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From the Orange Bowl to Washington

In What Color Is a Conservative?, J.C. Watts sets out to challenge the seemingly congenital belief that blacks must be Democrats.

By 8.12.03

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What Color Is a Conservative? My Life and My Politics
By J.C. Watts, Jr. with Chriss Winston
HarperCollins/294 pages/$24.95

Beginning his political career by running for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission in 1990, J.C. Watts made the startling discovery: his party label meant more to people than his message. As a former Oklahoma sports star, he had been well known in the state for years and was a popular public speaker. But now he was running for office as a Republican, and all bets were off. A newspaper in Norman, site of his glory days with the Oklahoma Sooners, wrote that Watts was no longer a hero to kids in the state. A friend told Watts about a woman who had said she couldn't vote for him because she was a Democrat. The friend reminded her that in a general election, she could vote for whomever she wished.

"Really?" the woman responded. "I thought if you were black you had to vote Democrat."

Among other things, J.C. Watts' What Color Is a Conservative? sets out to challenge this seemingly congenital belief among blacks that they must be Democrats. Most of us are familiar with the numbers -- in the last presidential election, blacks gave an astonishing 91% of their votes to Al Gore and only 8% to George Bush. What's more, Bush did demonstrably worse among blacks than did the previous Republican candidate, Bob Dole, despite making far greater efforts to woo them. The infamous NAACP ad blaming Bush for the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas seemed, perplexingly enough, to be motivated by Bush's increased attention to the black vote. No such scurrilous attacks were made on Dole's character.

Even appointing blacks to top positions -- Colin Powell at State, Condoleezza Rice to head the National Security Council -- apparently hasn't helped. Watts describes appearing on a C-Span call-in program not long after the 2000 election, where a black caller dismissed the appointments because Rice and Powell were "not representative of the black community." It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Watts and others have reached: "What scares them [black Democratic leaders] the most is that black people might break out of that racial groupthink and start thinking for themselves."

Groupthink of any kind was not an issue in the Watts family of Eufaula, Oklahoma. The future congressman's ideas grew out of his values, and his values came from his parents, J.C. Watts Sr. (known as Buddy) and Helen Watts, who emerge as the most vivid figures in the book. J.C.'s father was a laborer, farmer, construction worker, and, when he had saved up enough money to start buying properties, a landlord. He became the first black police officer in Eufaula in 1969 and was also a minister on Sunday. He was a lifelong Democrat who secretly split tickets when he thought it appropriate; apparently, he voted for mostly Republican presidential candidates from the 1960s on. Helen Watts managed the family finances with great ingenuity and taught her son how to wash his own clothes, cook his own meals, and other skills of self-reliance. Though his parents grew up in the worst of the Jim Crow era, they never had any illusions about help from high places. "The only helping hand you can count on," Buddy Watts said, "is the one at the end of your sleeve."

Watts writes that "Our values and belief systems have a lot more to do with how we were raised and the life we've lived than whether we are Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives." No doubt this is true. But everyone knows that Republicans and Democrats have fundamental differences on values that manifest themselves in policy. That Watts would become a Republican seems almost inevitable after reading his story.

AND WHAT A STORY it is. In his 45 years, J.C. Watts has been the first black quarterback of his high school football team in Eufaula; the first black man to quarterback the Oklahoma Sooners to victory in the Orange Bowl (two years in a row, no less); the first black congressman from the South since Reconstruction; and the first black man in the Republican congressional leadership. And yet, the author contends, his life has rarely proceeded according to any plan. His dream of football stardom came about one New Year's Day when he saw Eufaula hometown hero Luscious Selmon playing for the Sooners on television. But he almost quit Oklahoma after his freshman season, until his father and coach Barry Switzer convinced him to stick it out. After college, he starred in the Canadian Football League for several seasons, but wrestled with ambivalence there as well.

Though a remarkably successful athlete, Watts was not afflicted with the great athlete's inability to walk away from the game. All along, he kept thinking about what his next move would be. His religious faith seems to be responsible for this perspective. Throughout the book, he ascribes each new step in his life to the Almighty's will for him. While conjuring the Lord has become a numbing staple of athletic blather, Watts's modesty and sincerity are plain. It makes for surprisingly moving reading.

Once Watts gets down to discussing policy prescriptions, though, the book loses some of its distinction. He announces a three-part "New Conservative Strategy for a Better America" that is long on rhetoric about family renewal, racial harmony, and "new models" of thinking, but short on specifics. It seems a bit out of place in a book that is at its best discussing values through compelling stories. Watts is no threat to Shelby Steele when it comes to making arguments against racial victimology and the destructive effects of white guilt. But he does write powerfully of the "ideological apartheid" in the black community that regards him as a pariah for his views on poverty and race.

Watts caused an uproar when he described the liberal black establishment as "race hustling poverty pimps." But despite that brave and accurate language, he takes a soft-footed approach to racial preferences. He stood up to his party on affirmative action reform during Newt Gingrich's tenure as House Speaker. While expressing his disagreement with the concept of racial quotas, he decided that the country was not ready to do away with affirmative action altogether. His thinking here is somewhat muddled. On the one hand, he argues for assistance based on economic need, not race; on the other, he writes that the Republican Party simply hasn't "laid the foundation" to communicate with Americans about why affirmative action is wrong. The party would be sending a message, he told Gingrich, that "We don't believe racism exists." When it comes to affirmative action, Watts apparently shares in some degree the view of the racial Left that Republicans are insensitive. Have the race hustlers and poverty pimps gotten to him here? On other issues fraught with racial politics -- like welfare and education reform -- he has been immune to their intimidation.

One of Buddy Watts's favorite sayings was, "If you keep walkin' down a bear trail, eventually you're gonna run into a bear." Watts surprised many with his decision to retire from Congress in 2002. Is this book a summing up or a prelude? Speculation continues that he will return, possibly for a Senate run in 2004 if Don Nickles retires. But it is equally likely that Watts has concluded he is not cut out to scale the heights in Washington; or maybe he sees one of his father's bears down the end of that path. Whatever his thinking, he has consistently demonstrated an ability to understand his limitations, to take stock and move on. Athletes typically have enormous difficulty doing this. Politicians don't find it much easier.

J.C. Watts has been both of these, but neither has ever fully defined him. Free men, like conservatives, come in all colors.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.