I watched the primary debates for the Republican nomination for president last fall and found myself enthralled by a well-groomed, middle-aged, Mormon man from Utah.
And it’s not the strong-jawed, prominently cheek-boned, tanned candidate you think it is. Jon Huntsman entranced me, and my fantasies were fulfilled when the Sanford School and the American Grand Strategy Program brought him to campus this past Monday to deliver the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture on “America 2012: Challenges and Opportunities Abroad.”
The anticipation leading up to the event and the reactions in response were fascinating. Intriguingly, he’s speaking at Duke twice this semester, returning in late October to discuss domestic issues.
To be a bit of a gossip-monger, there has been (highly speculative) chatter that we’re seducing him with the double speaking engagement because he has been offered a top post either with the Sanford School (which, rumor has it, is in the market for a dean) or at Kunshan. This may be me making up higher-education gossip for my own entertainment, but regardless, there is an important Duke connection to be made in his history as a governor, diplomat and politician.
Huntsman’s cult-of-personality provokes varied responses from interested parties across the political spectrum at Duke.
“I think he’s a surprisingly wonderful politician. … He appeals to the younger generation more as the future of the conservative movement,” said Chloe Rockow, deputy vice chair of Duke College Republicans. “I think he will grow in popularity as we, young conservatives, grow older and more influential in the party.”
Other students noted that he represents a new hierarchy of priorities that appeals to our cohort. Huntsman supports civil unions and is thoroughly pragmatic on foreign policy issues. Anyone in Page Auditorium would agree that his knowledge of China is, as one of my professors put it, “granular” in scope.
It must be mentioned that he is frighteningly anti-choice, supporting, among other things, a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. Leaving that aside (which I usually don’t ignore, but for the sake of the column let’s continue), I think he definitely provided a rare moderate voice during the primaries.
Am I fetishizing him unjustifiably? Is he the sole exception to dominant party ideology? Is it even possible, given the primary process, to be a moderate Republican?
Case in point: Maine’s Olympia Snowe is retiring from the Senate because of partisan gridlock. In her closing-shop statement she wrote, “An atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.”
Duke’s strategic plan calls “knowledge in the service of society” a signature of our institution. And yet Huntsman was derided by his primary opponents for doing exactly that in accepting the ambassadorship to China that President Obama offered. The Republican Party, hostile to real bipartisanship, punished him for being a civil servant.
Isn’t it sad that Governor Huntsman is, at this point, leaving politics and flirting with academia (he’s taken a position at the Brookings Institution) because he appeared to be rational and accommodating to members of both parties? Nods of approval from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (“[he] has sanity operating inside of him”) and Bill Clinton, along with a refusal to sign pledges and pander in debates, heralded the death knell.
Huntsman acknowledged that he faced this obstacle, writing in his stepping-down-from-the-campaign letter, “I will never stop fighting for America, and I will continue to put her welfare first, ahead of any partisan or special interest.”
Perhaps by focusing on civic engagement and policy analysis at the Sanford School and in other departments, we’re instilling values in students that will eventually change the current, broken political discourse. If we are teaching students how to view issues such as health care, education, immigration and the environment through an academic lens, then maybe we are creating future civil servants who are valued for their expertise in these issues, rather than the party politics that prevent reform from happening.
Seriously, though, how many adept, experienced civil servants do we lose because they fear being tainted by past associations with the other party? Does Duke give us a (falsely) rosy outlook on society? Is it naïve to think that we can make a difference without adhering to our respective party lines?
Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think it would be that hard for Huntsman to run as a Democrat, if he just tweaked some of his reproductive rights views (hey, it was easy enough for Romney going in the other direction). Regardless, it will be interesting to see whether he decides to return to politics in the near future, or if he, like myself, sees the political arena as simply a place to make a name for oneself before getting the heck out of there.
Samantha Lachman is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Thursday. You can follow her on twitter @SamLachman.