"The strength of America is not in Washington"

National | Excerpts from J.C. Watts' response to the State of the Union

Issue: "Chistendon's Kosher Allies," Feb. 15, 1997

House Speaker Newt Gingrich phoned J.C. Watts Feb. 4 to criticize as "unbecoming" remarks the Oklahoma congressman made in The Washington Post about some self-appointed leaders of the black community. "Race-hustling poverty pimps," he said about unnamed persons trying to keep blacks dependent upon government. The Post, however, reported outside Mr. Watt's quotation marks that the reference was to Jesse Jackson and Washington mayor Marion Barry. Mr. Gingrich had invited Mr. Jackson to sit in the gallery for the State of the Union address, and the Speaker had to "dissociate" himself from the remarks in order to keep his House guest happy. Mr. Watts quickly fired off a letter to Mr. Jackson's son--Jesse Jackson Jr., a congressman representing a Chicago-area district--insisting he wasn't talking about his colleague's father. No matter. The damage was done, and Mr. Watts found himself repudiated, at least temporarily, by Mr. Gingrich. The day got no easier. Mr. Watts, the only black Republican in Congress, was to deliver the GOP's response to the State of the Union address. He had a tough act to follow--not as much President Clinton's speech as the Santa Monica jury's verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial, another racially charged issue. But Congressman Watts, a Baptist minister, made an eloquent appeal to defuse racial animosity--not with government programs, but with prayerful personal involvement. An extended excerpt of the speech follows.
"I'm going to try to use my words tonight not to confuse issues but to clarify them; not to obscure my philosophy, but to illuminate it, because the way I see it the purpose of politics is to lead, not to mislead. Those of us who have been sent to Washington have a moral responsibility to offer more than poll-tested phrases and winning smiles. We must offer a serious vision. We believe first of all that the state of this union isn't determined in Washington. It never has been, and it never will be. But for a long time the federal government has been grabbing too much power and too much authority over all of the people. And it is those people, all of us, who decide the real state of the union. Doc Benson in Oklahoma City decides the state of the union. He runs the Education and Employment Ministry, where he believes that you restore men and women by restoring their dreams and finding them a job. Freddy Garcia decides the state of the union also. Freddy was a drug addict in San Antonio, Texas. Now he has a ministry helping people get off drugs. His Victory Fellowship has success rates that the social scientists can only dream of. The strength of America is not in Washington; the strength of America is at home in lives well-lived in the land of faith and family. I pray Republicans and Democrats both understand this. We shouldn't just say it; we should live it. And so we have made it our mission to limit the claims and demands of Washington; to limit its call for more power, more authority, and more taxes. So let me tell you three actions the Republicans will take in the coming year. First, we can help our country by bringing back the knowledge, the ancient wisdom, that we're nothing without our spiritual, traditional, and family values. The Republicans will take action to give those values a bigger place in solving America's problems. After all, our values are more important to our future than any so-called bureaucratic breakthrough. I didn't get my values from Washington. I got my values from my parents, from Buddy and Helen Watts, in Eufala, Okla. I got my values growing up in a poor black neighborhood on the east side of the railroad tracks, where money was scarce but dreams were plentiful and love was all around. I got my values from a strong family, a strong church, and a strong neighborhood. I wasn't raised to be Republican or Democrat. My parents taught me and my brothers and sisters that if you lived under their roof, you were going to work. They taught us, if you made a mistake--as we all do--you've got to own up to it, call it what it is, and try to turn it around. They taught us, if you spend more money than you make, you're on a sure road to disaster. I was taught to respect everyone for the simple reason that we're all God's children. I was taught, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from my uncle, Wade Watts, to judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. And I was taught that character does count, and that character is simply doing what's right when nobody's looking. My parents also taught me I could do anything if I applied myself and understood sacrifice and commitment. Now, if you agree with those things my parents taught me and that I'm trying to teach my children, then, friends, we have common ground. It is the Republican Party that has been trying to return these values to government, and it hasn't been easy, because for a long time the government has acted as if it didn't have any common sense. Here's an example: For the past 30 years our nation has spent $5 trillion trying to erase poverty; the result, as you know, is that we didn't get rid of it at all. In fact, we spread it. We destroyed the self-esteem of millions of people, grinding them down in a welfare system that penalizes moms for wanting to marry the father of their children, and penalizes moms for wanting to save money. Friends, that's not right. Last year the Republican Congress moved to reform the welfare system. Let me tell you the next step. A number of my colleagues and I are working on a package called The American Community Renewal Act. It seeks to return government to the side of the institutions that hold communities together: faith, family, hard work, strong neighborhoods. This will help rebuild low-income communities through their own moral renewal and give them economic opportunity. It also recognizes that faith-based institutions contribute to the healing of our nation's problems. In the next few weeks we will be visiting communities to highlight the accomplishments of active faith-based organizations. The second thing Republicans will do is face a problem that demands immediate attention. We must get our government's financial affairs in order. The biggest step in that direction is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that demands that the federal government balance its books. We are more than $5 trillion in debt. This year we will spend $330 billion on interest payments alone on the national debt. Over $5 trillion worth of national debt is more than financially irresponsible. Friends, it's immoral; someone is going to have to pay the piper. The American family is already overtaxed. Right now the average family spends about half of every dollar they earn in some type of government tax or government fee. Consider a 5-year-old child today. If things continue as they are, by the time he's 25 he'll pay about 84 cents of every dollar he makes in some government tax or government fee. That's more than a shame; it's a scandal. President Clinton said people want bipartisanship. I believe they do. But they want the kind of bipartisanship that results in progress. They don't want phony compromise; they don't want weak, back-scratching, go-along-to-get-along bipartisanship that allows lawmakers to feel good but gets bad results. There are some striking examples of cooperation this past year. When Republicans led the effort to reform welfare, President Clinton opposed it at first. But eventually, after we passed it, he bowed to the will of the people and signed it. We applaud the president's embrace of reform. There was a promise of bipartisanship tonight when the president signaled his interest in tax relief. Working Americans need real tax relief, not just targeted tax cuts to help one group at the expense of another. We all pay too much in taxes. Third and finally, I want to say a few words about the Republican vision of how we can continue to make this one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I'm just old enough to remember the Jim Crow brand of discrimination. I've seen issues of race hurt human beings and hurt our entire nation. But too often when we talk about racial healing, we make the old assumption that government can heal the racial divide. In my lifetime there have been some great and good laws that took some evil and ignorant laws off the books; legislation has its place. But friends, we're at a point now where we have to ask ourselves some questions, and I ask you: If legislation is answer to the racial divide in our nation, then why in God's name in our time has the division grown? Why is the healing we long for so far from reality? Why does it seem that the more laws we pass, the less love we have? Surely we have learned from our long, difficult journey a great truth: Government can't ease all pain. We must deal with the heart of man. Republicans and Democrats--red, yellow, black, and white--have to understand that we must individually, all of us, accept our share of responsibility. America must be a place where all of us in some way feel a part of the American Dream. It does not happen by dividing us into racial groups. It does not happen by trying to turn rich against poor or by using the politics of fear. It does not happen by reducing our values to the lowest common denominator. And, friends, it does not happen by asking Americans to accept what's immoral and wrong in the name of tolerance. We must make our mark on the future as a people who care; we must make our mark as people who share and help each other in need; we must be a people who dare to take responsibility for our hatreds and fears and ask God to heal us from within; and we must be a people of prayer, a people who pray as if the strength of our nation depended on it, because it does. When you come right down to it, that's our vision and our agenda."

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