No. 1: What Color is a Conservative?
I found it ironic that on the same day that political leaders are dealing with the insightful idiocy that was Harry Reid’s “Negro dialect” comments recorded in Mark Halperin’s new book Game Change,I finished reading the memoir of a dark-skinned black Republican who grew up with bellbottoms and an afro; I’m pretty sure there’s some “Negro dialect” in his background. That Republican is former Oklahoma Congressman J. C. Watts.
To this point I’ve only known Watts as, essentially, Sean Hannity’s favorite black guy. He is usually referring to him when people talk about President Obama being the first black president. “Why not J. C. Watts?” Aside from that I knew nothing, so I was interested to pick up the book.
I’m not really a memoir kind of guy. The last one I read was Bo Knows Bo, which has a surprising number of similarities with What Color is a Conservative? At times I felt as though I were reading a “what if” fiction about Congressman Vincent Edward Jackson of Alabama. Both Watts and Jackson grew up in poor rural areas, were very close to their grandmothers, and got out of the neighborhood through football scholarships.
Watts has led a truly remarkable life. Growing up in rural Oklahoma in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, he saw racism up close. He mentions “a pair of brothers who beat up little black kids for sport when they could catch us.” He talks about being the first student to integrate the public schools in Eufala, and about the beating he took when he struggled at the beginning of his first season as OU’s starting quarterback.
Beyond those early issues with race we find a man who fought through deep poverty and discouragement to win 21 games at OU, including two Orange Bowls, have a successful career in the Canadian Football League, become the first African American elected to statewide office in Oklahoma, and deliver the keynote at the Republican National Convention in 1996. While he made some colossal errors – none so big as fathering two children during his senior year of high school – he took responsibility for those errors and turned his life around.
Some of these stories are particularly moving: he was in Oklahoma City just a couple of hours before the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, and lost a close friend. He was also at home when OKC was hit by a massive tornado in 1999, and in Washington the morning of September 11, 2001. Many other detailed stories grabbed my attention and drew me into his life.
But too much of this book was the 30,000 foot view of the events of his life. I found myself wanting more details about the Oklahoma Corporation Commission scandal and his relationships with other political leaders. He couldn’t get into that, though, because he spent far too much time recounting his football glories (and struggles). I had no idea he had been a top-flight college QB, but I picked this up to find out about his character and his ideas, not his athletic exploits. That’s just me, though.
I did enjoy the sections about his experiences in the CFL, because it’s just familiar enough to be understandable, but foreign enough to stay interesting. The social differences between the US and Canada are very interesting, as well as some of the legal differences (CFL players are required to be members of the players association, even when the PA doesn’t help them out at all).
But the incident with the CFLPA, like so many other interesting and semi-interesting anecdotes, simply led to a “that’s why I believe in x” statement, that made me feel like I was reading a 275-page campaign pamphlet. But in the last chapter he really hits stride. He throws in his thoughts about racial politics (“It’s considered a given that Democrats, especially black Democrats, can’t be racists. But isn’t it racist to think that all blacks must have the same political philosophy?”), economic hope for poor communities (“When people own their own home or business, they have a personal stake in their neighborhood and community that makes all the difference…”), and political progress (made up of “more 4-yard than 40-yard gains. The important thing is to keep the ball moving in the right direction.”) It’s a shame the rest of the book weren’t more like these last 40 pages.
Overall I was a bit disappointed, but I’m glad to know more about the remarkable life the Congressman has led, and I hope to see him active again soon; perhaps as the second black president.