"Big Jim Exon", Part I

March, 2013

Lincoln -- This is going to take more than one post.

Chuck Pallesen and Sam Van Pelt have pulled off a great book, Big Jim Exon. A lot of people, Democrats and Republicans alike, have opened up about Jim Exon as never before. It is the best biography of a Nebraska statesman since James C. Olson's biography of J. Sterling Morton.

It is good to see so many people give Norman Otto, chief of staff to both Frank Morrison and Jim Exon, his due; he was a great Nebraskan and a friend to many in both parties. Norm's "breakfast circle" of leading state officials, past and present, continued until shortly before his death a few months ago.

Chuck Pallesen's untimely passing in late 2011 takes away another remarkable figure from the Nebraska civic as well as political scene. Chuck plays down his own role in this book; the reader must read carefully between the lines to know how he was able to balance so many roles at once.

Chuck interviewed me three times for this book, the last time only briefly as his health was failing. Had there been a fourth time, I would have tried to talk him out of making such a big issue of the Gus Lieske affair in Governor Exon's first term. But I would have been wrong. After reading the comments of so many others, I am now convinced that this contretemps was pivotal not only to Jim Exon's governorship, but to his whole career. When Stan Matzke replaced Lieske as Department of Administrative Services director, Matzke inaugurated a more collective decision-making process, centered around the state budget. Over the ensuing years, Governor Exon spent hundreds of hours in the DAS office with instructions to his staff upstairs not to disturb him while he went over state and federal issues in great detail with his agency heads and with DAS's budget and management analysts.

This became a seminar that went on for months every year. Regulars at the seminar table were Bill Peters, John Jacobson, W. Don Nelson, and often Bill Hoppner or Norm Otto. Don Leuenberger and I also spent countless hours at these sessions. Sometimes Norman Krivosha would join by speakerphone; Gene Budig came in once in military uniform to witness the process.

Exon could not get enough of it. He asked, he probed, he learned. He gained confidence mastering the arcana of government. It gave him a huge advantage over his nemesis, the Legislature. State senators were overmatched not just by Jim Exon the politician, but by Jim Exon the master government executive.

Credit goes to Stan Matzke, and to Budget Director John Jacobson, for this innovation that developed the administrative talents of Jim Exon and also made of him a serious student of a great many public policy issues. He would go on to record a total of five state-wide election victories before retiring as the undefeated champ of Nebraska elections.