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Conversation with Robert P. Watson

Professor and author will speak on “Dysfunction in Washington” at Foggle Lecture at TBE

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – You can’t turn on one of the 24-hour television news stations today without being bombarded with negative rhetoric from politicians and pundits from both   sides of the political aisle. Professor and historian Robert P. Watson will tell you that despite there being a long history of partisanship, gridlock, and incivility in American politics, the dysfunction and just plain bad behavior today in Washington, D.C. goes way beyond the pale.

Watson will discuss this dysfunction, its causes, consequences and possible solutions at the second annual Foggle Great Issues Lecture at Temple Beth El in Springfield on Sunday, May 5 at 4 p.m.

Watson, Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., has appeared as a media commentator on news outlets around the country, including CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” and “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. He has published three-dozen books including Affairs of State, The Nazi Titanic and The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn. He also serves as the series editor for the long-running scholarly book anthology on the American presidency published by the State University of New York and as the editor of two popular encyclopedia sets – The American Presidents and American First Ladies – which are currently in their fourth and third editions, respectively.

Watson is also the founder and director of Project Civitas at Lynn University, which is devoted to instilling civility and positive public discourse in his students.

He is the recipient of numerous awards for his election commentary, community service, civics and civility programs, leadership against anti-Semitism and hate, and contributions to the study of the presidency. He has also won several teaching excellence awards, including Outstanding Teacher of the Year and Faculty Service Award at Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University. 

Watson recently spoke to the Ledger about his upcoming talk at Temple Beth El and on the sorry state of civility in Washington, D.C. 


Q: What do you think our founding fathers would think of the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. now?

A: Well I’m quite certain they are all rolling over in their graves. On one hand, the idea of passions running amok would not be alien to them. There were passionate, heated debates in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There were animosities – Hamilton and Jefferson could barely be in the same room together, or even the same country together. So passions ran high. The difference, I would say, was that they put country ahead of party. They put Constitution ahead of special interests. They were selfless instead of selfish. Washington worried to Jefferson,

“What if we have leaders who put their factions and parties ahead of their country and constitution?” And I think that is what we have now.

It is undeniable that we have hyper-partisanship and gridlock and that I think that from the White House through Congress, both parties, we see people putting these interests ahead of their country and Constitution, clearly.  We used to have a situation where our foreign policy differences would always end at our border. But that’s no longer the case. I was aghast at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent travels where he gave what sounded like the worst type of hack partisan campaign stump speeches and he gave it to allies and enemies around the world. And I’m sure that these leaders from around the world and news outlets from around the world that were covering it were sitting there thinking what I was. And it was given to people around the world. So we have really lost that ability, sadly, to come together for the better good. 

I’d also say about the founders that these men were public servants. Most had military service. They were lifelong public servants. Today from the White House down you see people that really have never really done community service or public service. They don’t have that sense of duty and service to the nation, and I think we are seeing that play out as they are unable to put the national good ahead of their own selfish objectives.


Q: Has it gone too far to turn around? Could a future great leader in the White House turn things around?

A: Well, that’s the Million Dollar question. That’s what we are all contemplating — can we get back in the saddle? On one hand, this country has been blessed that whenever we come to one of those forks in the road, one of those terrible crises, like the Civil War, we were blessed to have the likes of Abraham Lincoln. You come to World War II and you are blessed to have FDR. You have the post-war order apropos to fledgling state of Israel and they are blessed to have Harry Truman in the White House. So we’ve been lucky if not blessed to have enlightened, great leadership at key moments in our history. I don’t think anybody with a serious face would say we are blessed to have enlightened, great leadership at this difficult moment. So are we going to bring it back?

On the other hand, I would say that that is the wrong way to look at this. We shouldn’t be sitting back saying, “Oh my gosh, if only we can find another Washington or Lincoln.” We the people need to take control. We need to be more enlightened, more educated and more aware voters. We need to know what we’re getting and  we need to stop reelecting the same people in Congress over and over and then complaining when they do the same thing over and over. So if anything good is going to happen it’s got to start at the grassroots level, from being more educated voters but also restoring a sense of civility.

I think the gravest threat we face is we’ve lost the sense of, not just civility but I would say common decency and decorum. A White House press conference looks like an episode of the Kardashians. We’ve lost a sense of decency. And it’s not just Trump or the Congress or the media. It’s road rage, cyber-bullying, reality TV. We’re seeing mass shootings in the Pittsburgh synagogue and others across the country. There’s just a general decay. Now is it the politics that are enabling and facilitating this decay or is it just part of a larger trend? 

I try to not lose friends over politics. When people yell and scream I count to ten and then say something civil. We need to be able to agree to disagree. And disagree agreeably. So I don’t know that we’re going to get it back. I don’t think there’s an Abraham Lincoln on the ticket or George Washington working his way through local politics to run in a few years. But who knows? We’re in such a deep, dark place right now that it’s not going to be the snap of the finger… It just seems to be a general erosion. We’ve seen a resurgence of anti-Semitism all around the country. I don’t know if resurgence is the right word because that somehow implies it has gone away and it never has. But clearly something is happening, there is something in the water. Clearly we can’t say that the level of anti-Semitic nonsense is what it was 5, 10 or 15 years ago. Something is going on, so it’s got to be a nationwide, concerted grassroots effort. We simply have to get back to that sense of civility and common decency.


Q: One way you are working to get that civility and common decency back is through a program you founded at Lynn University called Project Civitas. Can you tell us about that?

A: Civitas is the Latin word for civility. And some of the ancients and great philosophers of history saw civility and citizenship as one and the same. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So I was just deeply disturbed the last couple of years by the erosion of civility in our public discourse. All one has to do is watch campaign ads and for every one positive ad that tells you who the person is and what policy they support, there are 10 ads that criticize their opponent. So it seems like today we vote for the lesser of two evils and it should be the opposite. We need to restore that sense of positivity. 

So my concern was, your freshmen on college campuses today were born in the year 2000, which means they never rolled down a car window, they’ve never dialed a phone, they never used a typewriter, they don’t know what a mimeograph was. And their formative political experience the last four years or so has been this. They grew up hearing people yell that Obama is a Kenyan and a terrorist. They grew up seeing Democrats demonize Republicans and Republicans demonize Democrats. They think this is normal. They think its normal for a president to brag about grabbing women…and to stand there flailing around making fun of the disabled. They don’t remember when our leaders had great honor and dignity.

So I created this program, Project Citvitas, and we have a wonderful team here on the university’s campus and support from our administration. We support all sorts of civility initiatives on campus. One of the pillars of our curriculum is  citizenship. Every January our entire first-year class has to spend three weeks doing community service. And they get credit for it. So they take calculus, literature class; then they have to take three weeks painting homes for Habitat for Humanity or cleaning up a kennel at a Humane Society, cleaning up a beach, making sandwiches at a soup kitchen. We want the students to realize that being educated means more than knowing math – it means knowing you have a responsibility to give back. 

What I’ve tried to do is have panels of members of Congress sit down and talk about why they can’t get along, and have them do that in front of the campus. I had a panel of media – a TV reporter and radio talk show host talk about the allegations of fake news. I had CNN’s White House correspondent come in and talk about how to maintain your professional objectivity if you like or dislike a president.

In two weeks we will have Academy Award-winning filmmaker Deborah Oppenheimer and she’s going to talk about her documentary about the Holocaust “Into the Arms of Strangers,” and lessons of civility. There is no better example of the need for civility than the Holocaust. 

Yesterday, I took two of my classes of sophomores to meet 12 Holocaust survivors and they interviewed them. In January they met World War II vets. A couple of students are going to talk to some vets from Iraq and Afghanistan about service and duty. So I don’t want to hear my 19-year-olds complaining about an eight- page paper. And they won’t complain about an eight-page paper after they talk to someone who, when they were 19 were being shot at in Afghanistan. 

So we do a lot of these efforts on campus to promote civility. I’m proud to say our college campus is one of the campuses that does not have the BDS (boycott, divest and sanctions) movement or the Students for Justice in Palestine. We do not have that kind of hate and exclusion on campus. We are an inclusive campus. We respect differences in each other. 

I really felt like this project was something I could do when I had an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and helplessness due to the disgraceful state of our national politics. And [Project Civitas] it’s not partisan. We don’t push any ideological perspective. We tell people to open their ears and listen to one another.

This program is free and open to the public. Reservations requested but not necessary. Seating is limited, on a first come first serve basis. Please use the form at right to make a reservation.

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