Richard Lesher: The storytellerFormer president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Business was under siege in 1975 when Richard Lesher took the reins at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
But he was not one to sit behind the walls and dodge incoming fire.
During his tenure as the chamber’s president, Lesher hit back with an aggressive outreach campaign on behalf of business interests that included a magazine, a weekly TV show on public policy and a willingness to challenge politicians who did not live up to their promises.
Lesher, a Chambersburg native, retired in 1997, a victim in part of the country’s then-growing partisan divide. He had sought to work with former President Bill Clinton on health care reform, drawing the ire of Republican leaders like former House Speaker Rep. Newt Gingrich.
Lesher, 84, recently published a memoir, titled “Voice of Business: The Man Who Transformed the United State Chamber of Commerce.” It follows Lesher from his hardscrabble childhood in Chambersburg as he rose to a perch alongside presidents and world leaders.
His path out of Pennsylvania began with a post-Korean War stint in the military, which led him to pursue higher education. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State before earning a doctorate at Indiana University.
A career in teaching beckoned, but he was lured into government service to head the technology transfer office at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He then moved over to head an industry group called the National Center for Solid Waste Disposal, which he quickly rechristened the National Center for Resource Recovery.
“It had a much more engaging ring to it — the beauty of it was that it focused on the right solution instead of disposal,” Lesher wrote in his memoir.
His ear for language is reflected in his love of jokes, which punctuate his memoir and his conversation.
He spoke to the Business Journal in December about his career and also about the current political scene. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CPBJ: In your book, you talk about how when you came into the chamber, you felt that the pendulum of U.S. policy had swung to being anti-business.
Lesher: Not only policy but public opinion. Public opinion was very negative on business. It improved a lot while I was there. It’s negative again. People don’t understand that business enterprise is what made the country great.
CPBJ: What do you think was the key in terms of pushing that pendulum back in the direction you wanted it to go and keeping it moving?
Lesher: All those things that we did. But I’ll give you a good example. I was on the Larry King all-night radio talk show a year before (Ronald) Reagan came to town. And I was talking about the coming of a new conservative age. At 3 o’clock in the morning, the switchboard lit up. We later found out that the AT&T switchboard failed because 100,000 people were trying to call at once. A year later I was on his show again. Almost no reaction, because Reagan had come to town and he was making the same speech. It was making that speech and making those headlines and we had lots and lots of articles talking about government, the same thing that you hear today: government is too big, too intrusive, over-regulation, over-spending, et cetera.
CPBJ: Those 100,000 callers, were they calling to complain or to support?
Lesher: They wanted to sing the same music.
CPBJ: Do you think the partisanship today is good for business, bad for business — does it make it hard for business to get its voice heard or easier?
Lesher: Business is not as partisan as they appear to be. As I used to tell my Republican friends, a very large percentage of small-business people are Democrats and they’re members of mine. They’re conservative and they’ll vote for conservative Democrats. But they’ll also vote straight Democratic ticket sometimes.
But I think the partisanship is bad for the country. The animosity that goes with it is just terrible. And I don’t know what’s going to cure it.
CPBJ: What do you think of President Trump?
Lesher: Do I have to answer?
That’s a long story. I think he’s such a wild card. But he does listen once in a while, and he is accomplishing so much more than any credit that he’s getting. The tax bill [still pending at the time of this interview] will be law within two weeks. That’ll be his big accomplishment. Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is a huge accomplishment. Underneath that he is appointing judges all down the ranks and that’s remaking our court structure for the next 20 or 30 years. The regulations that he and his department heads have thrown out. He’s doing a lot of really good things, including some things internationally. Sending the message in Syria was such a dramatic and important thing to do.
CPBJ: When he ordered missiles to be fired early in 2017?
Lesher: Yes. That was so important and so dramatic. So he’s done a lot of things right. If he would just quit tweeting and he would think before he does some of these things. Some of them are so counter-productive, and some of them appear to be counter-productive but they’re not.
CPBJ: Like what?
Lesher: On the trade issue, as an example, to be against the Trans Pacific Partnership. That seems like a disaster but he’ll go out and have his people make one-on-one trade deals.
CPBJ: If you were counseling Trump, if you had the same relationship with him as you had with previous presidents, what would you be telling him now?
Lesher: I would say choose really good people around you and listen to them, delegate to them. I’d say the first big difference between you and Reagan is that Reagan had experience. He was a governor and he brought half his cabinet with him from California. There are quality people out there. Make sure you get quality people in those positions and then delegate to them and listen to them.
CPBJ: Who are the people in the administration you feel Trump should be listening to most?
Lesher: I think [U.S. Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson should get more support than he gets.
CPBJ: He’s the odd man out right now.
Lesher: Yeah, but he’s bright and he’s experienced. You don’t get to be the head of Exxon by being a bozo. I think the chief of staff is a great selection.
CPBJ: John Kelly?
Lesher: Yes. I think he’s beginning to get some organization around Trump. But Trump violates that by going around him.
CPBJ: What would you be telling senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or house speaker Paul Ryan as they’re negotiating with the president, with Democrats, and facing voters?
Lesher: You don’t take anything to the floor for a vote until you have the votes. That’s lesson No. 1. You don’t go to the floor and strike out, which they did, on health care. It’s easier to say that than to do it.
CPBJ: Do you think they do understand it but it’s tougher for them because they’ve got social media barking, TV constantly barking at their heels 24 hours a day: “Why is there no tax reform? Why haven’t you repealed the ACA?” They don’t necessarily have the time that they might have had in the past to marshal the votes to build a coalition.
Lesher: I think there’s some of that because of Trump. Because the whole left side of the country has been leaning on him before he ever got into office: “Why haven’t you accomplished this, this and this already?” So that time pressure on Trump spills over to all of them on issue after issue. But you just have to ignore that and you have to have the House and Senate organized.
CPBJ: As a nonpartisian how would you be advising someone like Chuck Schumer [the Democratic leader in the Senate] and Nancy Pelosi [the Democratic leader in the House]?
Lesher: I really think that they work against the interests of the country. They work to throw a roadblock in front of any kind of progress. And I think it’s going to backfire on them. I think you can see it already, some of their people pushing back on them.
CPBJ: Some would say the same about McConnell, that he did the same thing when Obama was president, that all he wanted to do was defeat Obama, not necessarily advance the interests of the country.
Lesher: Fair enough. He made it very clear: my goal is to get him out of office. That’s what he said.
CPBJ: How do they get past all that? Maybe these aren’t the leaders to do it?
Lesher: If you had someone that everyone looked up to and you came forward with a package whether it was tax or health care, which was not radical but a modest improvement over the status quo, and you pushed that forward and you got both sides on board so that neither side could really oppose it without it costing them a lot, that first step could go a long way towards rebuilding cross-aisle cooperation.
CPBJ: But if they’re seeing people like Schumer and Pelosi as people they can’t deal with, how do you dial that back and give them the benefit of the doubt? The same way that you did with Clinton, which cost you a little bit?
Lesher: Oh yeah, it did cost me. Two big examples: One was his health care package, which he put [then-First Lady] Hillary in charge of. They promised us a number of things, the most important of which was there would be no mandates. That was the single biggest bargaining chip we had. We needed to have that assurance. We began to work with them because the health care problem at that time was a 20-year-old problem. We wanted to solve it, but the big drawback was the fear of mandates. They said that we won’t do that and then, of course, it wasn’t very long before they forgot about that promise. We got our butt kicked by the other business groups who hadn’t tried to work with Hillary. They had opposed her from day one. The other area was in communications. We [at the U.S. Chamber] had the most modern TV studio in Washington. We had a contract with the Bush administration to use our studios for things that they couldn’t use government facilities for. When Clinton came in that contract was still in force, so the Clinton administration was using our studios. Clinton was coming over and I’m standing and talking with him, and the next day it would be in the paper and the next thing that would happen, Gingrich, my good friends, would call me up and demand I come up and talk to them. I’d say, “Wait a minute. He’s the president. He’s No 1, and we have a contract. It’s still in force, written by the Bush people but now it applies to the Clinton people. I have no choice.” Didn’t matter. They just hated me for helping the guy.
CPBJ: How do you move past that and reestablish that spirit of “I’m willing to talk to anybody, even if I disagree with them, and hear them out”?
Lesher: Historically we’ve had a lot of people who were willing and able to work across the aisle to build compromise and get together, and there are going to be, in the future, some people in positions of power who are willing to do that, and these radicals who don’t want to do that are going to learn a lesson again, an old lesson: that, as they say, politics is the art of compromise, and there hasn’t been much compromise taking place lately. But it’ll become popular again.
CPBJ: Who was your favorite guest on the chamber’s TV show?
Lesher: How do you sort through 18 years? We had some that repeated because they were really good. On the opposition side we had [the late Democratic House Speaker] Tip O Neill’s former staffer who now has his own show, Chris Matthews. Chris was on the show at least once or twice a year. He was such a natural, so articulate and so pleasant. Even though he was disagreeing with you, he was smiling. Gingrich was on several times a year as my partner because he could talk on anything and was really articulate on any subject.
CPBJ: What brought you back to Chambersburg?
Lesher: I grew up here and I always thought I would either come back here or go to State College. I did my master’s at Penn State and thought that would be a nice place to live. I still have friends there, but I have a lot more friends and family here. My sister’s still here and my mother was alive when I came back. Chambersburg is a really neat town. Only town in the north that was burned by the south.