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.
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.
Group identity in politics will always force or put pressure on members to think or vote a certain way, but I have never forgotten the right that I have as an American to be an individual and disagree with liberal, conservative, black, or white. Independence and ideology don't always mesh.
Q You explain well the importance of impeaching Bill Clinton. If the GOP nominated someone who you knew was
an adulterer, would you support him?
A The GOP would never elect a known adulterer.
Q You write of hit-and-run political attacks based on "rumors, unsubstantiated charges, and just plain old lies." What kinds of attacks have victimized you, and how did you respond?
A My father used to say, "Dogs don't bark at parked cars." You have to be doing something worthwhile to get attacked.
In politics, the human thing that you want to do is to strike back, but I always tried to be conscious of my witness. Since I could never figure out a way to punch my attackers in the nose and not have it affect my witness, I decided the next best way to respond to my attackers was to succeed.
Q What's your view of the Michigan affirmative-action case that the Supreme Court is considering? If you were a university admissions officer with a free hand, what criteria would you use?
A I believe affirmative action should be about creating opportunities for all people. I do believe in diversity of color and think it adds value to society. God is a God of diversity. He is the author of our skin color and He made us yellow, brown, black, and white.
I have no problem with using race as a factor, but giving race 20 points and academics eight points seems to me to be a bit out of balance.
I have felt the sting of being left out because of my skin color and I wouldn't want any child to have to feel that hurt. So, therefore, let's not create or encourage a system that a white kid or black kid has to walk away a loser, feeling like he lost based on skin color.
If a white kid, a black kid, or a Hispanic kid stays in school, gets good grades, and wants to continue their education beyond high school, that opportunity should be available.
Q You led the effort to give legislative legs to President Bush's faith-based initiative in 2001. WORLD has argued that an emphasis on tax credits or vouchers rather than grants would help evangelical organizations to do more while avoiding constraints on their freedom to evangelize. Could you comment on that?
A Tax credits, vouchers, or grants would be fine with me. The mission should be to allow faith organizations to play a role in delivering community services.
Christ never ministered to someone's spiritual needs without first ministering to their physical needs. When a Christian is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing the homeless, you are evangelizing.
Q You write of "the demonization of Republicans in the black community." How should that be fought? Is there more support among Republicans for welfare reform than for community renewal, and if so, how can that change?
A Republicans will always be demonized and it will stick unless we take outreach seriously. In politics outreach has to be a conviction, just like in the church. If you're just going to preach to the choir, the church isn't going to grow. I don't believe outreach has become a conviction for most Republicans in decision-making positions.
If our party can't do better than 10 percent of the black vote with George W. Bush as president, God help us. President Bush gives us the best opportunity to grow the black vote I've seen in 20 years. His heart is about people. His conviction is to love people and to create opportunity for all. George W. Bush understands communications and talking to people where they are and not as Ph.D.s.
If we don't do better in the black and Hispanic communities in the next nine to 12 years, we won't win another national election. The numbers will be terribly against us.
Q Who will win the Oklahoma-Texas football game this fall?
A Over the last four years we are 3-1 against Texas. Need I say more?