Mr. Secretary

Last Summer, at the Democratic National Convention, former Gov. Tom Vilsack told a small group of journos that he was still seeking a calling 18 months after leaving office.

Sure, he had about a half-dozen jobs. He lectured at Harvard this fall and is still practicing law while advising Iowa State and others on biofuels. He’s been writing on the merits of biotech crops. He co-chaired a state health coverage task force, where he pushed an effort to cover to expand state coverage to the children of illegal immigrants. Busy.

He had just returned from a trip to Africa with Bill Clinton, and envied the former president’s foundation work.

“I need to figure out how to do that (focus his talents). I haven’t figured that out,”Vilsack said  at the time. “Obviously, I’m going through that wayward time that I never did as a teenager. I was always kind of focused in.”

But Vilsack is wayward no more, after Barack Obama reportedly picked him to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The initial reviews have been mixed, leaning positive. Most Iowa leaders, of course, have praised it. On the other hand, some folks on the left who were hoping for someone more certified organic, less corny and soy beany,  are displeased.

But I think Visack is the right choice. For one thing, he’s a very smart, thoughtful and driven guy. It doesn’t surprise me that Obama and Visack hit it off. I understood the practical politics of why Vilsack endorsed Hillary in 2007, but I always though Obama was a better match for Vilsack’s approach to policy and politics.

Vilsackwas a competent governor and a quick study who mastered issues that he cared about. I don’t expect him to turn the USDA inside-out, but neither do I expect him to sit back and put the place on autopilot.

One of the things that was admirable/maddening about covering Vilsack was that he had 20 big ideas before breakfast. Sometimes that resulted in a lack of focus.

Regardless of what you think of Vilsack, the pick is good for Iowa. The department has a big impact on our economy and it’s been decades since an Iowans was at the helm. Vilsack has always been a zealoussalesman for his adopted home state.

Here’s a link to the column I wrote about Vilsack in August.

But I haven’t always been kind to the former gov. After the jump is the farewell column I wrote at my last job as he departed Terrace Hill in January 2007:

I’m going to miss Gov. Tom Vilsack.

There was always plenty to write about during his eight years at the helm of our ship of state. Sure, he’ll still be campaigning for president, but it won’t be the same.

He’s in the hands of the national media now. Please, treat him with kindness.

I now wish I had.

I’ve written a lot of snarky stuff about our governor over the years. And in the warm glow of his departure, I realize I was excessive at times. No, no, it’s true.

For instance, I’m sorry I discounted your vice presidential aspirations in 2004.

“He’s not NASCAR enough. He’s not well-known. His state is too small and too rural. His name makes people think of pickles,” I wrote in March 2004. “We see a wonk buried in details, with flashes of smartest-kid-in-the-room smugness. We see a budget still tinged in red. We see middling approval ratings. We see a deeply partisan Statehouse wracked by legal battles and budget fights.

“We see a lame duck.”

Gee, I guess that was kind of harsh. I’m sure you would have been a virtuoso second-fiddle. Again, sorry.

And I’m sorry I didn’t understand how you had to play coy during the veepstakes. I take back that `Best Impersonation of a Secret Agent’ award I gave you in December 2004.

“His name was Vilsack, Tom Vilsack,” I wrote. That’s double-O not funny.

Oh, and your presidential aspirations. I’ve been less than supportive, I admit.

“He seems substantive, sturdy and reliable but lacks a charismatic flair – like a pair of khakis, a warm bowl of oatmeal or a Subaru Outback. He doesn’t have Barack’s star power or Hillary’s money or John’s hair,” I wrote just this past fall.

You probably deserved better, although I really do love oatmeal.

Sorry I railed on that whole English only thing. Everyone deserves a core-belief mulligan, or two if you count gay marriage. And I shouldn’t have made such a stink that time your staff put Herbert Hoover’s portrait in the Kennedy Conference Room closet.

“I can’t believe that we’re talking about this,” you said, with understandable indignation, when asked about Hoover’s closeted status. And it was touching when your office sent the portrait to the Hoover library in West Branch, where there’s always room for one more.

I apologize for all those Decembers when I turned your real-life travails, triumphs and ambitions into fake gift items.

There was that Tom Vilsack Mega Action Figure in 2004. “Whether he’s cracking legislative heads or jetting off to Germany to bring home the economic schnitzel, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is a leader on the move…with a laser-guided veto pen and deal-maker grip.” Silly.

I regret the Tom Vilsack life-sized cardboard stand-in in 2005, “perfect for civic organizations, legislative leaders and reporters looking for some elusive face time with a rising national star.” I should have tried harder to appreciate the importance of your out-of-state travels.

And the “important” and “necessary” salt and pepper shakers this year were over the top. So much so that an avid salt shaker collector recently called the office hoping to order them. I’m not kidding.

I see now how important and necessary it is just to be nice.

If I had it to do all over again, I would have had more appreciation of your taste in music, like when you jammed with ZZ Top at the 2005 State Fair.

“He gave them a song he wrote entitled `Every Girl’s Crazy ‘bout a Moderate Democratic Governor from a Midwestern Red State with Sensible Ideas for Tackling Pressing National Issues,’ I wrote.

Why did I make fun of your corn-based socks, the PlayStation you got for Christmas or the dual BlackBerrys you used to track your beloved Steelers?
I should have given you the benefit of the doubt when that 10-year-old beat you at chess, when you dressed up like Winnie the Pooh or said you didn’t know how to send or receive e-mail.

I shouldn’t have coined the term `Vilsackian.’ I should have held my pen when you tried to raise the beer tax. And why couldn’t I resist making a cheap joke when you called the play by play action for the Iowa Cubs?

“He steals second, and I hereby restore his voting rights,” I wrote. Not nice.

No, I take it all back. Let’s start the presidential campaign with a clean slate. No hard feelings. Box up all that misguided snarkiness and put it in the closet. You know, like Hoover.

Oh, sorry. Again.


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