Exit Interview: US Trade Representative Ron Kirk

Look around your kitchen table and you'll see the work of Ambassador Ron Kirk. He's the United States Trade Representative, which is a cabinet-level position, and he's negotiated trade deals all around the world. Host Michel Martin talks to him about why he's choosing to step down from his post, and the importance of U.S. trade.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you might be living in a city where officials are trying to close a number of public schools. There are a lot of reasons for this - to save money or because those schools aren't seen as performing well. Well, one thing that is almost always true, though, is that the decision about which schools to cut becomes emotional and intense. We'll talk about this later this hour.

But first, a newsmaker interview with one of the most important members of the president's economics team you probably have not heard much about unless you follow trade news closely. Ambassador Ron Kirk became the United States trade representative in 2009. That means he has been President Obama's voice in trade dealings around the world.

In that role he led negotiations to complete long-pending trade deals with South Korea, Columbia and Panama and has been on the front lines of enforcing trade rules with China and other foreign competitors. And he was the first African-American to fill that role, after he blazed a trail previously as the first African-American mayor of Dallas, Texas. But now he's set to move on.

Ambassador Kirk has announced that he will leave the administration shortly. But he's with us now from his offices in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Kirk, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

AMBASSADOR RON KIRK: Michel, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Can we ask you why you wanted to fill this role? This is a particularly difficult balancing act. I think many trade reps have found, particularly in a Democratic administration, where you have to assuage members of the president's constituency who are very skeptical of globalization, global trade particularly. But you also have to, you know, advance the interest of the business community overseas. Why did you want to do this job?

KIRK: For all the reasons you articulated in your question, Michel. I sort of wanted this challenge of helping the American public get over their - you used the word skepticism, but when we came in, I don't think it'd be an understatement to say almost hostility to trade. And some of it was out of fear but some was legitimate.

But people had come to believe that when it came to their notion of global trade, the United States had more than held up our end of the bargain. We'd opened up our markets, products, and goods from all over the world but they felt like other countries were gaming us and that in fact we were swapping cheaper, as I like to say, laptops and iPads and t-shirts. But the jobs, in their mind, were going to Mexico or China or some other country.

And the reality is we live in a world, Michel, as you know, in which 95 percent of the world's consumers now live somewhere other than the United States. And this isn't the time for us to be fearful of trade; it's in fact a time for us to take advantage of the extraordinary window that we have under this president in particular to reengage with the world and understand that one way to create the jobs Americans are looking for is by selling goods, services, products, stamped with the words Made in America to consumers around the world.

MARTIN: How did you decide to set your priorities? There are people who will say enforcement first, trade deals later, expanding trade later. There are other people who feel the priorities should be opposite. How did you decide what to prioritize?

KIRK: Well, one, I was a bit advantaged. I have to be careful how I say this because, one, first of all, I work for the president and my office is, you mentioned, is one that many Americans are not very familiar with. They don't know who the U.S. trade representative is or where we're housed or what we do.

But, one, I work directly in the office of the president so I have the advantage of knowing what our overall agenda is, part of the administration's overall goals and efforts. And when we came into office, if you recall, job one was to keep the economy from going over a cliff. So the president and Congress were immediately focused on saving the economy, keeping the banks from going (unintelligible) and doing other things.

That gave me the space to then begin to address some of the concerns that you raise, particularly about enforcement. And it allowed us to start with what I call the low hanging fruit of addressing concerns and some of these fears that people had by stepping up our enforcement while at the same time building the relationships, investing the time that I needed to be able to later pass those important agreements that you mentioned with Korea, Panama, and Columbia.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with outgoing United States trade representative Ambassador Ron Kirk. That is a Cabinet-level position. It requires Senate confirmation. Ambassador Kirk is the first African-American to serve in that role, among his other accomplishments. Can I ask you about that, by the way, Ambassador Kirk?

You know, it's interesting that from the president on down, a number of the president's high profile African-American appointees have stumbled on the issue of race at some point, or have been deemed to have done so. I am thinking about the attorney general, Eric Holder's, comments about - early in his term about how we are a nation of cowards when it comes to race.

There is - some people feel that kind of the reaction to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is - some of the reception that she has received for being abrasive, some people feel is due in part to her race as well as her gender. And of course the president continually faces this sticky wicket around how much he talks about his race. I mean a lot of his African-American constituents would like him to talk more about it.

Some of his constituents of other ethnicities would prefer that he not. You are one of the few who's never been - there's never been any drama related to you around race. I'm interested in whether you feel your race has helped, hurt, has had any impact at all.

KIRK: Well, you know, I'm advantaged by a couple of things. One, and you mentioned in your introduction that I had the privilege of being elected the first African-American mayor of Dallas in 1995. Not a city that most people thought of at the time as the most progressive. But I also had the advantage - and this is my two-minute Black History Month speech - I'd tell people I was the fifth first black mayor of Dallas.

Because people don't realize that Maynard Jackson, who later went on to become the mayor of Atlanta; Tom Bradley, who was the first black mayor of Los Angeles; Willie Brown, who was mayor of San Francisco; and Emanuel Cleaver were all either born in Dallas or within 30 miles of it. But because of Jim Crow, under which I grew up, they all fled Texas.

And so I was privileged to do it and I had an opportunity to be mentored by Mayor Jackson in particular, who just helped me understand that no matter what I did, people would have the common(ph) narrative that you just gave. If I did anything to help black people, white folks would say why are you only doing this for black people? And that no matter what I did, black folks would say you didn't do enough.

And so what he counseled me is you go be the best mayor you can be. Because if you're only obsessed with, you know, trying to be - and I didn't know how to tell people I don't know how to be a black mayor. I thought I knew how to be a pretty good mayor.

But since I'd been through that challenge, I was able to come into this job and understand that as proud as I am to be the first person of color to hold the rank of ambassador as USTR, if I hadn't had the kind of success that we've had that you talked about in your intro, frankly nobody would care that I was black.

And what I've always told people is you go make sure you make a difference first. And then we can talk about making history or race or anything else. Those of us who believe in progressivity and believe in inclusion, though, have to understand that we have to be as vigilant about making sure that we have a country that is as open and inclusive as those whose voices tend to be more strident and can be more fearful.

And I'll leave - you know, Kurt Vonnegut once said that the only way that good will overcome evil is that the angels have to be at least as well organized as the mafia. And whether it's biblical or whether it's literary, we always see that sometimes those of us who believe in a cause are not as willing to speak up as loudly as those who tend to be more negative in their outlook.

MARTIN: Well, of course I want to ask what's next for you. I noted that you are quoted in an interview as saying - when you were saying that you were about ready to move on - I miss my house. I miss my family. I want to drive my car. That must be some car. What kind of car is that?

KIRK: Well, it doesn't matter.

MARTIN: American-made car?

KIRK: It's in Texas so you know it's got to be some sort of truck. I call it my Texas Prius.

(LAUGHTER)

KIRK: Because it's not a Suburban, it's a Range Rover. But it ain't about the car. It is - listen, Michel. I have been privileged, going back and forth between public service and private service. I was privileged to serve the state of Texas. The Secretary of State under Governor Ann Richards, then being elected to mayor of Dallas, and then I practiced law for a number of years and I've come back, and I've enjoyed every minute of it.

But, at the same time, when I came into this office, my wife and I had one daughter in her second year at Columbia and a senior in high school who later - and is now at NYU - and maintaining two households in two states with two kids in college, is a financial challenge and it was one we gladly made, but it's now a point in my life that I am looking forward to spending time with my family, but also going back into the private sector.

And, if I could close again, the work we do at USTR, I know is obscure, but it's important to every family in America. Because we make everything that you buy, that you put on your table, cheaper, we give you more choices, but we can also do this in a way that we can provide those goods and services to the world and create jobs here. And, if you want to learn more about the important work that we do in the Trade Representative's office, visit our website at USTR.gov.

MARTIN: Are you sure you're ready to leave? You seem awfully...

KIRK: Well, I'm passionate about this, because...

MARTIN: ...happy. Yeah. I was going to say, are you sure you're ready to go?

KIRK: I so appreciate you giving me the chance to talk about this because trade is not something Americans think about every day. You know, I grew up at a time when, you know, people knew you had fresh fruits and vegetables when they were in season. Now, we have kids that think you're supposed to walk into Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and there's oranges and blueberries all year round, but that's because we source goods from all over the world.

And trade had its origin, you know, in trading corn and wheat for gold and silver and nothing's changed. But we in America are at a period of time that we have helped liberate and empower people. We have been a beacon for democracy for economies all over the world. And as the world is embracing democracy and self-determination, people now have the power to determine their own destiny. People that live in those type of societies tend to prosper and do better and they're going to have a need for goods and services that we want to make sure we provide them.

And we should not fear trade. We should embrace it, but we have to embrace it in everything that it gives us, both good, and the challenges and make sure that we take advantage of that and I hope that something we've said today will inspire some of your listeners to learn more about how we're trying to make that happen.

MARTIN: That was outgoing United States Trade Representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk. He was kind enough to join us from his office, which he plans to vacate sometime later this month.

Ambassador Kirk, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KIRK: Michel, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, many officials around the country are shutting public schools to save money or shake up failing institutions, but critics say that's leaving many students stranded.

BECKY VEVEA: I mean, in many ways, a lot of schools say, where would you send our kids? The nearest school is already 100 percent efficient, so how would you have room for us over there?

MARTIN: The surprisingly high cost of closing schools. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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