Former Missouri Attorney General, U.S. Senator and U.N. Ambassador John Danforth was the keynote speaker and recipient of the George W. Lehr Memorial Speakers Chair at the American Legion Boys State of Missouri in Warrensburg on Tuesday night. After his speech Senator Danforth took questions from the audience.
This is the first part of the transcript of the audience question and answer session:
…Question: …Now that, uh, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed and we allow both gays and lesbians to serve openly and die for our country do you still believe that marriage should not be defined in the Constitution and we should deny these people basic human rights?
John Danforth: I think that marriage should not be defined in the Constitution. I think that the only time that the Constitution was used to try to get into a purely social issue was, uh, at the time of prohibition. And that provision in the Constitution lasted exactly thirteen years. So the problem with putting almost anything in the Constitution is that it becomes rigid, ossified. It’s stuck. That’s the way the Constitution is. And I think on a question like marriage, it’s the sort of thing that should evolve from, um, the social standards of the people and not be written in the Constitution language. [applause]
Question: …You talked about, uh, honesty and integrity. Why do you think that, uh, people in politics and, and higher power sometimes use that power to better themselves instead of, um, using it for the public and public service?
John Danforth: Um, it’s the human condition, you know, or religious people would say it’s original sin, I mean, what all of us think about ourselves. And a person in business wants to succeed in business, the customer’s always right. A person in politics wants to succeed in politics by telling people what they want to hear and, uh, to get to win the next election. So, it’s, it’s the nature of politics. And I think that, you know, the, the, the real question really is an ego question, and is there something more than getting yourself elected. Is there some standard beyond that? And I think, you know, for a politician to be told, look, I don’t agree with you, but I respect you, I think that’s the best thing you can say to a politician. [applause]
Question: Thank you.
….Question: …You mentioned how Harry S Truman advocated that people should learn a lot about American history and, um, when I entered high school, because I went to high school in Independence, I became really fascinated with American history and, uh, I saw, I explored a lot about, uh, you know, acts of civil rights and what not. I became really fascinated with that. I wanted to know, um, for those who can’t get into politics, but for those who can act in civil rights ways, you know, to advocate civil rights movements I wanted to know, um, is civil disobedience justified when a government acts unjustly? And in today’s day and age with today’s status quo in this age of conservatism do you think there will ever be a chance of some sort of civil disobedience or civil rights movements?
John Danforth: Well, you know, I think that the way our country functions and the way it was intended to function when our Constitution was written was to, to create a system where different interests could express themselves and be heard without taking to the streets. And, I believe in that system. I mean, think about what was in the mind, in the minds of the framers of the Constitution. They were trying to hold together what was then thought of as a diverse country with mercantile interests, agricultural interests, large states, small states. They were trying to create a system that accommodated those different points of view. That’s the way that American, America should function. Not one side saying, I win, you know, you lose, you’re out to lunch. But one where everybody gets at least some stake and ability to speak out, then even
tually somebody’s gonna win or lose. Could I conceive of civil disobedience? Sure, in a repressive country, but I don’t think our’s is a repressive country. So I would say work within the system. [applause]
Question: …Our nation has a vast and expanding national debt. Uh, politicians greatly differ on how they feel this debt should be dealt with, but that’s not my question to you tonight. Uh, my question is this, what effect will this debt have on the future of our country.
John Danforth: I, well, it’s unsustainable for the future of our country. And, um, there’s, um, it, it’s, it’s ruinous, you know, I mean, eventually it would, it would create, um, uh, a devaluation of, of the dollar, massive inflation, we’d lose our credit rating, interest rates would go up, the, uh, the economy would be seriously crippled and it would get worse and worse and worse. And my generation can survive this way, it’s very, gonna be very difficult for your generation. Here’s just a little, a little fact which I think is impressive. By the year twenty twenty-four, so you’re talking thirteen years from now, not long, four, thirteen years from now Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on the debt will consume one hundred percent of federal revenue. Nothing will be left over for anything else, nothing for education, nothing for research, nothing for the military, nothing for law enforcement, nothing for anything else government can do. All of it is going to be consumed by these three big entitlement programs plus interest on the debt. It is not a sustainable situation and the consequence is gonna be felt by your generation more than by mine.
Question: Thank you very much, sir. [applause]
Question: …You talked about, um, marriages for, um, um, men and women of the same, of the same sex which, um, made, made me think of a question. Um, what do you think about the protests that are going on in Kansas where people are openly protesting military funerals for homosexual military men and women?
John Danforth: I think it’s disgraceful and sickening. [applause] [cheers] My view is that marriage, I’m not talking about, you know, legal issues like visitation rights and inheritance and that kind of thing, my view is marriage is a religious issue. And in my view it is between a man and a woman, but I think that that’s the kind of social issue that should be worked by the people rather than be something that is written into the Constitution. [applause]
Question: …Uh, what brought you into politics and did you have a teacher that pushed you and made you love politics?
John Danforth: Um, well, what brought me into politics, that’s the first question? What was the beginning?
Question: Yes, sir.
John Danforth: Yeah. Uh, well, when I was ten years old my parents took my brother and me to Washington. And we sat in the gallery of the U.S. Senate and I can remember saying to myself, I want to do that some day. And I, my, my family was not political. But, I can remember saying that to myself. And I can remember as we were leaving the Senate gallery I can remember exactly the words my father said. What a bunch of windbags. [laughter] But, but I, I liked it and, and because of that my family encouraged it even though they weren’t very political. And the same was true of teachers in my school. You know, they kind of, they, they, they let me do it and encouraged me. So, any time there was a mock political convention or a model U.N. General Assembly or anything like that I was always part of it. I was not, unfortunately, part of Boys State. I don’t know why not. But, I was always part of almost any other program you can think of. [applause]
Question: Thank you, senator.
Question: …With you experience and work in international politics did you ever find that bipartisanship and party politics to have as much influence in the United Nations and around the globe as they do in the U.S.?
John Danforth: Oh, it’s very different, you know, I mean, the U.S. it’s Republicans and Democrats and positioning themselves for the next election. The U.N. is, is just really different from that. It’s not like that at all. The only thing in the, the only part of the U.N. that has real power is the Security Council. And there are fifteen members of the Security Council, five of them have the veto power which means you can’t pass anything over the objection of one of them. So, Security Council resolutions tend to be kind of mushy. But, uh, it’s, that’s really different from, from Washington I think.
Question: Thank you. [applause]
Question: …Given your experience as an ambassador and your experience in the Sudan, um, what advice do you have for us who are interested in pursuing a career in international relations?
John Danforth: What, what about pursuing a career?
Question: What advice do you have for those of us interested in international relations [crosstalk]
John Danforth: Yeah, I, I think, you know, maintain an interest, read the papers, uh, try to keep up with what’s going on in the world, think about what’s going on in the world, and then look for the kinds of opportunities once you’re, uh, in college, where would that lead. I mean, what kinds of things would that lead you to? One possibility ids the Foreign Service which is, uh, just a terrific, you know, terrific experience. There are other things as well, there’s, uh, USAID which is, um, which is a food relief to various parts of the world. There’s the CIA which is very interesting. Uh, then there are nongovernmental organizations, uh, Refugee’s International and so on, that are, that are involved in what’s going on in the world. So I’d just find out what these opportunities are and I’d pursue them and see what, what’s the best fit for you. [applause]
Question: Thank you, sir.
Question: …President Obama recently made some remarks about, uh, Israel. Uh, what, what are your views on those?
John Danforth: Um, I think that [pause], I couldn’t , I couldn’t understand why he said what he said. And particularly when he said it, when the Prime Minister of Israel was either in the U.S. or about to come to the U.S. And he said that he thought the, that, you know, with, with adjustments Israel should return to the same, uh, geography, the same lines that existed before nineteen sixty-seven. Israel is not going to do that. Israel is not going to agree to be a country that’s nine miles wide. It just will not happen. And I don’t get why the President said that at that time. So, I think it was a mistake. [applause]
Question: …Whenever you face difficult times in your career in public service where did you draw your inspiration for strength?
John Danforth: Where did I draw my inspiration? Well, you know, I , one of the things that I tried to say in my remarks is that I think, I think it’s important to have a bigger world than just your political life. And, uh, I think you can get that from your religion, and I think you can get it from your family, and I think you can get it from other interests that you have. And I, I think that it’s very important to recognize that, you know, if you’re in politics someday you’ll be out of politics, probably. Or, you might lose and you gotta be willing to lose and then, what is your life? I mean, are you so invested in being a politician that that’s all you are? Because if that’s, if that’s the case then, first of all, it’s sad, and secondly, it makes you a desperate person and, I think, not a very good public servant. So, it, it really is important to, to have values beyond your own political ambition. And I think that those will sustain you. [applause]
Question: Thank you very much.
Question: …You have a reputation for being an incredible statesman and I’d like to know what young people can do today to become more involved in statesmanship.
John Danforth: Thank you very much for the compliment. Um, how to become more in
volved? Just do it, you know, just do it. But, I mean, just show up. And, for example, people in, let’s say, members of Congress have what they call town hall meetings and they come, they come home all the time and they, they are accessible. And people show up at the town hall meetings, usually people mad about one thing or another, but they show up at the town hall meetings. Show up. And if you’ve got a question, ask the question. And if you’ve got a point that you want to make, make the point. And, if you think that the, that your representative in government is doing a good job, say so. And I, I think just participating in, in being active and not being just sort of a lump is really, is really important and it’s, it’s important for you and it’s a gift to the country to be engaged in it. Because you don’t want to have the only people engaged, the people who have just some axe to grind or some interest to serve by doing it. And, and if you’re, if what you’re interested in is good government and the country being better and the country having a future then you participate and, because, otherwise, the people who make the biggest demands on government, and the politicians pander to them, are people who, who want something, you know. They want, send me a check, or hire me, or something. And, if you are, if you, if you’re not just what’s in it for me, you’ve got a lot to offer and it’s by way of counterbalancing people who do have more of immediate interests. So, show up. [applause]
Question: …One of my main things I think that’s wrong with the economy now is the lack of manufacturing in the United States. Over the last few decades there’s had like a huge decline in the kind of things that we do manufacture and we’ve turned into importing more and more things. I guess I just kind of wondering what are your thoughts on that and do you think that made in the U.S.A. still means something around the world.
John Danforth: I think that the prosperity of America depends on letting the system work, rather than government trying to manage the system. And, I think when government tries to impose, you know, trade barriers to what’s coming in from abroad that’s government management of the system. And it doesn’t work very well. So, my view is that government should have a relatively light touch and let the system work. [applause]
Question: Thank you.
Question: …Obviously the two party system has caused a lot of dissent, especially within the, uh, within the Assembly, so do you think that the two party system is the superior system, or would we do better to have a multi-party system, a two, three, more?
John Danforth: I, I, haven’t given up on the two party system. I, I think that it’s served our country well. But, I don’t, I don’t think it’s working so well right now. And it’s, it’s interesting to try to analyze why that’s the case. Some people say that with congressional redistricting we’ve created these safe districts and, and so the result of that is that politicians aren’t competing for the center of American politics they’re just trying to please the base of their political party. And the base of each party has tended to get just extreme. And the center has been, has been pretty well marginalized in American politics. And one of the results of that is that the, in the two parties, let’s say in Congress, I think people are just saying, okay, what’s it take to win the next election. Which means, what’s it take to energize my base supporters, rather than how can you work things out. Uh, I, you know, I don’t want to just say, be this old guy talking about the good old days, but it is true that when I was in the Senate I had to work closely with members of the other party. I had to do it. And some of my closest social friends were Democrats. And the people I worked with, for example, on the Senate Finance Committee to get anything done, Democrats. So, I mean, Tom Eagleton, my, my colleague in the Senate from our state was a very good friend and we worked together even though, you know, we frequently disagreed on things. And in the Finance Committee, Democrats like Lloyd Bentsen and David Boren and David Pryor and Pat Moynihan and these people, you could deal with them. Now, I was told by a Senate wife not too long ago that when Senate spouses go on, you know, like bus trips to, say, a museum or wherever they’re going, when they sit on the bus they sit by party. So the Democrats are sitting next to Democrats, the Republicans are sitting next to Republicans and I just think that’s, it’s wrong. You know, it’s more than, it’s weird. But it’s also just plain wrong. And, and we’ve got [applause] to try and recreate the center in American politics. [applause, cheers]….
The second part of the transcript will follow in a subsequent post.