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Dig Deep: Truth Will Restore Trust in Politics

Former U.S. representative and college football star J.C. Watts Jr. offers advice for a disheartened electorate

By: Greg Tasker

J.C. Watts Jr., a former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma and founder of a boutique government affairs fi rm, has a simple solution to restore trust in national politics: Truth.

“In America, we don’t want to admit that we have a problem,” said Watts, who served four terms in Congress around the turn of the century. “We have a problem with telling the truth. We can agree that two plus two is five but that doesn’t make it right, or true. The truth always hurts before it helps, but you have to admit there is a problem. That is the first step.”

Watts compares a politician’s inability to acknowledge the truth to an addict’s substance dependence.

“It’s not a tragedy to be dysfunctional, but it’s a tragedy to allow dysfunction to become normal. That’s where we are,” he said. “We have to recognize that two plus two is four. When someone says it’s something else, then someone, whether Republican or Democrat, white, yellow, red or black, has to stand up and say that’s not true.”

If Watts’ solution sounds simple, he comes to this belief after wearing a lot of hats in life. He is a former college football star. He has served as a youth pastor. In Congress, he was a member of the Armed Services Committee and the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. He is also author of “Dig Deep: 7 Truths to Finding the Strength Within.”

Watts, whose firm is based in Washington, D.C., believes civility and trust have continued to deteriorate since he left Congress.

“When I left in January 2003, I could see that it was getting progressively worse,” Watts said. “There was still some civility when I was in Congress. To run for office these days, you almost have to be angry and follow the party with blind faith and loyalty.”

He surmises politics and collaboration has deteriorated on both sides of the aisle because of an inability to tell the truth.

“The truth is often in the eye of the beholder. Even in politics, the data isn’t often very clear,” he said. “But to be a good defense attorney or prosecutor, you are constantly peeling the layers of the onion looking for the facts.”

Being a team player is important in accomplishing an agenda, but it’s also important to be able to stand independently and question.

“Everything I learned in athletics made me a team guy,” said Watts, who was a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners and led them to Orange Bowl victories. “I don’t mind taking one for the team, but I became enough of an independent that if you made me wear a uniform that didn’t fit, I would say something. If we are going to march, tell me where we are marching to. I had enough independence to say two plus two is four.”

Along with speaking the truth, it is wise to have a level of distrust of government, Watts adds.

“Being of African-American descent, I’m old enough to remember that I couldn’t swim in the public pool and had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater because of my race,” he said.

The government isn’t always right, he said, pointing to some of the historic cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — the Dred Scott decision, for example — and the distrust former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover created in government and the public.

“I’ve had a healthy suspicion of my government,” he said. “At the same time, it’s the government that said we’re going to add the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It’s the same government that said separate and equal are unequal. It’s the same government that said we’re going to abolish Jim Crow laws.”

How can Congress move past the lingering trend of hyper-partisanship?

“Let’s start by saying, I should treat you the way I want to be treated,’” Watts said. “That’s a pretty good foundation. If we don’t allow our children to act this way, why do we allow politicians?”

“We hold our football coaches to a higher standard than elected officials,” he added. “The same standard we hold (University of Michigan coach) Jim Harbaugh to, we should hold Congress to. It’s that simple.”