When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Amy McGrath: The ‘Honor Bound’ Memoir

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Amy McGrath: The ‘Honor Bound’ Memoir

Amy McGrath talks about her new book, Honor Bound: An American Story of Dreams and Service, which details her groundbreaking time in the military, her tough political campaigns, and the challenges we face as a country.

Follow Amy on Twitter at @AmyMcGrathKY

Check out her interview from last year here

For more details about her time in the Marine Corps, listen to her interview on our other podcast, Warriors In Their Own Words, out next Thursday.

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Amy McGrath:

Just because Joe Biden won the presidency does not mean we're out of the woods. We have a lot of work to do. And those of us that love this country and our patriots have to keep at it in whatever way, shape, or form that we can.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Amy McGrath, who in 2020, took on Mitch McConnell in a grueling Senate race. As a Marine Corps aviator, she flew 89 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan,and in 2002 became the first woman in the Corps to fly a combat mission in an F-18. Her new memoir, Honor Bound, describes her groundbreaking time in the military, her tough political campaigns and the challenges we face as a country. Amy, thanks for joining me.

Amy McGrath:

Great to be with you, Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

So you've been a little busy since November of 2020. Tell us about the book.

Amy McGrath:

Well, I started the book project a few years ago and couldn't finish it when the Senate campaign took off. So I had to get somebody to help me kind of piece it together, and it's finally together and finally out. So that's just one of the projects that I've been working on since the campaign. But after we finished in November and we got the results that we did, we rolled our entire finance operation over to help the Georgia races. And that was really important for our country. When a lot of people felt like we couldn't win those Senate races, they made a difference now when you look at infrastructure packages and COVID relief packages and the things that our country needs right now. So I'm really proud of that.

And then continued that effort to help people stay aware of what's going on, particularly going after the folks who voted against our election on January 6th. So I also got that going on. And along with my book, I have a 501C4 that I hope we'll talk about, which is inspiring those who have served the country to pick up their pack again and run for political office.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm so glad you reminded me about the Georgia runoffs, because in political time it seems like ancient history, but it was really recent and it has had profound effects on our politics and on the Senate, but your PAC and you personally were really one of the first ones to realize that we had a shot there. You invested before any of the other supers were going in. Right?

Amy McGrath:

Well, I was focused on my race all the way up until election day. And then I felt like, Hey, this isn't over. We still have the opportunity to make Mitch McConnell the minority leader. He's still in Congress, he's still in the Senate, but he doesn't have to be the majority leader. He doesn't have to have all that power and we still had an opportunity. And so I wanted to use the resources that I had left, and the resources that I felt like I could still get from supporters to remind them of that, “Hey, it's not over yet. We still have six weeks to go before these runoffs and they could be won.” And so we did that and raised about a million dollars in five and a half, six weeks, and sent it all down to Georgia.

Also, raised money directly into the Senate's candidates campaign there as well, but really focused on the ‘get out to vote’. And it mattered. January 6th, we all think of that date for bad reasons, but the morning, that morning was a good morning. We woke up thinking, “We didn't give up. We did what was right for our country.” And that was what this is all about, Ken. You were in the same boat. We did what we did because we needed better leaders in our country. And it wasn't necessarily about us winning, it was about getting better leaders.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that effort in Georgia achieved the immediate task of relegating Mitch to minority leader status for now. And in your book you don't pull any punches. The typical thing to do is to set yourself up for the next race and just say nice words about everybody, but you don't mince words when it comes to Mitch McConnell and his approach to politics and what he has done, not just to the people of Kentucky, but to the Senate, to this country. I got to imagine that's a visceral reaction on your part.

Amy McGrath:

It is. It's an alignment with what I've been saying all along that he's sort of the epitome of everything that is wrong with Washington and is wrong with our politics and that didn't change on election day, unfortunately. Even though I'm not running and the people of Kentucky had their say, and there's lots of reasons for that, this is a long fight. And one of the things that I try to talk about in my book is that the things that are worth fighting for typically are long, hard fights. I didn't get anywhere in my life overnight. And you have to have that hard work and it's not over. Just because Joe Biden won the presidency does not mean we're out of the woods. We have a lot of work to do. And those of us that love this country and our patriots have to keep at it in whatever way, shape, or form that we can.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of my favorite things about the book is that it's not just about politics, it's your story. It's about what inspired you. And I am sure the telling of that will inspire others. It goes all the way back to the beginning, but I'm always curious about the writer's process. And when I have authors on, I often ask them this, and I'm sure my producer is going to eye-roll, but how do you approach telling your life story? A book can't possibly capture it all, you have to be so selective in what you choose, the vast majority of people, even those reading it know you from a couple of 60 second or 30 second ads. This is in some ways, your one chance to define your story, and how do you choose what goes in there?

Amy McGrath:

Well, you're absolutely right. You can't you can't say at all, it's only just a snapshot. And I think you just have to realize that going into it, because if you don't realize that you'll never finish. It's never going to be perfect. There's going to be gaps and things and people that impacted your life that you just didn't have room for, you didn't write about. And that's just the way it goes. But I approached it by just taking it chronologically.

I started looking at this project in between the House run and the Senate run, not knowing that I would ever run for Senate. But looking and reflecting back on the House run, and it was a project that I did to try to figure out why I did this. Why did a girl or a woman who grew up in a conservative state and the conservative institutions, the Catholic church, the Catholic schools, the US Naval academy, the United States Marine Corps, why did I go from that to running as a Democratic candidate in both the House race and then eventually the Senate run? What were the values that were instilled upon me in those early days and throughout my career, that made me feel so strongly that I would run as a center left candidate and be so passionate about it? How did that happen?

Amy McGrath:

And so I just started chronologically with my earliest days of what service is about, who taught me about service and what that meant, well was my parents. So I talked about their service to their community and to our country and how that impacted me. And patriotism, what that meant to me growing up and what that meant going into the military. And then I talked about my military experiences and things like taking responsibility and ownership, and what courage really is and what best leaders that I saw who they were and who I wanted to emulate. And then we talked about composure under pressure and all of the things that you need to have to be a fighter pilot, for example. So it was just chronological that way. And at the end, I look back on all that, and then tried to pull out the leadership, the life lessons to try to make the introduction and conclusion. So that was kind of my process.

Ken Harbaugh:

A lot of the book dwells on your time in the Corps, and a couple of stories in particular jump out at me. Can you share the experience of that soccer game in Egypt?

Amy McGrath:

Well, that's great that you ask about that because I've done a number of interviews and they have all asked about different other stories in the book, but that one was one of my favorites. And then I think it shows that our military is not just a hard power institution, but there's a lot of soft power that we have when we go overseas. I was doing an operation called Brightstar with my units. I was a fairly junior F-18 back seater at the time. I went overseas to do this with the Egyptian Air Force, this exercise. And they had never seen a woman in an F-18 cockpit. I remember opening the canopy and coming out, and it looked like the Egyptian men, their heads were going to explode or something. They had never seen anything like it.

And we did this exercise for a couple of weeks. And at the end, the commander of the Egyptian Air Forces asked our commander to have a soccer match between the two units. And in Egypt, they take their soccer very, very seriously. So they had an actual team. We had just a bunch of ragtag Marines. And my commanding officer at the time knew I played in college, knew I played Division 1 for Navy soccer and said, would you play? And I said, “Sure, I haven’t played it for many years, but I can try.” And we went out there and I was the only woman on the field. The stadium was filled with all men in the bleachers, and it was probably two or three times the number of people I had ever played in front of, in my entire career.

And so, initially the commander of the Egyptian forces wanted me to play in long pants because I was a woman. And my commanding officer, to his credit said, “No, she's going to play with green on green”, which is just green shorts and a green shirt like everybody else.

And I did. I was by no means the best player on that field, but I could hold my own. I was a Division 1 soccer player in college. And at that point in my 20s, I was in pretty good shape. And at one point I went up for a header with the commander of their unit there. And he fell to the ground and I stayed on my feet and the entire crowd just lit up, just roared.

And at the end of that, we lost like seven to one or something. These guys were really good, but the general for the Egyptian Air Force who was there watching walked down the line of all the players and handed me the MVP plaque and the crowd roared again. And I was just like, wow, this is really cool because I really felt like I was changing minds there. They had never seen a woman compete against men on the soccer field or in the cockpit and there I was, 26 years old or something. And it was an incredible experience.

Ken Harbaugh:

There's this great quote from your commanding officer when the Egyptian commander insists that you wear pants. He says to the Egyptian commander, "If you want a game she's going to play because she's a good soccer player. And as Marines, we all wear regulation Marine Corps green t-shirts and green shorts." And I just say that to give you the opportunity to reemphasize the point that, for all its faults and for the fact that it doesn't always live up to its ideals, the Marine Corps is a meritocracy.

Amy McGrath:

Yeah. And frankly, that's what I loved about the Marine Corps. I really loved that. When people say to me, would you recommend my daughter go into the Marine Corps? It's such a hard service and that's right. And there are some faults with it obviously, but what I loved about the Marine Corps is at the end of the day, performance really mattered more than anything. Yes, you had to prove yourself. Yes, as a woman, maybe it was harder initially because everybody's sort of skeptical and it's such a male dominated environment, but you know what, at the end of the day you know what mattered, did the bombs hit the target on time? Could you refuel? Could you land on the back of an aircraft carrier when you were needed to? And that is what people cared about at the end of the day. Nothing else.

Ken Harbaugh:

You wrote after that game that you walked away thinking that perhaps that was the only way you make inroads against deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, one small success at a time. Did you ever apply that lesson to running for the Senate or running for Congress before that in Kentucky? Talk about deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, your words.

Amy McGrath:

It's true. But you have to start somewhere. You can't look at a challenge like running as a Democrat in Kentucky or any of these other challenges like going over to Egypt and trying to share some sort of American values of equality. You can't look at that as I'm going to change the world overnight, and I'm going to be able to do it myself, that's just not true. But you can make a difference. You can chip away at some of these things. I would say when I ran against McConnell, I wasn't just running up against his $50 million of attack ads against me, I was running up against decades and millions of dollars of investment in labeling and branding the Democratic Party as something bad, something evil, something immoral.

It's hard. You're not going to change a lot of those deep seated, ingrained feelings overnight, but you do it in the ways that you can, and you do it by standing up, being who you are, going out to counties that never see a Democrat, for example, and showing up and showing them who you are. And that's how you change. It's one small step at a time

Ken Harbaugh:

In your campaign, at least in the way you presented yourself and told your story. And I'll go ahead and quote you again. You said on the campaign trail, "I used words like justice, democracy, integrity, decency, compassion, and humanity." Mitch McConnell and his backers, the super PACs that came in, took a very different approach. And it begs the question for me, does the positive message win in politics today? Fear won in Kentucky in 2020, hope did not.

Amy McGrath:

Well, yes. I think fear is a big motivating factor. But again, I also think you're going up against many years of ingrained attitude and we did make a difference. We ran eight points better than president Biden did here in Kentucky. That's no insignificant thing for a Democrat to run eight points better than the top of the ticket Democrat. And so I think that my message of country over party, of common sense, of service, did resonate with a lot of people that even are pretty red to be able to get that many people to split the ticket that way. But you're right. In politics today, the Republicans look, they run on fear. They make things up, they lie, it's what they do. They'll generate some border crisis to say that there's a problem. I'll never forget during my campaign. I wrote about this in my book. They got some sheriff down in Western Kentucky to basically say that I'm for looting and rioting and all of these things. It's just lies. Who's for that?

In my congressional campaign, they had got some other sheriff in uniform to come and say that, if you vote for Amy McGrath, we're going to have illegal immigrants taking over this county. And it's crazy, but it works, it works, especially for folks that, like I said, have been sort of inundated with lies for a long time. So it's hard, but it doesn't mean that it's not worth continuing to try to make a difference.

Ken Harbaugh:

Did anything prepare you for the level of vitriol that occurred?

Amy McGrath:

Yeah, my House race.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I was going to ask. I know that the military probably didn't, but was it that ugly or ugly enough in the House race to give you a sense of what was coming when it wasn't a few million bucks, but tens of millions of dollars spent against you?

Amy McGrath:

Yeah. Well, I knew what it was going to be. I knew that the House race had given me a flavor for that, and that was of course a weight in my decision-making. Do I really want to do this again because it's going to be 10 times worse against McConnell? And it was. But I felt like somebody needed to stand up against McConnell, that I had the best chance if the political winds blew a certain way to be within striking distance. And that that was important enough for my country to take whatever was thrown at me, that I know who I am to my core. I know who I am and I can be strong enough to weather that storm and our country's worth it. So I don't have any regrets.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't think the vast majority of Americans appreciate the sacrifices that go along with a decision like that, not just exposing yourself to attacks and really deceitful campaign ads from the other side, but the financial burden that a challenger has to take on. Incumbents it's a little different, but can you talk about just how high the barrier is for ordinary folks to try to represent their neighbors to take on an entrenched incumbent like Mitch McConnell?

Amy McGrath:

Yeah, it's huge and it's a real problem. If you want leaders that believe that this is a service, who do it for the right reasons, it's a very high mark to be able to get started. If you do not have a political last name, your mom or dad didn't run and you're sort of using, or you have the same last name, so you already have a leg up, or you haven't been in office before. You've been doing other things like the military or something like that, other service things, and you don't have access to nor are you independently wealthy, so you're not a millionaire, it's really hard to get started and to get going. And so for a lot of people, that bar is just too high and they're like, I can't get there from here.

And so, my husband and I looked at this, and I'll never forget, before we decided to run in the House race, we sat down with a financial planner, one of those from a firm or something. And we looked at all of our finances, our savings, our house, our military retirement pay, which would be something, but not nearly as much as what we were making on active duty and our children. We wanted to save for our children for college. They were small at the time and still are, we weighed all this, and I remember the financial planner goes away for a couple of days, and then we'd go into his office and get their report and he comes back out and he says, you want to do what? And I said I want to run for office, and he hands me a folder, and he said, "You do know that you're not going to be making any money. And you do know that this is, you're going to have to have a house that is half the value of the house that you have now and you're going to have to do this and this, and you're going to have to cut the savings to your kids and all of these in order to do this." And I said, Eric and I talked about it and we thought we're okay. And we can do this for a limited amount of time because it's right for our country. And we'll always be able to look back and be able to sleep at night. We'll always be able to look back and tell our kids we did what was right for our country.

At the end of it, we're either going to win and we're going to go on from there, or we're not, and it's temporary. It's kind of like a military deployment. You can do it, you know when the end is, and then you move on.

Ken Harbaugh:

In the wake of that experience, you have created an organization to help soften that a little bit for others trying to get in. Can you tell us a little bit about the paths that you've set up and what they're doing?

Amy McGrath:

Well, the one organization that is really more positive that is trying to inspire and support patriots who have served our country to think about politics and jump in and sort of put on their PAC again and do this hard thing is entitled Honor Bound. It's the same title of my book. But it's a 501C4, and the idea is let's inspire folks who are serving the country right now to think about politics as something that is not bad, but something that is good and something that we need their skills, their hard work, their credibility, their integrity, their courage, their leadership skills in now, more than ever. And so this organization would identify, recruit, inspire, and then support, financially support those patriots that do jump in races that can be won in this country.

Amy McGrath:

I'm primarily looking at women, mostly because women are only 25% of our Congress and I just think that that's wrong and we're not getting those numbers to get higher unless we push for that. So Honor Bound is trying to focus on women who have served, but the goal is to get better leaders in general. And when I say who have served it's not just military veterans, I think service to our country is bigger than that. If you are somebody that went through AmeriCorps or worked in the FBI or CIA, something like that, we want to support those types of leaders who have proven they can put this country above themselves and their political party.

Ken Harbaugh:

So that's the C4 which you described as the positive organization. Can you tell us about the one with teeth and what it's going to do?

Amy McGrath:

Well, the C4 has T2 and it's got a leadership PAC associated with that. So I always tell for people that want to help this country and they're trying to figure out a way to help this country, I say financially, supporting an organization that you believe in, if you are like me and you think we need better leaders, and you think they should be women of character, like Abigail Spanberger and Mikey Cheryl, and these amazing leaders that we have in Congress right now, let's support them, let's get the next cohort of them in. So that's Honor Bound. It's more positive.

If you are motivated by anger, anger at the traitors that voted against our country on January 6th, that knew that Joe Biden won this election and decided to vote in the other way because they felt it was politically expedient throwing away our constitution and our democracy, and then not condemning the actions of January 6th in that they were so against our democracy and a peaceful transfer of power, those members of Congress should be kicked out. And particularly going after the ones where they are in districts that Joe Biden won, and there are some members.

And so I have a super PAC called Democratic Majority Action that again, started to raise money for the Georgia races, was going to pull that down after the Georgia races. And then the events of January 6th changed my mind and I said, no, no, no, no. We got to keep this going, because we got to go after these guys and get rid of them. They don't belong in Congress. They don't have the honor and the integrity to represent and to be members of our Congress anymore. So that's what we're focused on. And if people are motivated by that, we're doing that right now.

Ken Harbaugh:

You wrote the last part of your book after January 6th. Thank goodness, because it gives you an opportunity to speak with a really clear voice about the stakes and about what really happened, which was treason. You describe your reaction to that day like this, "What happened was not politics. It was not protesting. It was not about tax policy or the size of government, or even an election, it was treason, plain and simple." My question though is how you think about the moral burdens that should be assigned for what happened on that day? Obviously the perpetrators who violated the Capitol need to be held accountable, but I've read about some of them. I've even talked to a couple who were there, and the vast majority believe that they were doing the right thing, that they were actually following the orders of their commander in chief, as crazy as it sounds. I've heard other commentators say that some of them had their hearts in the right place. It was those who knew better, who were driving them to that really got my blood boiling. Do you make that distinction?

Amy McGrath:

Absolutely. People want to prosecute the foot soldiers in this event here, but the reality is the responsibility is with the leaders. The disinformation that has been put out by the former president, by his allies, continued by members of Congress, misinformation, the willful looking in the other direction. And I'm talking about Senator Mitch McConnell, who came out initially and was very strong on the events of January 6th and then decided it wasn't politically expedient for him to continue to face up to that but to look the other way. I think though that is where my anger lies. It's not so much with the foot soldiers. I actually feel bad for them. I feel that they were duped, but it's with the folks that are perpetuating this for their own power.

Where it leads me is this- I can't just be angry. We have to do something. So what do we do? We have inherited this democracy. We've got to own up to this. We've got to fix the problems right now. The events of January 6th, our Capitol was breached for the first time since 1814. And it happened on our watch. This is our watch right now, and I feel like we have to take care of this. And also the fact that there was such a high percentage of veterans in that group that did this, the lies and conspiracies are real, and we have to do what we can. And that's why I've continued with the organizations I've continued to promote.

Ken Harbaugh:

To what do you attribute that alarming statistic about the percentage of veterans, and it's less the raw numbers than the fact that the veterans involved tend to be leaders in the extremist groups. They bring a level of discipline and organization and training. They bring, most importantly, the respect and cache that attaches to their military service. And they're now applying it to a cause, which is fundamentally anti-democratic and unconstitutional. Why are so many vets drawn in?

Amy McGrath:

I think that the other side has done a really good job of hijacking patriotism and hijacking the flag and that sort of thing, and veterans we typically want to think of ourselves as being patriotic. And so I think that has been the pool. I have wanted in the last four years more senior ranking, retired military officials to stand up to Trump in particular, and that didn't really happen. I know that there is a civil military, how should I say this, there's traditions of making sure that leaders of our military are not political are not seen as political, but I believe that the Trump years have been so against American ideals and his leadership has been so against the constitution and so against our norms that there should have been more leadership from former military. And that I think was a part of it.

But I just think that it's very concerning. I think we have to look at our active duty forces and make sure that white supremacy is rooted out. The current Secretary of Defense I think is doing a good job of trying to make that happen. It's a leadership thing. This white supremacy and this sort of thing is against the ideals of America, it's against our constitution, and we will not stand for it.

Ken Harbaugh:

There were so many images from that day that are seared into our memories. You call out one in particular though, the site of the Confederate flag fluttering in the rotunda. As a Kentuckian, how do you react to the symbolic place that the Confederate flag has taken in this larger movement? And I asked this as someone who graduated from high school in Alabama, who understands rural Ohio, I see the Confederate flags up here, more than ever before. How has it become such a fixture, a symbol of treason, become such a fixture on the right?

Amy McGrath:

I don't know. It's very sad. And my hope is that this is the last bastion or sort of last grasp of a sinking ship, that the Confederacy and what it stood for and the flag and all of that stuff, it's been going on in parts around this country for as long of my entire lifetime and of course beyond that, but it hasn't been so blatant, people haven't waived it with such audacity before the last few years. And I think that my hope is that this is, like I said, the ship is going down and that we are moving on, but that the people that really grasp onto this are grasping hard, and that's why they're forcing these symbols.

Again, my hope is that a new generation of Americans will grow up and will know the truth and we will change, and it won't happen overnight, but step-by-step, we will do the right things, not to change history, but to make sure that we are promoting and outwardly valuing the parts of our history that are true to American ideals. And that's why I feel like statues of Confederate generals, for example, is that really what we want our children to see? It's not what I want. I would rather have a statue of the first black American to graduate from West Point, for example, on some of these bases in the south. Let's rename them after some of these heroes, that's history too, and that's a history that I think more reflects where America should go and should be.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, thanks so much, Amy, for coming back on Burn the Boats, for this remarkable book, Honor Bound. We had you on, I think a little over a year ago, and we asked the question of all our guests, what is the bravest decision you've ever been a part of? Do you remember what you said then?

Amy McGrath:

I don't.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'll refresh your memory. It was really cool. You talked about gearing up for a mission somewhere in the middle east, when an alert went out that there might've been a chemical attack and you were in full gear, but you saw a nameless young enlisted Marine in full chem gear as well, run out onto the flight line, out of the bunker, that protective bunker and armed the weapons. So you can't tell that story again. I'm going to ask you, what is the bravest thing you have ever done to close us out?

Amy McGrath:

Well, I will say, and I have done a lot of really hard things in my life from landing on an aircraft carrier, to survival school, to combat missions and Marine Corps training and all kinds of other things. But I think the most courageous thing that I have ever done is run for political office. When you go from an institution where 90-95% of Americans like and respect, they respect you to the moment you throw in your name for a political office in this environment, 50% of the population will hate you just because you got a D or an R behind your name. And you open yourself up to lies to be told about you in a public way. And all of these other things that the campaigns draw, that to me is much more courageous than anything I have ever physically done, including high-performance flying.

It really took a different type of courage and I'm very proud of that. But I also want to remind people that no matter what happens, if you do decide to run it, yes, it is hard, but you can do it. And we need leaders that have that character and have that grit for our country right now. So please do it if you feel like you can.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you, Amy.

Thanks again to Amy for joining me.

Make sure to check out her new book, Honor Bound: An American Story of Dreams and Service.

You can find Amy on Twitter at @AmyMcGrathKY

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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