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High wattage

National | An interview with J.C. Watts

Issue: "Truth or CAIR," March 22, 2003

J.C. Watts, the first African-American Republican elected to the House leadership, on child-rearing, sports, and role models; on welfare reform and the faith-based initiative; on affirmative action and GOP outreach to minorities

Former congressman J.C. Watts says he doesn't miss the "grind" of life as an elected official, but he does maintain a sense of urgency about what his ex-colleagues in the Republican Party need to do to protect the GOP's future: reach out aggressively for minority support.

Mr. Watts left Congress the highest-ranking black Republican; he's formed a polling and public-relations firm and has hit the speaking circuit. He's written a tough book, What Color Is a Conservative?, that takes to task not only black liberals but white conservatives-who are tone-deaf on racial issues and don't seem to care. WORLD interviewed him by e-mail.

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Q Turning to your biography: Your dad said that if he gave you a regular allowance, "you wouldn't hustle." How have you applied that lesson to your own children's upbringing?

A The principle of an honest day's work for an honest day's pay was at work in my father's mind. Daddy didn't believe in allowances at all. He felt if I wanted spending money, it was up to me to mow lawns, pick up pop bottles, pick pecans, haul hay, or whatever else that was moral, legal, and ethical to make spending money.

Q Is such teaching harder when affluence comes?

A I'm not affluent, so that's not a problem I've experienced. However, it shouldn't be more difficult if you realize the character and hustle you're growing in a child to not give them what they want just because they want it.

Q You write, "To a sports-loving kid, a coach is high priest." It seems that many coaches think athletes are gods and pander to them. What impact did sports adulation have on you, and how should parents and others counteract it?

A Although I was the quarterback on the team, I had to live by the same set of rules as every other player. Sports was a proud and important chapter in my life. It reinforced many things I learned at home-hard work, sacrifice, commitment, to name a few.

Sports today is much different than when I played 16 years ago. Player/coach relationships aren't the same. Drugs and substance abuse are more prevalent and personal responsibility is often a thing of the past.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to have adulation for sports or sports figures. I think there are many players and coaches that work very hard to do the right things and to be good role models, however, moms and dads shouldn't count on them; that's a job for parents, in spite of the fact we are imperfect parents.

Q Your former colleague Steve Largent reportedly told Newt Gingrich once that, while playing in the NFL, he had faced down bigger (tougher?) people than the Speaker. What lessons from your football career were you able to apply in politics?

A Patience, teamwork, understanding the opposition. Knowing how to execute against the opposition.

Q You write that "true compassion should be defined by how few people are on welfare because we created a path to success for those willing to work for it." Is that path of success now in place? What changes should this year's welfare reform reauthorization make?

A I have not seen the language or the bill to determine if the language or principles are good or bad, but common sense should navigate the legislation. For instance, we shouldn't pay people "not to work." Make it more rewarding to work than "not to work." I'm convinced we did the right thing in 1996 with welfare reform. It is a foundation to further build on its success.

Q After you gave the GOP response to the State of the Union address in 1997, one conservative leader attacked you "because I hadn't directly addressed the right-to-life issue in the speech.... His response illustrated just how out of kilter the system can be." What's out of kilter, and how can the system be fixed?

A In the eight years I served in Congress I had a 100 percent pro-life voting record, but that didn't satisfy this one conservative leader. He sent out a nationwide fax to his supporters, not bothering to talk to me, and blasted me for not mentioning the pro-life stance.

That's when it dawned on me that group identity was not just practiced in the black community or by the left; it was also practiced by many on the right.

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