Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
“I think we need to remember that this great Constitution of ours that talks about individual rights, but also talks about the general welfare- those are the two great characteristics of our nation. Individual rights to be all you might be, but always aligned with the common good, the common effort.” - Admiral Joe Sestak
Joe Sestak, retired 3-star Admiral in the US Navy and former candidate for Democratic presidential nominee, talks about the similarities between the Navy and the campaign trail, about his daughter’s illness inspiring him to run for office, and about a pilot under his command who chose to defy his orders.
Joe Sestak is a politician and retired US Navy officer. He was the first president of FIRST Global, a nonprofit that promotes STEM education and careers in the developing world through robotics competitions. Joe was a Democratic candidate for president until he dropped out of the race earlier this month. Learn more about Joe on his website, www.joesestak.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeSestak and on Facebook.
Join in the discussion! Participate in Episode 5 of Burn the Boats with Adam Frankel by leaving a voicemail at 216-245-5461 or sending a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us your first name (or anonymous, if you prefer) and tell us if your family has benefited from having an honest but difficult conversation, like Adam’s conversations about the Holocaust, mental illness, and generational trauma.
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Joe Sestak: I think we need to remember that this great Constitution of ours, that talks about individual rights, but also talks about the general welfare- those are the two great characteristics of our nation. Individual rights to be all you might be, but always aligned with the common good, the common effort.
KH: 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.
In Episode 4, I sit down with Joe Sestak, retired 3-star Navy Admiral and, until recently, Democratic candidate for president. We talk about the similarities between the Navy and the campaign trail, about his daughter’s illness inspiring him to run for office, and about a pilot under his command who chose to defy his orders.
Joe recently dropped out of the race, citing a lack of national support and press coverage. But when this interview was recorded, Joe was in Des Moines, Iowa, still actively campaigning.
Admiral Sestak, it is an honor to have you on the show. Of course, you were the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, commander of an aircraft carrier battle group, and now candidate for president. How's the campaign trail treating you?
JS: Thanks a lot, Ken for having me aboard on the show please, and, it’s Joe, please. And you know, I've actually really enjoyed it. I walked across the Granite State there in New Hampshire, 105 miles and we got to walk in the feet of the people and I learned a bit there, so I really have enjoyed it.
KH: How do you feel your experience as a three-star in the Navy with the unbelievable fire power at your fingertips and the authority of that position and the stars on your shoulders, how does that translate to walking hundreds of miles and shaking hands? And I'm saying this a little tongue in cheek, because my producer sold you out. She says you're staying in the Econo Lodge motel in Des Moines, which I'm going to chalk up to great use of donor dollars. You're spending it where it matters.
JS: You're right. When I got back here in Iowa, they actually had a little piece of tape over my door that said “Admiral Suite”. I'd been here three months before I went to New Hampshire. But I think there's a lot of similarities between, as you said, commanding an aircraft carrier battle group, the largest unit of military power in the world, and being here in an Econo Lodge and running for Congress. I say that because in the military, you need a command philosophy, an idea of, how are we going to achieve this? Just like you need a political philosophy, what do you stand for? But then you also have to organize it. You know, in the military we say “piss poor planning gets piss poor execution”. And you need to be able to do what we understand in the military is “amateurs do tactics, experts do logistics”, you need to organize for your ideas. But the greatest similarity of all is the people. On an aircraft carrier, there's 5,000 sailors. And their average age, as you know, Ken, is 19 and a half. And whenever those planes came home from their combat operations in Afghanistan or Iraq, it could be 4:00 in the morning, I'd go down to the mess decks, much like I walked across New Hampshire, to sit down with the troops. The pilots had come back from their mission. And it was a long flight, because it's couple hours there, a couple of hours loitering, and a couple of hours to come back. And they were safe, but I'd go down to the mess decks, because there's an aircraft carrier, it's open 24 hours, like a hotel. And I would just sit there eating with them and listening to them and, frankly, kind of learning from them, much as I learned, as I told you, going across the state and meeting people in both Iowa and in New Hampshire. So I think the similarities are quite similar.
KH: Well I want to ask you about a story that you shared the last time I was in a room with you in Iowa, in fact, about those combat operations in Afghanistan and a flight of F-18s that you launched off your deck on a mission. And you gave those pilots an order, a standing order not to drop below a hard deck. Tell me about that, and what lessons of leadership and big decisions you derive from that.
JS: I tell people this story because there's two gigantic lessons in it, I think. I arrived off Afghanistan and I launched eight pilots. I wanted that first strike to go extraordinarily well. So seven were what we call pros from Dover. They were guys who had been in the first Gulf War, and then one of them was a nugget: someone who'd not been off a carrier deck before over foreign country. And she was 26 years old. When I joined up during Vietnam, we didn't have women on ships, let alone flying the most advanced fighter aircraft in our nation. And she was the one who disobeyed my orders that evening that I had passed on down from on high. You don't dive below 20,000 feet without permission, because we knew that the Taliban had been given Stinger missiles that only went to 18,000 feet. So before you went lower, we wanted to have time to move electronic aircraft over there, and that might take a bit of time, to see if any of those ignitions on those Stinger missiles might endanger my pilots. Eight special forces had been attacked, however. Ambushed, surprised, and four had died immediately. The other four called up and said, "We have moments left. They're too close for lasers. Someone just dive straight, and we'll get to pick up our comrades and get out of here." That young woman, who wouldn't have been there 20 years earlier, felt she didn't have time to ask permission. Those guys needed help now. She dove three times at 0200 in the morning from 20,000 feet to 3,000 feet, straight nearby. And those four men picked up their dead and they came home that night. And they didn't care who saved their butt. And the point is that if she hadn't finally been given her equity, her equality of opportunity to be all she might be, the common mission of the United States Navy, of our military, of our nation wouldn't have been accomplished. We need the best of the best of everyone. Whether the transgenders, whether the women, whoever they are. That's why I used to hate it under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, when a sailor would come up to me and start saying, "Sir, I am." Don't, please don't tell me, I think. I don't want to lose you if you're gay, you're too good. But the other one was accountability, that this woman was willing to be accountable to her primary mission: people, the troops. And she was willing to risk her career for disobeying an order, if not her life, to accomplish it. And frankly, that is what the people of America most want today, if we're ever going to be united again. And that woman, she lived it.
KH: And what happened Joe, when she trapped on the carrier at the end of that mission and faced you in the wardroom or in the captain's quarters?
JS: I waited up, of course, until they all came home. Watched the guys get out of their plane, watched her get out of her plane as though it was just business as normal. The next day, the three-star admiral who I worked for, came out and said, "Joe, what are you going to do?" I said, "I'm not going to do anything. What can I do? She did the right thing, even though she disobeyed orders. I'm just not even talking about it." And he said, "Standby, the four-star is in the overhead and you're going to hear about it." I never did. Of course, they didn't want somebody, you know, to be lost, but I have to tell you, it is exactly that issue of accountability. What we learned in the military, integrity's value, service to others, to country, above self, with accountability in answering for oneself, and she was willing to do it. Heaven forbid. And that's what this nation needs in its leadership.
KH: You and I both swore an oath than most Americans did not. And it is very, very similar to the oath that our members of Congress swear, which is not to a Commander-in-Chief, it's not to any one person. It's not to an office. It's to an idea. It's to the Constitution of the United States. But in observing how Washington operates today, I get the sense that that ultimate accountability to the idea that the Constitution represents is being lost. How do you feel about accountability as it applies to Washington today?
JS: It's absent, and it's frankly why I'm running. Look, my daughter's brain cancer came back last year. She had at four years old. After the first operation, they said, "we can't get it. She has about 90 days." But this nation gave me the greatest healthcare plan you can have in the military and we could take her where she could have the best pediatric surgeon get it. And so my payback to my country was to become a Congressman in a nearly two to one Republican district, I became a Democrat, and I won. But I always remembered it was for the accountability of paying back. Is it absent in Washington, D.C.? Sure it is. It's where party matters more than our Constitution. And that's why I got in this race when cancer came a second time, and again, she beat the single digit odds. She's probably the only child in the nation that's even beat glioblastoma twice.
KH: Oh my God.
JS: But I got in this time, because if this nation needs anything, and what a Hobson's choice really is, because there is no choice. Not just to beat Mr. Trump, but to heal this country's soul, with someone that the people will trust because they know they're accountable to them to people, above self, above any special interest and above party. I experienced it when I ran against Senator Specter, the Republican who changed parties, the man who had tried to humiliate Anita Hill in those hearings decades ago. How about the accountability for her? Today in the Me Too generation he wouldn't be accepted in the Democratic Party, but back then, my party embraced him because it was just a vote. He had become a Democrat and was well known. And so I ran against him. Beat him 40 points down, but I also learned that in politics it's better to offend God than a politician because at least God gives forgiveness. And I think what's wrong today is really, there is no one that we have had that would stand for people regardless of the cost. And that also means that you aren't running on outrage. Just putting the other party down. It means that you're willing to sit down there in the mess decks, where probably 50% of my sailors were Trump supporters and are willing to stop and listen. It doesn't mean I had to change my principles. In fact, I had an F from the NRA. I had 100% NARAL Pro Choice, but my Republican district, nearly two to one, re-elected me without a penny being spent on a campaign ad. That's what we need back in this nation to heal this country so it'll be united as it were from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan's day. As well as beginning to address: we're one world, and whether it's a illiberal world order, an authoritarian world order, if China arises. Or whether it's climate change that is going to devastate us if we don't help stop the damage. If we don't also convene this world under U.S. leadership, once again, a rules-based world order, a liberal world order, based upon individual human rights, open and fair governments, we are not going to be able to protect our American dream.
KH: Joe, can you take a minute to explain liberal world order for folks like my parents who are terrified of the expression?
JS: You're absolutely right. I don't mean liberal in the sense of left-wing. What I mean is those democratic values that Ronald Reagan understood, that John F. Kennedy understood. And so they both built a rules based world order based on liberal values. And by liberal values, what I meant was individual and human rights, who doesn't believe in those? Open and fair governments, who doesn't believe in those? And open and fair markets, who doesn't believe in those? But in addition to that, they said it would be for the world's collective good based on those values. They were our values, they were our democratic values. Those are what are captured in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution, but they also mattered to the world. We built this rules-based world order that said, "We'll remain engaged in the world for our protection.” And they took 67 countries and they put them into security agreements and we won the third World War, the Cold War, without a shot. But they also built the United Nations, the World Health Organization. They also built the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And so when another recession happened, the Great Recession, much like happened with the Great Depression, there was no IMF Bank or World Bank and Europe went into fascism because of that Great Depression, where Hitler came from and a world happened. This time, they intervened and saved Europe from continually going down into that slippery slope into again- although, there's autocrats bringing up today, they're not the fascists of before. And so that's what they did. They put preventative institutions out there that whether it was Stalinism or dire poverty, human rights atrocities or global recessions, these global institutions under U.S. leadership prevented it. And in the meantime, they brought the literacy rate of the world from 36% to almost 80%, and they brought life expectancy from 41 years to 77 years. And they brought extreme poverty from 65% down to 8% today. That's what I meant about the collective good, and in so doing by lighting that flame of justice in a global concord, presidents, again from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, kept it burning brightly by understanding it was this global concord and our leadership of it that protected our American dream, we were imperfect in doing it, of course, like that tragic misadventure in Iraq, but on the whole, we secured peace and prosperity, and didn't have another world war, another Great Depression, and we moved from 20 democracies to 90 democracies who understood liberal world order values, but no, the United States democratic values.
KH: With a foundational commitment, as you said at the very beginning of your answer, to individual and human rights.
KH: Which I'd love to dive a little deeper into because you talked about your experience commanding a battle group and the collective good and the mission of that battle group depending on the expertise and the performance of the people under your command, regardless of their sexual orientation or the color of their skin or where they came from and it sounds like you've decided to carry that torch as a presidential candidate. How is that message being received? As a former Admiral, do you feel like you have some authority to make the case that others don't?
JS: I do. I can remember as I got out and took care of my daughter, and then for my payback tour started running. As I said, it was a nearly two to one Republican district. The first day when I announced, a very conservative opinion writer was there. And the second question I got asked was, "what do you think about, Don't Ask, Don't Tell?" I said, "Look, I went to war with people who are gay. We knew who were gay out there. How could we not when you live in a room with 60 others? But when I come home, how can I say they couldn't have the equal rights of anyone else?" And it was the end of the discussion. The thing also we have to remember, it isn't just equal rights. We're better when we get the best of every community, every demographic, every type of person we can have. People tend to forget, for example, Native Americans. They give the highest percentage of any demographic and yet, 5,000 Native American women disappear or are murdered every year. And we don't know why. My point of this is, here they are contributing more than any other to our military as far as proportion coming in to serve, and yet where's the individual rights taken care of for them back at home? And so I think we need to remember that this great Constitution of ours that talks about individual rights but also talks about the general welfare- those are the two great characteristics of our nation. Individual rights to be all you might be, but always aligned with the common good, the common effort. And that's what that woman demonstrated that night when she was given her equal opportunity to be all she might be. A rugged individual, I'll tell you, but she also knew it was about the common good and that's how we have to look at our government. And by and large, those two great things were always up and down a little bit, always joined together, a little out of balance here or there all the time. But we always knew they were joined together, whether it was investment in public infrastructure for roads, or whether it was one for our military, or whether it was ones to begin to get environmental standards established. But today, they’ve come apart too much in the two parties, and aren't joined together enough.
KH: You rightly highlight the travesty that is the disappearance of Native American women. I'm going to raise another issue that no one is talking enough about when it comes to exactly this kind of thing, and that is the treatment of American Samoans who serve in greater numbers percentage-wise than citizens of any state in the Union. They have a casualty rate seven times the national average. And I speak to soldiers from American Samoa who are having their security clearances revoked now because of where they were born. It is just another piece of this assault on individual and human rights, and frankly, citizenship.
JS: And I’m glad you brought that up because we see this in our Dreamers who are serving and all of a sudden they're beginning to, after serving in the military, be taken away. We somehow have lost that ability that- I think we had problems in the Naval service, but we were one of the first institutions that really integrated African-Americans under Truman's edict, “we would do so”. We had problems, but we finally resolved them. And doesn't mean we still don't, but if we don't get off of this division, this divisiveness, this not recognizing every individual just wants to be treated equally to every other one, and that's all they're asking for, then I think we've lost actually our birthright right there in the Declaration of Independence. And that, unfortunately, is part of the soul that we have to heal today.
KH: Keep listening for more of my conversation with Joe, but first, here’s a quick word about our sponsor for this episode - Storied Hats.
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KH: Joe, I want to ask you about leadership. You were notorious, I'll say, during my time in the Navy for really demanding a lot from your staff. You know, grinding them to a point where, frankly, some couldn't take it, but I sense in the way you talk about the people you led and in the way you're running your campaign, that empathy is an equally powerful influence on your leadership philosophy. How do you balance those two?
JS: We never ever demand more than my expectation for what either the Navy or the nation needed. And proof of that is the numerous times people have shown up at events that I've worked for and one came in and he talked about, we were coming to the endgame of the quadrennial defense review, which would determine to some degree the future of the Navy under Mr. Rumsfeld, and how I made sure, he said, that even though we worked that whole last weekend to get the report together, I stayed every moment with him even though my presence wasn’t needed for that final report to get out. They were doing the editing, the typing, the putting it in and all. And so to some degree we really do need, I think, to understand that there is accountability to the mission, but there's also accountability to the individual. And so the issue then becomes, do you ensure that that individual is taken care of in the next job, is taken care of if they do have something that needs to be taken care of. So for example, I purposely took aboard my staff, someone who had a child who had autism, but they needed to leave by three o'clock every day. And said, absolutely, that person can work on the staff. And so that balance between the two is one that has to be done. But as we went on with two wars overseas, everyone really needed to work so hard in that Pentagon.
KH: I've got to believe that some element of your empathetic approach to leadership comes from your experience as a father. And I say this as the father of a daughter who had four surgeries as an infant, and realizing that there really is no fear quite like leaving a child on an operating table and retreating to the waiting room and praying that the doctors know what they're doing. First of all, how is Alexandra doing?
JS: She's wonderful. She got into a safe shelter again with a number of MRIs. We thought it had come back for a third time as she was going through her final pharmaceutical treatment with a new drug that hadn't been used on brain cancer before, it was only approved for metastasized breast cancer. And we got denied it at first, they couldn't give her the chemo they gave her before. But this white smudge that came back proved it to be a latent radiation burn, doctors thought it might be over cause it was inoperable area. And we had four more clean MRIs after that and she got in a safe shelter and she's going to be a creative writer and she is editing her first novel as I speak.
KH: I'm at a loss for words. My father-in-law is going through glioblastoma treatment right now.
JS: You know how it is. You know, the doctors came out of that operating room and they took us aside and said “we couldn't get it”. And without a total resection, you have no chance with glioblastoma, as a child. And when I asked what it meant, they said at the time, we think it's glio, and that's about 90 days, maybe just a bit more. You know, walked outside Walter Reed and looked up and said, "Hey, good Lord just take me instead." But it doesn't work that way. So she's the toughest little warrior. So yeah, I was sympathetic before, but without a question became empathetic. But I also learned something. We had four pictures of my father’s ships- who had been in the Navy also- And I had gone in to, you know, put it in a frame and I'm standing there and my daughter who was now going through the chemo after a couple of brain operations was standing beside me. She's in a dress, she has a little bit of hair on her neck, probably about four strands, almost invisible. She wore nothing at the time but dresses, she was all girl. And this young boy, meaning no harm, came over to her and said, "Hey, are you a boy?" Of course, as her father, I look over and go “Holy-”, but I just kept quiet and my daughter chimes in and says, "No, I'm a girl and I'm going through chemotherapy and my hair will grow back when it's all over." And the boy walks away, he meant no harm. And my daughter turns to me and said, "Daddy, can't he see him in a dress and can't he see my hair?” In other words, if I'm not wrong, the world's wrong, that's wrong. I mean, it was the strength of conviction that she was comfortable who and what she was. She was wise enough to take the lesson of “I'm okay”. And so then we knew she was going to be okay with that one incident. It was a change of a lifetime for me and I think she just has both times taken it aboard. As she said to me when we came back, my wife was at work when she got the call that the tumor had come back from the MRI, so took her for a walk and told her. She was quiet for about a minute and she goes, "Hey dad, is it okay I'm not scared?" Imagine that, I mean I'd be darn scared going off into battle.
KH: Wow, well Joe, we end every show by asking what the bravest decision you've ever been a part of is. Something that was done in service of others.
JS: I would say that the toughest, hardest decision was to get into politics. I had seen the nexus of politics when I served President Clinton as his Director for Defense Policy for three years from the White House. But I had no real interest in it. I was doing it not because I wanted to, I needed to. I owed this country for saving my daughter, with the healthcare plan we had. I think it was to get into politics and I mean that. Because I said to my wife, "We're going to be naked tomorrow." Everything's out there. You hope you've lived a good life because of that and all. It was hard because after that experience, I don't think there would've been anything I would have rather have done than to just be home every moment I could with my daughter. But I owed this country. I think the hardest thing was to decide rather than just basically almost retiring was to get into this area because you know, in the military we learn war is politics by other means. But you know, politics is also war by other means. So that was a change in life and style and all, even though there’re similarities, that I think was the toughest decision I ever had to make.
KH: Well, Joe, Admiral Sestak, thank you so much for making time and enjoy your stay in the Admiral Suite at the Econo Lodge in Des Moines. We'd love to have you back on.
KH: Thanks again to Admiral Joe Sestak for joining me. Joe was a Democratic candidate for president, but he dropped out of the race earlier this month.
Joe talked to me about his daughter, Alexandra. He said that she motivated him to run for office and that she continues to inspire him with her strength. We wanted to hear from you about a person in your life who inspires you. Here’s what you said:
Speaker 1: So I have a friend, she’s a single mom with two tiny kids, she runs her own psychotherapy practice, so she spends all of her time helping other people and raising her kids. She seems to me to have endless strength and energy. I think strength and resilience though sometimes implies like a hard outer shell, but she doesn’t have that at all either, which I think is all the more inspiring. Yea, she’s the best!
KH: Next time, I’m talking to Adam Frankel, former speechwriter for President Obama and author of a new memoir: The Survivors, A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing. Adam talks about generational trauma from the Holocaust and the importance of honesty in his family’s healing process.
And we want you to join our discussion. Has your family benefited from having an honest but difficult conversation? Or if not, could you? Leave us a message at 216-245-5461 or send a voice memo to email@example.com.
But first, watch out for a special bonus episode. In my conversation with Joe, I mentioned the plight of American Samoans, who have the highest rate of military service in the country, but are being denied their full rights. I spoke with Army Staff Sergeant Jen Afualo-Robinson and you can hear that conversation next week.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.