Paul Begala

"American politics too important to be left to the politicians"

Thank you President Gearan. Thank you for having me here. It's quite an honor, it's a great privilege and I hope you know how fortunate and blessed I feel. I also hope you know how blessed you are. I drove out here before the sun went down, what a beautiful town it's just so perfectly situated and the historical architecture, it's just so beautiful. And then this campus and the rolling hills, you're so blessed in so many ways. But not the least of them is with the President of these Colleges. Mark Gearan has been my friend for many years now, more than he would like to mention. Back when he still had a full head of hair, wait a minute he still does. Both of us had a full head of hair back in the day but he is just an extraordinary man, one of a few. I can't think of another who combines a powerful and passionate commitment to the principles in which he believes with an equally powerful commitment to civility and to treating those with who he disagrees like decent, good patriotic people. This is a quality I lack wholly and so I admire greatly.

Mark, his service to our country, first in the White House and then in the Peace Corps where he was really serving humanity, has been so remarkable. He is the only one I can think of now, the only person who Democrats and Republicans alike would agree that he's a person of real integrity. I am so honored to be here at his invitation and I do hope you know just how fortunate you are to have a man like Mark and a family like the Gearans in your community and leading these Colleges. I am here because Mark asked me to. I have a son who is about to go to college and I wanted to do my own college tour too, that's true I have a selfish agenda.

I want to talk about politics a little bit, kind of what we're doing as a country, not in Washington necessarily but what's kind of going on in the country and I think a few lessons that maybe almost a year now into this new presidency that perhaps we can draw. First you know my own biases right? You know I'm a Democrat, I work for President Clinton, I'm a liberal and that's all fine, I am not here to persuade anybody to adopt my own cockamamie political views or anybody else's. But what makes me unusual is not I think that I have liberal views even though I come from Texas. I grew up in Missouri City, Texas, where our Congressman for 22 years was Tom DeLay, it's true. I would go back home to this little town I grew up in and ask folks thinking for sure they were sick of DeLay by now and I would say well what do you think about DeLay and what he's doing up in Washington and they would say well not bad for a liberal. That was what I came out of so no wonder I'm a liberal right because I wanted to rebel. I think that's probably pretty common.

The reason that I love working at CNN is that I love politicians and I love politics and that's unusual and that's why I'll never fully feel completely comfortable and at home in the media. H.L. Mencken, one of the great journalists of the 20th century, said "The only way to look at a politician is down" and I just don't feel that way, most Americans do but I actually like them on both sides. I mean obviously I prefer the ideology of one party but I like them and yet, the reason I titled this lecture "Politics Too Important to be left to the Politicians," is that you know my real agenda is to try to make sure people get engaged and stay engaged. I'd like to kind of use that as my point of departure. When I graduated from college my father was a salesman, my mother was a homemaker, they were political in that they voted and they followed issues but they were not political the way we would mean it in Washington. I got into campus politics and then I got started working with campaigns and I told my Daddy that. My father was a salesman in the oil field industry that's how we were in Missouri City, Texas. I said to him "Daddy I want to go into politics, that's what I want to do with my life." He says, "Oh son, that's a dirty business, I don't think you ought to be going into politics." Well I was smart-alecky as a kid, I've out grown that as you know, but I said right back at him, "Well you know Dad it's not like Mother Teresa spent her career in the Texas oil industry. It's crazy to you but a lot of people think that's kinda dirty." Well, he had the comeback; he said, "Well think of the word itself, son -- politics. Poly is a Greek root that means many and tics are blood sucking insects," and I thought that's the life for me. Sign me up then. (audience laughter)

So here I am 25 years later still in it. Go back to my real goal; politics obviously is important, right? These politicians they get together as our President did last night and decide whether we'll have war or peace. They get together and decide whether taxes will go up or down or crime goes up or down or welfare goes up or down or whether America goes up or down. They can get together and they do this-- they even set the time. The only reason we have daylight savings time is because the politicians voted to do it. So we set the clock back faithfully because the law says that we do, there are some that want to set it back not one hour but 85 years but that's a different agenda but it is consequential I think that's an inarguable point. What I want to argue is also really interesting and fun and we ought to be able to do both, we ought to be able to deal with the gravity of it and to understand the complexity of it but also you know appreciate the kind of human drama, the human comedy, the human farce that politics is. So, I am not quite sure where to begin.

If you look at the political landscape right now there is so much going on. I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony like anywhere I land there is going to be very fertile territory. So I'll start with what for Democrats is the bad news, the 2009 election. Democrats lost the Virginia Governor's seat which they had held; they lost the New Jersey's Governor's seat which they had held. Now they can take some comfort in knowing that Virginia has voted against the party of the President every time for 36 years, every time and they did it again. New Jersey has voted against the party of the President every time for 24 years and they've done it again. I think though if Democrats only take that and say, "Well it's just the tide of history there's nothing we can do about it," that's really foolish. The only good thing about losing is that you learn from it. Most people learn a lot more from failure than from success because they don't agonize over success.

So if the Democrats were to do an after-action report on 2009, I think it would look something like this: The first rule is it sucks to be the party in power with 10 percent unemployment and I think that explains a lot of why Jon Corzine got voted out in New Jersey but again that's a little too facile. If you drill down a bit you see that in Virginia where the Republican, first Republican to win of course in eight years, the Republican trounced the Democrat in a state that only had 6.6 percent unemployment, the fifth lowest unemployment in America. So you can't just say well it's the economy stupid the sign that James Carville and I hung up in the war room back in 1992, there's more to it than that. What I think that the lessons I learned particularly from Virginia where I live now and I watched that campaign very closely, are a couple of things. First, ideas matter. The Republican running for Governor had some ideas, I didn't happen to agree with them but he had ideas. He said if you elect me the state owns all the liquor stores in Virginia, which makes me an enormous contributor to the state. He said I'll sell the state liquor store to the private sector, states shouldn't be in the business of owning liquor stores and I'll use the money to build roads. Well okay, I may not agree with that idea, I may agree with it but at least it's an idea and he had several others like that. He had an actual agenda. The Democrat, I'm sorry to say, had few if any. I voted for him because I'm a loyal sort of tribal Democrat but if someone had grabbed me coming out of the polling booth and said name five issues the Democratic candidate for Governor would enact if he wins I would have been dumbfounded, I would have had nothing to say. So ideas matter, that's an important lesson and that's a lesson that if anything Bill Clinton drubbed into my head and President Gearan said and everybody who served under him, it is that politics is fun and it can be kind of brutal and bloody but it is always about ideas and that's a lesson that Democrats forgot in Virginia. Another lesson is-- you have to keep your folks engaged. Barack Obama won the state of Virginia by six percent, no Democratic had carried Virginia in a Presidential election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 when Barack was three years old. So he did a big thing. Three hundred and sixty four days later the Republican wins in a landslide, why? Well, turnout. The composition of the election was fundamentally different -- turnout among young people, many of whom are here, in the state of Virginia dropped by more than 50 percent in 364 days. That says something about the candidate and his inability to inspire but I have to say very few people can inspire like Barack Obama but it says something about the voters too. Democrats have got to make sure that they're people are engaged. On Election Day in 2008, this was not a conspiracy but it was I think beneficial to the Democrats -- Starbucks gave out free coffee to everybody who voted. Now they tend to be I think a progressive company by reputation but there's nothing better on Election Day than jacking up the kids on caffeine. What did the President of the United States do about two months before the election this time, he had the Attorney General decriminalize medical marijuana while the kids were all stoned they're not going to vote -- Pot bad, coffee good that's the lesson here. On a lot of levels actually I think that. So you have to excite and motivate and animate your base while at the same time not alienating your center, this is what the Republican did. He is a true conservative very, very conservative and yet didn't run on those kinds of devices and social issues that so often define the Conservative Agenda in a state like Virginia the home of the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He ran on kind of common sense centrist issues, roads and schools and jobs. Again, I didn't tend to agree with him but those ideas as President Bush would say, those ideas "resignated" with the voters. Now maybe that's setting the bar too high for the Democrats because it may well be that Barack Obama is a once in a generation kind of candidate in his ability to inspire particularly young people. When the inauguration was going on I spoke to 2,000, maybe some of you were there, 2,000 college students who had come for the inauguration. All of them had worked or volunteered in the Obama campaign. Huge, huge crowd who had been there for the campaign and I thought I would start, as they teach you in speech class, start with a little joke. So I said, you know each President puts his own stamp on his inauguration. When Ronald Reagan, a movie star, was sworn in he moved the swearing in ceremony from the east side of the Capitol which faces a parking lot to the west side of the Capitol which faces the National Mall and the Washington Monument, duh. That's strange it took until Reagan. Well there was a tradition and the reason it was in front of the parking lot which in older days was just a small green space was they didn't have sound amplification and so they didn't need a vast expanse to hold a million people or 1.8 million for Obama. So Reagan turned us around, put us on the west front and I think forever more we'll be there, I certainly hope so. That was his contribution I told these students. Jimmy Carter, I remember when he was sworn in, to show that he was a man of the people he grabbed Rosalyn by one hand and Amy by the other and they walked up Pennsylvania Avenue, the two miles from the Capitol to the White House to show that he was just a common man, a man of the people, didn't have to ride in a big limousine was his contribution. So then I kind of learned in a conspiratorial way and I said, "Okay now guys don't tell anybody but I have a lot of friends who are doing the advance work for the inaugural. After he's sworn in President-elect Obama is going to walk on the reflecting pool down to the Lincoln Memorial and nobody laughed. They all sat there and they got out their iphones and they're like "Oh Tiffany, he's going to walk on water again. So his unique ability to inspire this is, like all of us, this is his greatest strength but it could in some ways be his greatest weakness. Will those same people who believed that Barack Obama walks on water, will they now be with him when on this or that matter they think he has stumbled or they disagree with him. We are watching this play out right now. Before he even gave his speech last night sent an e-mail out to all 5 million of its members attacking the President's plan on Afghanistan. Now moveon endorsed Obama against Hillary in the primaries. They worked their hearts out for him. Their members, their 5 million members strong probably knocked on I don't know 50 million doors and handed out leaflets and sent in small donations. So that's an important sign here and so the question will be -- will these folks step in there and lift him up even when they think he has fallen? That's what I'm going to be watching. I support this President obviously as a Democrat but as an analyst, will he be more like Reagan and Clinton or will he be more like Carter and Bush? This is not a partisan thing that's why I picked one Democrat and one Republican for each example. Ronald Reagan when unemployment was high, as high as it is today, his popularity went down to 35 percent but the worst moment of his Presidency was the Iran Contra scandal because he sold deadly weapons and then he lied about it and particularly his base could not imagine that Ronald Reagan would sell deadly missiles and then lie about it but he did and you know what happened? He went down to 45 but that was it, 45 percent. Not because they approved of what he had done but because they were there to pick him up. He was their guy, he was our guy. The country loved The Gipper and you know I was there and Mark was there and I don't know if it made the papers up here but President Clinton had a little problem in his second term and you know what happened to his approval rating at the worst of the Lewinsky scandal, 71. Now the lesson here, and I teach at Georgetown and I was going through this and I was about to make this point with my students at Georgetown and there's a kid, reminds me of me. Sits in the back of the room, his name is Douglas and Douglas, I don't want to say his last name in case his parents are within the sound of my voice, so the lesson here is and he shoots his hand up and he says, "Barack needs a girlfriend." No, wrong-o! Nobody approved of what President Clinton did, least of all me or Mark, but we were there for him. President Bush did not have a tawdry affair, President Bush did not sell weapons, he left office with a 26 percent support rating and I'd like to meet that 26 by the way. I mean he has a large and loving family and I can't imagine beyond that who on Earth thought he was doing a good job. So we make these judgments and we stick by them as a country and it's too early to tell honestly whether we'll be, I know what I think, I hope rather that we'll be there to lift up this I think gifted brilliant young President when he stumbles. I don't think he's made an important mistake yet but when he does, will we be there to pick him up or will we do like we did with Carter and with George W. Bush and just say you know I'm through with him and tune him out and shut it down? That's going to be something to watch in the next four years and if he gets a second term, a whole eight years. I'm looking for sort of leading indicators. Well a lot of it is going to be his communication skills, that's a big part of leadership and it was denigrated in the Bush years, it was. I used to, this is kind of mean, but watching President Bush even trying to complete a sentence was like watching a fat drunk cross an icy road you know. I was rooting for him, well I wasn't actually I don't want to lie, I wanted sort of the NASCAR crash into the wall but he tried to use that for awhile for his advantage right. Oh, if he's that inarticulate he must not be able to lie but in time we remembered the lessons of FDR and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that ability to lead and inspire and persuade is central to the Presidency. President Bush didn't have it, Barack Obama does. That's a huge thing but no matter how gifted the orator, we ultimately judge our Presidents by the results and you know right now as I say, it's too soon to tell. Chou En-lai, the Chinese leader about 30 years ago was asked what he thought about the French Revolution and that was his answer, he said, "Too soon to tell." He has a little longer view, we in American we want to know every 15 minutes we have a new CNN poll. The truth -- it is it is too soon to tell with this President and you know what I hope but we are watching some of the most important things of our time playing out right now. We're going to decide whether or not we stand by him, I think in part based on whether he can pass the health care bill that the Senate is debating right now. FDR couldn't do it, LBJ couldn't do it, Richard Nixon couldn't do it, Jimmy Carter couldn't do it, Bill Clinton couldn't do it and I give Barack Obama enormous credit. The real third of rail of American politics is not Social Security which Reagan tampered with and tinkered with and Clinton tinkered with. The real third rail is healthcare and to his credit he rushed right in there because he feels like we have no choice. He's passionate about it and I think he's going to get it.

President Gearan just asked me that a little while ago, do you think we'll have a healthcare bill and I said, "Yes," for several reasons. First, he cut some very pragmatic deals some of his base didn't like that, I think it was smart. You know with the Clinton plan we aggravated our enemies. We annoyed the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies and the hospitals and we pulled them all together and then we annoyed the hell out of them. They spent back then, 16 years ago, they spent $105 million against us and we spent $5 million for it. Well just if you knew nothing else about a piece of legislation and you knew $5 million was spent in favor of it and $105 million was spent against it how would you bet? What did President Obama do? He peeled off the pharmaceutical manufactures, he peeled off the doctors, he peeled off the nurses, he peeled off the hospitals, all of them are supporting this now. Now he's got one very big, very powerful enemy the health insurance industry. Much smarter. That's one reason I think he's going to succeed. Another is he's not letting the perfect be the enemy be the good. I admire that pragmatism. I was one of the people, I don't have a pen on me but I was one of the people in the State of the Union address in 1994 who helped persuade President Clinton to hold that pen up and threaten to veto healthcare. Remember and he said it, he said if you send me a healthcare bill that does cover 100 percent of Americans I will take this pen, I will veto that bill we'll start all over again. Mark and I were there. Oh I felt so good and all the Democrats were cheering and the press said oh that's so courageous and guess what, what would I give today to rewind the tape and have him sign a bill that covered 83.7 percent of Americans? You know that taught me a powerful lesson, we need to be about progress not perfection. Let's see now if my fellow Democrats in Washington can do that. When this all began I wrote a column for the Washington Post remembering that story, reminding Democrats of it and then analyzing the Social Security Act in 1935. No self respecting liberal today would have voted for the Social Security Act in 1935. It didn't cover public employees, it didn't cover the self employed, it didn't cover the agricultural workers vast members of which were Latino, it didn't cover domestic workers vast members of which were African American; it didn't even cover the clergy -- for God's sake! Yet the Democrats passed it. Today many people in my party, principle people would say no, no the Social Security Act as proposed, frankly it's racists and it's parsimonious. It did not have disability coverage, it did not have survivors benefits, it had very, very little and yet we passed it knowing as FDR did that our founders charged us not with forming a perfect union but forming a more perfect union. Right in just trying to get it a little bit better, and then handing it off to the next person so for 70 years now we've been tinkering with Social Security trying to make it more perfect. That's what is going to happen with healthcare even if we pass it so if the public option is in or out or this provision for covering abortion is in or out, to me that matters a lot less than the fundamental architecture that we can work on later. But will the Democrats pull that whole house down or will they say, "I hate that it lacks this or I hate that it includes that but I'm going to work on fixing it in the future." That will be an important lesson I think that they will and the most important reason they will is because they understand their rear ends are on the line. Okay this is a jobs issue in Washington, the jobs of the Congressman and the Senators who are voting on it. When we failed in 1994 I went up to the Hill and Mark did this a million times, I went up to the Hill and I met with all the Chiefs of Staff of the Senators in the Democratic Party begging them to pass something. Didn't have to be exactly what we and one of the senior most ones whose boss was the committee chairman said to me –"You don't understand if this thing fails it's your boss' problem not mine and I said no you don't understand if this thing fails your boss will never chair another committee for the rest of his life." I'm sorry to say that man's boss passed away never chairing a committee again. Well those who still are alive remember that. In 1994 it had been over 40 years since the Democrats had lost the House of Representatives. When Newt and them won they had to get out the Constitution and make sure it was allowed to have a Republican speaker. They looked at Gearan and me back then and they basically said if we eat and exercise we will always be in the majority. We don't need your stupid healthcare bill. Guess what, they get it now. Okay, or as one of them said to me, if I'm in a convertible with Barack Obama and we go through a car wash I'm the only one who is going to get wet. They get it. So I think they're going to do it for the right reasons, for the country and so forth but also the most kind of pragmatic reasons they believe that this is their job on the line and it should be. When the American people give you the keys to the Kingdom, the House, the Senate, the White House you have to deliver. It is not good enough to say, "Well the other party is not helping me, it's not their job to help you."

When the Texas Longhorns play the Texas Aggies we don't expect the Texas Aggies to hand the ball off to us. Now sometimes they do cause they're real dumb, sorry. I am sorry to sound mean but I am completely unmoved by the whining that the Republicans aren't helping and we talked about this a little bit earlier Mark and I. The notion that this has to be bipartisan and that we have to put a bipartisan label on it for it to be effective is nonsense. It has to be good, it has to help people and if it does that's good enough and if you feel better calling it bipartisan because one Senator voted for it and one Congressman voted for it that's fine, it's not really bipartisan. As I like to say, if I say gracias to the guy at Taco Bell that does not make me bilingual but if it makes them feel better so that's fine. This thing is a real test and fundamentally it's to test the Democratic Party but it's also a test of this new President. An even greater test of course is Afghanistan and Iraq because he's our Commander in Chief and I was struck last night. This President has a sort of really remarkable ability to try to synthesize what seem to be irreconcilable goals. That's so important in a country that's this diverse and that's this divided. It's so important. He is, and I keep referring to President Clinton because I served under him and when President Clinton was sworn in the second time he had his hand on the Bible open to the scripture passage from Isaiah that said and thou shall be called healer of the breach. That was his fondest goal to try to heal this country. This President is the same way. All good Presidents are; they want to bring the country together. So when he was speaking on this terribly divided issue last night, it was so interesting because the Republicans and the Conservatives cheered when he said he was going to increase troop levels. Three years ago we had 23,000 soldiers in Afghanistan; six months from now we'll have 100,000. Now that's an escalation. Now that troubled a lot of people on the Left but they found solace in the fact that there's an exit strategy and it's interesting. At CNN and the other networks we weren't quite sure what to make of it because we try to sort of, unfortunately, put things in very simple boxes. This was really interesting in its complexity. I hope he's right and I'm not wise enough to know but it's certainly an interesting way to square the circle, to say yes we're going to have a really hard punch upfront and then you know what you're on your own Afghanis. You're going to have to take care of your own country fundamentally and if conditions on the ground are sufficiently controlled we're going to start winding down in July of 2011. That will be almost 10 years of American blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan. World War II only took four so I don't think we're short changing anybody by saying by 2011.

We should start to draw down but that's how this President operates. He's such an interesting person and such an interesting President. I think he is well suited for the job because we've learned a lot about him. As I've said we've learned he's very pragmatic, we've learned that he wants strong people around him, who'd a thought. This man never ran a Dunkin Doughnuts stand and yet, he's shown a gift for management that is really impressive. He recruited your Senator and my friend Hillary Clinton to be the Secretary of State. She didn't want the job, if she couldn't be President. She loved, loved being your Senator and I was talking to her during the transition so I know firsthand this came as a big surprise to her. She was invited to Chicago to have lunch with the President-elect and she thought it was just a perfunctory, you know he had met with John McCain, he'd meet with Hillary and so she went up there and was surprised to find that the lunch was just the two of them. It wasn't some big phony thing. It was just the two of them and their food tasters because it was sort of a bitter primary. Then he pops the question metaphorically speaking, do you want to be the Secretary of State and three times she said no because she loved being a Senator and particularly, frankly a Senator from New York but I am so glad that he would not take no for an answer. It tells you a lot about Hillary that she was willing to take one of the hardest jobs in the world and it says a lot about the President. I mean how many Democrats voted for Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton hoping that Hillary would be in charge of foreign policy. They mostly voted and endorsed Barack because of foreign policy. He did the same thing with Bob Gates, the Pentagon Chief. He had served under Bush and he had a little counter that he carried around that counted down the months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds until he could go home to his old job being the President of Texas A&M University which as I mentioned is a sort of remedial school we have in Texas. If you drive by, slow down and talk real slow. So Gates didn't want the job either. President Obama wouldn't take no for an answer, he talked him into it -- this is an impressive thing. I don't know where that comes from but he has a really remarkable ability to manage and to draw really strong people in and then let them do their jobs. So that's something that I have learned about him. Another thing which I love and I think some critics don't but I love, he would be in my Hall of Fame already for one thing and that is image management, image consciousness. This is an important thing in a President. Tim Russert asked Reagan this one time, did it help you that you were an actor, did it help you be President and Reagan cocked his head and he looked at Russert and he said, "Tim, I don't think you could do this job if you weren't an actor." And he was right. Roosevelt had that kind of theatricality about him, I think President Clinton did. Great Presidents understand that part of the job is image, a big part of the job and this guy already is so sophisticated about that in a way that would be in the Hall of Fame for me. It's a broad thing; it's not just the issue agenda. We want our President to be paterfamilias and we think of President Obama, one of the things we think about is family man right? Astonishing wife, those gorgeous kids and they've let us peak a little bit at how this very lovely, wonderful, normal, all American family is adjusting to life in the White House. That's all part of image management. I think it's good, I can understand why cynics wouldn't like it but like they even covered, well how many people know this, how many people know he bought the girls a new swing set? Isn't that amazing, he could have actually done that without you knowing by the way and I'm lucky. I've seen it; it's got a rope ladder and curving slides, way better than the one Bush used to play on. But he, I know I'm sorry I'm kidding, he bought the girls a dog. Well no Teddy Kennedy gave the girls a dog, he allowed the girls to have a dog. How many know about the dog right? We all do, Bo, the most famous dog in the world, right? The only thing that Dick Cheney liked about Barack Obama by the way so far has been the dog. I'm glad he bought them a Portuguese water boarding dog, no that's not what it was.

He knows that you're watching in the same way that Reagan did, in the same way that Roosevelt did. That's a big part of leadership; it's an important part of leadership. Everywhere he goes. Who's seen him, what the staff calls it hoops with the troops, who has seen him shooting hoops with the Marines or the soldiers, the sailors, the airman, right? He's a good athlete actually and these are young men and women he can bond with shooting hoops but they just happen to let 50 network cameras in when he does it. That's pretty sophisticated and I think that's fine. You know what he does that you've never seen a photo of since he's been President, he smokes. I'm glad we've never seen that picture. I have four boys I do not want them ever to smoke a cigarette and I'm sorry that he smokes. He gave an interview to Anderson Cooper at CNN where he said he's still struggling and he's cutting way down and he's quitting but that's issue management too. So that my sons who admire their President and in so many ways, want to grow up and be like him I'm glad that they don't see pictures of him sort of casually and cavalierly poisoning himself. So we've learned a lot about him but the most important thing though and I want to close with this is -- he has, I know Reagan said you had to be an actor to do the job, I think what you need even more you cannot be the President unless you are exceptional. Unless you believe in your heart that this is a unique and special place and I think, I'm quite sure, he believes that. I don't think you could do the job if you didn't.

In his campaign, my favorite line in his speech was not really the most eloquent but it moved me, he used to say "in no other country in the world is my story even imaginable" and it's true. It's inarguably true. How many of you here, like Barack Obama, had a grandfather who was a goat herder in Kenya? I know Gearan did. No. His story is unique in the particulars but it's universal in the appeal. That up from nothing miracle is the American dream. It's the American dream not anywhere else. I mean I fancied myself a very serious Bush critic but my brother-in-law topped me by far. My brother-in-law is French and it is true that the French, he's an American citizen but he was born in France and he would go after Bush and in a weird way I would feel like I had to defend him. I don't know why, he's my brother-in-law I guess is why so he always has to be wrong and I didn't have any good defenses so I would, this is a rule of political consulting, I would counter attack. So he would say well Bush screwed this up and I would say Eve what's the French Army salute. I had him again, why is the Chance de Lise lined with trees, so the Germans can march in the shade. Well what got him was election night. I called him up. This guy I love him, he's married to my only sister and he's a wonderful man, went to Princeton top of his class he's a very, very successful investment banker in New York. Really one of the smartest people I know and travels the world, he's an international banker. As I called him up and I said well you know Eve when is the country of your birth going to do what the country of my birth just did. When is France going to elect a Moroccan, an Algerian, a Cameroonian? African Americans are still only 12 percent of the country and the whole country, 53 percent, just voted for this man. He said, the most sophisticated and intelligent guy I know, he said oh no that only happens in America. That's an immigrant speaking, that's somebody who has an appreciation that I cling to but because I was born here have to remind myself of it and I remind myself by looking through my grandmother's immigrant eyes. My grandfather was not a goat herder in Kenya but my grandmother was a maid and she came to this country from Hungary. She didn't speak a word of English, she didn't have a nickel in her pocket and she never even went to a day of high school but she wanted to be free so she came to this country. She landed on Ellis Island and I'm seeing heads nodding across this room because this is different in the particulars but it's the same story. In no other country is my story even imaginable. President Clinton used to remind me of that to keep me in my place. He'd look at me and say you know Begala if you ever see a turtle up on a fence post you know one thing, he didn't get there on his own somebody had to put him there. He was right, he was especially right in my case. Well I love that Clinton could do both the Rhodes Scholar and the redneck; it was perfect for me. He needed to do the Rhodes stuff with Mark and the redneck stuff with me. This is I think a big part of this President's appeal. I think this is how he did it, is that he knows in his bones and he conveys in his persona as well as his words that his story is only possible in America.

Even if you disagree with the agenda, I think it ought to make us pretty proud of the country that we have. The best day I ever had in the White House, the best day was not even the two times the President brought me to meet with the Holy Father, I'm a faithful Catholic as is Mark, he brought a bunch of his Catholic aides to meet The Pope. John Paul II came to dinner on August 12, 1993 and he brought a bunch of us to meet with him. I remember that not only because I met The Pope but because it was the day before my first born son's first birthday and his name is John Paul. We had named him in honor of The Pope, in 364 days earlier never dreaming that I'd meet The Pope but I have such reverence for him that I wanted to name me first son after him. By the way if you ever get a chance to tell The Pope that you named your first born child after him you should do so -- ultimate suck up. He said oh that's very nice I'll pray for him. As Mark knows he's 17 now and dating and driving and playing tight end on the football team and he needs those prayers Holy Father so does his daddy. Even that wasn't the best day I ever had though. The best day I ever had was when I got to bring Grandma Begala to the White House and she's passed now, two years, she lived to be 94. She saw it all and at one point, they gave us a tour of the residence, the whole thing and she grabbed Gary Walters the head usher and pointed at one of the fire places and she said, "Is this a working fire place?" He said, "Yes ma'am why?" And she said, "Well these andirons that hold the logs, how do you keep them so clean?" Well she's a maid, that's what she was interested in. When James Madison signed the treaty no, no, no just tell me what they polish that with. I drove her home that day though and she spoke three languages she was terribly smart but not formally educated and she only said three words the whole ride home. She shook her head and she said, "Only in America, only in America." Well she came here, my brother-in-law came here, Barack Obama's father came here but those of us who were born to this, who received this grace through no work of our own, this gift. I think the least we could do is engage in our political life and turn out and vote when it's time to decide who's going to led the only super power on God's Earth? With that I want to thank you very much.


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.