Newsweek last month reported a lesson learned by J.C. Watts, the Republican congressman from Oklahoma who is a potential vice president in 2001. Rep. Watts was a high-school senior in Oklahoma in 1976 and "king of the campus-until he got a white girl pregnant." Rep. Watts is black.
This crisis pregnancy occurred nearly a century after another one that also became nationally significant. Grover Cleveland in 1874 impregnated Maria Malpin; he did not marry her, but he did acknowledge his fatherhood and give the child both his name and his financial support. All was quiet in western New York, where they lived, until Mr. Cleveland became the Democratic nominee for president 10 years later. Republicans at that point began arguing that voters would have to choose "between indecency and decency, between lust and law."
Racial tensions complicated J.C. Watts's situation in 1976. According to family members, no one then thought it practical for the young parents of different races to get married, and the white woman's family would not accept a "black baby" into their home. So Uncle Wade Watts, a Baptist minister, adopted the little girl, with support from the entire family. She is now a straight-A college senior, according to Congressman Watts.
During the 1884 campaign, opponents of Governor Cleveland chanted, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha." Minister Henry Ward Beecher bemoaned the frequency of fornication but told one reporter that if every New York voter who had committed adultery would vote Democratic, Mr. Cleveland would win the state in a landslide. The vital issue, he noted, was not the sin itself, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but how the sinner dealt with what he had done.
That's what Mr. Watts also says. "it was just flat-out dumb," he notes about his experience with premarital sex. "But those are the times when your faith carries you and you learn from your mistakes. I hope people would give me some credit for taking a bad choice and making the best of it. The child wasn't aborted. The child never received one dime of government assistance. I've been part of her life from day one."
Grover Cleveland did not become defensive during his 1884 campaign against James Blaine, a corrupt Republican senator. His supporters went on offense, chanting, "Blaine, Blaine, monumental liar from the state of Maine." They asked voters to compare evils: a Cleveland fornication confessed, or a Blaine financial corruption that Republicans tried to cover up.
J.C. Watts knows even more keenly how to lead an offense. He quarterbacked some good University of Oklahoma teams, running the wishbone, and gave many talks for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He became a youth pastor, fighting against the social pressures to engage in premarital sex. I've seen, in Washington meetings with Congressman Watts, how he contends that Bible-based policies, when well-explained, will be attacked by some but supported by the broad public.
Democrats in 1884 were successful in bringing voters' attention back to the issues. Grover Cleveland emphasized how the Republicans, then the big-government party, planned "to extend the scope of federal legislation into the domain of state and local jurisdiction." He noted that Mr. Blaine's bribe-taking was consistent with the Republican emphasis on placing more power in Washington's hands: More power inevitably attracts the interest of those wishing to use that power for their own advantage, and such forces offer bribes.
Mr. Cleveland, ratcheting up the rhetoric, even called the Republicans merely "a vast army of office-holders" who displayed "impatience of constitutional limitations of federal power." He won a narrow victory and became a gutsy president, vetoing hundreds of pet projects.
President Cleveland also vetoed some high-society church expectations. Since he was known as a Presbyterian, Washington residents expected him to attend the famed and fashionable New York Avenue Presbyterian Church that Abraham Lincoln had attended. Mr. Cleveland, however, chose the First Presbyterian Church, known for the fiery sermons of a minister who had opposed his election. He wanted a pastor who was not awed by a president.
J.C. Watts may also surprise a lot of beltway denizens. With God's grace, he will be bold and honest as Grover Cleveland was. If we demand sinless candidates, we might as well give up. We need more political leaders who have faced their sinfulness and grown in grace.