Joe Schwarz’s Year of Living Dangerously
Surgeon and former CIA operative takes on his latest challenge:
an independent bid for governor
by Susan J. Demas
March 16, 2010
The year was 1965 and all hell was breaking loose in Jakarta. On September 30, six senior Army generals were rounded up and executed in an attempted communist coup in the poverty-ravaged nation. The ensuing battle for Indonesia’s heart and soul over the next few years would eventually claim a half-million lives and give rise to a new president.
This was the new normal for a 28-year-old doctor-turned-assistant naval attaché from Battle Creek, Michigan. Nearly 45 years later, Joe Schwarz still can’t talk about what he did to help stop the country from collapsing, although he is a fan of the Mel Gibson film about that era, The Year of Living Dangerously (When watching it with his daughter, Brennan, years ago, he told her, “That was your mother and me.”)
“A lot of other people — Americans, the British, Australians — wanted to help the good guy,” he simply says, “and in this case, it was [General] Suharto and the loyal Indonesian military.”
Schwarz would soon come face-to-face with the man who was preparing to take over as Indonesia’s new leader. As the violence was winding down in 1966, he was summoned for a new mission: teaching English to Suharto. Schwarz remembers following him around a big white table in the entranceway of his house, drilling him on basic phrases like “good morning” (“Just the simplest ways to ingratiate yourself in English, because he didn’t speak a word,” he says).
“I was chosen, not because I was the world’s greatest English teacher, but because I was the most inoffensive American — very junior person who couldn’t offend anybody,” Schwarz adds.
He was a long way from home. The youngest son of a World War I and II veteran, Schwarz enlisted with a friend in the Navy in 1965 and asked to be sent to Vietnam after completing an internship at L.A. County/USC Medical Center (“The recruiting officer looked at us and said, ‘Doctors, I don’t think I’m going to have much difficulty fulfilling your wish,’” he recalls). After spending a year suturing up the wounded and treating malaria cases near Da Nang, he received new orders to attend Naval Attaché School, which would lead to a hitch as a CIA operative.
“I showed the Marine Colonel, who was basically my commanding officer, my orders and he said, ‘Who the hell do you know?’ And I said, ‘Colonel, I don’t know anybody,’” Schwarz laughs.
For three years with the Agency, the former University of Michigan offensive lineman darted through Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia, where he met his future wife, fellow operative Anne Ennis (“She used to say, ‘Where else would a girl who grew up in Montana meet a boy from Michigan but in Jakarta?’” Schwarz grins).
He had always known he wanted to serve; indeed, it was the mantra of his father, Frank, a neurologist and psychiatrist. But Schwarz never dreamed he would be recruited by the CIA or see the things he did, even rubbing elbows with John Steinbeck, Charles Lindbergh and David Halberstam.
One weekend in Laos, the surgeon performed six leg amputations of Lao natives who were land mine victims. “You go up to the point of circulation, and that’s where you cut the leg off — sometimes above the knee, sometimes below the knee,” he recalls. “When I finished the fifth one, I thought, ‘God, there can’t possibly be any more,’ but there was another person flown in by an Air America chopper and I did that one, too. It’s not much fun, but basically, you save their lives.”
He always knew he wanted to serve in politics, although he never mapped out a plan for that, either. Within a few years of returning from Southeast Asia, he began another life, serving as mayor of Battle Creek, a state senator for 16 years and a congressman for a single term. The moderate Republican garnered a reputation for getting things done, leading successful fights to boost higher education funding and save the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base from closure.
“You sometimes have to lead people kicking and screaming down the road to do the right thing,” Schwarz says.
The lawmaker’s blunt style, stubbornness and temper ruffled some feathers, particularly on the far right (“He doesn’t suffer fools silently,” offers longtime friend Mike Ranville). But former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow recalls Schwarz examining sick senators in the chamber’s back room, getting their family members into the U of M medical center and saving Sen. Mat Dunaskiss’ life in 2001 after he collapsed at the Senate podium from a seizure.
“He would just help everyone. That’s a side people don’t see as much,” DeGrow says.
Now 72, Schwarz is embarking on one final challenge: seriously weighing a run for governor as an independent. Although he’s never been one to shy away from speaking his mind (“He’s physiologically incapable of pandering,” daughter Brennan says), he seems relieved to have left the world of party politics behind.
“I’m doing this because I love this state and its people and its universities and everything about it. I am a very deep Michigander,” says Schwarz, who was known to absentmindedly doodle maps of the Mitten State while in congressional meetings. “And I think if people get to know me and I get to know them on a little wider basis, they might agree that I might be what’s needed to bring people together and grind down some of the sharp edges that have developed between one political party and the other.
“I think I can do it. And I think I can do it well for four years and then move on. And if I don’t make it, no hard feelings and I will have the personal satisfaction to know that I tried and that I didn’t walk away from something that I thought I should do.”
John Joseph Henry Schwarz could have lived anywhere in the world — that’s not an exaggeration. Instead, he left a high-flying career in the CIA to complete his medical training at Harvard and open up a small otolaryngology practice in Battle Creek.
“I have always felt a great affinity to this state and its people and to my hometown,” he says. “My hometown was very good to me and very good to my family…I came back utterly by choice. I felt I could make a difference.”
Schwarz’s story does not technically begin in Michigan — doctors shipped his mother, Helen, to Chicago to have a Cesarean section on November 15, 1937. Two weeks later, he returned to Cereal City via train (which perhaps birthed his lifelong love affair with railroads). His brother, Frank Jr., was 13 years his senior and sister Janet was a decade older, so young Joe (everyone in the Irish-German clan always called him Joe) was raised for much of his life as an only child.
The family lived at Fort Custer while Frank Sr. served as an Army physician. The sprawling base was home to 40,000 troops and had a mockup village named Hitlerville in the middle of the woods, strewn with live ammunition.
“Our parents always told us, ‘Don’t you dare go to Hitlerville,’” Schwarz recalls, unleashing his trademark short, guttural laugh. “And, of course, we always did. We would ride our bikes out there, but nobody ever got hurt. But as I think about it in retrospect, it was one of those supremely stupid things you do when you’re a kid.”
Schwarz was actually “kind of a straight arrow,” says his best friend, Blair Lyman — other than having a few beers and a few parties in high school when parents went away. At 6-2, the ruggedly handsome, crew-cut Schwarz was the big man on campus as senior class president, swim team captain and a member of the football and baseball teams. Not surprisingly, he was voted most popular by Battle Creek Central brethren, but it was in academics where he really shined.
“The guy is so smart, you can’t believe it,” Lyman says. “I wasn’t in a lot of classes with him. That was when they still marked on a curve, and no one wanted to get in his class, I tell you…A lot of us would go out at night and we’d see the light up in Joe’s room where he was studying. Most times we wouldn’t even stop.”
At 17, Schwarz was accepted into Princeton, but he opted not to leave the state, instead following in his brother’s footsteps at U of M (“My mother almost had the big one,” he chuckles, noting she wanted him to go to an Ivy League school). He earned a history degree in 1959 and spent a year in graduate school at his alma mater with the goal of being a professor, something he would eventually fulfill at both Harvard and U of M.
But first his urologist brother intervened, as their father had died of Parkinson’s two years earlier. “He said, ‘You do what you want to do, but I think you would better serve yourself and others if you would go into medicine,’” Schwarz recalls. It obviously worked; he graduated from Wayne State University Medical School in 1964.
Following his manic five years in Southeast Asia, Schwarz completed his residency at Harvard, where he joined the junior faculty at the department of otolaryngology in 1973. He and Anne had married two years earlier and their only child, Brennan, was born in Boston in 1974.
That year, the Schwarzes decided to leave the Ivy League behind and make their home in Battle Creek, buying a simple sandy-brick ranch on the historic north side where Schwarz still lives today. Anne “took to Battle Creek like a duck to water,” he recalls, volunteering for everything from the Junior League to the Leila Arboretum. The family would also make frequent trips to her hometown of Kalispell on the edge of Glacier National Park, where Schwarz has since built a cedar summer home on Flathead Lake.
Not much has changed in 36 years besides an addition to the master bedroom; a stained-glass maize and blue “M” glints in the kitchen window and smoky railroad paintings by Howard Fogg adorn the walls, as well as an original C.M. Russell watercolor. A passionate gardener, Schwarz babies the four orchids in his living room overlooking a wooded backyard, where black squirrels routinely ransack his bird feeders.
The one thing missing is Anne, something still palpable in the house 20 years after she lost her battle with breast cancer. Brennan was only 16. It was the hardest thing Schwarz has been through. “He was real quiet,” Lyman recalls. “You’d have to start talking about different topics, because he would be drifting.”
Schwarz had a short-lived second marriage to Patti Woodworth, who served as Gov. John Engler’s budget director. Besides some of his CIA missions, that’s the only topic off-limits with the man known for being candid to a fault.
Joe Schwarz has never been a particularly patient fellow. He always knew he wanted to run for office, so in the bicentennial year, he challenged then-U.S. Rep. Garry Brown in the GOP primary and lost (“I wouldn’t say it was arrogance, but it certainly was hubris,” Schwarz says now).
Little did he know that 30 years later, his long-delayed congressional career would end with another Republican primary.
Schwarz came of political age as a “Bill Milliken Republican, an Arthur Vandenberg Republican,” although his favorite president is Harry Truman. The fiscal conservative and social moderate has never voted a straight ticket, but usually favored Republicans for higher office. Schwarz did cast his ballot for John Kennedy in 1960, as he did for Jennifer Granholm in 2006.
His evolution as an independent has been gradual, fueled by the GOP’s rightward swing starting in the 1980s. There is increasingly little room within the party for even the slightest deviation on abortion (he is personally pro-life, but believes Roe v. Wade is the law of the land), gun rights (he thinks Michigan’s concealed weapon law is misguided), embryonic stem cell research (he chaired the pro-Proposal 2 effort in 2008) and gay marriage (he supports civil unions).
All of that has made him a heretic with the Republican Party base, which is fine by him. “I’ve always felt at home as an independent,” he says. “What the party feels about an issue has never influenced me on an important vote.”
In 1979 he won a nonpartisan seat on the Battle Creek City Commission. He went on to serve as his hometown’s mayor from 1985 to 1986 while juggling his medical practice, as he’s done throughout his political career. It was during his successful run for the state Senate that year that he met Ranville, an educator turned multi-client lobbyist, at a Charlotte parade. Ranville’s then-10-year-old daughter, Mara, had talked to Schwarz and shocked her father by coming back wearing a campaign T-shirt.
“She said, ‘Dad, you gotta meet this guy,’” Ranville recalls. “…She asked a couple of questions about K-12 education and he didn’t talk down to her. He treated her with dignity.”
Ranville would frequently lobby Schwarz on labor issues during his 16-year tenure. “He was always a very tough vote,” he says. “You frankly had to have your act together before you went in there.”
Though he’s most proud of hammering out Proposal A, which cut property taxes and instituted a statewide school funding system, Schwarz is probably best known for championing Michigan’s 15 public universities on the Appropriations Committee (“Engler would always say, ‘You guys are spending too much money,’” Ranville recalls). As governor, Schwarz has pledged to restore funding as a key way to turn Michigan’s economy around.
Lyman worked for his old friend for 12 years in the Senate after selling his own printing company. “He was one of the few senators who would actually read the bills,” he recalls. “The others would always come up to him with questions.”
Although many laud the Engler years as the model of legislative efficiency, Schwarz has one big regret. He admits that he and his fellow lawmakers failed to make long-term decisions to shore up the state’s finances, something that’s come back to haunt Michigan during the last decade-long recession.
“The legislature and the governor were very adept at finding places where money had been stashed away in one form or another and spending it,” he notes. “And the conscious reason was not that people wanted to spend all the money that was there. The unconscious reason was that no one could possibly imagine how the bottom would drop out of the economy, the difficult straights in which the automotive industry would find itself and nobody anticipated the general national and international downturn. Nobody anticipated that banks and financial institutions would behave so irresponsibly.”
There are some moments that forever change a political career. For Schwarz, it was a fall day in 1999 when U.S. Sen. John McCain arrived to speak at Lansing Community College.
Engler was one of George W. Bush’s biggest supporters, so no one from the administration would be greeting the former P.O.W. That didn’t set well with Schwarz, who decades before had been ordered by the CIA to help locate American soldiers captured in Vietnam and learned of McCain languishing in the Hanoi Hilton. While presiding over the Senate, he threw down the gavel and announced he was leaving to endorse McCain (“I was always the outlier,” he grins).
A day later, the senator invited him to chair his insurgent Michigan campaign, which Schwarz jovially accepted. The pair crisscrossed the state and became fast friends, culminating in McCain’s upset win here in 2000.
That led to McCain endorsing him in his next two big races — governor in 2002 and Congress two years later. Running in the Republican gubernatorial primary against Engler’s lieutenant governor, Schwarz scored only a dismal 19 percent of the vote.
“Organization Republicans were far more comfortable with Dick Posthumus than myself. Certainly Dick comported far more closely with them, especially on social issues,” he says. “But I deluded myself into thinking there might be some independent voters out there who would vote in the Republican primary…In retrospect, I’m not sure how anyone, including myself, could have thought anything else would happen.”
Ranville recalls Schwarz coming to him that year and saying, “‘I’m getting killed. Should I get out?’ I told him, ‘All I know is that you’re raising the level of debate.’” He accompanied Schwarz to an Observer and Eccentric editorial board meeting, where he was asked about fixing the state’s infrastructure. The senator said he’d raise the gas tax — something he still supports — which prompted one editor to ask how he’d get elected governor with an answer like that.
“He said, ‘Getting elected can’t be the end-all, be-all of everything,’” Ranville recalls. “‘Telling the truth is.’”
Schwarz had more success running in a six-way primary in 2004 for the open 7th congressional district seat. He managed to build a successful coalition of moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats, something his campaign manager, Matt Marsden, notes “wasn’t a fluke or luck. A good campaign is looking at the angles.”
Marsden went on to serve as Schwarz’s chief of staff in Washington. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” says Marsden, now press secretary for Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop. “It was what working for an elected official should be. It was challenging and there was conflict, but there was also a common understanding of what direction we were going, and as long as we followed that direction with integrity, we’d be all right.”
Schwarz’s two years in Congress were busy ones; he served on the prestigious Armed Services Committee and was named one of the top 10 most effective freshmen. He traveled frequently with McCain to Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan, as well as to national security and climate change conferences in Europe.
“The only thing that saved me in my term in the U.S. House was my friendship with John McCain, because he included me in all sorts of things,” Schwarz says.
That didn’t turn out to be enough to pull him through a brutal, $3-million Republican primary in 2006. Tim Walberg, an ultraconservative former state representative and preacher, enlisted the help of Right to Life and the Washington anti-tax lobby Club for Growth. Round-the-clock ads lampooned Schwarz as being “embarrassingly liberal” for supporting earmarks and tax increases.
“I think it makes a very clear statement about a candidate if they accept assistance — especially money — from an organization like Club for Growth that they are, in my mind, above nothing, will do anything, say anything to win public office and that is precisely, precisely the wrong kind of person that I want representing me in the Congress or in the state legislature,” Schwarz says. “There’s no place in politics for personal attacks.”
Schwarz lost by six points that August, making him the first primary scalp for the Club. His supporters were “more devastated than he was,” Lyman says. Former Sen. John Kelly, one of his strongest Democratic backers, declares that “right-wing fanatics have infested the Republican Party and taken it away from its true roots…You’re defined by who your enemies are and that’s clear when it comes to Joe Schwarz.”
He continued serving as an ear, nose and throat surgeon at the Battle Creek Family Health Center, where 40 percent of his patients are on Medicaid and 20 percent are uninsured. On weekends, he works the New York Times crossword and attends mass at St. Philip’s, but relaxation is something that Brennan says “he doesn’t do very well.”
Schwarz also was asked to lecture at U of M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Shelley Rosenberg, a West Bloomfield senior, took his public policy class last year and calls him a “phenomenal” professor. “You could ask any of the 52 students in the class and they’d say something along the same lines,” she says.
But Schwarz never got out of the political game. Almost immediately after leaving Congress, Granholm appointed him to her 12-person Emergency Financial Advisory Panel to help steer the state through its fiscal crisis (and promptly ignored the panel’s report). The Pentagon also enlisted the former naval officer in 2007 for its blue-ribbon panel on conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And he was active in McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, although it was a blow when he was passed over as campaign chair.
Schwarz also led the Cure Michigan group that successfully won a 2008 constitutional amendment lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell research. It’s long been a passion of the surgeon, who convinced then-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert to let the issue come to a vote in Congress. Once again, he was butting heads with pro-lifers and “conservative theocrats.”
“Nobody in the recent past has been as vocal against our organization,” says Right to Life of Michigan lobbyist Ed Rivet. “Joe is Joe. We’re used to public scorn.”
Dave Maluchnik, spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference that also opposed Prop 2, dismissed Schwarz as “an ENT doc, not a stem cell biologist. Anyone who’s been in Michigan long enough knows of his beef with Right to Life folks. Plus, Dr. Schwarz doesn’t debate; he interrupts and talks over people.”
Schwarz admits he has little patience for those more interested in political grandstanding than the science behind stem cells.
“That’s the problem I have with Right to Life,” the practicing Roman Catholic says. “Don’t be my moral judge. I’ll be my moral judge and God will be my moral judge, but you’re not my moral judge.”
Though he was heavily courted to run for his old congressional seat that year as a Democrat (by now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel no less), Schwarz declined, saying he wasn’t comfortable switching parties. But he did back his old friend, now-U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, the first Democrat to win in decades.
No, Schwarz knew that if he were ever going to run for office again, he would go for governor.
Schwarz has heard the rap on his independent bid, that he’s still suffering from sour grapes after his GOP primary defeat. And he has a one-word answer ready: “Bullshit.” It’s that kind of straight talk that’s made him a darling with the press for decades.
The majority of voters don’t identify with either party. But he knows it will be an uphill battle, noting that Michigan has no history of independents winning higher office. “I think we’re very close to having a third party in this country,” he says. “It may not happen, but I think we’re close enough that it’s a distinct possibility.”
Still, it’s strained some friendships, like that with Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser, who was in the war room with Schwarz and Marsden on the night of the ’06 loss. “I don’t think he will be governor,” says Weiser, a fellow U of M alumnus. “I have nothing negative to say about him. He’s just a very, very, very big longshot.”
This time around, Schwarz plans to call McCain and let him know of his campaign, but he’s not asking for an endorsement. “He’s got a little primary bid down in Arizona,” the former congressman notes. “I don’t know that he’d want to do anything that could potentially cost him votes down there. Nor would I expect him to.”
Former Senate leader DeGrow is still a strong Republican, but says he has no hesitation in writing Schwarz a check. The state CEO “has to govern from the center. He’ll treat voters like grownups. I think they’ll find that refreshing,” says DeGrow, now superintendent for St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency. “… If a wrestler from Minnesota can do it, Joe can do it.”
Brennan wasn’t surprised in the least when her dad decided to jump back into the political fray (“It would take a psychic shift in his being for him not to want to run again,” she says). Still, a former lobbyist who describes herself as “definitely” a Democrat, Brennan notes the pitfalls.
“I’ll support him in whatever he wants to do,” she declares. “It’s hard for an independent to win. You have to ask for money and he’s not good at that.”
It’s true that Schwarz is far more comfortable getting things done in the halls of government than hitting the rubber chicken and county fair campaign circuit. He’d rather let his laurels speak for him than sell people on himself. And he’s also known to unload phrases like “there are all sorts of emanations from those penumbrae” in casual conversation, or quote Kipling when discussing the surge in Afghanistan (“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains/And the women come out to cut up what remains/ Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier”).
Marsden describes his former boss as a good candidate when he’s disciplined, but he “thinks he knows more than anybody else. Campaigns, that’s an area he needs to recognize he may not know as much as what everyone else does.
“If you’re running for governor, don’t say you’re thinking about it,” Marsden adds. “It allows detractors to say you’re playing around, doing it for your ego.”
Schwarz says he is serious and is putting his campaign team together. He’s also vowed to only serve a single term.
“From day one, when you assume an office, the plans for the next election become a distraction,” Schwarz says. “And the governor of this state can have no distraction for the next four years.”
Ready to lead
Job one for a newly inaugurated Gov. Schwarz will be establishing a good relationship with the legislature so the “budget doesn’t turn into a free-for-all.”
He sees himself as a strong executive, more in the mold of Engler than Granholm, but adds, “Like any other governor, I have my own style. You have to convince people that everybody’s got to give a little to get a little.”
“He understands state government thoroughly,” says DeGrow. “We’ve tried people who don’t over the last eight years, so maybe it’s time to try someone who gets it.”
Schwarz also isn’t running a lollipops-and-ice-cream campaign by promising a quick economic turnaround if elected. After the state’s near-death experience with the domestic auto industry, he estimates it will take eight to 10 years for Michigan to get on firm footing with a predictable fiscal future to attract businesses. “You get the ship on the right course and you build year after year,” he says.
Getting there will mean painful budget cuts, government reforms, and yes, tax increases. Schwarz says a business tax hike is off the table, but he wants to see the Michigan Business Tax rewritten as a fair corporate income tax.
“I don’t understand how anybody says, ‘We can get out of this and everything’s going to be fine, but we never need to look at anything that raises any tax that raises revenue.’” he declares. “…[Republicans] think that way because they want to get re-elected and they don’t want to go back home and tell people the truth — that the state is in big trouble and if we don’t get the revenue situation straightened out, you madam, and you sir, who are looking at decreased police and fire protection, decreased maintenance on your roads, decreased number of dollars coming into your public schools, are going to be madder than you are now.
“And you’ve got to connect the dots. And the dots are that the revenues in this state right now are totally inadequate even for the basic services that the state is required by law to provide. Now suck it up, legislators, and do what you need to do. Nobody wants to have their taxes raised. That’s the way it is. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
Club for Growth President David Keating says that just proves the group’s point that Schwarz is a chronic tax-and-spender.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he says. “It’s certainly not what Michigan needs. It indicates he’s certainly not a fiscal conservative. He might be next to the Democrat running, although I don’t know who’s running.”
The physician is equally frank about the cuts he’ll make, some of which will come at the expense of state workers.
“If there’s a great hue and cry, I don’t understand,” he says. “You still have a job. And if you can go home to your neighbors, who used to work for Ford, or used to work for General Motors, or used to work for Chrysler, or used to work for Visteon, and say, ‘Oh, woe is me, I’m going to have my job and my salary’s going to be the same or within 5 percent, but some benefits are going to be cut,’ your GM friend, your Chrysler friend or your Ford friend or your Visteon friend or your Delphi friend is going to say, ‘Piss off.’”
At 73, Schwarz would not be the Wolverine State’s oldest governor (that title belongs to Luren Dickinson). But as for anyone questioning his age, he sighs, “I don’t know what 72 is supposed to feel like. I feel the same as I did 20 years ago.”
Of all the jobs he’s had, the one he’s enjoyed most is being a surgeon in Battle Creek — something he would have to give up as governor. “After 36 years, I’m prepared to,” Schwarz says.
But isn’t he nervous about the last chapter in his political career ending in failure?
“Failure at a material goal is part of the human condition and we all have those types of failures,” he says philosophically.
He looks around the house that he built with the love of his life. It’s where he read to his daughter, pored over legislation and took many a late-night phone call for emergency surgeries. He’s had so many lives, battling against unspeakable horror overseas, coaxing people back from the brink of death on the operating table — and yet he always knew he’d end back here in Michigan, fighting to make it a better place.
Schwarz runs his fingers through his thinning, snow-white hair and smiles ever so slightly. “Failure to do what you think is right and what you think you are able to do to serve a state that you love would be inexcusable.”
It’s the creed he’s always lived by. And for Joe Schwarz, it’s now or never.
Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.