Skip to main content

Former U.S. Representative William Delahunt '67

hot seats, cool heads

Former U.S. Representative William Delahunt

On the BC Law School ethos:

I think the BC Law school ethos really provokes a global outlook in terms of responsibilities. It’s a law school, but it also evokes a sense of moral responsibility. I remember Father [Francis] Nicholson vividly. He taught a course on the natural law. I remember I got an A in it; I got very few A’s, but that was one. That did influence me. Combine that with being a young man in the Kennedy era, and the inspiration of the Kennedys—it really touched my core in the sense that I think my religion had a lot to do with my desire for public service.

I’m not suggesting I’m one of God’s senators, but it really did create in me a sense of obligation. I know part of my motivation in going to law school was to enter into public service, and particularly into elective politics. The inspiration came from Jack Kennedy.

At Middlebury College, I was co-chair along with Ron Brown, a dear friend who became secretary of commerce. And I saw the dramatic need for the rule of law, the need to insist upon justice, not just economic justice and political justice but even moral justice. It was a nice fit at BC.

We are the sum of all of our parts. I credit the Law School for that; it was a further expansion of my own world view, of my understanding of the responsibility of the individual.

Describe your leadership style:

One of questioning, and one that was focused on first determining the facts—a search for the truth, if you will. And discovering so frequently that the truth, the reality, was far different from what most people believed, particularly on foreign policy, but also on domestic policy. There was such a need to probe. Maybe that’s why I chaired the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight—that desire to find out the truth, and to let the facts dictate. You had to have the facts to properly analyze and reach a conclusion. That is part of a law school education.

An example: The Syrian who was detained at JFK Airport, Maher Arar. He was inaccurately described in Canada as an Al Qaeda associate; he came to the United States, and he was detained in transit to Montreal at JFK. He pleaded not to be sent to Syria, saying he was a dual national, but he was sent anyway, and he was tortured there for a year. I always remember that there was a Parliamentary commission in Canada that totally exonerated him, and awarded him $10 million in compensation, and the prime minister apologized. But here he was still on the watchlist.

One of my singular memories was sitting as chair of the oversight subcommittee, learning the facts of the Arar case, and sitting with all my colleagues, very conservative on the Republican side, and we did this jointly with the Judiciary Committee. We had him testify from Canada via videolink. He did not receive an apology from the U.S. government, and I said that on behalf of Congress I apologize, and everyone on the committee echoed that sentiment. It was a very poignant moment. It was one of those moments you take great pride in; you somehow rectified a moral injustice and that made you better.

On leadership influences:

Ted Kennedy had a huge influence on me. I was his congressman, and we developed a very personal friendship, and he really was an example for many people. Leadership involves listening to people and bringing people together and finding common ground.

What I found amazing was what he accomplished during the Bush Administration, when Republicans were in control. I remember the minimum wage; he got that passed.

I always took some satisfaction that I innately had those same kinds of instincts where you try to find common ground and you go from there.

He obviously was the bête noir of the Republicans, but as was clearly demonstrated at his funeral, he was loved by all on a personal basis. Personal relationships are really the essence and key of leadership skills—and listening to people with respect.

There was a survey done of the Republicans in the House, and I was one of the 10 most bipartisan Democrats. A reporter said to me, “We couldn’t believe it, your politics are way to the left.” I think it was because of that respect for personal relationships and finding common ground.

I think Ted honed my innate inclination toward being respectful to others and listening to people because I saw what he could achieve by doing that.

In terms of moral authority, I would also say Nelson Mandela. He just looms as such a large figure in the past century. Despite what had to be bitterness at losing 28 or 29 years in prison, to come back and conduct himself with such great dignity, and seek reconciliation—that is what one calls rising above for a greater moral good, and what is so lacking today.

Veniality and pettiness are such an impediment to doing great things, to achieving greatness. We’re all susceptible to it, including myself, seeking revenge and vindication. But vindication can come by doing the right thing, the moral thing. Mandela is someone you would have liked to spend a couple of days with, just listening to him. 

On the leadership process:

The process of leadership requires great patience. I remember two bills specifically, one was the automatic citizenship conferred upon adoptees from overseas. I thought it would be very easy. It was my bill, and I happen to be an adoptive dad. I adopted two daughters from Vietnam. I remember the frustration….

Another was the Justice for All Act. The New York Times described it as the most significant reform in 30 years, and no one even knew about it. I remember working with Jim Sensenbrenner, the Republican chair of Judiciary, and then negotiating with Senator Orrin Hatch, and Pat Leahy was the Democratic leader, from Vermont. For three or four years, it was just painstaking negotiation, and at times I said this is never going to happen. But I had an extraordinary young woman who handled the Judiciary portfolio, by the name of Christine Leonard. Truth be told, she was responsible for it happening.

Process equals patience. And Kennedy had that. If you are an impatient person, run for governor because the legislature [requires] a different set of skills.

On challenging party leaders:

If you can’t dialogue, if you can’t even question, that’s the antithesis of small-d democracy. Oftentimes you are surprised by what is revealed during the course of conversation and dialogue. If you are satisfied that you’ve vetted the facts and looked at them in multiple different ways, then you are there to do what you took the oath to do, and make calls in the best interest of the people you represent, the state you represent, and America’s best interests. It’s very easy. It saves you a lot of anguish and angst and sleepless nights.

What I learned was that if you do that, in a short time it generates respect from others. And on top of that, often times you are right.

I remember saying in the debate on the Iraq war that one of the byproducts is that we will create a hegemon in the region, and that will be Iran, and Iran will have far more influence in Iraq than we will, and I think, unfortunately, that is the case.