What’s the best advice you ever received?
As a teenager, I’d get frustrated by people who I thought were not smart, and my father told me, “Son, don’t ever get frustrated by stupid people. Being mad at stupidity is like being mad at grass – it’s everywhere.”
How should one deal with a powerful person’s ego?
Stroke it. Never does a man stand so tall as when he stoops to kiss an ass.
So how do you tell a powerful person they’re wrong?
Very delicately. When dealing with somebody who can fire you or has some control over you, make them believe it’s their idea. That’s the best way. And it pays to know what kind of advice a person is likely to accept. You can’t give somebody advice that’s contrary to their personality. You’re limited by human nature.
What should every American know about the political system?
That people are given power, and they’re given power to use it. And also, that leadership matters. I’ve been to Caracas and Bogotá over the course of two months, and it doesn’t take you 10 seconds to figure out that Colombia has leadership and Venezuela does not. Plain and simple. To some extent, it’s Chicago and Detroit. It matters who runs the place – not just for a country or city, but for a university, a company, a corner store. It matters profoundly, big time.
What’s the greatest quality of leadership?
Getting people to do what they don’t want to do. That’s the trick in life. How did Patton get those guys to walk in the snow? How did Hannibal get the freaking elephants over the Alps? Most stuff – political strategy or what Congress needs to do – is not that hard to figure out. The hard thing is to get people to do it. Any doctor can tell you to drop your blood pressure, don’t smoke or drink, or lose weight, but it’s the one who gets you to do it that’s the really good doctor.
What do Americans not understand about the South?
Well, first of all, don’t think of the South as a monolithic place. New Orleans culture is substantially different from Southern culture, and for me, it’s much better. Generally, the Southern social structure is a church. Ours is Carnival. And I’d rather go to Mardi Gras than the First Baptist Church of Meridian, you know? I just like the way we live here.
How do you know which politician to hitch your wagon to?
When you start out, it’s the one who will pay you. By 1992, I’d talked to all the Democrats running for president, but this was not the hardest decision I ever made. Look, everybody should have a Bill Clinton in their life. That’s my advice: Just go out and find Bill Clinton, and work for him.
How should a man handle defeat?
Very badly. You’re sick. It’s just awful. Darkness Depression. Doubt. It’s hard. Just look at the Romney election-night story. He went over there in a 15-car motorcade. For whatever reason, he actually thought he was going to win. And then he had to bum a ride home with his son. That’s all in a six-hour period. It’s utterly brutal. When they hit the light switch in this business, it goes dark like that. In politics, there’s no dimmer on the light switch. It just goes off, and that’s it.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I wasn’t successful until late in life. When Bill Clinton was elected, I was 48. I’m not sure I would have given myself the standard set of advice: Study harder, be more serious, buckle down. I don’t think I would’ve been able to be me. I probably wish I would have had a drink or two less in my day, but I had to go through the things that I went through, and make the mistakes that I made, in order to be me.