"Big Jim Exon", Part II

Lincoln -- It is enlightening to read the interviews of Jim Exon's Republican adversaries in Chuck Pallesen and Sam Van Pelt's new book, Big Jim Exon. Among others, former governors Norbert Tiemann, Charley Thone, and Kay Orr each weighed in with their special perspectives.

These interviews complement the series Lincoln Journal Star reporter Don Walton recently wrote about the Orr Administration, in which Kay Orr opened up about her years as governor.

What strikes me is the continuity rather than the discontinuity over the Tiemann, Exon, Thone, Kerrey, Orr and later administrations. Nobby Tiemann overhauled state government in the 1960s not only with a new tax base, but with administrative streamlining in which a single strong executive replaced a more plural executive model. These administrative changes set the stage for surprising executive continuity despite alternating political party control.

The most obvious example of this streamlining was the creation of the Department of Administrative Services, responsible to the governor for central state budgeting, accounting, and other functions such as state buildings, transportation, and computing. All budgeting, even that of constitutional and educational agencies, and all accounting (including pre-audit) henceforth went through DAS.

It was Nobby Tiemann who modernized state government and gave the governor powers commensurate with his or her responsibility, and it was Jim Exon, who followed him, who was first fully to use the enhanced executive powers and to set the standard for their use in subsequent administrations.

What is also striking is that subsequent governors relied so much on people who administered state government under Jim Exon. Republicans seemed not to have had a very deep bench of potential administrators to put into top appointive positions.

Don Leuenberger is an example of continuity. Don was director of Exon's DAS budget division on the eve of the Thone-Whelan gubernatorial election contest in 1978. Jerry Whelan, the Democratic candidate and Exon's lieutenant governor, sent out feelers to several of us, including Don, asking us to stay on if he was elected. When Charley Thone was elected instead, Don and I expected to find employment elsewhere.

So it was a great surprise to us when Charley Thone, in the first days of the gubernatorial transition, asked Don and me to accept re-appointment in his administration. He quickly noted that I was not likely to stay at DAS (as I was going to Washington with newly-elected Senator Exon), but he pressed Don for a quick answer about remaining as state budget director; Don agreed. Don went on to be appointed to other top positions under Republican governors, including tax commissioner in the Orr Administration and was (as is apparent in the Walton interviews) the key Orr advisor on running state government.

Like so many of us, Don Leuenberger cut his teeth as a goveror's advisor and administrator in the seminar-like sessions (see Part 1) that Governor Exon conducted for years in Stan Matzke's DAS office. So did Larry Bare, a Matzke protégé, who first made appearances at the sessions from his job in the Department of Economic Development. Larry later became state budget director, DAS director, and finally chief of staff to two later Republican governors. Democratic chiefs of staff Bill Hoppner and W. Don Nelson were also veterans of the sessions in which Jim Exon set the bar high as a strong governor model for effectively administering state government under Nebraska law.

Thanks to Chuck and Sam for including an anecdote (on page 149) describing of the atmosphere of the Exon seminar sessions, particularly the running gag in which Exon would take a dubious idea and announce into any place where a hidden microphone (as in the Nixon White House) might be found that "IT WOULD BE WRONG!" Jim Exon was a powerful governor, but always an ethical one who actually had a good time being ethical.

All books have mistakes. I hope there is a second edition in which the record can be corrected (on page 91) to show that Jack Falconer was at the first meetings with Governor-elect Exon, not me; and (on page 323) that comments attributed to Gene Budig about legislation in the U.S. Senate were actually, for better or worse, from my interview.

It is appropriate here to note that many of the principals of the Exon seminar sessions continued to meet, under the aegis of Norm Otto's breakfasts, for years and even decades after Governor Exon left office. Peters, Chunka, Matzke, Jacobson, Leuenberger, Bare, Hoppner, Nelson, Ferris, Rochford, and many others over the years participated in critiques of state government, regardless of party affiliation or who was in power. It was -- and still remains -- the ultimate state government back channel.