It’s great to be here with you tonight to talk about everything from civility to what it is like to be in the minority. And let me tell you, after 10 years in the House of Delegates, I know a lot about what it feels like to be in the minority.
I believe, of course, that the primary role of the minority is to become the majority. But beyond that, minorities have a special role to play in how political discourse is conducted. In my view, just saying “no” is not enough. To be sure, we have a key role critiquing the majority-in-committee, on the floor, and in the public, and using the weaknesses in their positions to draw distinctions. But we are also aware that we have a key role in how political discourse will be conducted. If all the minority does is to constantly roll hand grenades into the middle of the room, we will miss a great opportunity. There are, of course, times when we must take the offensive and that surely irritates the majority. But the way that we do it is important, not only to making our points, but also setting the stage for how we handle debate when we resume majority, as we inevitably will.
When you are in the minority, you sometimes feel you are starving for attention. So you seize every opportunity and resort to gimmicks – anything that makes things more interesting. For example, props. The ability to use props and charts is unique to the house chamber, and frankly speaking, it makes the house a much more interesting place to debate than in the senate where such props are prohibited. Well, tonight we are not on the house floor, but I brought some props.
So let’s start with one which will get the attention of my friend, Kirk Cox. He is a Yankee fan, and all I need to get his attention is to wave this Red Sox cap in front of him. If we didn’t do things like this, Kirk would simply fall asleep watching a succession of 67-33 votes. Hell, I would fall asleep too.
So tonight, in honor of the House, I brought you some props in the form of books for summer reading. Don’t worry, these books are all very quick reads, unlike Thomas Piketty’s Capital, which remains on my bedstand for use in helping me get to sleep at night.
So, what do I have? First, let us start with a book on Jefferson. Would you expect anything else from one of the delegates who holds the seat once held by Jefferson in the House of Delegates? The book is called Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party fanatic, all the while being dead. There are great takeaways from this book – not the least of which are some wonderful Jefferson quotes. For example, Jefferson once wrote “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” This, of course, was from the letter he wrote to the House of Delegates in 1816 to convince them to create the University of Virginia. Historical note, especially for Dick and Bryce (and senators) – the Senate had little power at this time – it couldn’t even introduce bills. Oh, for the good old days! For Jefferson, creating UVa wasn’t an easy sell; it took years for the Commonwealth to approve this plan. Good thing they did. Go hoos!
Over and over again, Jefferson’s quotes are used for all kinds of purposes. Many are twisted. For example, the quote displayed on the t-shirt worn by Timothy McVeigh as he carried out the Oklahoma City terror bombing in 1995, read “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Twisted to be sure because Jefferson never viewed his statement as a call-to-arms or rebellion. In fact, he was using it as a part of his condemnation of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in the 1780s.
Many quotes are attributed to him that he never said. How about this one: “if your government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take everything you have.” According to Monticello scholars, Jefferson never said it. And, this one: “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” He never said that either. How about, “the Bible is the source of liberty”? Nope. “That government is best which governs least”? Nope – that’s Henry David Thoreau.
The book also puts into perspective the political discourse of our day. When we think about a dysfunctional congress and negative campaigning, we need to realize that in the first years of the Republic, all was not hearts and flowers. For example, during Jefferson’s numerous campaigns, rumors were spread about all kinds of his personal and romantic activities, some of which later proved actually to be true. Similar comments were made and directed at John Adams, Jefferson’s chief antagonist at the time. How ironic that they became close to each other after they both left the presidency.
But even after all of the attacks, Jefferson extended the olive branch to his opponents – sought to bring people together. In his first inaugural, he not only emerges as a conciliator, but as the ultimate rationalist. Let me quote, “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We are called by different names brethrens of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” What an amazing thing to say after the divisive 1800 election! What a uniquely american thing to say!
But he went further, I quote, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union or to change this republican forum, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.” Reason would triumph over the error of opinion. That is so Sorensen!
With that comment, I move to the next book worthy of reading. This is also written by a Virginian, Stephen Nash, who is a science writer. It’s entitled, Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests. The book provides us with a number of sobering facts and challenges us to embrace a course of scientific consensus that global warming and climate disruption is being caused by human activity. There are shocking facts in this book that are worthy of our consideration in Virginia. For example:
- Sea level rise was about 6.7 inches throughout the last century. The rate in the last decade is double that.
- Seventy-eight percent of all Virginians live within 20 miles of the Chesapeake Bay, the atlantic, or tidal rivers
- over 600,000 people live within 6.5 feet of sea level.
Some scientists predict 1 foot of sea level rise by the year 2050, a change that would bring momentous and expensive change to Tidewater Virginia, pushing salt water onto roughly 40 square miles of dry land, and that doesn’t even account for possibilities of tidal surges during serious storms.
I go on and on, but that is a partisan speech that can wait for another day (I have props for that too.) But the big concern that I draw from this book – and one which I hope you will consider – is how we got to the point in this country where we no longer trust our scientists. (t didn’t used to be this way. In America, we revered our scientists. They helped end World War II, put a man on the moon, and eliminated all kinds of serious disease. This skepticism in science is relatively recent – really over the last decade, and is a trend about which Jefferson would be deeply troubled. If Sorensen can do anything, I hope it can explore how we can restore respect for how empirical data can inform political discourse and sound social policy. We used to have a high regard for scientists in this country. The debate on climate change seems to be eroding that.
And, finally, I wish to bring a book to your attention written by Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. City of Rivals offers practical steps for how to govern a polarized nation and tries to restore our faith in government and the ability to get things done. And while Grumet has a lot of tangible steps that can help increase public participation in the electoral process – things as structural as changing the way we do redistricting and ease of voting to encourage political opponents simply to share a meal or a drink together, he raises two very fundamental questions.
First, are we electing and appointing people who actually want to work together? Second, can the “best and brightest” in our society be attracted to government service? I submit that the jury on those two questions is still out. I would like to think that in Virginia we are still electing people who actually want to get things done, but what about the long term?
Part of the answer can be found right here in this room and in the mission of Sorensen – to recruit the best and the brightest and help them develop both the skills and the relationships necessary to work together and get things done. Sorensen knows that the essence of people learning to work together and get things done involves the slow and steady process of building relationships and trust. We have more of this than you would think in Virginia, but not as much as we had and certainly not as much as we need. And without constant rededication to this task, we will only generate greater polarization and fewer opportunities for change that enriches all of our lives. If we can get it right in Virginia, we will have a competitive advantage because there are so many other places which are going in the opposite direction.
In conclusion, then, I again congratulate Sorensen for all of the fine work that is it does and in so doing, let me leave you with the words of John F. Kennedy, who seized upon Jefferson so many times during his presidency and who said that, “we must remember that civility is not a sign of weakness and sincerity is always subject to proof.” So, here’s to Sorensen, summer book reading, Jefferson, and the fellowship borne out of sharing a meal and a drink.