Former lawmaker offers lessons on leadership
America has “squandered” opportunities afforded it by the World War II generation, a prominent former congressman said Tuesday, and current lawmakers on both sides of the political divide need to put aside partisanship to solve national problems. J.C. Watts, the 2010-2011 Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership, offered those observations in an evening lecture attended by hundreds of people inside McCrary Theatre.
“We have literally squandered all the values they gave us, the principles that have made us great,” he said in an hour speech. “We have literally squandered all of their values and principles over the last 30, 35 years. We have adopted an ideology that says they only thing right is to get by, and the only thing wrong is to get caught.”
Watts, a standout quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the fourth district of Oklahoma in 1994. In 1998, he was elected by his peers to serve as chairman of the Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking leadership position in the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives.
His experience on Capitol Hill served as the backdrop of remarks Watts made about leadership.
“There’s one thing I think you have to have to be a leader, and that’s character,” Watts said. “It’s old-fashioned to talk about character and it’s not politically correct, because when you talk about character in politics, people always think you’re being judgmental or trying to be holier-than-thou or trying to be self-righteous.
“I have a pretty simple definition of character. it’s doing what’s right when no one’s looking. And friends, we have a character deficit in America today in so many respects.”
Much of Watts’ time on stage was spent sharing his public policy ideas on taxes, health care, education and job growth. Americans are overtaxed, he said, and until the government removes the economic incentive to remain unemployed, many people won’t seek out jobs, which he argued would help improve the economy.
He also lamented the lack of political willpower to tackle the biggest sources of government expense.
“Every dollar that comes into Washington, D.C., it’s on autopilot. It’s mandatory spending. You can’t do anything about it,” Watts said in reference to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which he said comprise more than two thirds of the federal budget. “We can stop every earmark that will come down the pike over the next five years, and I promise you, we’ll still be close to bankruptcy.”
Watts is the chairman of the J.C. Watts Companies, providing strategic focus and program leadership to the company’s business partnerships, joint ventures, engagements, alliances and initiatives. He works with partners, customers and clients to execute market development, communications and public affairs strategies.
Watts advises or serves as a corporate director for several major companies, including John Deere, Wells Fargo, NASCAR, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Clear Channel Communications, Dillard’s Department Stores and Terex Corporation. He is a regular analyst on CNN and a frequent guest on national radio shows.
He co-founded the Coalition for AIDS Relief in Africa and serves on the board of Africare. He also serves on the boards of the Boy Scouts of America and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he created the J.C. and Frankie Watts Foundation to focus on urban renewal and other charitable initiatives.
As a member of Congress, Watts served for eight years on the House Armed Services Committee. He authored legislation to create, and then he later served on, the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. He also served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as the House Banking Committee.
A native of Oklahoma and a University of Oklahoma alumnus, Watts led the Sooners to two consecutive Big Eight Championships and Orange Bowl victories. He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the 1980 and 1981 Orange Bowls. From 1981 to 1986, he started for Ottawa and Toronto in the Canadian Football League and was voted the Most Valuable Player of the Grey Cup, the CFL's Super Bowl, his rookie season.
After returning to Oklahoma, Watts served as a youth minister at Sunnylane Baptist Church in Del City, Oklahoma from January 1987 until December 1994, when he then became associate pastor. In 1990 he was elected to the Oklahoma State Corporation Commission and became chairman before running for Congress in 1994.
Watts is the seventh Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership. Former visiting professors are Dee Dee Myers, John Alexander, William W. “Bill” George, Ben Bradlee, Christine Todd Whitman and David Gergen. The professorship brings nationally recognized authorities to campus to share insights about the nature, potential and responsibilities of leadership.