Barbara McQuade: Humility, determination, inspiration

January 13, 2020
Written By:
Mike Wood

Barbara McQuade is a regular contributor on MSNBC, a professor at the University of Michigan law school and a former U.S. Attorney, but how did she achieve all of those things? Barb’s story is both inspiring and entertaining as you hear how she went from sports reporter to federal prosecutor, and ultimately to national TV contributor.

Mike Wood: Hi I’m Mike Wood with Michigan News. I’m in the Michigan News studio here on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Our studio connects with major radio and TV networks around the world to put U of M faculty on the air. But today we’re going beyond the headlines. I’m a video producer and I also run the Michigan News studio which is where we are now. In my job I meet a lot of interesting people. That’s why I decided to create this podcast, so you could meet them too.


Wood: Barb McQuade is a law professor here at the University of Michigan. Prior to that she worked in the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit for 19 years. Seven of those as the first female U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan. But you may know her best as a regular contributor and legal analyst on MSNBC.


Wood: Joining our discussion now, Barbara McQuade former federal prosecutor. Former U.S. attorney in the great state of Michigan. I want to turn now to Barbara McQuade Barbara. Thank you for joining us tonight on this important story. Thank you for being with us tonight Barbara, really appreciate it.

And she’s here with us today. Hi Barb.

– Barb McQuade
Hi Mike, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to talk with you in this setting. You’re usually behind the camera and today you’re at the microphone.

Wood: You and I met a couple of years ago when you first came to the studio here to be on MSNBC. Since then obviously you’ve been a regular guest. How did that all start? How did you first get invited to be on MSNBC?

McQuade: Well, the first time I was invited it was actually my first day at the University of Michigan. I was at new employee orientation and I got a text message from a friend who is a former U.S. attorney, now mayor of Seattle and she had been asked to be on Hardball with Chris Matthews, but she couldn’t do it. And she said can I pass your name on to them as someone who might be good to do this. And I said sure, go ahead. And she did. And they contacted me and it was the day that you may remember Sally Yates who’d been the acting attorney general was going to testify before Congress about the information she had shared with the White House about Mike Flynn and they were just looking for someone who could explain that. So I had a background not only with the Department of Justice but also National Security so they thought I might be an appropriate person to do that. So I did, and that went reasonably well. And then the next day Jim Comey was fired as FBI director. And so the Rachel Maddow Show was looking for someone to talk about that, and I think having seen me on Hardball the night before I was a candidate. And so, after that I kept getting regular calls and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Wood: So what—what are you trying to accomplish when you get on there. I know in today’s political climate there’s a lot of— lot of muddiness and like the facts and the you know— fake news or whatever what, what do you try to accomplish when you’re on the air.

McQuade: Well you know, I see it as an extension of public service really— an opportunity to explain to people what’s going on in the news. You know when I first appeared on these shows. I said to them you know I’m not interested in political spin—I don’t really want to share my opinion. And they said that really if you can just explain what is happening you know some of this is complex and people don’t always understand what’s going on if you just break it down and try to help them understand. So you know in the same way I enjoy teaching. It’s an opportunity just to sort of explain so that people can form their own opinions. Then I think I’m— I’m performing a a public service that has some value.

Wood: Awesome. Barb’s a U of M graduate. You’re also a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. Where did you grow up? Did you grow up in Michigan or this area?

McQuade: I did. I was born in Detroit and as a young child moved to Sterling Heights and spent my childhood there growing up.

Wood: So what were your interests in High School in Sterling Heights?

McQuade: Ah, you know I was always kind of a sports nut, but always interested in history and politics. And then you know all the same typical things that high school kids are interested in—you know, friends and schoolwork and those kinds of things.

Wood: So I know originally you wanted to be a sportswriter— did you write for your high school paper or play sports?

McQuade: I did—you know, well as a young child it was one of the things I shared with my dad was watching sports— especially baseball. We loved going to Tigers games. He showed me how to read the box score. We watched games together on TV— I’d listen to Ernie Harwell broadcast the Tigers games, and so I really thought it would be great fun just to be part of that. And I didn’t have the talent to play for the Detroit Tigers but I thought maybe I could write about them. And so that was always something that I thought would be a great way to spend a career.

Wood: I know you told me once that you in high school won a journalism award and you went downtown Detroit and your dad took you down there and it was either the Michigan Sports Writers Association or Detroit Sportswriters. What was that like— and you know who’d you meet there— these are real writers and stuff that must been pretty, pretty cool for you?

McQuade: Yeah I was in high school and I was getting some—some little award from the association and so I got to meet some of the sportswriters in Detroit. You know that I had read about before and so that was very exciting. It was in some you know— dark, old small room with wood paneling and smelled of cigar smoke. I thought that was great. And um but, while I was there I met someone who had worked for the Michigan Daily who was a graduate of the University of Michigan, and he told me that you’re going to Michigan next year as a senior in high school— that’s great. And when you get there and your very first day— you need to go straight to the Michigan Daily and sign up to be on the sports staff there. And so I did—very first day of school, freshman year at Michigan. I went to the offices of the Michigan Daily. I found them on my little campus map. And you know, we used hardcopy maps in those days, and said “Hi, I’d like to write” and they had me work what’s called a night side that very first day— where you helped sort of edit the paper, you know— read the stories, edit them, and put the paper together. And shortly thereafter got my first assignment and I stayed all four years.

Wood:  So for people that don’t know that’s the student newspaper here at U of M, and it’s got quite a storied history. I think it started in the 1800s or something.

McQuade: Yeah— I know in a not too distant past we celebrated 125 years of editorial freedom, so it’s at least ah—

Wood: Student run?

McQuade: Yeah, and what’s amazing about it is I was surprised to find there is no grown up there— no teacher to teach the students what to do. It is really the upperclassmen who teach the underclassmen how to write a story, how to edit a story, ethics, and it’s amazing. The quality of the journalism is terrific, and I learned so much there. You know, I’ve said this before— my diploma says that I majored in economics, but I like to think that I majored in the Michigan Daily.


Wood: We’re now outside the studio, right next door. We’re in front of the student publications building— home to the Michigan Daily. So beautiful— their building. It’s got leaded glass windows, a slate roof—lets go inside.

What comes to mind when you walk into this building?

McQuade: The greatest thing about this building is the smell. It still has the smell of I don’t know— kind of musty newspaper smell. I know the building got renovated 10-20 years ago, and my biggest concern was that they would lose the smell. But it— it has this old, you know city desk, newspaper kind of smell that I love. There’s also an excitement of being in the newsroom. You know there’s always a lot going on as you know people are pulling their stories together.

Wood: So you became the sports editor and you had students under you that you had to assign and you had to determine who was best for what story—did any of that carry with you when you became the U.S. attorney or any other jobs? You know as far as how to be a leader?

McQuade: Absolutely. You know I think one thing I learned is that it— to be a leader it really makes a difference to have been one of the people in the trenches, so to speak. I think it’s very difficult to just show up, parachute in and say “Now I’m in charge” but I think you’ve got a lot of credibility when you have done the work yourself. I also learned that, when you’re the leader— that if you want to think about what’s the best policy or practice, the people to ask are the people doing the work. They know it best and that’s something I learned having you know— to come through the ranks. And also when you want to make decisions to engage people in the decision making process— ask them what they think. One, you get a lot of wisdom that way and then two, even if you make a decision that not everybody agreed with, even those who did not have their position accepted will appreciate that they had a chance for input and that their suggestions were taken seriously. So yeah I learned a lot—you know, right— right there at the sports desk of the Michigan Daily.

Wood: So if I were to tell 18 year old Barb McQuaid that one day many years from now— you would come to the next building down the street, and appear on national TV— you know, talking about the President of the United States. Would you believe me?

McQuade: Oh no that’s way too far. At that time I was just excited to you know— get a byline in the Michigan Daily. Which is still, you know a thrill to have been able to do that. No, that wouldn’t have occurred to me in my wildest dreams. But I do think about it as I walk over to the Michigan news building to do appearances on MSNBC, and I walk past this building I think how grateful I am that I had the opportunities here to give me that start.

Wood: So recently your son who’s a freshman here let you know something. What was that?

McQuade: Yeah, so I have a son who’s a freshman who joined the staff of the Michigan Daily—he’s a big sports fan too. And he just got his first byline writing sports covering a men’s soccer game. I popped into the building the other day to get a copy of the paper to see it. I was very proud to see his name in the dailies. So you know sports is something he and I have always shared. I shared it with my dad and I’m really proud to see him writing for The Daily.

Wood: Was it hard being a young woman in a— very especially back then, a very male dominated field? Was there challenges or was that kind of who you were and you wanted that challenge?

McQuade: Yeah, a little of both. I would say— you know I’m growing up in the 60s and 70s. Sexism was very blatant in the world and I remember at a young age discovering it and being deeply offended by it—that it existed You know, I’d always learned that America was the land of opportunity, where anybody can do anything—and the idea that certain professions were closed to girls and women was deeply offensive to me. And so it may have been for that reason that I took on the challenge of wanting to be a sportswriter or a journalist or you know— even ultimately a lawyer. I’ve always sort of gravitated toward these traditionally male things. I think part of it was to say, “nobody’s going to tell me what I can’t do”.


McQuade: My senior year, I covered the football team which was great fun. Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback of the team and Bo Schembechler was the coach and it was a great season. You know, Michigan won the Big Ten, beat Ohio State that year— which was a fantastic game in Columbus, and went to the Rose Bowl. And I got to fly on the team plane. You know, all of us on the Daily got to go along on the team plane, which was terrific fun, to Pasadena. So you know I’ve never been to California before— so that was exciting to be there with my colleagues. We went to Disney World, and went to the Rose Parade, and got to be in the press box at the Rose Bowl to cover the game you know. Sadly it was when Michigan lost, but it was a thrill just to be there.


Wood: When you graduated as an undergrad from U of M, what was your first job out in the real world?

McQuade: I got a job at a newspaper in Rochester, New York called the Democrat and Chronicle. It was a great job, I was very lucky to be there. I started on the newsdesk and then gravitated over towards sports and moved in that direction and was a sportswriter and copy editor. I was there for a little over a year and really enjoyed it, but something that I always also thought about was law. I was there in Rochester and thinking well maybe I’ll just take the LSAT which is the law school admissions test and see how that goes— because someday I’d like to go back to law school ,and that went fairly well. I thought well maybe I’ll just apply to some law schools and see how that goes, and I got into Michigan. And once that happened, I thought, “Oh man there’s no way I can turn this down”. And so I decided to come back to Michigan Law School, and once I got here I discovered that I just loved law.

Wood: After graduating law school what was your first job?

McQuade: I had a wonderful job, a clerkship with a federal judge in Detroit, Bernard Friedman who became a great mentor, friend—lifelong friend, as he is with all of his former clerks. He’s still on the bench. I had my job in 1991 so he’s had many law clerks before and since, and we’re all part of this clerkship family.

Wood: So I know you went and worked for a private law firm for a few years after that clerkship, but then you became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Detroit office. What’s the process to become an assistant U.S. attorney?

McQuade: Yes, I went to work for a law firm called Butzel Long in Detroit— which was wonderful and I enjoyed it very much. I had great colleagues there and I learned a lot. But, you know I still was drawn to this work of the U.S. attorney’s office. It’s a job where few people leave. And so the openings are few and far between because the work is so great. But finally, after five years I got— I got an offer to join there and I accepted and was just thrilled. The work was amazing— it was every bit as satisfying as I thought it would be. It’s you know— I always tell young people that they should find work that is interesting, challenging, and important. And those are gonna be different things for different people, but for me being an assistant U.S. attorney was just you know 10 out of 10 on all three of those.

Wood: I know you worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for 12 years and then you— I guess applied to be the U.S. attorney at that office. What was that process like and what happened?

McQuade: Yeah whenever there is a new president, there is also a new U.S. attorney in every office around the country. There are 93 U.S. attorneys in the country. And so when President Obama took office, the senators from our state at the time— Senator Carl Levin and Senator Debbie Stabenow put out a press release saying that they would be soliciting Applications for U.S. attorney and I thought I would like to apply. I had some strong feelings about how an office ought to be run, about what the priorities of the district ought to be, and I thought I would give it a shot. And then one day I got a call asking if I could come over to Carl Levin’s office. So I went over to see him and he said, “I want you to know you came out number one in our process and Senator Stabenow and I would like to recommend you to the president for nomination”.

Wood: Personally, what was that feeling like sitting there and hearing that?

McQuade: Well I was nervous just walking over there, because I didn’t know what this would be. I figured this would be yet another interview. I was excited. I was nervous. I was a little bit in awe— you know Carl Levin is someone I had always admired. He’d been in the Senate for a long time, in public service for a long time. So I felt grateful, and appreciative, and excited.

Wood: That’s awesome. So what were some of the biggest cases out of your office when you were there— the ones that people probably know in the headlines.

McQuade: I had the honor to work with some of these great associates who were doing the hard work. You know, my job was to make sure they had adequate resources to get the job done, but one is the prosecution of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on charges of corruption. My very first day on the job was the day that the underwear bomber flew into Detroit with a bomb concealed in his underwear and attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit. It was Christmas Day 2009. I had been confirmed on Christmas Eve 2009 by the Senate, and on Christmas Day I got a text. You know those days it was on my Blackberry— my Blackberry was rattling on the kitchen counter as I was getting things ready for Christmas. It was 11:00 a.m. Christmas morning and I learned that an al-Qaeda operative had tried to blow up a plane over Detroit. If he had been successful— there were more than 200 people onboard that plane who would have died. They included a family who had just adopted a child from Africa, and were bringing him home for the first time. It included a young mother with her one year old daughter in her lap who’d been visiting her husband in the military overseas. It included a man who is a military contractor was coming home to visit with his elderly mother for what he thought might be one last Christmas with her, and not only with all of the people onboard that plane have died, but it was right over Woodhaven, Michigan— you know, a very residential area. Christmas morning 11:00 a.m., a lot of people would have been home. So all of those people would have died and we would be talking— I’m sure every Christmas about where were you on Christmas Day 2009 when this plane tragically killed all of these people. But luckily this bomb that was in his underwear only caused a severe fire. He was the only one injured. He was severely burned and people were very frightened because they heard an explosion saw a fireball and then the plane immediately went into an emergency landing and got them down before anyone could be injured.

Wood: I um— I was working in TV news as a camera person, that was one of my last stories, working on Christmas Day as I often did. And we’d get reports sometimes of a plane coming in with trouble. They said get to the airport. I was with reporter Cheryl Jordan they said just get to the airport. And most of these it turned out to be nothing— there’s little smoke out of an engine or something. Once we got there and the plane was off on one side of the airport I was getting video shots of it. You could just tell something was different, and so the gravity of the whole thing didn’t really hit until later when he was arraigned in his hospital bed at the U of M hospital. And when they laid out what you know they believed to be the facts of the case it was just unbelievable— it just gave me chills realizing just what you decide what could have happened.

Wood: Because you’re appointed by President Obama, when Donald Trump won the election did you pretty much know that your job was probably going to end just because that’s how it worked?

McQuade: Yes that is typical so when when the election went that way I knew that my days were likely numbered. Typically what happens is people leave when their successor is appointed. But I knew from my own experience that that can take about a year. And so I figured I had some months but sadly my time was was coming to an end.

Wood: How hard was it to walk away from an institution that you had worked at for 19 years ,and literally had reorganized the office and and for no reason other than there was a new president?

McQuade: It was really hard. You know, when you take a job like U.S. attorney or presidentially appointed—you know that that the end will come at some point. And it’s, it’s a question I had to ask myself before I applied. I could have stayed an assistant U.S. attorney for the rest of my career and it’s a job I loved. But I wanted to become U.S. attorney because I wanted to take the office in a direction that I believed was important. And so I knew that intellectually that that time had come. But you know emotionally it’s still really hard. And in fact I lingered probably as long as I could because there was always kind of one more case that I thought was important that I wanted to stay for. But you know the mission of the office is so incredibly important. It was something I really cared about, and the people you know— you become very close to the people that you work with. I became very close friends with a number of people that I worked with there, and the idea of not coming and seeing them every day and networking and shoulder to shoulder on this really important work everyday, was something easy to put off. It was hard to reckon that the moment was going to come when I was going to have to leave.

Wood: So what do you do after that?

McQuade: Well, I did start you know looking around for an opportunity to do something next. I was talking with some friends in law firms which didn’t particularly appeal to me but then I heard from the dean of the law school—Mark West who asked if I might be interested in joining the law school over here at the University Michigan and I thought wow. That’s a— I couldn’t imagine that I could be so lucky as to do that. It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I could be a professor at the law school and so I kind of kept at the back of my mind as I continued to delay and delay and delay. And then you may remember that there was a day when President Trump ordered that there was a ban on all people entering the country from certain countries— mostly Muslim countries. Some refer to it as a travel ban, some refer to it as a Muslim ban it happened on a Friday night and it caused chaos at the airports because no one got advanced notice of it. And on that Monday we had a lawsuit that had been filed in our district and we spent the whole day talking about how on earth are we going to defend this thing. We believed it was unconstitutional on its face, and we were kind of wrestling with how we were going to deal with it. And that night as I got home I don’t know about 6:00 p.m. or so— I looked at my phone and I saw that Sally Yates who was the acting Attorney-General had issued an order saying, “I am not convinced that this order is constitutional and until further notice I am directing everyone in the Department of Justice not to enforce this travel ban”. And I said out loud, “Thank you Sally Yates”, and my kids said, “What are you talking about”. I said “oh” and I told them a little bit about what it happened. And then later that night I remember sitting on my daughter’s bed talking with her and doing homework— and I saw another message come across my phone. It was a news alert for the New York Times that said President Trump has fired Sally Yates. And I started to cry and my daughter asked me, Mom why are you crying. And I said because I just realized I— I really do need to leave the U.S. attorney’s office. I can’t be U.S. attorney anymore, and so it was right after that you know that I called Mark West and said “Where do I sign”.

Wood: In addition to all your professional accomplishments you are a mom of four kids. How have you managed to juggle that work life balance especially when you’re the U.S. attorney? What is the secret to being able to accomplish all that?

McQuade: I tell young women this all the time. The most important decision you’re going to make about your career is who you choose as a partner. I have a husband who is amazing he is a 100 percent partner and in every way— you know he handles doctor’s appointments for our kids and grocery shopping and many other things. I’m very lucky to have a partner who is not only supportive of my career verbally, but does the things behind the scenes necessary to make it true in fact as well.

Wood: And he also has a little job as an assistant U.S. attorney?

McQuade: He does, he’s incredibly busy. He teaches in the evenings at the law school as well and works as a prosecutor. And so choosing a partner is real important and I’m incredibly grateful to him for all that he does to enable me to do what I do.

Wood: That’s awesome. So as someone who came to this university as I guess—18 year old way back when and you’re here now I’m teaching in the law school. What advice would you give a young person like a freshman at U of M or a high school kid. Is there any advice?

McQuade: I think one of the things that I didn’t appreciate when I was a young person was how it takes other people to find the right opportunities in— in life. You know in fact, I was somebody who didn’t really have connections, I didn’t know anybody who had prestigious jobs or anything. So I was always a little resentful maybe of those who did, and I said darn it I’m gonna make it on my own while nobody makes it on their own. Someone once said “it isn’t what you know or who you know it’s what other people know about you” and so you’re not going to get job opportunities unless people know about your skill set and the only way they’re going to find out about your skillset is through networking and mentoring. And so I really advise people to go out there and meet people if you’re interested in being a sportswriter, call up a sportswriter and you’d be amazed at how many people will give back, and will give you their time generously. You can learn so much. And I think the other thing is to reach out to people not only who are like you which I think is our tendency, but reach out to people who are different from you and you can learn so much it opens a world of perspectives that you lack. And so, you would be surprised at how generous people are with their advice and experience and wisdom.


Wood: Thanks for your time today and appreciate sharing your story.

McQuade: Thanks Mike, appreciate being here.

Wood: You can follow Barb on Twitter at @BarbMcQuade. Thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, search for Michigan news beyond the headlines wherever you get your podcasts. And remember to hit that subscribe button to make sure you don’t miss an episode. If you’re listening to us on Apple podcasts or iTunes please leave us a review. We really appreciate the feedback. I’d like to thank the whole team here at Michigan news for their support of this podcast including audio engineer Kirk Lawrence, Nicole Smith, Hans Anderson, and Savannah Redlinger handled digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without our fearless leaders news director Laura Lessnau and associate news director Bernie DeGroat. Thanks for going beyond the headlines with Michigan news, I’m Mike Wood.