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A Dutiful Life

Alumnus Jim Nicholson has served as chair of the Republican National Committee and secretary of Veterans Affairs. Photo: Mike Morgan

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Jim Nicholson, a picture was worth much more — it drove him to risk his life for his country.

As the Vietnam War raged, the West Point graduate was ordered to go to France as an assistant attaché. Then, on the cover of Time Magazine he saw the body of an American soldier who had been killed in the war, his name clearly visible on his fatigues. The soldier was Ron Hines, and he had been a good friend of Nicholson’s at West Point.

Jolted by the photo and driven by the sense of duty that has defined his life, Nicholson requested that his orders be changed. He was sent to Vietnam.

“That picture had a seminal effect on me,” says Nicholson (JD ’72). “I was trained as an infantry officer, paratrooper and ranger, and I didn’t think I would feel very good about being in France.”

This sense of responsibility toward a widely frowned-upon war is perfectly characteristic for Nicholson, for whom duty, honor and responsibility are core values. Today, as secretary of Veterans Affairs, Nicholson heads the United States’ second largest cabinet department. The DU law graduate also has chaired the Republican National Committee and served as ambassador to the Holy See, making him equally at home in meetings with president or pope. But considering the hardships of his childhood, Nicholson could have been easily forgiven for a life of significantly less promise, hope and accomplishment.


Family values

R. James Nicholson was born in 1938 on a farm in Iowa. His father was an alcoholic, and when Nicholson was 7, his family moved into a tenant house with no windows, plumbing or electricity. Although life was dire — the Nicholson family often went without food — his father’s debilitation was much tougher on the boy than the financial hardships.

“Very often we didn’t have him around, and I think that deprivation had an effect on me,” Nicholson recalls from his wood-paneled office just blocks from the White House. “If we had been a functioning family, hunkered down, that would have been easier than the dysfunctional environment we had because of his disease.”

But if Nicholson’s father had his failings, his mother more than compensated, imbuing in her children a strength and focus that made their travails powerful lessons rather than excuses for a sorry life.

“She fought hard to keep the family together and did that with the strength of her own will and her faith,” says Nicholson, who notes that thanks to his mother’s fervent belief in education, all seven of her children attended college, and four earned graduate degrees. “She used to read to us around a kerosene lantern and would correct our grammar in this hovel. What she would say to us was, ‘Don’t lose your pride, your sense of self-values. Work hard, study hard and pray hard, and in this country, you’ll come out all right.’ She believed that, and so do I.”

Nicholson took his mother’s lessons and beliefs to heart from an early age. “Sometimes people would bring us used clothing or old magazines, or sometimes food,” he says, “and I remember seeing an ad in one of those magazines for Elmira greeting cards, to sell them. And I started selling them. For every dollar of merchandise, I’d get half. So I had my samples and walked to all these farms. I’d get a hundred dollars of orders and send it in, and I’d get 50 dollars. In second grade, I had more money than my dad.”

Nicholson’s drive took him to West Point — an experience he says was pivotal in setting the course for his future.

“They had the ability to imbue in me a sense of service,” he says. “Not just a love of country but a real feeling of a duty to serve it, and that has stayed with me. It helped me develop as a person and gave me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, and a value system I’ve carried away from there.”

After Vietnam, the much-decorated Nicholson enrolled in Columbia University for a master’s degree and got a firsthand look at the animosity many young Americans felt toward veterans of the war.

“I went to class in civilian clothes,” he recalls, “but if I had gone in my uniform, they would have spit on me. That was the intensity of the feeling toward not just the war, but the warriors.”

Following his graduation from Columbia, Nicholson, by then the married father of a 9-month-old son, applied to law school at the University of Denver. He was accepted, relocated his family and became a father for the second time just two days after enrolling in law school.

DU provided him with solid legal instruction and, surprisingly for this combat veteran, some just-shy-of-frightening moments.

“I had a Professor Thompson Marsh for Real Property, and this guy intimidated me terribly,” Nicholson says. “He would call on people to recite, and if he called on you, he wanted you to stand, analyze a case and recite the facts of that case and the points of law that were made by the appellate decision. He would challenge you unmercifully. I would think, ‘I’ve been through all these harrowing experiences in combat, and here I am in a classroom scared as hell!'”

Nicholson went on to practice law in Denver, specializing in real estate, and became general counsel for the Colorado Association of Home Builders. When Democratic Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm adopted an aggressive anti-development stance, Nicholson felt strongly that Lamm’s approach was wrong for the state’s economy. So, he became a point man for the home-building industry and increasingly helped get Republicans elected to office. Meanwhile, he shifted from law to real estate development.

He ran for, and won, the position of Republican national committeeman in 1986, leading to his election as vice chair of the Republican National Committee in 1993, and then, in 1997, his election as chairman.

Nicholson says the Republican Party was about $11 million in debt at the time and describes party morale as “very low.” His charge, therefore, was nothing short of rebuilding the party, which included boosting confidence, filling the coffers and winning back control of the White House in 2000. His term was a success: The Republican Party also won control of both houses of Congress and controlled a majority of governorships and state legislatures.

After the 2000 victory, President Bush, whom Nicholson describes as a good friend, appointed him the ambassador to the Holy See. Nicholson’s first encounter with Pope John Paul II came under slightly surreal circumstances — he presented his credentials to the pope on Sept. 13, 2001.

“We both had an agenda, and that went out the window because of what had happened 48 hours before,” Nicholson says. “One of the things he said to me was, ‘We must stop those that are killing in the name of God.’ That really was an important statement. That helped in our justification for going to Afghanistan and going after the Taliban.”

But while the pope was a partner in combating terrorism, he became an ardent opponent of the war in Iraq-an immense challenge to Ambassador Nicholson, who was charged with furthering the U.S. cause in Vatican City.

“It was an interesting, challenging, unique experience to be the main spokesman for the U.S. in that environment, where this guy would utter three words and it would instantly be in the world media,” Nicholson says. “I was in a position of trying to justify a war to this head of state who had taken such a vocal, visual position against it.”

But Nicholson emphasizes that the war was just one aspect of his relationship with the Holy See. In general, Nicholson had a unique opportunity to practice what he calls “moral diplomacy,” meaning that the issues he dealt with on a daily basis were — the war aside — different from most ambassadors.

“I was lucky,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about military basing issues, current account issues, trade deficits. I got to worry about those things that fulfilled the preamble of the U.S. statement of foreign policy purpose, which is to enhance human dignity in the world. And that’s a terrific place to do that, because that’s their agenda — to make life better.”

Nicholson worked with the Vatican on issues such as human trafficking, global starvation, religious freedom, AIDS and terrorism, including organizing a ground-breaking conference with representatives from 35 countries on the issue of slavery and setting up pilot programs to help prevent pregnant HIV-positive women from transmitting the disease to their fetuses.

In 2005, Bush tapped Nicholson to be secretary for Veterans Affairs, a position unique among cabinet secretaries in that it’s more CEO than policy director. In that role, Nicholson is in charge of the country’s largest integrated health care system and its sixth largest life insurance company. Now two years into this role, he has earned the respect of those he serves.

“He’s doing a great job,” says John Sommer, executive director of the American Legion’s Washington office, who notes that as head of the RNC, Nicholson, unlike other leaders of both parties, met with veterans’ groups to assess their needs. “Since he served in combat, it gives him knowledge and background to know what other veterans are going through.”

“He’s a genuinely caring individual,” adds Dave Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans’ Washington branch. “He looks at the job he has and the mission of the department, and he’s very dedicated to making the mission successful.”

According to Nicholson, it’s a mission that is thankfully easier today than it would have been during his time in active duty. Compared with what he witnessed at Columbia, Nicholson notes with relief that no matter what people think of the war in Iraq, the country no longer transfers its hostility toward political policies to the military personnel who carry them out.

“There is considerable disagreement over the war, but there is virtually no disagreement over the warriors. They’re affirmed, and they’re thanked,” he says. “I was up in New York two days before the New York Marathon with a bunch of guys who had been injured, and they were up there to walk it or wheel it. They were all so buoyant. I said, ‘How do you guys maintain such high spirits and high morale?’ And this one sergeant said to me, ‘Sir, it’s because we feel so appreciated.’ And that is, I think, a big part of it. The country does appreciate them. It’s very confirming and grateful, and they feel that.”

As one who’s been there, Nicholson is honored to be the advocate for those who have served. “The V.A. is the agent of a grateful nation,” he says. “It’s the will of the people of this country to take care of those who continue to preserve our freedom, and we feel very privileged here to have that responsibility.”

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