Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Rep. J.C. Watts was secreted away from Washington along with other congressional leaders to an undisclosed bunker. Watts, a black Republican from Oklahoma and chairman of the House Republican Conference, returned to the nation’s capital that evening where he joined a group of U.S. senators and representatives in singing “God Bless America” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
It wasn’t until the following Saturday that the then-43-year-old congressman got to return to his home state and family, with whom he had longed to be from the moment of the terrorist attacks. The homecoming made Watts happy.
When “the plane touched down at Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City,” writes Watts in his new autobiography, “What Color Is a Conservative? My Life and My Politics,” “I scrambled down the steps to the tarmac, got down on my knees and kissed the ground.”
More than happy, Watts was elated: “Then I thanked the good Lord for getting me there safely. Like Dorothy said in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘There’s no place like home,’ and after five of the worst days of my life, at last I was there.”
That return home goes a long way toward explaining why J.C. Watts (the initials stand for Julius Caesar) decided last year that he wouldn’t run again for Congress. He reached that decision despite having served only four terms, continuing to be very popular in Oklahoma’s 4th District – winning re-election with 60 percent or more of the vote – and being a rising star in the House Republican leadership.
Watts doesn’t say much in detail about why he left Congress in this sometimes deeply moving book, written with Chriss Winston. But he doesn’t have to, because he makes manifest on almost every page how much he loves his family and his home state, and Washington kept him far from both.
His wife, Frankie, and their five children had remained in Oklahoma. The congressman returned home on weekends, a time-consuming and expensive life for any man, and very difficult for someone as attached to hearth and home as is Watts. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy much of what he experienced in Washington. Throughout this book he makes clear the pride that he, a descendant of slaves, felt in rising from poverty to become a widely-admired quarterback at the University of Oklahoma and then a congressmen.
But Watts also makes it evident that his values are local and family-oriented. Consider the titles he gives the chapters, which reveal the homespun lessons he’s learned: “Family Is the Rock on Which We Build Our Lives,” “Opportunity Is Just Hard Work in Disguise” and “God Gives You What You Need; You Have to Work for What You Want.”
Those chapter titles come from the early part of Watts’ autobiography. Later on, the titles reveal the wisdom he’s gleaned from being both a sports great and a politician: “Leaders May Find Mountains to Scale, But Only Teams Can Truly Move Them,” “Never Read Your Own Press Clippings” and “Don’t Take Everything You See or Hear in the Media as the Gospel Truth.”
Watts was born on Nov. 18, 1957, in Eufaula, a small town in east Oklahoma. His dad, Buddy, was an industrious man who demanded hard work and obedience from his kids. In describing his mother, Helen, Watts employs one of the football metaphors he frequently uses in this book: She “was tougher than most of the linebackers I faced, and when Momma put her foot down, every one of us knew she meant business.”
Looking back, Watts recalls the great sacrifices his mother made regularly without ever calling attention to herself. For example, after the Watts children ate their dinners, he writes, “I would see her in the kitchen, cleaning up and making her meal out of what she found left over on the plates.”
The family spent winters picking cotton in places such as Chandler, Ariz., or Bakersfield, Calif., where Buddy Watts found construction work. Summers meant the family would be back in Eufaula, “farming the land, back to fresh air and good food.”
Buddy Watts was an ambitious man who instilled in his children the value of saving money. Eventually, he came to own 20 rental homes in the neighborhood. He also built a concrete-block barbecue stand and an after-school teen hangout, complete with jukebox, where the young J.C., himself a fine singer, listened endlessly to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
Buddy Watts also served on Eufaula’s police force and became a member of the city council. In addition, he was a man of the cloth, a Baptist minister who could preach a memorable Sunday-morning sermon on top of all his other activities.
“My views on everything from welfare to a balanced budget to affirmative action can be traced to what Buddy and Helen Watts taught me as a young boy growing up poor but proud in Eufaula,” Watts avers. “My belief in the power of education, the potential of community renewal and the promise of faith-based institutions comes from an upbringing that taught me the value of school, hard work and Christ in my life.”
There were problems. Segregation was still very much alive when Watts was young. A local movie theater, for example, seated blacks and whites separately. Watts writes about a family member who told the story of once seeing a white man drink from a “whites-only” fountain and then allow his dog to drink from the fountain marked “coloreds only.”
“This oral history” of racism, Watts points out, “keeps the black community vigilant against anyone or anything that threatens the enormous economic and social progress it has made despite the kind of pervasive racism that most blacks of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations experienced.”
But Watts says he’s never allowed racism to control his life, and it is clear that it hasn’t. “It would be wrong to think the issue of race dominated my childhood,” he writes. He firmly rejects the current cult of victimhood, which he believes uses racial prejudice on the part of whites as an excuse for black failure. “Helen and Buddy Watts … gave me a lot of things, but they never gave me an excuse to fail,” he recounts.
Watts doesn’t avoid his mistakes in his autobiography. A popular football hero in high school, he fathered two children while a senior. One of them was adopted and reared by one of Watts’ uncles. Watts married the mother of the other child, and she is still his wife.
At the University of Oklahoma, Watts played football under the Sooners legendary coach, Barry Switzer, then went to the Canadian Football League. Watts entered politics in 1990, winning one of the three seats on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, a state agency. He first ran for the U.S. Congress in 1994, entering the House of Representatives along with that famous group of Republican freshmen who helped turn much of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” into reality.
In Congress, Watts relished working on what he saw as meaningful – and necessary – reform of the welfare system, which he believed froze whole generations of blacks and the poor into perpetual poverty. In 1996, he was honored to be selected as the Republican who would deliver his party’s response to President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address.
Yet all wasn’t well. Watts grew weary of the relentless attacks, which came from many quarters, that as a black man and a Republican he was a traitor to his race. He believes that the values he cherishes, including hard work and traditional religious faith, were those taught him by his black parents. How could he be a traitor to his race if he honored them by following their example, he wondered.
One of Watts’ greatest political disappointments was the backstabbing he sometimes experienced from fellow Republicans and conservatives. He explains that as a quarterback he learned the value of teamwork, and teammates didn’t work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Not so with politics, where Watts found backstabbing a regular event. Frequent presidential candidate Gary Bauer comes in for particular criticism.
What advice does Watts have for Republicans? He believes the GOP has first-rate policy ideas, but too little heart; that it is mostly head with little human warmth. “We need to remember that politics is all about people, not programs,” he writes. “We shouldn’t want to take the humanness out of the political arena.”
Put another way: “The Republican Party is terrific at determining how a program will impact the federal budget, but we’re not nearly as good as the Democrats in explaining to people how our agenda will directly benefit them and their families.” This is especially true, Watts notes, when it comes to explaining the GOP agenda to minorities.
“Our inability to make both an intellectual and an emotional connection with the American people is a constant problem,” he concludes. In this book, which connects both intellectually and emotionally, Watts doesn’t have that problem. He shows Republicans how to have a human face.
It’s a shame he didn’t stay longer in Washington, but not surprising – the lure of family proved too strong.
Order Watts’ book, “What Color Is a Conservative? My Life and My Politics”
Stephen Goode is a senior writer for Insight.