as a state-based process, with federal oversight? What did your experience in Colorado teach you about the proper way to do this everywhere?
I don’t think the federal government — and this is based on all my experience in government — should come in and tell the state of Maine, or the state of Alabama, that they should legalize marijuana. I think that should still be left to states. It’s just like alcohol. They repealed the Volstead Act in ’33. So that being said, I think the federal government should immediately change the laws and regulations to allow banking in those states that have legalized it. I think that the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration should set clear standards for pesticides and people growing marijuana, exactly how to safeguard, with inspections, like they do for any kind of pharmaceutical or crop. We have medical marijuana in 30-something states now. We have to delist it from being a schedule one narcotic so you can do research. There should be no unusual barrier to testing, measuring the efficacy, usefulness of marijuana in all of its forms. And also the risks, right? We gotta study that stuff. But then we have to make sure that we have a common definition of what medical marijuana is applicable for. And we should have, you know, a standard. That’s where the federal government comes in. A national standard. Of, you know, what is safe and appropriate use as a medicine?

So explain to me how that differs, in your mind, from gun laws — you had a complex relationship with gun regulations as Colorado — philosophically. Do you think of them as sort of similar regulatory issues, in concept?
They’re so different. But, you know, there is always a commonality, regulations have a common framework.

Well, that’s why I ask about your philosophy rather than the practicality. You think of the issues within the same framework?
Yeah, although, you know, in gun safety we have an awful lot of data now, whereas in marijuana we’re still accumulating. It’s much newer. But they share certain qualities, such as they’re both very emotional. In other words, even in Colorado, there’s probably 25 percent of our population, 30 percent, they’re adamantly against marijuana legalization. It just, it sets them off. And there’s probably 30, 35 percent of people who are absolutely, “It’s gotta be.” The vast majority of people are still saying, “Huh, it looks like it’s working good. I guess I’ll stick with it.” And the same thing’s true with gun safety, although with gun safety, the last poll I saw in Colorado was 90 percent support universal background checks. Obviously, I think the goal is to do it in enough states so that it becomes national policy.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

A Long Talk With John Hickenlooper