Letters from our readers.
April 30 1999 3:30 AM

Talking Black


Is Slate racist, or is Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.) crazy? ("A Racist Slate?") To paraphrase The X-Files, the truth is somewhere in between there. To say that J.C. Watts would not have a prominent role with the House Republicans if he were not black is not necessarily racist. Rather, it demonstrates a rather remarkable journalistic sloppiness (employed, on occasion, by those on the right as well as on the left) that permits the writer to look at a subject's basic physical traits and ignore the many other attributes and characteristics that make the individual worthy of being viewed, objectively, as a legitimate leader.

As a matter of full disclosure: I am African-American, a Republican, and I work for the Republican Party. I have worked with Rep. Watts on several projects. (The comments here, however, are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect either Watts' viewpoint or the Republican Party's.)

It strikes this conservative African-American as bordering on liberal racism for Jacob Weisberg to ask, as he does in this response to Watts' press secretary, if Rep. Watts would have been chosen to give the Republican response to President Clinton's election and to speak at the San Diego Convention in 1996 if he had been white and to assert that "there's nothing racist about arguing that a member of a minority group--whether a Democrat or a Republican--has benefited from a desire for diversity." The implicit insinuation is that Watts has been given a "pass" on that defectiveness because of the color of his skin. Weisberg doesn't find anything even possibly racist--or at the very least, paternalistic--in that argument?

First, as Weisberg himself admits, the Class of '94 was a very vocal, visible, and aggressive group. To demonstrate how important they were to the "revolutionary" Republican change that was happening, many were given rather attractive leadership positions not usually afforded House freshmen. Watts and Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) both came out of this class. It's not too surprising that they would each assume prominent roles as public faces of the insurgent class. They are both photogenic, both athletic, both conservative. The post-'98 election House leadership results demonstrated that a sizable percentage of Largent's peers were ready to elevate him into a leadership role, as well as Watts. Now, does Watts gain a slight edge because he is black? Perhaps, but recall that the media immediately gravitated toward Watts, partly because he was the lone black Republican in the Class of '94. It seems rather ironic for Weisberg to assert that the Republicans are playing affirmative action politics by promoting Watts, when part of that promotion is a reflection of how much the media have already elevated him as a celebrity-politician by gravitating toward him. What came first, the chicken or the egg?


Second, it is not simply a matter of Watts' melanin. Otherwise, former Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.), who was elected to Congress four years before Watts (and served with him in '95-'96), would have received the same attention and promotion from the media and his peers. The different treatment afforded those gentlemen indicates that, though both are African-American, they are substantively different men--physically, politically, and oratorically. The media know a good story when they see one; J.C. Watts is, simply, a better individual story than Gary Franks. Given this distinction between two men who are the same, isn't it presumptuous of Weisberg to proclaim that Watts has the role he does just because he is black?

Third, J.C. Watts was chosen to give the State of the Union response in 1997 for the same reason that he had a prominent role at the Republican National Convention in the previous year: The man gives a damn good speech. In fact, of all the speeches at the convention that year, Watts' was almost universally cited as one of the more memorable--up there with Colin Powell's and (for poignancy) Nancy Reagan's. Even a Democrat pollster said recently on a panel, "We are fortunate that J.C. is not [running for president], because he is a powerful speaker and, unlike many Republicans, doesn't terrify the average American." Putting aside the obvious partisan gloss in the statement, it still clearly explains why Watts has managed to take (or been placed in) a leadership role within the party: He articulates a conservative Republican agenda in a style that is straightforward, uplifting, and non-judgmental.

Finally, it is virtually impossible to figure out exactly what a "white" J.C. Watts would look like. It is almost as impossible as imagining that a "white" Jesse Jackson would become Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham. J.C. Watts is a black man; a football player; a Republican; a businessman; a member of Congress; a family man (despite admitted mistakes as a teen-ager); and countless other things that have all served to mold him into a specific unique individual.

Slate and author Jacob Weisberg are likely not racist. However, J.C. Watts is most assuredly not crazy for being offended by some of the implications of the original "Football Caucus/Dumb Jocks" article. Thus, I would think that Weisberg might be waiting a while for an "apology." In the meantime, he might think about drafting one of his own.


--Robert A. George

Director, Coalitions for the Republican National Committee


Prize Fight


One thing you didn't mention in your dead-on criticism of Maureen Dowd is that, for the first time to my knowledge, the Pulitzer committee decided commentary on the biggest story of the year was more worthy of a prize than anyone's reporting on the story. Perhaps the only adequate response to Flytrap was cynicism and pointed barbs, but you would think a story resulting in the impeachment of the president would have had some reporting worthy of the committee's notice.

--J.J. Sutherland

New York

Pleading Not Guilty


I must take issue with a recent Chatterbox item about Nelms vs. Overnight Transportation Company. Chatterbox wrote:

As presented in the fact sheet, this is a classic case of special pleading disguised as a violation of civil rights. Even assuming that the boss was a double-crossing jerk who hated kids, what is he (or she) really guilty of? Failing to cut some slack!

Although this paragraph is correct as far as it goes, you make it sound like "special pleading" is a bad thing.

All civil rights legislation (to one way of thinking, all legislation, period) is the result of one group successfully convincing Congress that its interests are more important than the freedom of others. (This sounds more cynical than it is; one way to so convince Congress is to speak to their sense of justice as well as to their pocketbook.) An illustration: In most states, if I were your employer I could fire you just because I don't like you, even though there's no good reason for my dislike. However, if I also have a female employee who I dislike merely because she's a woman, I can't fire her. In this way, current civil rights legislation requires that: 1) my freedom is impaired; and 2) I am required to treat men and women differently.

Take a look at the Family and Medical Leave Act. Suppose again that I'm your employer and that, due to an illness, you have to take off work for nearly three months. If I'm smart, I'll want to get someone else to write Chatterbox for that time (which is legal). But what if, in order to lure someone as perspicacious as you away from her current, stable job, I have to promise to give her the gig permanently? (Which is complicated, but basically illegal.) In this case, Congress has decided that your interests as an ill person should trump my interest in keeping an important feature of Slate available to attract readers and the interests of your putative replacement in getting a long-term job with Microsoft. I agree with you that the proposed parent-friendly legislation is a bad idea, but not because it involves special pleading. I'm against it because, unlike the special pleading which resulted in the Civil Rights Act or the FMLA, the rights that are being specially pled for are not worth the cost in freedom they will engender.

--Alex Pascover

Alexandria, Va.