Tune in as Rocky Dhir talks with William Barr about his personal life, stories from his stints as Attorney General, and thoughts on the future of our nation. Mr. Barr opens up about his family and career and shares advice for others as they navigate both personal and professional life choices. They also discuss Mr. Barr’s recently published book, One Damn Thing After Another: Memoirs of an Attorney General.
William Pelham Barr is an American attorney who served as the 77th and 85th United States attorney general in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump.
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Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello and welcome to another episode of the State Bar of Texas podcast. We are recording live from our State Bar Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. This is your host Rocky Dhir. Joining me now we have Bill Barr, two-time former Attorney General of the United States. Bill, welcome.
William Barr: Thank you Rocky. Good to be here.
Rocky Dhir: So if this is the first time, you’re listening to our podcast with Bill Barr, then you may not know this but we also have a podcast that has come out in which we were talking upstairs during the luncheon, during the Thursday luncheon and there, we talked a little bit about policies, about America. The things you might expect that we would talk to Bill Barr about.
But we didn’t talk about was who Bill Barr is? Bill Barr the person? So I thought we get to know you a little bit, little bit better Bill if that’s okay with you.
William Barr: Sure, thank you Rocky, yeah.
Rocky Dhir: So you’ve come up with your Memoir, One Damn Thing After Another. Why did you call it that? I know the answer but I want to hear it from you.
William Barr: Right. So the first time I was at the Department of Justice which was under H.W. Bush, I saw the former AGs refer to the job as one damn thing after another and it goes back to incident that happened with Ed Levi when he came in to be the — he was the Attorney General under Gerald Ford.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
William Barr: And then later when Reagan brought in William French Smith to be the Attorney General, Smith went to visit with Ed Levi to find out what the job was like. Now Levi was academician, he was the dean of the law school at University of Chicago and then the president of the University of Chicago.
Rocky Dhir: Oh wow. I went there, that’s my school.
William Barr: Yeah and he smoked a pipe and he had the tweed jacket and so forth and William French Smith was expecting a big lecture about separation of powers and the rule of law. And he said, Ed, you know, so tell me about the job of attorney general and he said its one damn thing after another. So from then on, Attorneys General have referred to the job that way.
Rocky Dhir: You do too, do you agree with that?
William Barr: That understates it, at least in my case.
Rocky Dhir: So I’ll tell you what was what jumped out to me immediately so first of all, you use a lot of big words in your book, I have to have a thesaurus and a dictionary right next to me because you’re obviously a very smart guy. But so you went to private school, you went to Columbia.
William Barr: I can also use some short Anglo-Saxon works too.
Rocky Dhir: Well I’m afraid I won’t understand those either. You’re giving me too much credit. I mean, we’ve already talked for a little while and yet you still don’t know me. You still don’t know me. But kind of jumped out to me. So you played the bagpipes growing up and you still do sometimes, right?
William Barr: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: You pick that back up after a number of years and then you went to Columbia, you studied Chinese and Chinese politics and their history and then you went on to Fordham Law School at night.
William Barr: No, no, no.
Rocky Dhir: No it was George Washington, George Washington.
William Barr: Yeah I went into the CIA and then at night, I went to Law School at George Washington.
Rocky Dhir: And you came out #1 in your class. So clearly you are a gigantic nerd. Like what’s up with this? I mean, this is like cranial power that I don’t think I’m –
William Barr: I don’t think I’m a nerd. I don’t think I’m a nerd.
Rocky Dhir: You don’t think you’re really smart.
William Barr: My brother is the smart one in the family. He’s a theoretical particle physicist.
Rocky Dhir: He’s a particle physicist.
William Barr: Yeah from Princeton so he’s very smart.
Rocky Dhir: Your dad was a professor, right?
William Barr: Yes.
Rocky Dhir: And remind me your mother, I know –
William Barr: She was a teacher too, she taught English.
Rocky Dhir: So, what do you — and I know you’ve got three daughters, all of them are lawyers, very well accomplished.
William Barr: Right.
Rocky Dhir: So what do you think is the key to raising smart kids? I mean you were — your parents raised you as a smart kid and then you raised three very brilliant kids. What’s the key to it?
William Barr: When I was growing up, my parents, we had dinner conversation that we were encouraged to debate and talk about issues of the day. We didn’t have very much small talk, we talk about the New York Yankees for about 5 minutes and then it was on to National.
Rocky Dhir: Not the Mets, not the Mets.
William Barr: Not the Mets. We were Yankees.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. That’s fighting words for some people. Not for me, I don’t care but yeah.
William Barr: And so we were always encouraged to debate and we were taught that how important the dialectic was, the give-and-take of ideas, and so I’ve always enjoyed that and all my brothers were good writers and speakers and so forth. I was probably the stupidest of the lot.
Rocky Dhir: Well, and that’s why you went into government service, right? That makes sense now.
William Barr: That’s why I went to law school.
Rocky Dhir: There you go. It’s all coming together. It all makes sense. This is something that I don’t know that we didn’t get a chance to talk about it upstairs and I don’t know that you talked a whole lot about it in your book. I know you dedicated your book to your wife Chris. And so, as of this conversation, you are one day away from your 50th anniversary. Tell us about the role that she has played in your success because I mean, you’re away for long periods. She’s raising three kids. Was there never any tension there about the fact that you’re gone for so long of period? Or was it just part of the deal that she knew she was getting into? I mean I’d love to hear more about her role.
William Barr: Yes, so we got married young. I had just turned 23 and I had gotten my Master’s Degree and was heading off for CIA and she just graduated she was 21 from college.
Rocky Dhir: Right.
William Barr: And we shared the same values and outlook on life and I would say she has very traditional values. She also had ambition she was –
Rocky Dhir: Has gone to library science, right.
William Barr: Yeah. She wanted to be a librarian. She was a voracious reader but you’re right. I mean, she bore the brunt of raising the children. I mean for 15 years after I was AG the first time I was 41 then, I went up and worked for telecom company in New York, who’s the general counsel.
Rocky Dhir: It’s tiny one, nobody’s ever heard of Verizon.
William Barr: Yeah. And I commuted up there for 14 years. The family stayed in the Washington DC area in Virginia, and so it was a big burden on her. But we always had this.
Rocky Dhir: Was there never like any bickering or any fighting or any resistance.
William Barr: Of course, every couple fights. I wouldn’t say resistance but she was a good sport about it always. We had this running joke which was the first time I became Attorney General, H.W. was there up on the stairs at the department and I turned to her and I said Chris, I’ve always promised you that after I finish law school or after I get to do my clerkship or after I have my first year as a associate, or after I make partner or after I — we’ll settle down and smell the flowers.
And then I said, Chris, I promise you that after I get this Attorney General shift under my belt, we’ll take it easy. So we never did this.
Rocky Dhir: I think its last words. Yeah, and no wonder then that through all of this what advice would you give to young couples today because obviously, it’s very different now. Oftentimes both husband and wife work and it’s not unusual for them both to take active roles in raising kids.
With that, if somebody wants to achieve that level of success, how do they do it and still balance the home life? Because arguably you didn’t have to balance that side of that, you had a great partner who’s taking the brunt of that. So –
William Barr: And she was also working during much of that time as a librarian. So at Georgetown University and then all my three girls went to the same Catholic Girls School, K through 12 and she transferred to be a librarian there so she could be with him during the day. So she worked and she bore the full brunt of running the family. I don’t know I think my friends and I have frequently talked about this and our expectations in life were never to have fun.
People feel fulfilled or it wasn’t a focus. I don’t know. I’m not getting anything out of it or whatever it was always your obligation is to raise a family and whatever sacrifices are necessary for the family and just never thought of whether you personally were feeling fulfilled. So there was a certain stoicism involved in the world view that me and my contemporaries had.
Rocky Dhir: Are you still stoic or are you now at a point where you’re focused on fulfilling?
William Barr: I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I mean I consider it a great blessing, the life I’ve had and I think my wife when we talk about it, she I think feels the same way.
Rocky Dhir: Well, I mean now at this stage in your life, are you now shifting focus and saying look, let’s be fulfilled and let’s go and have some fun or is there still a level of stoicism inherent in the way you guys –
William Barr: Well I felt that way right before I agreed to go in the Trump Administration. So that lasted just a few years but right now, we are going to try to smell some of the flowers, but I’m still staying active in public affairs. I feel very concerned about the direction of the country and the future and I have seven grandchildren so far.
Rocky Dhir: Well congratulations.
William Barr: Thank you. And I’m worried about their future as well. So, I think I should stay involved.
Rocky Dhir: How worried should we be about the future of the country? Do you think in your view, do you think we can fix this? Do you think we get to a point where we are the United States again or are we going to continue to be divided moving forward in your view?
William Barr: I think, you know, it’s possible over time to become much more united and to move more toward a less polarized and vituperative politics. But it’s going to take two things, one will take some really good leaders, but it would also take the wisdom and common sense of the American people. And to finally get beyond anger and passion because politics today, a lot of the politics, I would say on the left and the right is becoming the politics of pandering of inflaming people’s passions so you get support from them. But it doesn’t channel those passions in any positive direction.
Rocky Dhir: Interestingly, it’s always people on one side saying the other side is pandering and it’s so and I don’t think people are taking enough stock in how much pandering they themselves are doing. It’s kind of an interesting situation.
William Barr: Right, so people what I say look anger isn’t a strategy or policy. It’s basically self-indulgence. You sit there sort of nurturing your feeling of outrage, but it doesn’t get anywhere and people have to come to the realization that if we are to stay together as a country and we have been in my opinion the most successful country in world history and we had so much going for us, and we’re committing national suicide for no reason.
And people have to say to themselves look, if we’re going to stay together, we do have to live with other people. We need to reach some kind of politics that keeps us together. And I think if that happens we could have a bright future.
Rocky Dhir: One thing I wanted to — and I want to make sure I don’t forget to ask you this because I’ve been dying to ask you this question. What was it like the first time you walked in the White House and into the Oval Office? Presumably this was, I guess was this on the Reagan Administration?
William Barr: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: What was that like?
William Barr: It’s funny you say that because I remember distinctly the first time I went into the Oval Office to meet with Reagan and it was like an outer-body experience, it was almost a dream, I am serious it was like a dreamlike state and you didn’t fully — you didn’t feel that you were connected to. It was almost like a dream going on.
Rocky Dhir: Was he charismatic in person?
William Barr: Oh he’s very charismatic but also just going into the Oval Office, I was 26 or so.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Okay.
William Barr: No wait, I’m sorry I was 31.
Rocky Dhir: Way to make me feel totally unaccomplished. Thanks Bill.
William Barr: No, no. So it was quite and I can understand why people who have never done that before would be somewhat intimidating.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely. Yeah.
William Barr: And if a president calls someone in for the first time and is telling to do something, there’s a tendency to go with the flow. But after that I’ve been in more times with Reagan but also especially with H.W. And then later, of course, very regularly with Trump. By the time Trump was there, it was not as big a deal. And I think that’s actually good because I bowled over by the –
Rocky Dhir: You stood up to Trump a few times and according to the book and you spoke your mind.
William Barr: Yeah.
Rocky Dhir: One thing that kind of struck me too was that when you’re talking about H.W. Bush, that section of the book is relatively short. There wasn’t as much, I guess, drama. I mean you describe him as genteel and it’s – I detected a hint of real affection for President Bush for you.
William Barr: Yeah. I mean, that’s how I got into government. My big break, part of all life is luck, chance, even bad luck or good luck, you know, and I was very lucky because I decided to go to CIA. I was working in CIA. I was going to law school largely because my mother wanted me to go to law school, just had an extra dimension and so I go to CIA and after a year and a half or two, all these investigations of CIA emerged and Bush came from China being our top representative in China came to run CIA.
And then I got to work directly for Bush because he had to go up to Capitol Hill a lot and I was helping him on a lot of that stuff. So I had a relationship with him and that turned into eventually him putting me at the justice department when he became president. So I have a lot of affection and respect for him, they don’t make people like that anymore. But one of the reasons the portion on Bush is shorter is that the publisher wanted me to spend 70% book on the Trump years.
Rocky Dhir: Got it, okay.
William Barr: So I was sort of under constraint and I tried to deal with some of the highlights and so forth but that was an exhilarating time.
Rocky Dhir: It’s interesting what you say about luck because that’s something a lot of speakers don’t spend a lot of time talking about.
So if you had to put percentages to it, I think by any objective measure, whether somebody is a Bill Barr fan or whether they’re detractor, there’s no question you’ve been very successful in your chosen profession. How much of that is due to luck and how much of that is inherent talent, intelligence, all the other things that were just part of you. What percentage is luck I guess?
William Barr: Well it’s hard to talk about my own situation. I think luck is a significant part of it, but I also think in going through life people shouldn’t feel that everything that happens, good or bad is just because of luck and a lot of it is being prepared for opportunities and also making opportunities just like in a football play. Sometimes you make the opportunity and I think you can do that.
The other thing is, I think depending on the field success requires different mixtures of strengths, some fields, very, very abstract and intellectual, doesn’t matter whether you can read or write, what matters is whether you can sit there and manipulate abstract concepts. In other areas, communications, interpersonal skills, being able to speak well may make the difference.
So a lot of it is what strengths you have in playing to those strengths going into areas where your real strengths come to the fore so and working hard and the other thing I recommend to people and it’s part of the theme of at least the beginning of my book is have a plan, don’t just sort of waffle around at first and I’m not sure what I want to do. If you’re at a point of complete indifference or you just can’t make up your mind, adopt a plan, start along that road, start that plan, but then also always be ready to depart from that plan and recognize other opportunities or experiment with other things.
Some people get locked into a plan and then it’s almost like they’re caught in a tunnel. They never really look beyond it. And so I said, get out there, go to different meetings, participate in different things. Someone invites you to an interesting party with interesting people, this doesn’t fit into my plan. Go, you never know what could come of that so always be attune to that. So that’s my advice to people.
Rocky Dhir: Growing up and even in your youth, did you feel like you always kind of had the answer because in the book, it looks like a lot of the times you were the one coming up with a correct response or correct answer.
William Barr: Well that’s my book, of course I am listening.
Rocky Dhir: Well and so that’s why I want to get kind of behind that. And how many times looking back would you say oh my gosh, I was, I had that totally wrong. Guy screwed that up. Has that happened a lot or did you study a situation so deeply that you feel pretty confident in the way you approached it.
William Barr: So I think I own makeup is such that I generally will feel confident about a direction that I want to move in or recommend. But by the same token, I am not so cocksure that I will ignore others’ advice and one of the things I always wanted around me because I can be a strong personality is very strong people who would be willing to pound the table and yell right back at me.
And I think those people who worked with me over the years would say that I might go into a meeting and be very firm and pounding the table and at the end of the day and then after a while I’d be sitting there thinking and then I’d say you’re right, and I would just turn direction 180 degrees if I thought they were right.
But so going back to my dinner conversations with my family, you know, you had to have some give and take and people, number one, some people will get incapacitated because they can never work up the confidence in what they want to do and I say go with your best judgment, go with your gut. You know, if your gut tells you something, go with that and then be open to other people pushing back but just don’t be incapacitated, not take a position because then you never make any progress.
Rocky Dhir: A couple of questions before we wrap up because I want to make sure we don’t hold up too much more of your time but one is and this is pretty simple question probably how do you unwind? I mean at the end of the day, you come back home, when you were AG or even now, how do you just kind of — what’s your favorite thing to do to just roll out.
William Barr: I mean as you can tell, I spent a lot of time at the gym for those this is not a video. So people might not recognize that’s a joke.
Rocky Dhir: I go to gym all the time, I get a shake and I leave, I understand. It’s nothing like a good peanut butter smoothie.
William Barr: I mean, on a typical work day, I might have a scotch at the end of the day.
Rocky Dhir: Single malt.
William Barr: Single malt, sometimes with my staff or people who work closely with me, we unwind at the end of the day and on weekends I like going out in the country doing things like shooting or hiking or things like that.
Rocky Dhir: So if you ever invite me out to the country I should probably not go.
William Barr: These are shooting birds.
Rocky Dhir: Well there you go.
William Barr: You are okay unless you’re a bird. Yeah I mean fuzz and shooting or something like that. But I play the bagpipes, I still like doing that.
Rocky Dhir: Very cool.
William Barr: And I read a lot. I mean I am a veracious reader.
Rocky Dhir: What kind of books do you like to read?
William Barr: I like, I have basically history and biography.
Rocky Dhir: Okay.
William Barr: People sort of settle into a certain genre.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely.
William Barr: Yeah. And I just don’t get that much out of fiction generally and so I like history and biography.
Rocky Dhir: So, final question before we wrap up, looking back on the trajectory of your life and obviously, you’ve still got a lot of years ahead of you but as you look back, what would you say is your biggest blessing that you’re most thankful for and maybe your biggest regret? Something, you wish you would have done differently.
William Barr: My biggest blessing is the fact that my parents cared about and brought us up within a religious faith that is central to our lives.
Rocky Dhir: You are Roman Catholic?
William Barr: Yeah. And that’s probably been the most important thing and that’s why I feel that’s the greatest gift a parent can give a child is faith. So, that’s been the biggest blessing and probably my biggest regret you touched on at the beginning as I wish they were deeper ways that I could show my appreciation to my wife for her, just a great marriage with her and what we’ve been through together with our children, it hasn’t been all hunky-dory.
I mean a lot of my kids have been sick and stuff like that and we’ve been through some tough times but she’s always been a rock and I couldn’t have gotten through it without her.
Rocky Dhir: So probably we should have had her on the podcast instead of him. I don’t know what we’re doing with — I don’t know why we have you on here. We should had Chris, sounds like she’s the rock star.
William Barr: Well she gave me the advice before I went to the Trump Administration which is you’re never going to change this guy. It’s a waste of time for you to go in and try to do it and nothing, no sacrifice you make will end up making a difference with him. So she was right about that.
Rocky Dhir: Well guys, it looks like we’ve reached the end of our program and of our time. Bill Barr, thank you so much. I want to thank you for being with us.
William Barr: Thank you Rocky, I have enjoyed it both this podcast, but also the earlier interview.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely.
William Barr: And we’ve covered a lot of ground.
Rocky Dhir: We did, we did. And I want to remind folks that that you had agreed and in fact, requested the fireside chat format that we had upstairs and you didn’t put any restrictions on the types of questions or anything.
William Barr: Well you know one of the things talking to a big group if you go in and you pick a topic and you start rant, going on and on about a topic, you never know whether people are really interested in it. I prefer answering questions that people want to hear about so.
Rocky Dhir: And it was a pleasure so thank you. And guys, if you haven’t yet, check out Bill Barr’s Memoirs, that rhymes. We just — we just –
William Barr: Bill Barr’s Memoirs.
Rocky Dhir: Bill Barr’s Memoirs. This is, I think we’ve got it — we’ve got like a new hashtag. It’s called One Damn Thing After Another check it out. And guys, that is all the time we have for this installment of State Bar of Texas podcast. I want to thank our guest for joining us. And of course, thank you, Bill Barr.
And of course, thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you like what you heard today, please rate and review us in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or best yet, your favorite podcasting app. I’m Rocky Dhir, signing off. Until next time, thank you all for listening.
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