DeConcini Reflects on Senate Years

Posted March 19, 2007 at 3:47pm

After retiring from the Senate in 1995, Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) decided to write a book about his family and life in public office. But after 18 years in the Senate, DeConcini said the project did not feel right.

“I didn’t feel like my heart was into it,” DeConcini said. “It didn’t feel good … so I put it aside.” [IMGCAP(1)]

But three years ago, it was time for him to pick up the project. So he partnered up with Jack August, a well-known Arizona historian, and the two began to craft a historical narrative from interviews, newspaper editorials and official documents.

What came out of the collaboration is the former Senator’s first-person account of his life, “Dennis DeConcini:

From the Center of the Aisle.” Released earlier this year, DeConcini’s book reflects on Senate culture and talks about some of the most difficult times in his career — from sponsoring the “DeConcini Reservation” that was critical to the passage of the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 to the “Keating Five” scandal, when he came under investigation for unethical behavior.

During his time in the Senate, DeConcini was known as being a centrist — splitting with his Democratic colleagues when he supported the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and William Rehnquist’s nomination for chief justice, while voting for President Bill Clinton’s tax bill in 1993, which was firmly opposed by Arizona Republicans.

“It seems to me that results are what is important, you create a better law if you put it together with some compromise in both sides,” DeConcini said.

August said the book illustrates DeConcini as a “vigilant centrist” who is reflective and candid about his experiences as a Senator.

“He is a genteel [and] kind person, but that doesn’t mean he’s not tough,” August said.

The book takes a more academic tone in some parts, especially in the historical descriptions of how his family came to live in Arizona and his explanation of the Panama Canal Treaty.

“It’s an academic biographical approach through first-person account; there are some footnotes and there’s attribution there that gives it integrity and credibility,” August said.

At other times, the book becomes reflective. DeConcini ponders the roles of public officers as he discusses his decision to support an investigation of Peter MacDonald, the leader of the Navajo Nation who was convicted in 1992 for taking bribes and kickbacks.

“When the popular democratic will is specifically manifested by the election of one representative, under what circumstances does another democratically elected representative have either the duty or right to investigate the former?” DeConcini writes.

DeConcini also provides a candid account of his experience with the Keating Five scandal. DeConcini was one of five Senators accused of interfering with the Federal Home Loan Bank board’s investigation in to the investment practices and eventual collapse of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association owned by Charles Keating. Reports came out that he and other Senators had previously received campaign contributions from Keating, but DeConcini defended himself during the Senate Ethics Committee hearings, saying that he was misled.

“It was a difficult time for me,” DeConcini said. “I had come from the position of being a reformer … I was quite shaken of being accused of doing something that was unethical.”

He has publicly acknowledged that he was mistaken in his support of Keating. But at the time, he writes, he saw Keating as a constituent who was being mistreated by a federal agency. Keating was eventually convicted of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.

“At the time, none of the Senators thought it was a mistake and we had legitimate constituent concern,” DeConcini said.

DeConcini also did not shy away from describing the cold relationship that emerged between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and himself because of the scandal. DeConcini questioned Robert Bennett, the special counsel in charge of the Keating Five investigation, and his ties to the Republican Party. The Ethics panel was most lenient on McCain and then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), but it was still criticized for its poor judgment in handling Keating. Meanwhile, the committee decided that there was interference by DeConcini and then-Sen. Donald Riegle (D-Mich.) and issued a formal reprimand to then-Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.).

“In the end, however, my questioning Bennett … mattered little because when public figures find themselves in political survival mode, they will do almost anything to protect themselves,” DeConcini writes.

Despite what he described as an “almost frigid” relationship that developed between McCain and himself because of the Keating Five drama, DeConcini also talks about the genial atmosphere between him and his Senate colleagues during the 1980s and early 1990s. He even praises McCain for the Senator’s handling of the MacDonald investigation.

“We used to work with Republicans and there wasn’t this acrimony and bitterness even when you had disagreements,” DeConcini said.

Today, DeConcini works at the law firm DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy and is a partner in the lobbying firm Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms. He also served on the Arizona Board of Regents in 2006 and is on the executive board of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

From his time in the Senate, DeConcini said he learned how to compromise.

“One thing I honed [in the Senate] is the ability to find the solution to something instead of just being stubborn,” DeConcini said. “There are some issues you can’t find a compromise to … but there are so many other issues that people of good will can find solutions to that will satisfy their needs.”