Q&A with: Former Congressman Dick Swett

In 1990, Dick Swett — a Yale graduate and an architect who grew up in Laconia, where he starred in football and track — became the first Democrat since 1912 to be elected to Congress from New Hampshire’s 2nd District. He served two terms and was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1994 and was appointed ambassador to Denmark by President Clinton, serving for three years.

He is married to his favorite lawyer and Yale alumna, the former Katrina Lantos, daughter of California Congressman Tom Lantos. Swett — the only architect to serve in Congress in the 20th century — has just turned 48 and has published a book, “Leadership by Design: Creating an Architecture of Trust.”

Q. I think someone looking at the publicity blurbs might say, “OK, so he was the only architect in Congress in the 20th century. What’s so significant about that?”

A. Well, it’s really a tragedy for the profession of architecture, but I think it’s a tragedy for the country, too, because what I have found is that we have leaders who are coming up through the ranks of the special interests. So whether it’s ideological leadership from the political parties, or people coming up through the environmental movement or through the religious right or any of these groups that all have one particular issue they are advocating.

The problem is that they’re all advocating their issue to the exclusion of all others, and if you read the documents of the Founding Fathers, you see a very different portrayal of their vision of government, which is that it should be inclusive, it should be overarching, it should be a help to negotiate and mitigate and coordinate the competing interests of the land and not to do it to the exclusion of any of them.

So what I’ve been very interested in doing is creating a book that talks about a different kind of leadership that would allow that to take place.

Q. Isn’t it ironic that people complain about too many lawyers in government, when many of the founders were lawyers?

A. Well, there was no such thing as a lawyer and there was no such thing as an architect in the beginning. These were Renaissance individuals. In my book, I refer to them as people who had an array of multiple skills that had the effect of giving them insight into what are currently only competing interests.

Q. Had you been in the House circa 2002, how would you have designed a strategy to contain or repel or disarm Saddam Hussein?

A. That’s a very good question that doesn’t have an answer that’s much different than what was done, because this is not to say that cooperation can be expected in all negotiations, nor is it to say that one should always expect to be met on a level playing field with someone of similar intentions of dealing with us. The U.S. had to take a tough line, and I supported the Persian Gulf War. That was my first vote in Congress back in the early ’90’s. My position remained consistent with that.

Certainly we could have done even more to work in concert than we did with the second Persian Gulf war. I had a little bit of opportunity to play a role in that, and you can read about it in the book, where I did an actual design exercise with the State Department to help them establish the coalition of anti-terrorist states, which became the “coalition of the willing.”

Q. You were defeated in 1994 by Charlie Bass. You were targeted by the NRA, I recall.

A. You see, what the Republicans were able to do was attack me in ways that they hadn’t been able to do before. Because I believe politics is about relationships — it isn’t really about ideology or issues. So I try to get people to vote for me because they believe that they may not agree with everything I’m all about, but they trust me to act in ways that they can predict. And that’s where the architecture of trust comes from.

So I went to great pains to build that kind of relationship and I know it was very difficult for them to figure out how to break that. Well, they were offered that opportunity when I changed my position on the assault weapons ban, and they characterized it as a character flaw, whereas I felt it was a character strength to be able to stand up and admit when I was wrong. And I really believe we need to maintain some kind of sane control over 19 out of 748 weapons that are available to the public at the local gun shop.

So what they did is, they made the issue…

Q. You can’t trust Swett.

A. That’s right, and that was when they finally figured out how to get me. That was what was so painful about that whole experience.

Q. Your ads were saying, “You don’t really know this guy. This guy is not who he pretends to be.” You know, Charlie, who used to be a moderate Republican, is going out trick-or-treating with The Union Leader in one hand and an AK-47 in the other.

A. Well, because Newt Gingrich paved the highway for him.

Q. What do you think of Gingrich and his kind of architecture?

A. Oh, I think — and I talk about this in the book — he’s a deconstructionist. I think that he believes that you take over an institution by tearing it down until it’s so weak that it can’t support its current leadership.

Q. Does he believe in building it up again?

A. I haven’t seen it. I don’t think this is in the book, but six months into my first term, I sat down with Tom Foley and I said, “Mr. Speaker, with all due respect, you are presiding over a dysfunctional family.” He didn’t appreciate it, but what I said was, “I see the Democrats taking liberties that embarrass the Republicans, and if you do that, they’re going to come back and they’re going to bite you back and there’s going to be no end to this evil cycle of retribution because it’s all based on ego and not on substance.”

Q. So what do you think about the filibuster?

A. I would support keeping the tradition over the 200-year history of this country. It has come up and reared its ugly head and been dealt with. But what it does is that it always gives the minority an opportunity to be heard.

Q. When are you going to re-enter the political fray?

A. If I were to stay in politics at the level and depth that I think I should give it, I wouldn’t have a family that’s functional. So when my kids are grown, I can devote the kind of time to it that’s necessary.

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