Ralph G. Neas, University of Notre Dame, Class of 1968
50th Class Reunion Speech:
“Making America Work Again: Lessons Learned from Father Theodore Hesburgh and Republican Senator Edward W. Brooke”
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
June 2, 2018
Good morning! Wonderful to be here with you. I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity to share some thoughts at our 50th class reunion.
This morning I want to discuss how, as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, we can make America consistent with the values we learned from our beloved Father Ted Hesburgh and his colleagues at Notre Dame and reinforced by the political lessons I learned from Republican Senator Edward W. Brooke, my first boss and lifelong mentor. Their deaths in early 2015 left a huge void in my life, but their integrity, courage and patriotism endure and inspire. I will also discuss how the spirit of Notre Dame and Notre Dame graduates have played a key role in virtually every aspect of my life.
But first I want to salute:
The members of The Great 68 Reunion Committee. Special plaudits to Chairman Fred Ferlic, Tom Figel, and Tom Weyer for their tireless efforts and effective leadership.
All my Notre Dame classmates, especially my Notre Dame roommates David Cortright, Fran Lenski, and Jim Franczek. Jim, incredibly, not only went to Notre Dame with me, but also the University of Chicago Law School and Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, Illinois. For 54 years, Jim has been my best friend.
And finally, Katherine Neas, my wife of 30 years, my partner in every way, and the mom of our miracle daughter Maria. Katy has had an extraordinary career, first with Senator Tom Harkin, then 23 years with Easterseals, where she became one of the nation’s leading advocates for children with disabilities, and currently as the Executive Vice President of the American Physical Therapy Association, where she is perfectly positioned to assist us with the next stage of our lives.
If it were not for Notre Dame, Katy and I would never have made it far enough to become a married couple. We met in early January of 1986. For me, supposedly a permanent bachelor, it was love at first sight. For Katy, no reaction at all. Somehow, I managed to get her to join me for lunch at the Senators’ Dining Room in the U.S. Capitol. I was hoping to impress Katy with my friendships with Democratic and Republican senators. A real power lunch. Perhaps more importantly, I hoped she would meet the servers who had promised my mother after my near death from Guillain Barre Syndrome in 1979 that they would provide me with extra fried chicken and mashed potatoes to help regain the 65 pounds I had lost during my 140 days in a hospital.
The lunch did not start well. Like many people during those awkward introductory moments, we talked about where we had gone to college. I proudly stated that I was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, class of 1968. Katy, growing paler by the moment, told me she graduated from Georgetown, class of 1985. We were both undone by the 17 year age difference. But Katy was almost as upset when she learned that I was a Republican. If lunch had not already been ordered, we both would have politely said goodbye and left.
But then came divine intervention. Katy, trying to keep a conversation going, said to me “so you went to Notre Dame. Well, my father went to Notre Dame. My uncle went to Notre Dame. And all my aunts went to St. Mary’s. Then the coup de grace: “and my grandfather played next to Knute Rockne in 1913 when Notre Dame upset Army with the Gus Dorais to Rockne forward passes.” Immediately, the clouds parted and a shaft of bright light entered the dining room. I thought to myself, “She may be too young. But she has royal blood!”
About two years later we were married in Des Moines, Iowa, Thanksgiving weekend at St. Augustine’s Church by a priest who had been Katy’s father’s Notre Dame roommate. That day, before the wedding, Notre Dame defeated Southern Cal on its way to the 1988 college football national championship. Kneeling at the altar, just after Communion, I asked Katy if she had heard the score. Rather dismissively, she replied that she had been too busy with her bridesmaids that afternoon to know what had happened. With a huge smile, I told her that Notre Dame had won 27-10. Katy replied “That’s just great.” To which I responded: “But honey, don’t you understand, it was a 17 point difference. What a great omen!”
Tumultuous and Dangerous Times
After Fred and Tom extended the invitation to speak at the reunion, I had a chance to reconnect with many classmates and ask them what I should talk about. Almost to a person they mentioned two things. First, the spirit of Notre Dame and what it has meant to us in our lives. And second, the current political environment. Everyone thought the times were chaotic, excessively partisan, and dangerous.
Internationally, there was serious concern about the North Korean situation, the Iran Nuclear Accord, the Paris Climate Treaty, the Middle East, possible trade wars, and, of course, Russian intervention in the 2016 elections and possibly in future elections.
Domestically, there was unease around health care, immigration, gun safety, race relations, the nation’s debt, environmental protections, reproductive rights, income inequality, and numerous other issues. Many brought up their fear that our 230 year constitutional system of checks and balances and the rule of law were endangered. Regardless of political persuasion, everyone was deeply worried and skeptical about the ability and willingness of either party to do anything constructive about the mess we are in.
But several of our classmates pointed out that the Class of 1968 is no stranger to tumultuous times. And they were not alone. Earlier this week, CNN broadcast a documentary, produced by Tom Hanks, entitled “1968: The Year that Changed America.” Consider just a few of the momentous events that occurred that year:
In late March, President Lyndon Baines Johnson startled the nation by announcing that he would not seek re-election.
On April 4th, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, precipitating major riots in many American cities.
January and May saw the bloodiest months of the Vietnam War.
Four days after our graduation, on June 6th, moments after winning the California presidential primary., Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.
More race riots occurred in the summer.
In August, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was engulfed by chaos and violence and battles in the street with police.
Richard Nixon won the presidential election, narrowly defeating Hubert H. Humphrey, with arch-segregationist George Wallace capturing more than 13% of the vote.
Several days before Katy and I left for Notre Dame, Jim Franczek emailed me that I should purchase Jon Meacham’s new book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.” Great advice as usual. The award winning presidential historian points out that America has experienced numerous events that tested our nation’s soul and our very existence, including the revolutionary birth of our country; slavery and the Civil War, which took 500,000 American lives; World War I; the Depression; World War II; and the Cold War, especially the precarious days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9-11. Each time a resilient America has regrouped and rededicated itself to the fundamental American values of hope, optimism, faith in our future, patriotism, and, while not always immediately, a commitment to guaranteeing all of our citizens not an equal result, but an equal opportunity. I believe strongly that we will do it again.
The Class of 68 was exceptionally lucky to have several of the country’s better angels guiding us at Notre Dame and preparing us to be good citizens in the future. First, they made sure we had the finest Catholic (with a large and a small “c”) education possible.
Second, they reinforced what helped propel us to Notre Dame in the first place, the “Spirit of Notre Dame’: “Notre Dame as a place of teaching and research, of scholarship and publication, of service and community.” But there are intangible characteristics that also help define Notre Dame graduates. One of those is never giving up, “what though the odds be great or small.” That indefatigability has helped us through life’s most challenging personal and professional moments.
My first introduction to Notre Dame occurred in 1954 during the summer after second grade in 1954 when I read “Knute Rockne: All American” (every afternoon at around 2 p.m., my mom would interfere with my baseball playing and give me a choice: a nap or read a book). From the outset, I was hooked on the Fighting Irish, absorbing all the stories about the upset of Army in 1913, the deathbed remarks of the Gipper to Rockne, and the dominance of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller, and Layden. Ten years later, even after some exceptionally lean years on the football field, the only university I applied to was Notre Dame. Little did I know what was going to happen next.
Ara Parseghian came to Notre Dame in 1964, the same year as the Class of 68. In my judgment, he was among the greatest college football coaches ever. Not only did Ara win football games, but he also demonstrated daily total integrity, the spirit of Notre Dame, a sense of fair play, and most importantly a commitment to a Notre Dame education for every one of his players. Indeed, one of the most impressive accomplishments of the undefeated 1966 football championship team, perhaps the best college team ever, was that its graduation rate was one of the highest in the country.
Like you, I can also remember vividly the national football championship seasons of 1973, 1977, and 1988, as well as the women’s basketball national championships of 2001 and 2018 (thank you,Title IX!). And will anyone of us ever forget Dwight Clay’s last second basket ending UCLA’s record 88 game winning streak. Or Joe Montana’s pass to Kris Haines as the clock ran out in the 1979 Cotton Bowl against Houston, coming back from a 34-12 deficit in the last 7 minutes and 37 seconds. Or Arike’s Ogunbowale’s unprecedented last second game winning shots against both Connecticut and Mississippi State in this year’s Final Four.
But my most memorable Notre Dame football game was not a victory, but a loss. As you remember well, Ara and the 1964 team had won nine games in a row and were ranked number one in the nation going into the Thanksgiving weekend Southern Cal game. Leading by 17-0 at the half, we lost the game with one minute and thirty-three seconds to go when Craig Fertig completed a touchdown pass to Rod Sherman. Absolutely devastating.
However, two days later, I was about to find out what Notre Dame was really all about. My true baptism as a Notre Dame man occurred in the dilapidated old Notre Dame Field House as we welcomed the team back from California. For almost two hours, 10,000 students and supporters applauded, yelled, cheered, and cried, as Ara and team captain Jim Carroll talked about the Southern Cal game, their love of Notre Dame, and how much the student body meant to them. The experience was beautiful, magical, and inspirational. And in that field house, after a crushing loss, we were united in solidarity, sad but optimistic about the future. From that moment on, I felt that I was a full-fledged member of the Notre Dame family.
Father Ted Hesburgh was a role model for me even before I arrived at Notre Dame and for many decades after my graduation. After the 1957 enactment of the first new civil rights law in almost 100 years, President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Father Ted to the newly created United States Commission on Civil Rights. He later became chairman and helped lead the Commission through historic and controversial times. Indeed, under Father Ted’s leadership, the Commission conducted comprehensive hearings in D.C. and around the country, gathering meticulously the documentation of racial discrimination that helped enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the landmark laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, education, employment, voting, and housing.
Time and again, Father Ted demonstrated considerable courage and independence, especially when chairing the Commission hearings in the heart of Mississippi in 1963, contrary to the wishes of the White House and Department of Justice. He demonstrated that courage again in early July 1964 when he came to the assistance of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. While King is considered by almost everyone today, and deservedly so, an icon of the civil rights movement, in 1964 he was a polarizing figure who did not have the backing of most Americans. The day before King held a major civil rights rally at Soldiers Field in Chicago, on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he called Father Ted and told him that Mayor Richard Daley and Catholic Church leaders would not attend. He asked Father Ted whether, as a renowned and respected religious leader, he would join him. And Father Ted did, giving one of his best civil rights speeches. Forty-five years later, in his Hesburgh Library office, Father Ted gave me an inscribed picture of himself and King arm in arm that day in front of Soldiers Field. That picture will always hang in a special place in my home and in my heart.
Father Ted’s independence, not surprisingly, sometimes hurt him. In 1972, President Nixon fired Father Ted from the Civil Rights Commission for daring to criticize the Nixon administration for not fully enforcing the civil rights laws. As a second year law student at the University of Chicago, Father Ted’s moral courage left a lasting impression on me.
Senator Edward W. Brooke
After working for Nelson Rockefeller’s 1968 presidential campaign, graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, and serving in the U.S. Army, I was asked by Republican Senator Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts in December 1972 to join his staff. I was overjoyed. Finishing his first term as a senator, Senator Brooke was already an historic figure — the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. In his second year as a senator, Senator Brooke, along with Senator Walter Mondale, cosponsored the 1968 Fair Housing Act. In 1969 and 1970, Senator Brooke was the Republican leader of the successful bipartisan efforts to defeat the Supreme Court nominations of Clement Haynsworth and J. Harold Carswell. To oppose the nominees of the president from your own party, someone you had campaigned for, was not an easy thing to do.
Senator Brooke’s courage and political independence continued unabated during my six years as his Chief Legislative Assistant. Early in my first year with him, Senator Brooke assigned me to cover the Watergate scandal. Right after the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973 (when President Nixon fired Special Counsel Archibald Cox and then accepted the immediate resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus), Senator Brooke was the first senator to call for the resignation of President Nixon.
After the election of archconservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina in 1972, Senator Brooke, working with a bipartisan coalition, spent the next six years leading the opposition to the relentless and unsuccessful efforts of Helms and conservative southern Democrats to weaken the civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s. With Democratic Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, he led the 1975 defense of Title IX (prohibiting gender discrimination in education) and in 1978 the effort to extend the time period for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
And then also in 1978, he defied the conservative wing of the Republican party, by supporting the Panama Canal Treaty, a vote that contributed to his re-election defeat later that year.
Senator Brooke was a Republican in the mold of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Nelson Rockefeller. He taught me everything about the legislative process, especially the importance of bipartisanship. Repeatedly, after all the ideological and political arguments had been exhausted, Senator Brooke would help craft the timely bipartisan compromise that would catapult a bill into a law that advanced the nation’s interests. And like Father Ted and Ara, he taught me about integrity, courage, independence, and perseverance. For 42 years, Senator Brooke was a superb mentor and close friend. He even made the closing arguments in my long campaign to persuade Katy to marry me.
Battle with Guillain Barre Syndrome
After Senator Brooke’s tragic defeat, I started working with moderate Republican Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota. Six weeks into the new job, while on my first visit to Minneapolis with Senator Durenberger, I contracted Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS) which would take over my life for 140 days. The first week went pretty well. On my first day, I met the chaplain of my new home, St. Mary’s Hospital, who was a Notre Dame graduate. I then met another Notre Dame graduate who would become my gastrointestinal doctor and subsequently insert a feeding tube through my nose and into my stomach that would help keep me alive. Most importantly, I met Sister Margaret Francis Schilling, a 73 year old nun from the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She had Guillain Barre in her 25th year as a nun and met me as she was celebrating her 50th anniversary as a nun. Sister Margaret became my guardian angel, psychologist, and all-around advisor. Perhaps you can understand why I turned down a strong recommendation from my parents, Senator Durenberger, and the U.S. Surgeon General to transfer me to the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Within three weeks, the paralysis (usually reversible over time) which had started in my face and extremities, had spread throughout my entire body. On March 5th, I had a tracheostomy, surgery that cut a hole in my neck allowing me to be connected to a respirator, a machine that would breathe for me over the next 75 days. The tracheostomy also eliminated my ability to speak. I could only communicate by blinking my eyes, once for “yes,” twice for “no.”
On Sunday, March 18th, a priest came into my room wearing his vestments and giving me what I assumed to be general absolution or the Last Rites of the Church. I knew then with certainty that I was in serious trouble.
Two days later, things became much worse. The pneumonia, which most patients get when lying on their backs for a considerable length of time, was literally drowning me in my own liquids. The pulmonary doctor and a team of nurses hovered over my body until midnight, constantly using a straw-like medical device to suction out massive amounts of watery green mucus from my lungs and nasal cavities. I thought the end was near. At midnight, I silently said goodbye to my mom and dad and prayed many Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Acts of Contrition.
The next morning, to my pleasant surprise, I awoke. And then around April 1st, slowly but surely, and initially unknown to me, the painful reversal process started kicking in. I learned anew how to sit up, kneel, crawl, stand up, and walk.
Several months later, while beginning my rehabilitation at my parents’ home, Mom and I were reading a number of the 2,000 letters and get-well cards I had received while at St. Mary’s. Suddenly, I yelled out: “Mom, you are not going to believe this! Remember on March 21, when the nurses called you after the night that we all thought I might not make it? Well that same night, at Universal Notre Dame night in Washington, D.C., Nordy Hoffman, then the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and an All-American guard on Knute Rockne’s last football team, asked the several hundred Domers present to dedicate that night to my recovery, say prayers on my behalf, and had everyone sign the get-well card I now have in my hand.” You can well imagine my deep and incredible feelings of gratitude, loyalty, and love.
I am so happy to see our classmate Rocky Bleier in the audience today. In March 1980, Rocky helped me, Senator Durenberger, Senator Brooke, and others launch the Guillain Barre Syndrome Foundation. A year later, the foundation merged into what is now the GBS-CIDP Foundation International. Under the phenomenal leadership of Co-Founder and former long-time Executive Director Estelle Benson, the Foundation has now become an international organization of 30,000 members with 182 chapters in 33 countries.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
While with Senator Brooke, I worked closely with the nation’s oldest and broadest coalition, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), “The Lobbying Arm of the Civil Rights Movement.” Founded in 1950 by legendary civil rights leaders Arnold Aronson, Roy Wilkins, and A.Philip Randolph, LCCR has played a leading role in the enactment of all the civil rights laws over the past seven decades. Along with Notre Dame and the U.S. Senate, LCCR is one of my favorite American institutions.
After the dramatic 1980 election of Ronald Reagan and the Senate turning Republican for the first time in a quarter of a century, LCCR asked me whether I would be willing to consider becoming the first full time and paid executive director of LCCR. I responded that of course I would consider it. Coincidently, that same week in March 1981, John Sears, the campaign manager for the 1968 presidential run of Richard Nixon and the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and a 1960 graduate of Notre Dame, took me out to lunch to ask me to join his law firm. I mentioned to him the possible Leadership Conference offer. John immediately responded, “Forget my law firm offer and accept the LCCR position.” I was taken aback. I asked him why a conservative Republican would urge me to be the CEO of the Leadership Conference. John was direct. He told me that “his friends who had just been elected would do everything possible to undo many of the things that my friends had accomplished since the New Deal. There is going to be an epic battle. Our nation will need the best people to represent both sides. In addition, you should never turn down an opportunity to be on the front lines of history.” I am not sure I have ever received better advice. Nor more patriotic. John knew that disagreements over political and judicial philosophies were not fights over “good versus evil.” They were constitutional debates over the proper role of government that have been hard fought since the founding of our nation.
Ten days later, the LCCR Executive Committee offered me the executive director job. I can tell you that choosing me was not a unanimous decision. Indeed, one civil rights leader with a smile on his face congratulated me after the decision and told me: “I like and respect you, Ralph, but as far as I am concerned, you are 0-4 in certain qualifications. You are white, male, Republican, and Catholic.” A quote that I would never forget, especially when trying to forge a consensus coalition position for the next 15 years among 180 national organizations representing minorities, women, labor, older Americans, people with disabilities, LGBT communities, and many religious denominations,
During the Reagan-Bush administrations, despite steep odds, the national organizations in LCCR managed to help enact legislation to strengthen all the major civil rights laws, overturn more than a dozen Supreme Court decisions that had weakened those laws, and enact the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. All these laws passed with, on average, 85% bipartisan congressional majorities, something that seems unthinkable in today’s polarized political environment. And in 1987, in perhaps one of its most important efforts, LCCR helped the Senate defeat the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork by a bipartisan vote of 58-42, the largest margin of defeat for a Supreme Court nominee in our nation’s history. Currently, I am writing a book about how all this happened.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has been successful in large measure because of its ability to harness and direct the resources, constituencies, and skill sets of its member organizations, especially with respect to grassroots organizing, media outreach, policy expertise, and legislative advocacy. But most importantly, LCCR’s success over the decades has depended on its unwavering commitment to bipartisanship. Bipartisanship matters not just because of a commitment to good government or because it is necessary to garner majority votes in the House and Senate or super majorities to overturn a presidential veto or a Senate filibuster. Bipartisanship is necessary because it is important that our citizens understand that a newly enacted law reflects support from both parties. Only then is there a high likelihood that law will be sustained over time.
To achieve a bipartisan result, LCCR members knew that at some point in the legislative process they had to support their congressional Democratic and Republican champions in their efforts to craft a principled and timely bipartisan compromise that would enable a bill to become a law. No organization or coalition has been as successful as LCCR at doing this over the past seven decades. Whenever I am asked by journalists, students, or any participant in the legislative process what is the basic LCCR legislative strategy, I always respond: “to help put together the strongest possible bipartisan bill that would advance the nation’s interests and can be enacted into law.”
A week ago, at the request of my daughter’s political science professor, Larry Gerston, I gave a lecture to his class at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was a special moment to have the opportunity to watch the reactions of my daughter and her classmates as I discussed coalition building, bipartisanship, and making government work.
The day before I had a comparable moment when I met with my friend Leon Panetta at the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Public Policy Institute in Monterey. As many of you know, Secretary Panetta has had an extraordinary public service career, serving in the Clinton Administration as Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, and President Clinton’s chief of staff. In addition, he served 16 years in the House of Representatives, compiling an impressive legislative record, in large part because of his ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
I have two memorable take-aways from that meeting. Number one was at the end of the meeting when Leon showed me a brick from the wall of Osama Bin Laden’s house in Pakistan, a gift from the Navy Seals who found and killed Bin Laden. It made me shiver with respect, awe, and gratitude.
The second was a framed letter on an office wall that Leon, then the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, had received from President Ronald Reagan after long and arduous negotiations had produced an historic budget compromise. The letter on presidential stationary thanked Chairman Panetta for all his hard work. It went on to state that President Reagan had not gotten all that he wanted from the compromise bill and he knew that Leon had not either. But President Reagan said, “the American people got what they needed.” That sums up a government working as the Framers of the Constitution intended. I walked out of Leon’s office on Cloud Nine.
1994-2018: Collapse of Bipartisanship Leading to Government Paralysis and Dysfunction
During my eight years with Senators Brooke and Durenberger in the 1970’s, the government worked well. During my 15 years with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, including the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush presidencies, I saw our constitutional system of checks and balances succeed time and again. Not only were all the civil rights laws strengthened with strong bipartisan support, but the Congress and the Republican administrations worked out historic compromises on Social Security reform and a comprehensive and fair 1986 Tax Reform Bill, as well as paving the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism and the ending of apartheid in South Africa and the ascendance of Nelson Mandela to his nation’s presidency.
But things started to change dramatically after the 1994 elections. Over the past 25 years, we have regrettably seen the rapid rise of excessive partisanship and political polarization in our country. This disturbing trend has led to government paralysis and dysfunction. While I believe there are bipartisan majorities outside of Washington favoring health care reform, the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure, immigration reform, environmental safeguards, gun safety, civil rights, and many other domestic and international issues, Washington has been incapable of getting things done. Our political system is broken.
As a result, the confidence of the American people in their government has plummeted drastically. Consider:
In 1958, according to Gallup, 73% of the American people had confidence in the federal government in 1958. By 2015, that number had dropped to 19%.
In January 2018, The Economist’s annual “Democracy Index,” for the second year in a row, described the United States not as a “full democracy,” but as a “flawed democracy.” Twenty nations were ranked ahead of us.
In the past two years, several polls have showed that among millennials less than 30% believed democracy was essential for our form of government.
That, ladies and gentlemen, constitutes a crisis of confidence. Democracy is in trouble. Steps must be taken. Now.
“Let The Voters Choose” (LTVC)
About two years ago, a number of Democrats and Republicans approached me about putting together a nonpartisan effort to address the extreme partisanship and political polarization that besets our nation. Key leaders from the beginning have been Bernie Aronson (senior official in the Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush administrations and most recently President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Accords), Mary Frances Berry (former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, co-founder of the Free South Africa Movement and distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania) , Leslee Sherrill (communications aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush), Paul Kirk (former Democratic Senator and Chair of the Democratic National Committee), former Republican Senator David Durenberger, and John Shattuck (former Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to the Czech Republic). After several hundred meetings, many others have signed on, including senior officials from the past seven presidential administrations. Everyone agrees that we have to do everything possible to fix our broken electoral system in order to strengthen our democracy. That includes maximizing citizen participation in primary and general elections, rewarding candidates who appeal to a broader spectrum of an expanded electorate, and providing incentives to elected officials who are willing to craft timely and principled bipartisan compromises — without the fear of being “primaried” by a narrow segment of their party’s base in the next election cycle.
Operating principles agreed to include:
Nonpartisan project with Republican, Democratic, and Independent support. It must not be perceived as an effort to benefit any political party.
Feasibility: Let The Voters Choose will commit its time, energy, and resources to efforts that promise realistic and meaningful success in the near term. No federal constitutional amendments.
State-Centric; The primary focus over the next 6 to 10 years should be on building election reform movements in the states that will lead to successful ballot initiatives and state laws.
Help lead a public education campaign at the national, state, and local levels to explain the need for electoral changes that will increase political participation, diminish excessive partisanship and political polarization, and help restore public confidence in our democracy.
Seek support from business, labor and former military leaders. Very importantly, include religious leaders representing all denominations.
Work with strategic partners across the political spectrum.
Everyone agreed that a top priority should be eliminating extreme gerrymandering by setting up fair and independent redistricting commissions in the states. Voters should be choosing their representatives, not the other way around.
Another priority was supporting automatic voter representation when a citizen turns 18 (with a provision to “opt-out”).
While needing evidence-based research and a consensus process before taking a position, supporters want to take a close look at Ranked Choice Voting, opening up primaries (perhaps the “top four” model), and other possible initiatives that would optimize citizen participation, increase civility, decrease negative advertising, diminish the cost of elections, address the serious problem of “dark” money, and very importantly encourage elected officials to seek bipartisan compromises.
I am pleased to report that the New Venture Fund has agreed to incubate “Let The Voters Choose” as one of its projects. We should begin full operations in the fall. I hope many of you will choose to participate.
Before concluding my presentation, I would like to make three brief points.
First, I would like to underscore how vital the Constitution is to us as a nation and to us as individuals. Every day, I am in awe of the brilliance of our founders and those who passed subsequent constitutional amendments, especially the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments immediately after the Civil War.
And we must always remember that the Constitution was the result of many compromises. Equally important is that, thanks to James Madison and his allies, the Constitution encourages compromises in order to make our government work. Dividing constitutional powers among three separate and coequal branches of the Federal Government was a stroke of genius. Perhaps nothing has held our nation together and made our government workable more than our system of checks and balances. In the days and months ahead, Republicans and Democrats must respect and adhere to these checks and balances. And above all, they must act consistently with the rule of law.
Speaking of the rule of law, I would like to say a few words about Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Having observed this conservative Republican for almost two decades, I believe Mr. Mueller’s life, first and foremost, has demonstrated that he is an American patriot. Robert Mueller has been:
A war hero, having earned in Vietnam a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with the “Valor” designation;
An Assistant United States Attorney and then U.S. Attorney in California;
An Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department and an Acting Deputy Attorney General in the administration of President George H.W. Bush; and
A Director of the FBI for 12 years. Appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001 for a 10 year term and reappointed for two more years by President Barack Obama in 2011.
To me, Robert Mueller is a combination of the incorruptible Elliot Ness of the “Untouchables” and Sergeant Joe Friday of the T.V. series “Dragnet.” Like Sergeant Friday, all Mueller wants is: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
I would recommend that we all withhold final judgments about the Russian investigation until Mr. Mueller has had an opportunity to pursue the facts wherever they may lead him and then submit his report to the Department of Justice. Then as citizens we can examine with the Justice Department and Congress the evidence that Mr. Mueller and his team have produced.
It is imperative that Republicans and Democrats do everything possible to ensure the independence and completion of the Mueller investigation.
I mentioned earlier that in April 2009 I had an opportunity to spend time with Father Ted in his Hesburgh library office. I had been invited to Notre Dame to deliver the annual Otis Bowen lecture and had asked for a private meeting with Father Ted. At that meeting, we discussed our mutual commitment to civil rights and some of our favorite civil rights memories. During the conversation, we were interrupted by a phone call from Father Jenkins who wanted to discuss the upcoming commencement address by the nation’s new president, Barack Obama, and the request by some that Notre Dame withdraw the invitation because of Obama’s position on abortion rights. That request was of course rejected.
After the call, Father Ted started talking to me about the Obama controversy. He believed strongly that Notre Dame should honor an invitation to the President of the United States. He also discussed his views on the university being a place where differing points of view should be discussed. Father Ted told me that while he supported the Church’s position on abortion, he always learned something from a discussion with someone who held contrary views. I will never forget that moment.
As I prepared for this presentation, I did a little research.
I discovered a marvelous quote from a fundraising video that Father Ted made in 1975 entitled “The Endless Conversation,” I would like to read it to you:
“Notre Dame can and must be a crossroads where all the vital intellectual
currents of our time meet in dialogue, where the great issues of the Church
and the world today are plumbed to their depths, where every sincere
inquirer is welcomed and listened to and respected by a serious consider-
ation of what he has to say about his belief or unbelief, his certainty or un-
certainty; where differences of culture and religion can
co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, respect, and love.”
The quote is also a wonderful description of how our nation and our citizens individually should act with respect to differences of opinion.
Please know how profoundly grateful I am to be with you today and to be one of your classmates.
God bless America. God bless the University of Notre Dame. And God bless every member of the Class of 1968.