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Kirk Jowers: the Hinckley Institute's main man

SALT LAKE CITY — Every semester he watches them walk by the Hinckley Institute of Politics offices on the University of Utah campus, checking out the displays, not sure what to make of everything, wondering if they would like it, if there might be something that could prove useful to their lives.

Their story is his, he muses, and better yet, his story could be theirs.

Kirk Jowers is living, breathing proof of what can happen when you open the door and enter what is arguably the finest on-campus political institute in the United States of America.

In 1988 he was them, an undergrad on his way to who knows where. He’d been an indifferent high school student at Skyline High in Salt Lake County, where he majored in basketball. He’d parlayed that into an indifferent freshman year at the U. of U. before taking off two years to serve an LDS mission in Belgium and Holland.

Now he was back from the mission and way more serious about school and life, dreaming of one day getting admitted to Harvard Law School. But how in the world?

On a whim more than anything else, he got involved with the Hinckley. He served a Hinckley-arranged internship with a political office in Salt Lake County, which led to another one, which led to another one. Then came an internship with the governor’s office, followed by one in Washington, D.C., with then-U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen. He finished it off as a Hinckley Forum host, introducing the guest lecturers that regularly visit the campus.

Those five internships and close involvement with the Hinckley, along with a newly inspired grade-point average, got him nominated for a Truman Scholarship. Every year, the state of Utah gets one. In 1990 the one was him.

Harvard Law loves Truman Scholars. So does Yale. Jowers chose Harvard and graduated with his juris doctorate in three years. He then went to work for a firm in D.C. specializing in political law, where he became a partner and a nationally recognized expert in the field.

In 2005, when longtime Hinckley director Ted Wilson stepped down, he was asked at the age of 38 to move back to Utah and take over as Wilson’s replacement — with the U.’s blessing to also continue as a partner with his law firm in Washington.

He couldn’t turn that down, so he didn’t.

Nearly 10 years later, with the institute now bursting at the seams and looking for a bigger building, Kirk Jowers sat down with the Deseret News at his office in Orson Spencer Hall to talk about all things Hinckley Institute.

DN: Thank you for the time today. In a very literal way, you’re right back where you started.

KJ: (Laughs) That’s true. And I love being here. The Hinckley Institute was by far the single most important part of my education. It gave me the experiences that made me more interesting and then it got me the Truman Scholarship, which is the only reason I got into Harvard Law School. I owe a lot to this place.

DN: As your case would seem to suggest, the opportunities are open to everyone.

KJ: I think the great crowning jewel of the Hinckley Institute is that literally anyone can walk in and have a shot. There was an editorial not long ago in USA Today that said internships are the problem. It talked about the growing inequality in America and that to get an internship in D.C. you have to have a wealthy aunt and a really well-connected mom or dad. That may be true in a majority of universities. But here, you can have not a penny to your name or your parents’ names and that doesn’t matter. We have subsidized housing and guaranteed scholarships for everyone who gets an internship in D.C. One of our interns walked by the institute for two years but didn’t dare walk in because he thought there was no way. His parents were undocumented immigrants. They had no money. But this kid was brilliant and he finally did walk in. The next thing you know he’s working in the White House and now he’s working on Wall Street.

DN: How many internships does the Hinckley Institute offer each year?

KJ: We do close to 400 internships a year, about 200 state and local, roughly 100 in D.C. and a little less than 100 international. That’s tripled over the last 10 years.

DN: The competition for them must be keen?

KJ: It has gotten very competitive. For our summer D.C. and international internships, the average GPA is about a 3.83. But we’ve also established some tracks for students who maybe haven’t done so well academically. We will advantage them if they do things like take our forum series class, which I think is the best writing class at the U., and if they’ll start out with a local (internship) and do well there. Some people have tough freshman years. You see it a lot with LDS kids. A guy has a 2.5 his freshman year, he goes to Japan on his mission, then he gets 4.0s. You’ve got to work with that. Anyone who really wants to can eventually serve an international or D.C. internship.

DN: Where are the international internships?

KJ: We’ve now had interns in 58 countries, working right inside the governments, for nonprofits and corporations.

DN: Any exotic stories?

KJ: I can tell you the most exciting. We have an insurance policy where former Navy SEALs are basically guaranteed to come in and extract the kids if it gets too intense. We had to use them when we had students serving internships in Mali for the presidential election there. When we sent them there, everything seemed relatively safe because the terrorists were pretty well contained in the north, but they broke through and came right into the capital city and all hell broke loose. I could hear machine gun fire on our first Skype call. Sure enough, these former Navy SEALs came in, extracted our students, put them in a safe house, put them in another safe house next to an airport, and then got them from that airport to Morocco and home. We don’t take lightly where we send students. For this one, the students had all done a number of internships and we knew they were more Jason Bourne types. They were amazing how they handled it and, gratefully, so were their parents.

DN: The director of the Hinckley Institute, beginning with professor J.D. Williams, then R.J. Snow, then Ted Wilson — has traditionally been a go-to quote for the media. You’ve been called “The Most Quoted Man in Utah.” Are you comfortable with that title?

KJ: I enjoy talking to the media. It was a little nerve-wracking at first because you didn’t know the journalists and couldn’t be 100 percent comfortable that what you’d say would come out the way you said it. But the truth is, the Utah reporters have treated me well and actually saved me a few times from embarrassing myself. If anything they’ve been more fair with me than I deserve. Sometimes I get asked to comment on something I really don’t know much about — what do I know about the nuclear arms program in North Korea? — but being quoted as an insider also becomes its own strange self-fulfilling prophecy. I find people on the inside calling me to tell me things so if I get called by a reporter I’ll know everything that’s going on, from their perspective at least. I actually become an insider.

DN: Example?

KJ: My most interesting was probably after the Tribune article came out that started the John Swallow saga. The next day John Swallow called and said: “Kirk, I know a lot of people call you for your opinion. I don’t want anything out of this, but will you give me an hour so I can tell you my side of the story?” I said sure, so he told me the whole story from start to finish, which I’m sure he thought was a compelling argument that bad people are trying to frame him and he’s innocent. But at the end I said, "John, I think you’re in a lot of trouble." He was shocked that I said that. But after everything I heard from him, I just didn’t think it passed the taste test even though he obviously did.

DN: What’s the secret to a good quote?

KJ: I think being prepared, and having a thick skin helps. I worked as counsel for John McCain for a timem and I think one thing that made him endearing, although at times also a disaster, was that he would speak his mind — shoot from the hip, to the sometimes horror of his staff. I think maybe that’s where Mitt Romney didn’t connect as well as he deserved because he tried to always make sure he didn’t make that catastrophic mistake.

DN: Speaking of Governor Romney, you’ve had a long relationship with him. Where did that start?

KJ: I was at Harvard in 1994 when he ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. I was a volunteer on his campaign, just a guy who wanted to get involved in what seemed like an epic Senate race. The relationship has moved on from there. I’m close friends with a couple of his sons. His oldest son, Tagg, and I both had small apartments (in Cambridge), and we would go to Mitt’s house and play tennis and work out and things like that on Saturday mornings. He’d hear us lifting in the basement and come down, like dads do with their kids, I think straight from bed, and he still had perfect hair. I think he gets unfairly blamed for his perfectly coiffed hair, because I think that’s just a genetic fluke. Since then I have served as chairman and general counsel of his leadership PACs and in other capacities as he ran for governor and then president. I don’t want to make it (the relationship) seem like it’s any more than it is. But he’s an incredible man, and he and Ann have been great to me.

DN: What are your plans for the future?

KJ: I definitely plan on staying at the institute for the next few years. We are building a new building. Even though where we are has character and such great history, we’ve outgrown the space, so I want to make sure the new building gets built before I leave. I still have my law practice in Washington, but it’s hard to leave Utah a second time. I’ve talked to other people who have said that. The first time is easy because you don’t know what you’re missing, but once we came back we realized Utah really is the best place on Earth to live and it becomes very difficult to consider ever leaving again.