Colorado’s Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm, looking tanned and trim, is chatting on the patio of the elegant Broadmoor resort hotel near Colorado Springs. He has been invited down from Denver to give two more of the typically apocalyptic speeches that have won him all-American honors as a doomsayer. As he did at lunch to a foreign affairs club and as he will later at dinner with the National Conference of Editorial Writers, he is bemoaning the accelerating decline and imminent fall of the United States of America.
“It’s hard for me to see where we get to the middle of the 1990s without some economic and social trauma on a large scale, unless we adjust our ways,” he warns.
In Lamm’s woeful vision, banks will fail as “never-to-be-developed” countries default on their loans; obsolete U.S. factories will lie idle as Asians laboring for coolie wages outproduce American workers; hordes of illegal immigrants will take jobs from American blacks and Hispanics, who will riot and burn the cities; the nation will groan under the burden of millions of elderly pensioners bankrupting the health-care system with their endless demand for hip joints and hearts; finally, the deficit will reduce America to “a nation in liquidation.”
“The real wild card over all this is nuclear warfare,” says Lamm, whose pessimistic pronouncements have earned him the nickname Governor Gloom. “By the way,” he adds, gesturing toward a majestic peak looming over the hotel, “that is Cheyenne Mountain. That’s where NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] is headquartered. If the next war begins and the big balloon goes up, you probably want to be sitting right here, having a martini, because that’s going to be the No. 1 target.” Lamm is suing the Air Force to stop deployment of the MX missiles just across Colorado’s borders in Nebraska and Wyoming, but he is not terribly hopeful about the prospects for disarmament. “The idea that we have only a 1 percent chance every year of a nuclear war happening,” he laments, “I mean, that’s certainty. But people say, well, the world’s going to turn to Jesus. Bull.”
In fact Lamm does not sound terribly hopeful about anything.
“All modern-day curves—population, resource consumption, inflation, weapons—lead to disaster,” he says. “Our nation is a Titanic speeding through iceberg-filled waters.”
If we take that big gash below the waterline, as Lamm anticipates, there probably won’t be room on the lifeboats for everyone. It is easy to imagine Governor Gloom swinging an oar at the drowning people who threaten to swamp us by climbing aboard and picking through the survivors for anyone too old or sick to row, all the while muttering, “I told you so.”
“Like an Old Testament prophet, I’m saying if we do not reform our ways, you can’t continue to run these kinds of excesses and not have something happen to you,” says Lamm, his reedy voice rising with urgency until he sounds like someone who just inhaled helium. “God is not an American. Nature did not design Americans to be prosperous forever.” Lamm toys thoughtfully with his hotel key. “I do believe these things are not inevitable,” he adds, extending a dim hope. “I’ve been reading the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. The king did listen to Jonah; they did reform their ways; and God thus never came down and destroyed Nineveh.”
If Lamm isn’t listened to, it won’t be for his lack of trying. In the past four months, he’s had three books published: Megatraumas: America at the Year 2000 (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95); The Immigration Time Bomb: The Fragmenting of America (Dutton, $18.50), co-authored by environmentalist Gary Imhoff; and, for light reading, 1988 (St. Martin’s, $15.95), co-authored by his former media advisor, Arnold Grossman, a gripping, if implausible, political novel about the ease with which a presidential election could be fixed.
Lamm’s writing ability is more than equaled by his talent for getting written about. He has such a head for headlines that words sometimes seem to tumble from his mouth in 36-point type. Decrying what he deemed excessive spending for special education, he has said that $20,000 a year ought not to be spent “educating a child to roll over.” He has repeatedly warned that illegal immigration from Mexico threatens to turn the Southwest into “a Hispanic Quebec.” Most famous, or infamous, of all was his statement on the ethical and economic implications of high-tech medicine, such as the artificial heart: “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society—our kids—build a reasonable life.” The remark was a tabloid editor’s dream: “Aged are told to drop dead,” blared New York’s Daily News.
Lamm, 50, subsequently took pains to explain that he had not been talking about the elderly but about terminally ill individuals who are being tortured by treatment that is only prolonging their dying. In such a situation himself, says Lamm, he would consider suicide.
After the “duty to die” uproar subsided, Lamm declared that “there are two types of AIDS patients. Either you’re dying or you’re dead. If there’s no chance of any [successful] outcome, then you can’t order up every possible service.” He approves of treatment that will “relieve pain, add quality of life or be of medical benefit,” but he believes that it might be better to spend money on research into a cure rather than on “needlessly cruel and expensive treatment.” Lamm’s habitual juxtaposition of the words “cruel” and “expensive” has raised the suspicion that there beats in his own breast an artificial heart that works very much like a calculator. He denies it, insisting that he is as compassionate as anyone.
“I’m all for high-tech experimentation if it’s cost-effective,” declares Lamm, a qualified accountant and lawyer. He acknowledges that his own wife, Dottie, 48, who had a mastectomy in 1981, owes her life to cancer therapies that were once experimental. “The bottom line is, until we’re helping people to stop smoking, screening for breast cancer, giving Pap smears, giving prenatal care to pregnant women, we should not go into publicly paying for the artificial heart, which will benefit at great cost only a few people.” He frequently points out that $100,000 spent for an operation on a terminally ill person could provide 8,000 children with dental care. “It may sound cruel,” he explains, “but my way is much better for the health of the American people than any other scenario.”
It often seems as though Lamm deliberately overstates his case to capture an audience, so that he can then explain what he really thinks. He is fond of saying, for instance, that Veterans’ Administration hospitals should treat Gls “who caught a bullet, but not veterans who fell off a bar stool.” The words are provocative, but Lamm says he is out to make a serious point.
“If I were to say that we should not pay for ‘nonservice-connected disabilities,’ it’s a big yawn,” he explains. “Sometimes you need dramatic language. There are better examples: The idea that a child can’t even roll over, and we’re spending $20,000 a year trying to educate it. I’m all for educating retarded kids, but the fact is there are certain kids—as I said on 60 Minutes, ‘God made some mistakes.’ That probably is an unartful way to say it, but the fact is I’m a creative speaker.” And an attention-grabbing one. “Being controversial has really been good for me,” he admits. “I would not be Governor if I wasn’t controversial.”
Good fortune has also played a role. He was born in Wisconsin, where his father was a prosperous coal company executive, and first came to Colorado as an Army lieutenant in 1957. Liking what he’d seen, he moved to the state in 1961. As a freshman state representative in 1967, he authored what was then the nation’s most liberal abortion law. Unlike some politicians, he has not revised his views since. “I find it unthinkable that society, in a time of overpopulation, should force unwilling women to have unwanted children,” he says. In 1972 he led the coalition of environmentalists that defeated real estate and tourism interests to keep the 1976 Winter Olympics out of Colorado. That success was his first step on the road to the governor’s mansion in the 1974 election—a road that culminated with a campaign walk of 888 miles throughout the state.
The Democratic underdog won, thanks in part to the anti-Republican backlash from Watergate, but Lamm found himself confronting a GOP-con-trolled legislature. “He can walk the state, but he can’t run it,” said his foes. Lamm has achieved a few goals—notably tax relief for the poor, financed by higher corporate taxes—but his 11 years as governor have been marked by the frustration of working with a Republican legislature. “He might as well file his budget proposals in a dumpster,” observes state Democratic Party chairman Buie Seawell.
The environmentalist governor has failed to stop sprawling urban development from Denver to Colorado Springs. He has been unable to cut the density of Denver’s air pollution. As a result, some observers say, Lamm has lost interest in the day-to-day job of governing. “He has looked around and seen his losses,” says Associated Press statehouse correspondent Carl Hilliard, “so he’s turned to the more cosmic things he can’t possibly lose on.”
“There’s some truth to that,” Lamm concedes. “I’ve had some major disappointments. The quality of life in Denver is worse than when I took over, and I’m embarrassed about that. But I still put in 40 hours a week running Colorado.”
By constitutional design, Colorado’s governorship is about as weak an institution as could be invented—most power is reserved to the legislature. But in Lamm’s weakness lies his strength: He has the freedom to speak without the responsibility to act, and he knows it. “It is nice for me to be courageous about programs that I don’t vote on,” Lamm says frankly. “If I were running for federal office, I would have a much more direct accountability to some special interest groups.”
Will he run for federal office? The Democratic Party has to take notice of a governor in a Western state who’s won election three times. Voters appreciate Lamm’s candor even when they disagree with his views.
Lamm has announced that he will not run for governor in 1986: “I think that 12 years in any one job is enough.” But he disavows any ambition for higher office. “If I wanted to be President of the United States, I’d run for the Senate in 1986,” he maintains. “And I’m just not going to do it.”
Lamm says he would like to devote his time to practicing law, teaching and appearing on television. He already does a weekly segment called “Hard Choices” on Denver’s KUSA-TV news and teaches a “Hard Choices” course at the U of Colorado at Denver.
“I am absolutely disgusted when I think about running another campaign,” he says. “I don’t want to go back into that process where you have to go around to all the special interests and adjust your views. Very few Old Testament prophets also become kings. The best contribution I can make is saying ‘This is how I see it,’ and not pulling any punches, and that means not running for office.”
Lamm says his main reason for leaving politics is his devotion to wife Dottie and their children, Heather, 15, and Scott, 18. “It’s Dottie’s operation. It’s moving the kids. I don’t want to put my family through a campaign at this time.” At this time. Those who know Lamm well doubt that he’s ready to exit the public arena for good, and he himself leaves the door distinctly ajar: “Now in 1992, in 1996, Lord knows.”
Lamm’s family clearly wouldn’t mind his becoming a private citizen. Heather and Scott have not campaigned for their father since his first gubernatorial race, when they were 3 and 6 respectively. They try to avoid the attention of the media—not always successfully, as when Scott made news a few years back by shooting out the neighbors’ windows with a BB gun.
Dottie, a former flight attendant who earned a degree in social work, which she practiced until Heather was born, is a controversial figure in her own right. She’s been a columnist for the Denver Post since 1979, propounding liberal, feminist views. Last year she attacked “the audacity and ignorance of the Right-to-Lifers.” She does not concern herself with her column’s impact on her husband’s career. “I figure, my Lord, with the kinds of things he’s saying out there, there’s not too much attention I’m going to get.”
Dottie is an important source of support for her husband—if a somewhat ambivalent one. After Dick’s first gubernatorial campaign, she wrote in her journal (parts of which she subsequently published), “I am continually torn between the desire to protect him from the tedious and the tiresome, and the desire to have him struggle with some of the mundane. Those who become involved with only ‘great’ issues gradually become inhuman.”
That’s the healthy skepticism of a wife for her husband. Yet it also holds a warning for those who might accept Lamm’s prescriptions without question. Hard choices are not made by the numbers.