Elizabeth and Catherine, the two young daughters of Matrice and Ron Kirk, skip up the path at Camp David just behind the President of the United States. Their father, United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk, can only shake his head at this picture, which is forever etched in his mind and heart.
But it is not the defining moment for the former Dallas mayor. It’s not the moment when he took politics personally—became an actor, decided to gut it out down his own path and make his own imprint on the political stage.
That moment did not come at the University of Texas School of Law, or while he was lobbying for the city of Dallas, or even while he was serving as Texas’ first African-American secretary of state before his 40th birthday.
No, that moment—the truly defining one—would not come until 1995, at an event organized by South Dallas power broker Kathy Nealy. Back then, Nealy was not the toxic alter-ego to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a key figure in an FBI probe, or more than $100,000 behind in payments for her private suite inside “The House That Kirk Built”—aka the American Airlines Center.
Although Nealy may have arranged and coordinated the ’95 occasion, she was not what Kirk even today calls “clearly the matriarch of the entire function.” That designation belonged to the elderly black woman clutching his face, her fingers moving across Kirk’s forehead, thumbs feeling of his jaw as she pinched the fatty parts of his cheeks. Kirk recoiled in shock, but the lady persisted in tracing all of his features. Finally he realized she was blind. Tears spooled down the woman’s face as she loosened her grip and said, “I never thought I’d live to see a black man who could be elected mayor of Dallas, Texas.”
That was the real launch date. Kirk was now overwhelmed with a sense of duty that would steer him almost ceaselessly toward a life of public service. Not everyone has been crazy about that chosen direction. After D Magazine’s FrontBurner blog reported in May that—no matter what the November election results—Kirk would not serve another term in the Obama cabinet, one reader commented, “He will just go back to whatever trough will pay him.”
Similarly, in an interview with D CEO in 2010, Kirk’s long-time nemesis and fellow former Dallas mayor, Laura Miller, rebuffed her predecessor as all “big business and big projects.” And there was a nearly audible hiss when she dismissed another rival as purely “another Kirk guy.”
As a lanky pre-teen, fourth-generation Texan, and the grandson of a Buffalo Soldier, Kirk lived under the Jim Crow laws while attending Blackshear Elementary in Austin. But by the time he was a sophomore at Austin College, he became his own critic and underwent something of an identity crisis. “I got called Uncle Tom so much it made me wonder who I was,” he says.
It would not be the last time he heard those words. As a mayoral candidate supported by many white Dallas businessmen pledging to cut red tape for small businesses and be tough on crime, some of his own race spat derision Kirk’s way. And it hurt.
Kirk calls himself and other black friends, including President Barack Obama, “first-generation beneficiaries of the civil rights movement.” Growing up, he says, he was acutely aware that his “mom and dad were fighting for things they shouldn’t have to fight for.” Kirk has never forgotten that civil rights pioneers “fought for my right to live life on my terms.”
To that end, Kirk has remained steadfast to a two-point self-doctrine: “Number One: Never tolerate discrimination. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, and I’ve felt it. I know it is toxic to people on either side. Number Two: I have a responsibility to be involved.”
That sense of duty and devotion to public life has not always been a popular one, even within the family. It’s a subject that Kirk and President Obama have discussed often. The two are both married to what Kirk calls, “powerhouse wives.” They have frequently talked about how men operating from glass offices can manage two daughters in today’s society.
People who know Matrice Ellis-Kirk will tell you that she has certainly made her own way and her own money—and has not always cherished the role of wife to a public figure.
“I am hypersensitive to my wife being alone and raising our children,” Kirk says, adding that in private conversations with the President, “we talk about our families a lot. I tell him all the time that Matrice has always been supportive, but not ‘encouraging.’”
That’s the major reason that, after the upcoming election, Kirk said he has told the President, “It is not my desire or my intent to serve another term … I have served the city, the state, and the country. I think it is now time to serve the Kirk girls.”
Kirk refers to his own nomination as the U.S. Trade Representative—his agency recommends and coordinates trade policy for the president and negotiates trade agreements—as a “curious choice.”
“I didn’t go to Harvard, and I was not part of his Chicago Mafia,” Kirk says.
In fact if you knew the story about the first meeting between Obama and Kirk, you would wonder how they ever became friends, much less political bedfellows.
And you should hear it.
Advice For Obama
They met in Chicago at a 2004 nationwide fundraiser. Kirk was running for U.S. Senate in Texas. “It was one of those grab-the-money-and-run-before-anyone-knows-you’re-gone events,” Kirk recalls. As the Kirk entourage was trying to leave the building, a hand appeared between the closing elevator doors. The doors re-opened, and three men were standing there telling Kirk how much they enjoyed his speech and lauding the former Dallas mayor for his accomplishments.
They next asked Kirk if he would meet their friend, who was considering running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.
“They asked me what pointers or recommendations I could give him,” Kirk says. “Since I was in a hurry, you know me, I said, ‘First of all, he will have to learn to talk. Where is he? Who is he?’ “
A skinny young man suddenly appeared and firmly grasped Kirk’s right hand and said, “Hi, I am Barack Obama.”
Kirk tells the rest of the story: “I said, ‘For real? What does your momma call you?’ He said, ‘Well, she calls me Barack.’ I told him, ‘Well, here’s your first bit of advice: Change your name or you will have no future in politics.’ ”
Kirk may not have been a Harvard or Chicago guy, but he was an early and enthusiastic supporter of, and Texas state chairman for, the Obama campaign. After Obama’s election there was rampant early speculation that Kirk would be named secretary of transportation. However, The New York Times and others theorized that Kirk’s lobbying efforts for his law firm, Vinson & Elkins, posed a “baggage” problem. While at Vinson, Kirk had represented both Continental and Southwest airlines, which would have brought serious questioning during the vetting period.
For his part, Kirk was elated when he heard his name first mentioned as possibly the next U.S. Trade Representative. He had friends “come up to me and say, ‘What’s this? I thought the President really liked you, and Democrats hate trade.’ ”
It was exactly the job Kirk wanted, and he went after it. He pushed for it.
“I am still stunned that I was appointed,” Kirk says, “but when my name was floated and people were counseling me, I said, ‘You’re telling me I can have the head job at the trade commission?’ I wanted it. I lobbied for it … I knew we had to regain our economic footing and our international prestige.”
Clearly, Obama did not want some long-time trade technician taking this job. “My role,” Kirk says, “was to attract foreign investment.”
Not everyone was thrilled at the notion of having someone in the post that had been a clear champion of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Kirk, as Dallas mayor, had more than once been quoted that he had wanted to make Dallas the “Capital City of NAFTA.”
Labor leaders, in particular, saw the Kirk appointment as something of a head-scratcher. So, there was this “baggage” issue cropping up again.
“They [labor interests] were not excited about my appointment,” says Kirk. He recalls one opponent screaming the question, “Why don’t you go back to Texas?!”
Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America, did not start out as a huge Kirk fan.
“But I have gotten to know him since he became [the] USTR,” Gerard says, “and found him to be open, accessible, and extremely honest. Now, that is not to say I agree with him all the time.”
This is a Kirk quality that goes back many years. He has been in the minority and in the catbird seat. Most people who know Kirk will probably tell you his tact and disposition rarely change. Dallas District Court Judge Eric Moyé, a close, long-time friend and confidante of Kirk’s, is a charter member of the Kirk “first-generation beneficiary” club.
A B.A. from Southern Methodist University, a J.D. from Harvard, and a straight shooter, Moyé says, “Ron has scarcely any real guile. It is just not in his nature to be deceitful. He will look for common ground, but that does not mean he is going to give up ground for you. When you get to the core portion of an issue, he will either talk you into it or move on without you.”
Apparently without anyone getting bruised.
Gerard, a rough and tumble Canadian who began his odyssey unclogging tuyeres—or blast-furnace pipes—with a sledgehammer, will be the first to provide you with a long list of grievances against the current administration’s trade policy. But he knows Ambassador Kirk will hear him out and act if he thinks labor has a point.
“Whether we agree or disagree, this is a terrific quality,” Gerard says. “Given some previous administrations, I found this refreshing.”
Gerard and Kirk vehemently disagree on how to treat China as a trading partner, for example. Gerard howls that we’ll soon be facing a $300 billion accelerated trade deficit with that country. However, when the labor leader brought up clear instances where China violated trade agreements—or as he more succinctly put it, “we caught China cheating”—in each case, Gerard says the USTR took the problem directly to the President for action.In a cabinet that Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdum recently characterized as, “a kind of demographically balanced assembly of team mascots with increasingly ill-defined roles,” Kirk distinguished himself early on. He set out to visit with pretty much every labor leader in the country, touting three proposed trade agreements and promising union involvement in those discussions.
Kirk recalls a Wall Street Journal story published after the election reporting that America had lost faith in free trade. It referred to a poll of Americans in which almost 70 percent said that free trade had been bad. In a nutshell, many saw the benefits as cheaper T-shirts and laptops and creating more jobs in places like China or Mexico. Many of the naysayers were decidedly more college educated and white collar.
“One reason why I really like this president,” Kirk says, “is he told me that some of what America is mad about, they should be mad about. So, when I went to the Pittsburgh steel mills, when I went to the unions, I asked, ‘What don’t you like?’”
Kirk says his first task at hand was to “restore the value proposition of trade.
“I had to travel around the world two or three times before I realized that all the answers were not just in Paris, Geneva, or Beijing,” he says. “I decided to take this case to America, and not just pro-free-trade communities like Dallas. I went to 20 to 25 different states, 40 or so different cities. I went to Pittsburgh, Detroit … the Rust Belt. I felt like my job was to strike a balance and not have America sit on the sidelines.”
The first three trade agreements presented to Congress on his watch received passage in just 32 days after endorsements from both labor (the UAW and others) and business (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Big Three auto manufacturers). The vote by Congress was overwhelming, and Kirk says it all happened simply “because we sat down with our trading partners and demanded a better deal.”
Equating Trade With Jobs
The trade commission offices are located in the Winder Building, a five-story structure that was built in 1848 and is separated from the White House only by the Old Executive Office Building. Once this five-story building towered over the Capitol, so much so that troops and forts in Northern Virginia could receive signals from the rooftop.
So here is a guy—the first black secretary of state in Texas history, the first black elected mayor of a large Texas city, now the first black U.S. Trade Representative—officing in a building that was purchased for the War Department by eventual Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There is further irony seeing Kirk, the son of an Austin postal worker who was job-stymied because of his color, now charting all U.S. trade policy while roaming the same halls almost certainly traversed by Southern Generals Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.
On this bright but typically muggy Washington spring day, Kirk is wearing a grey pinstriped suit, more expensive and cut larger than the ones he wore as Dallas mayor. He is talking about the photograph taken in the State Room with the President and vice president surrounded by the entire cabinet. In that photograph Kirk is one of three black men in dark suits, and he is standing behind Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“We had to wait 15 minutes to get everybody together” for the photo, Kirk laughs. “Nobody could find [Energy] Secretary [Dr. Steven] Chu. One of the smartest guys in the world—a Nobel Prize winner—and he is missing. We really gave it to him.”
The Kirk laugh clearly qualifies for the cliché, “infectious.” It is a characteristic that has long been his ally, especially when negotiating tense particulars. His humor is almost always self-effacing. He makes you feel certain that you are hearing the “inside” story, and he will decide when it is time to cut the B.S. and visit about what we came here to talk about.
Moyé, the Dallas judge, marvels at the “easy” way Kirk seems to move in and out of any situation. Kirk “has the quickest wit of anyone I know and is a better storyteller than anybody I have ever heard in my life,” he says. “You might sit there and laugh for 20 minutes about a story he just told, and you might miss the rigorous intellect behind it. Then you go back and revisit and see the profundity in it, too.”
After the missing Chu story, Kirk wants to talk about how, “in North Texas, about 800,000 people are employed because of the trade there. Texas is the largest exporting state, and there is a big difference between No. 1 and No. 2. Ten percent of U.S. exports are from Texas.”
He cites a directory of companies long memorized over many a campaign stop: “Dell, Pro Systems, farmers, ranchers, aircraft manufacturers, ExxonMobil, and Mary Kay—they are all global companies,” he says.
The ambassador sees more trade as more jobs. He sermonizes that 95 percent of world’s consumers live somewhere other than America. He says the administration’s goal is to double exports over the next five years. He preaches that each $1 billion in additional export trade creates an additional 5,000 to 7,000 jobs. “And those jobs normally pay between 18 and 20 percent more than average,” he says.
The USTR talks about “making a more honest case” for increased U.S. trade as a tool for economic recovery and the creation of jobs. Kirk deeply believes that the Obama administration has set about “restoring our international esteem, which had been diminished” by previous administrations.
In almost two hours, this is only the second time that Kirk has referred to the role of his predecessors in the trade post. When pressed about them earlier in the interview, Kirk acknowledged, “What I will say is that there was four years … when they did not even meet, because the then-Secretary of Labor did not see it as important.”
Remembering ‘Less Toxic Times’
Kirk learned early to deal with all kinds of people. Attending law school, he worked as a retail salesman at Austin’s Scarborough Department Store before eventually finding political mentors on both sides of the aisle. Among them were legislators Anita Hill, a steadfast Republican conservative from Garland, and John Bryant, a liberal Democrat firebrand representing much of East Dallas.
After graduation, Kirk went first to work with Lloyd Bentsen, the junior senator from Texas. Back then, John Tower was the other senator from Texas, and a fiercely partisan Republican. However, Kirk recalls that Tower never campaigned against Bentsen and Bentsen never campaigned against Tower. Even so, both senators and their staffs remained immensely loyal to their parties. “We felt our job was to take care of Texas and do what is right for the country,” Kirk says. “In fact, some observers joked that the staffs worked so well together that there was one staff for two senators.”
Kirk recalls that era as “less toxic times in D.C.,” when senators like Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican, and John Stennis, a Democrat from Mississippi, would reach hands across the aisle to make things work. Kirk speaks wistfully about those days, and then his voice changes a bit. There is, for the first time, a tone of indignation as he says, “Now things are so vulcanized, the U.S. is standing in a place where all of a sudden we cannot build a consensus.”
You can tell there is something really gnawing on him—something he can’t understand at all. It’s like he feels something has been lost and won’t be found again: “I have never seen America come together more than right after September 11th, and then immediately after the election of Obama. It was such a uniquely American phenomenon,” he says. He talks wistfully for a moment about the can-do attitude of that first year in office that seemed to infect the entire Capital. But then he leans forward and that piqued tone is back.
“Then I saw Republican friends get cowed by the likes of Rush [Limbaugh] and Glenn Beck,” Kirk says. “When Rush said, ‘I hope he fails,’ I just could not believe it.”
Clearly, he thinks some portrayals of the commander in chief are unfair. “You would love Obama,” he says, warming up again. “He’s a nice guy, ridiculously smart with a ridiculously smart wife. The notion that he is aloof—that’s a lot of shit. With all of the press scrutiny today and everybody trying to find the ‘real story,’ sometimes people are just not willing to accept things as they are, and in this case the ‘are’ is that President Obama is as decent and smart as anybody I have ever worked with. In fact, just the other day, I told Matrice, ‘President Obama is taller than me, younger than me, smarter than me, and more handsome than me. Come to think of it, I hate the guy.’”
Kirk punctuates the story with his signature, self-effacing laugh. And he’s about to tell another story, also self-effacing:
He may be a smidge shorter than the president, but Kirk has got him on girth. On a recent trip back to Dallas, it seems, the former mayor needed to visit the Dallas County tax office to take care of past-due registration for some of the Kirk vehicles. As the trade ambassador tells the story, he was crossing Elm Street and trying to run back to his own vehicle when a former constituent beckoned with the words: “I know you. You used to be the mayor or something. Hell, you’re Ron Kirk. Man, you’ve gotten a lot bigger.”
Before Kirk “got bigger”—he’s put on more than a few pounds since moving to Washington—there is little question that he much enjoyed his two terms as Dallas mayor. Though he pooh-poohs one of his larger accomplishments, saying, “on the big arena deal, half the people thought I was a saint, and the other half thought I was a crook.” Not long ago, his staff presented Kirk with a bobble-head doll inscribed with what they contend is his favorite utterance: “When I was mayor of Dallas …”
When Kirk has returned home during his stint in Washington, his presence has bordered on the incognito, rarely endorsing—even privately—in a local race, or making much in the way of locally flavored political appearances. “I believe former elected officials should leave the stage,” he says. “For that reason, I avoided the Laura versus Ron talk …”
Kirk’s loyalty to the President and his allegiance to international trade goals are outweighed now by his desire to return to the city he once ran, thereby escaping “the toxicity of this town [D.C] … and the hate tremors.”
He says, “You have people wanting to punch you for disagreeing with them. Now you have people shouting out ‘liar’ during the State of the Union speech—this is using hate as a fundraising tool. And that is the part of Washington I will not miss.”
Apparently, though, part of Washington will miss Kirk. Weeks after the initial interview, we bumped into each other at Lakewood Country
Club, where Kirk was enjoying a round of golf. He saw me and strode directly to the table to say something like (I had no pen and paper, only a tennis racquet): “I want you to know that blog or whatever it was from your magazine caused my phone to ring for days—from here to the White House. Just thanks a lot,” he concluded with a grin, referring to my FrontBurner report that he would not serve another term in the Obama cabinet.
Labor kingpin Gerard, who calls Kirk the “greatest trade representative in the last 20 years,” vowed to D CEO: “I will try to convince him to stay. He is not like a trade bureaucrat, but more like a concerned individual.”
If, as planned, Kirk comes back to Dallas to work harder as a husband, father, and provider—he’s declined to say where he might take employment—there will be facets and perks from this current job he will miss. Intimate conversation with the leader of the free world? Yes. But maybe more so scenes like this: “When we go around with our flag to these meetings, it doesn’t matter if it’s Africa or China, or South America. Nobody cares if I’m a Democrat or that I’m black. You are from America. We represent freedom and opportunity like no other.”
Kirk may not miss the globetrotting, the jammed schedules, or the mandatory state dinners. But, make no mistake, he will miss that.