If you were born in Colorado after 1960 or moved to the Centennial state since 1980, the bumper sticker “Roll Over, Stand Up and Drop Dead!” likely would puzzle you. It was a succinct and briefly popular rejoinder to several of Dick Lamm’s more memorable first term quips. If it’s true that political success is a matter of addition – expanding your base of support over time, our first ‘green side up’ Governor spiced his public rhetoric with acts of subtraction that left his friends often wondering whether he was gaining support or ceding it.
I recall a conversation with Buie Seawell, former Democratic Party Chair and one time candidate for the United States Senate, when Dick announced his 1996 run for Ross Perot’s Reform Party presidential nomination. Buie confided to me, “Dick may be the only Colorado Democrat who could put together a national majority, but I’m not sure whether I would want to be part of it.” Lamm’s reputation had been shaped after three terms in the Governor’s office as Colorado’s Cassandra -- warning voters about the Hard Choices both Congress and the Legislature were ducking. He wrote a book with this title and taught a public policy course at Denver University with by the same name. He bemoaned the exponential growth in our national debt, runaway medical costs, unconstrained immigration, fiscal instability in the Social Security trust fund, environmental collapse, student loan debt and more – something to outrage those on both the right and left.
I was occasionally invited to speak to his classes, and it was evident to me his students loved him. There could be nothing finer than a professor willing to repeatedly kick conventional wisdom in the pants. But Dick Lamm didn’t proselytize so much as he challenged his students to think deeply about the crises facing American democracy. He was never more energized than when forced to react to criticism. I always tried to point out to his students that , in my experience, the Governor had always been stronger identifying problems than crafting their solutions.
You can learn a lot about political leaders by watching how they handle disagreement. Some will surround themselves with choirs that affirm their every impulse. Others, like Dick, try to hire the best and brightest and then demand them to “…tell me why I’m wrong.” Reputedly, Lamm’s Cabinet meetings frequently turned into heated shouting matches. There was no question the governor would make any final decisions, but he also could be persuaded to change his mind. Colorado was better off for that. The press often flogged him for changing course, but voters seemed to appreciate the novelty of a politician capable of second guessing himself.
One year, Dick decided to join the Ad A Man club in Colorado Springs that climbs to the top of Pike’s Peak each New Year’s Eve to launch fireworks. One of the Denver papers tried to make an issue out of Colorado’s Governor taking this unnecessary risk. Dick responded by saying they were simply jealous they weren’t up to making the climb themselves. Like many Coloradans, I was kind proud that his outdoor skills were up to the task. Dick approached me to help him as a speechwriter during his 1996 presidential campaign. I told him I had no intention of registering as a member of the Reform Party, nor did I want an official position or title with his campaign — but, as his long-time friend, I would contribute what I could.
I asked Lamm what made him think Ross Perot was serious about holding an open nominating convention. “Dick, Ross Perot designed this party, built this party, paid for this party and controls his party. What makes you think he would ever give you a fair shot at its nomination?” He replied that he’d met personally with Ross in Dallas and trusted his word. I shrugged and relied, “We’ll see.” Not only wasn’t he truthful, but Perot would jump in and out of the campaign while complaining that deep state malefactors in Washington were plotting to ruin a family wedding. Dick’s Reform Party candidacy will be remembered as a footnote to a footnote.
In recent years I would see Dick sporadically, usually at funerals. He remained as concerned as ever about public policy and the direction of American democracy. He once advised me I should outlive my longest living grandparent by 10 years. That could prove a challenge since my maternal grandfather made it to 92. We speculated about what had happened to the grasshoppers that caused him to convene two special sessions of the Legislature. We had no plausible answer. I asked him in 2019 what he thought of the Trump administration and he confided, “I wake up ashamed every morning.” A President Lamm might have startled but never embarrassed us.