BY T MICHELE WALKER
“Citizen Mack” is a two-part series on Connie Mack and his new memoir, “Citizen Mack: Politics, an Honorable Calling.”
Connie Mack is sitting across from Richard Nixon. They are discussing whether or not Mack should run for the Senate. As Mack told the story, “I said to him, ‘I don’t think I know enough to run for United States Senate.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Connie, you already know everything you need to know,’” Mack laughed.
Whether or not one should run for office is a pivotal moment for a public servant and a decision Mack didn’t make lightly. “It’s one of the most important questions I think that any politician should answer, why did they do it. It’s a question that I get from a lot of people, ‘Why in the world would you get involved in politics?’ And it’s a long process.”
With a grandfather and a step-grandfather both in the United States Senate from Texas, Connie ended up in Washington one day sitting in the gallery. His parents took him to Washington to watch his step-grandfather give a speech on the floor of the senate.
“I’m sure that somewhere back there that idea was planted. Maybe it would be fun to be a senator someday, but it’s not anything that I became obsessed with. But it was always there.”
It was a quote by Oliver Wendall Holmes that was the inspiration for Mack to run for the senate. “I kept hearing this quote by Holmes, ‘Many people die with their music still in them.’ and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me.’”
It was through Mack’s multiple conversations with the Reverend Don Shank, a pastor in Cape Coral, that provided guidance. As Shank encouraged Mack’s choice of public service, Mack responded, “Don, what I hear you saying to me is, ‘the biggest sin is the failure to use the talents that God has given you.’”
It still wasn’t an easy choice for Mack to make. “I knew what I had to do. It terrified me, to the point where I was driving home, tears coming down my eyes.”
That was the important point where Mack pulled the trigger, resigned from the bank with no safety net, moved forward and didn’t look back.
After winning the election, Mack arrived in Washington to join the other senator from Florida, Bob Graham.
Mack and Graham had a successful career working across the aisle, even though Graham had called Mack, “An ideological whacko” during the election.
“I thought it would be a good idea to extend my hand to senator Bob Graham, so I went by and I said, ‘Bob, I know there are times in every walk of life when we end up saying or doing something which we regret. As far as I’m concerned, that comment is behind us and you know I’m here to work with you for the best interest of the state of Florida.’ Bob was gracious enough to extend that hand back to me, and we began a wonderful relationship. I have great admiration for Bob Graham to this day.”
They enjoyed a close working relationship and trusted each other. “We knew that neither one of us was going to blindside the other. We could share information between the two of us with the full belief it was just between the two of us.”
As a result, a piece of legislation called the “Everglades Forever Act (EFA)” was passed. “It took a lot of work, but it was only accomplished because we had the bipartisan effort to bring it about.”
Seven years later, the New York Times reported, “The rescue of the Florida Everglades, the largest and most expensive environmental restoration project on the planet, is faltering. …federal enthusiasm seemed to fade after its champions in Congress, including Senators Bob Graham and Connie Mack of Florida, left office and the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and other crises emerged.”
It was 1996 and Bob Dole had a shortlist for vice presidential candidates. “This list was narrowed down to myself and Jack Kemp. Bob asked me, ‘If they come to you and say, ‘I want you to be my running mate.’ I need to know before I come to that point whether you would accept or not.’”
The decision was difficult for Mack, as he considered the possible ramifications for his family. “It was gut-wrenching. I really wasn’t as concerned as to whether I had the ability to do it, but could my family stand it. I came to the conclusion that if he asked me, I would say ‘yes.’ Fortunately, he chose Jack Kemp. Jack and I were dear friends. I was pleased for him and happier for myself.”
The process was illuminating for Mack, as he pondered his political future. “If I were to become the nominee and the party would win, it sets me up for a run at the presidency in the future. I really went through all of that stuff after the ‘96 election and pretty much concluded that’s not the life that I want.”
Taking his father’s prescient advice, “Don’t ever let them talk you into running for president,” Mack was thoughtful. “I think one of the most important things that a person can do is to understand themselves and that takes a lot of introspection. It’s very important to have someone who helps you understand yourself.”
That someone was his wife Priscilla, who played an important role in getting George W. Bush to give up on his idea of having Mack as a running mate.
The idea of “Mack for Vice President” had legs and when the time came, the Bush team was persistent.
“So I get the call that George really wants me to do it.” According to Mack, the timing was bad as he had just made the difficult decision to leave politics.
“I was about ready to board the ferry over to Palm Island where we live and the phone rings. This is June 30 and it’s Cheney. I’m not sure Priscilla remembers. And he said, ‘Listen, the governor really wants you on the ticket.’ And I said, ‘Dick, let me make this very clear. I.Do.Not.Want.To.Do.It.’”
As Mack tells the story in his memoir: “Damn,” he said, “I guess I’ll just have to find some other son of a bitch to do it.”
Turned out, of course, that the SOB turned out to be…Dick Cheney.
But not after one more try from Bush himself. At a fundraiser in Orlando, Bush pulled Mack aside, put his hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes, and asked, “What am I going to have to do to make you say yes?”
“Nothing, Governor,” said Mack. “I just don’t want to do it.”
Bush turned to Priscilla and said, “Can’t you help me here?”
“No,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
And with that, Priscilla had the last word.
“Citizen Mack: Politics, an Honorable Calling” is filled with interesting anecdotes such as tips to not gaining weight when attending political receptions, the senate tradition of carving one’s name in the desk, and how Phil Gramm gave him the desk that had Mack’s grandfather’s name carved into it. An especially touching moment in the book is where he discusses his friendship with Senator John McCain, the man he most admired in the senate.
“My career in Congress began with John McCain. John was the last republican of our class of ‘82. He had been our class president. I asked him early on, I said, ‘John, what got you through those difficult years in prison?’ And he said, his faith in God, his faith in his country, and his faith in his fellow man. That’s a comment that just stuck with me forever. We didn’t always vote together, but we had a great relationship and I really respected John because he always did what he thought was right.”
“I know there are a lot of people that were upset with him because he failed to give that last vote to get rid of Obamacare. I know John well enough to know he honestly believed that was the wrong thing to do. John believed that service to his country was both an honor and a duty. And he served, right until the end. He never quit.”
Now enjoying his retirement years, Connie Mack is winding down his relationship with Moffitt, but plans to be a supporter and proud benefactor. He may be retired but it doesn’t mean he isn’t busy.
Then there’s the war on cancer. Mack writes how they lost his sister Betsy who had been a patient at Moffitt. There had been progress, hope and the cancer appeared to be gone. Then there was a new cancer. Betsy left Moffitt and died at home, surrounded by her family.
Soon after her death, a drug that would have been used in her treatment and would have worked, had been released.
One week. That is the urgency in this battle, one that Mack has been championing.
“There is no silver bullet, and I often find myself thinking that there may never be one. That we will need to find many, many bullets.”
With the death of his beloved brother and sister, the fight for a cure is never far from Mack’s thoughts.
“I vowed that somehow, I would help to find a cure for this terrible cancer so that other families wouldn’t have to go through what ours had experienced. I wanted other Michaels to have a chance at life.”
Mack said that he never lost a political race, but he lost plenty of political fights. In Washington, he won some and lost some. “I can report with utter conviction and confidence that winning is better. It may be, as had often been written, that there are no final victories.”
With Mack’s dedication to public service and his work with the Moffitt Cancer Center, Citizen Mack can retire knowing he didn’t “Die with the music still in him.” As he said about his dear friend, John McCain, “He had served and done his best. It is all any of us can do.”
Citizen Mack: Politics, An Honorable Calling is former Republican US Senator Connie Mack III’s memoir, detailing his life in the world of Washington DC politics. Mack recounts as a once-politician, now-citizen: Citizen Mack.