Ludlam Switches Gears

Longtime Staffer Leaves Hill for Peace Corps

Posted June 21, 2005 at 3:29pm

In the second summer of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Stanford undergrad Chuck Ludlam began an internship in the office of then-Rep. Burt Talcott (R-Calif.). At that point, Ludlam had been a camp counselor for two summers and was looking for a change of pace.

“Although I didn’t know it at the time,” Ludlam said, “it was a fantastic opportunity to find a career that fit me so well.”

But on Friday, 40 years and six days later, Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) counsel will shut the lights in his Hart Building office for the last time and close the book on a career spanning more than three decades in law and two branches of government.

Unlike many who retire from Capitol Hill, however, Ludlam will not busy himself by hanging up a shingle downtown or improving his short game. Instead, he will place a matching bookend on a career in politics and public service spanning four decades.

“It’s coming full circle,” Ludlam said.

In September, Ludlam and his wife, Paula Hirschoff, both former Peace Corps volunteers, will begin another two-and-a-half-year commitment with the service program. This time, Ludlam, who previously served in Nepal, and Hirschoff, who previously served in Kenya, are going to the West African country of Senegal, a former French colony with a population the size of Ohio, but a gross domestic product less than one-half that of Rhode Island.

As remarkable as the decision to join the Peace Corps at an age when people try to create more creature comforts in their lives is the degree to which Ludlam has both participated and been witness to the “sea change,” as he puts it, in Washington, D.C., over the past 40 years.

“People think it is bitter today,” Ludlam said. The 1960s “was a bitter and complicated time.”

When Ludlam arrived as a college student in the summer of 1965, President Johnson greeted the fresh crop of interns as “my fellow revolutionaries,” according to Ludlam. The previous November, Democrats increased their domination of the Senate and the House, controlling 68 Senate and 295 House seats by January.

In 1965, Johnson’s push for the “Great Society” was in full tilt. By year’s end, a new federal agency had been created, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the 89th Congress had sent the Higher Education and Voting Rights acts to Johnson’s desk.

“The most productive year in the history of the Congress,” Ludlam said of 1965. “It made a big impression on me as a summer intern.”

Ludlam graduated from Stanford in 1967. One year later, with the Tet Offensive raging in Vietnam, the by-then first-year law student dropped out and joined the Peace Corps, intent on not being drafted for a war he had no intention of serving in.

“It was a great time to get the hell out of the country,” Ludlam said.

Ludlam was assigned to work in Nepal and served there between 1968 and 1970. He said he “loved the sense of the community” in his first Peace Corps assignment, an observation echoed by others who knew him then and now.

“He’s always trying to make a connection with other people,” said Dexter Newton, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal who now lives in New Braintree, Mass.

Deborah Estes, a staffer on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “experienced first hand [Ludlam’s] appreciation for other cultures” on a trip to China last year. While mulling about in the Asian economic powerhouse, Ludlam would frequently wander into local shops, according to Estes.

After returning to the United States in 1970, Ludlam finished his law degree at the University of Michigan, then worked as an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 1979, Ludlam was hired to help craft domestic policy for the Carter White House, an era during which, “presidents were supposed to have domestic policies,” said Si Lazarus, who at the time served as Ludlam’s boss as the associate director of domestic policy in the Carter administration.

Lazarus said Ludlam’s main skill lies in his ability to focus on just a few issues at a time, perhaps even just one.

“He doesn’t keep 50 balls in the air,” Lazarus said. “You can completely rely on him to leave no stone unturned.”

As a consequence, “he might not be the best person to set limitations on things,” Lazarus laughed.

In today’s increasingly polarized political landscape, Lazarus said Ludlam, who has only worked for Democrats since graduating from law school, is “free of being encumbered from partisan clichés.”

“He’s created a lot of loyalty,” Lazarus said. “You can see how people from lobbyists to lawmakers look to him for leadership.

“It’s interesting for me to see Republican staffs being ready to work with him,” Lazarus added. “You just don’t see that.”

Recently, Ludlam’s energies have been consumed with a series of bills intended to ensure enough medicine would be available in the event of a large-scale disease outbreak.

BioShield I, which was signed by President Bush in July 2004, authorized $5.6 billion over 10 years to purchase vaccines and drugs primarily to fight bioterrorism.

A subsequent bill, BioShield II, was introduced by Lieberman in April and creates economic incentives for pharmaceutical companies to create drugs that fight not just bioterror, but the wrath of mother nature.

“It’s possible to see that 1 million Americans could die if, say, avian flu were to reach the United States,” Ludlam said. “The 1918 epidemic killed 40 million with a 1.8 percent mortality rate.

“The reason I’m leading this fight for these programs and incentives is that I’ve seen people die of infectious diseases,” Ludlam said. “Most Americans have not.”

But convincing pharmaceutical companies to get onboard is difficult, according to excerpts of an oral history Ludlam is preparing with the Senate Historian. Ludlam’s seven years as vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, however, put him in good stead to be pragmatic in dealing with both sides.

“There is no market for many of these bioterror countermeasures other than the government,” Ludlam said in his oral history. And “the industry hates the government.”

Knowing the players and being able to finesse the “game,” as Ludlam refers to politics, has contributed to his longevity and success on Capitol Hill. Whether Ludlam ever returns to politics is anyone’s guess. But for perhaps one of a handful of people on Earth who returned to Capitol Hill after working on K Street, Ludlam’s hardwiring for politics seems a certainty.

“Montesquieu made sure it was a difficult game to play with the separation of powers,” Ludlam said. That is, “unless you play it for a long time, which I’ve had an opportunity to do.”