Mark Udall talks torture, life after political office, and dharma

“I didn’t want to linger. I wasn’t into trying to regain the past status I had - the glory, if you will,” the former U.S. senator says

Former Sen. Mark Udall opens up about life after elected office, mediation and all the avocados he has been eating lately. (Photo by Susan Greene)
Former Colorado Sen. Mark Udall opens up about life after elected office, mediation and all the avocados he has been eating lately in a conversation with The Indy on Dec. 4, 2019. (Photo by Susan Greene)

Mark Udall is not depressed. 

Colorado’s former senior U.S. senator knows, five years after Cory Gardner ousted him from office, that “people have been saying I vanished, I’m not visible, out of public life, and the assumption is that I must be in some dark funk.”

“But what I’ve done is moved on,” he says. “I’ve really relished my privacy and in many ways my life is immeasurably better.”

The 69-year-old Democrat and scion of one of the West’s most prominent political families will appear tonight with former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, a Republican, speaking about the need for bipartisanship. The talk is sponsored by CU’s Center of the American West. 

“I don’t have high hopes that the forum will somehow change things. But I do think there’s a lot of dislike for politicians, and very little respect, and that people are really hungry for that kind of conversation.”

Asked if the event is an indication he may get back into politics, he says, “Naw, just a one-off.”

“I have no greater strategy to be back or reengage in public debate or the public sector,” he says. “Part of moving on is finding other ways to be productive and happy in your life.”

Udall met at a Boulder café last week to discuss tonight’s forum and a new movie about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s – and his – work exposing CIA torture. In what was perhaps his most extended interview since he left office, he also touched on the nature of his defeat, what he doesn’t miss as a senator, his life now as a private citizen, and the policy issues he championed that have become even more pressing, yet remain unresolved. 

“More weary than I realized”

Udall says his defeat in 2014 made sense, if only in hindsight. 

It was a tough year for his party, underscored by fear about ISIS beheadings, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the spread of Ebola virus in Africa. Closer to home, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings nosedived after he announced sweeping immigration reform months before the election.

Pollsters told Udall his best strategy would be to warn women voters they could lose reproductive rights if conservatives like Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, were elected. His campaign heeded that advice with a suite of TV and radio ads about contraception and abortion that backfired when pundits nicknamed him “Mark Uterus” and slammed him for lacking a more positive message.

“I came off as scowling and dour,” he admits. “Rather than being people-oriented, the campaign ended up being too much about what the data was showing us. Voters couldn’t see what I stood for and we lost our way.” 

There were other factors hindering his campaign.

He had started the race grieving the sudden death of his brother Randy on a hiking trip in the summer of 2013. He says Randy stood out among his five siblings as the one willing to say out loud what the others were thinking about news events or public policy issues. Udall tried to harness his brother’s candor in D.C. and “say what Randy would have said.” 

He was further rattled six months later by the arrest of his son Jed on suspicion of breaking into cars and heroin possession. He says the then-26-year-old was struggling with addiction and is now sober.  

“It all weighed on me. I think I was more weary than I realized.”

Still, Udall – whose election record was 6-0 – didn’t see his defeat to Gardner coming. The Denver Post reported the election marked the first time a challenger had unseated an incumbent senator in Colorado in 36 years.

“It was like running into a wall at 80 miles an hour. I’m really competitive. I hated losing and felt like I let people down. It was a tough time for me personally.”

“I didn’t want to linger”

Udall moved back to Eldorado Springs, south of Boulder, after nearly 18 years in D.C. and spent the first several months there writing letters and making calls to help his staff of about 50 find jobs. He says he carried himself “like Senator Udall, not Mark” for a year or two more, stopping to chat with people who recognized him, listening to their stories, having an opinion, being empathetic, and trying to seem engaged. 

Those skills come easily to some politicians, but never to Udall who often needed to push himself to glad-hand and work a crowd. He learned in office, as well as out of it, that it can be exhausting – and impossible – to influence people’s opinion of him. 

He cites, for example, an encounter a few years ago with a man in North Boulder convinced he had thrown his re-election bid to keep his second family from being exposed. 

“Other family?” Udall says he asked him. 

The man said he knew about the Udall clan’s Mormon – and going way back, polygamist – background, and was aware the senator made a deal to intentionally lose the race so he could keep his second brood secret. 

“I said, ‘look, I don’t have a second family and I didn’t make any kind of deal,’” he says, visibly relieved to be out of the business of trying to set the record straight.

Udall also is relieved to be rid of the drudge work required to stay in office. He speaks with particular revulsion for raising money, which he did to the tune of $25 million for his re-election campaign. Like many senators, he made cursory appearances in committees and to cast votes, but spent most of his days on Capitol Hill “making phone calls like any salesman would.” He would fly on Fridays to campaign fundraisers, mainly on the east or west coasts, head home to Colorado for a few appearances on Saturdays, then head out again Sundays to another coastal fundraising event or two before landing back in D.C. Monday nights. 

“Raising money is pretty much all I did for two years,” he says. 

As he tells it, most senators have no time to talk with their colleagues. 

“In fact, you barely see them. And in order to raise money in certain quarters, you have to talk smack about the other team and how bad they are – not just bad, but that they’re demons and evil. You get caught up in a downward spiral that makes it more difficult to work with people.”

He tried telling himself those efforts were worth it so he could serve again and work on climate change, health care, energy reform. “But it was soul-sapping. It’s demeaning,” he says. “And to this day I still get physically sick when people ask me to raise money.”

Udall has retreated from most of the public events – the party conventions, annual banquets, MLK Day marches, Veterans Day parades – he previously attended. He found comfort in no longer having to “mouth what you’re required to mouth.” 

“My reservoir for all that had run dry,” he says. “I didn’t want to linger. I wasn’t into trying to regain the past status I had, the glory – if you will.”

He also isn’t into parlaying his elected service into private profit as have some former Colorado politicos, including former Gov. Bill Owens and former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. 

“My parents raised me to never look at public service as something you go on to monetize. That’s just not what you did.”

Life beyond 15-minute increments

Following his parents’ example, Udall has been championing nonprofit groups, joining the boards of the Grand Canyon Trust, Council for a Livable World, whose mission is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and the dZi Foundation, which improves quality of life in Nepalese communities. He also serves on the boards of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ PAC tackling gun violence and of Protect our Winters (POW), a climate advocacy group for the winter sports community. Fellow members on three of those boards say his involvement is limited and that he often misses meetings.

So where has Udall been, and what has he been up to?

“I’ve had to look at what most interests me,” he says. 

And what has interested him most after leaving politics is what most interested him before it as an accomplished mountaineer, course instructor and executive director of Colorado Outward Bound. Udall has returned to his roots climbing, connecting with land and water, and setting personal challenges that don’t require tearing other people down. 

“You don’t trash talk your way up a mountain. You don’t schmooze your way up the mountain, either. That’s what frustrated me about the world of politics. People didn’t always get me because, you know, ‘That Udall, he’s more on receive than on transmit.’ That’s not how things work in D.C.”

He and his wife, environmentalist Maggie Fox, spent months in 2015 trekking 400 miles from the Grand Gulch at Bears Ears National Monument, along the San Juan River, through the Navajo Nation, to Lee’s Ferry, which is named after his great, great grandfather. Every day entailed a long walk to water – a quest made more challenging by four consecutive years of extreme drought conditions in that area.

“The experience really brought climate change home in a different way,” he says. “I want my grandchildren to be able to do that walk. And I want water to still be there (for them) along the way.”

Having climbed the world’s third highest mountain and made several attempts up Everest, he set about achieving another of his mountaineering goals – summiting the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, the “Colorado Centennials.” He also took up sea kayaking, taking a dozen or so trips in the past five years, including a 200-mile solo trip last winter paddling off the coast of Baja. A certain element of risk, he says, floats his boat.

“When you’re serving in public, you end up living your life in 15-minute increments.”

Udall comes from a family not only of risk takers, but also high achievers. 

His father, Mo Udall, served 30 years as a congressman from Arizona and ran for president in 1976. His uncle, Stewart Udall, was a three-term Arizona congressman before serving as U.S. interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Lesser known, but perhaps most inspiring to him was his mother, Patricia, who despite debilitating arthritis became a pilot and then a flight instructor in Nepal during her years in the Peace Corps, which she joined in her 50s. The practicing Buddhist died in 2003.

He credits her for inspiring him to take up meditation and to focus more “on the moment, appreciating what is happening right now.” He has joined what he calls “a little sangah here in Boulder” – a community of people who traditionally are Buddhists and practice meditation together. But in his group’s case, “most of the people are Jewish” and they also discuss public affairs. 

After years on the rubber chicken circuit, Udall has, like many his age, changed his diet and is trying to eat only plants. “Lots of avocados,” he says. He tries to meditate and hike for at least an hour each day, and says he’s grateful that “my body’s holding up” and that he’s able to spend the kind of time with family and friends that his schedule didn’t allow in elected office.

“When you’re serving in public, you end up living your life in 15-minute increments. I’ve enjoyed my time opening up. I feel liberated by that. The quality of my life has improved, even though I’m not sure that’s true about the country as a whole.”

Unresolved issues

Udall was one of 58 Congress members who opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion despite warnings that the stance would hurt him back home in what was then a red state. He considers that vote “the most significant of my career.” And he is proud of having challenged the wisdom of George W. Bush’s administration’s Global War on Terror and questioned what it knew and didn’t know about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

“I’ll never forgive that group for playing on our fears after 911 and for leading us into Iraq. There was a moment there when the really thoughtful people weren’t listened to. It was ‘Wag the Dog’ times ten.”

“I don’t want to say I was right, but I was right,” he continues about the country’s long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “There has been such a cost there. The national debt at $22 trillion, the veterans and the effects on them, the cost of prestige and focus, the cost in lives, and the repercussions of being so bogged down in the Middle East that we were ignoring what was going in with Russia and China.”

His criticisms of U.S. spy and antiterror programs continued in the Senate and his work on its Intelligence Committee. In that role, he decried big tech’s mass collection of people’s telecommunications data and slammed the Obama administration’s expansion of drone strikes, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He was especially critical of the federal government’s failure to address the George W. Bush-era CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – torture – on terrorism suspects and the disappearance of the agency’s interrogation videos. He championed a probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee and berated CIA Director John Brennan for misrepresenting the efficacy of torture in intelligence gathering, accusing his agency of “lying.” He also had harsh words for the Obama administration having kept many of those responsible for the torture program in their jobs.

“Sometimes history punishes you for seeing into the future.”

Udall pushed hard before leaving office for the declassification of the committee’s 6,000-page torture report, exposing its findings that torture hinders rather than helps intelligence gathering in hopes that the country would learn from its mistakes. 

“I was hellbent on making sure the report saw the light of day,” he says. “I was deeply angered and appalled. It’s unconstitutional. It’s illegal. It’s immoral. And it puts our military personal at risk.”

That stance and his anger over the CIA spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee itself are depicted in “The Report,” a feature film starring Annette Bening and Adam Driver newly released by Amazon Studios. Udall hopes it will help raise public awareness about a recent history that “a significant number of people don’t seem to know about.” 

The movie was emotional for me, affirming for me,” he says. “I feel very strongly that the film creates an opportunity to tell the public the real story and thereby harden our commitment to never again use torture.”

If he could change one thing about it, he noted, he would have made sure that the pants worn by Scott Shepherd, the actor who portrays him, were slightly longer so that when he crossed his legs, there wasn’t so much skin between the hem and his cowboy boots. That made him cringe.

While the movie helped validate his efforts to end torture, there is no such closure for Udall’s work pushing for digital privacy and increased scrutiny of big tech companies mining personal data. Both issues remain unresolved five years after his defeat, and no member of the Senate has stepped in to own the issue.

“If I feel guilty about anything, it’s that there is a void (of leadership) in that area that I at the time helped fill in. I was raising those issues, not ignoring them. And now, well, it’s like the trio of the Matrix movies. It’s Orwell. It’s Huxley. We all know about the privacy breaches but continue marching down this path. It’s akin to what we’re doing on climate, figuring that somehow it’s all going to work out.” 

Some Mark Udall loyalists might say his expertise on digital privacy could help launch him back into elected politics. He dismisses those hopes, saying, “The realist in me knows those credentials didn’t get me reelected in 2014 and wouldn’t get me elected in 2020 or 2022.”

“Sometimes,” he adds, “history punishes you for seeing into the future.”

You might figure that a man who helped lead a national call for digital privacy would be way ahead of the rest of us protecting his personal data. He takes some precautions such as avoiding location services and keeping his iPhone 6 on minimally accessible settings. He also avoids social media – as much out of lack of interest as privacy concerns. But he acknowledges spending two or three hours a day on screens and “being slowly co-opted like everybody else” by searching on Google and buying from Amazon.

His last purchase? 

“This week. A book on back health.”

His next chapter?

Udall came out of his wilderness briefly in 2016 as a possible Hillary Clinton administration interior secretary. More privately, he says, he has met with everybody who has run to unseat Sen. Gardner this election cycle, including those who have dropped out since former Gov. John Hickenlooper threw in his hat.

“I just thought there were a lot of talented people in that race. Those people were all interesting and were all in and I believe the primary process would have elevated a really strong candidate and then the governor did what he did and, well, here were are,” he says.

He publicly weighed in earlier this year about the University of Colorado’s search for a new president, calling for a redo of the process whereby former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, a conservative Republican from Minnesota with whom he briefly served in Congress, was chosen as the sole finalist. 

As often as people ask where Udall has been these past five years, they also ask where he’s headed and what his next chapter will be. It seems hard, he says, for some to believe or accept that he doesn’t know and has no interest in forcing an answer.

At least for now, what draws him, energizes him most is being unscheduled and unscripted, unburdened by titles and expectations, and free of presuppositions and false constructs. “I guess that’s what they mean by ‘dharma,’” he says.

The former senator in jeans, snowboots and a flannel shirt looks around the café, well aware that nobody in the place recognizes him.

“My brand,” he says, grinning, “has faded.”

7 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating! I’m glad to know more about the Democrat I automatically I voted for when I moved from Wyoming to Colorado, but sad to hear that politics drives out the most ethical people.

  2. The former Senator and I are the same age. I’ve been a political Independent my whole life. You can tell how people with vote by their choice of news sources. We’ve become a nation that doesn’t want to listen to anyone that doesn’t think the way we do .I don’t see any candidate that has much chance of bringing our nation together but most just dividing us more.

  3. “I came off as scowling and dour,” he admits. “Rather than being people-oriented, the campaign ended up being too much about what the data was showing us. Voters couldn’t see what I stood for and we lost our way.”

    Bingo! One of the worst campaigns I have ever witnessed. Those TV ads were a turnoff even for his staunch supporters. Very hard to watch. Polling and big data (and the venal, craven consultants who push them like opioids) kill again! Someone stop them!

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