Three of the 73 Republican freshmen elected to Congress in 1994 arrived in Washington with the status of celebrities. One was Sonny Bono, lately replaced by his widow, Mrs. Bono. The other two were both former professional football players, both from Oklahoma and both aggressively religious. The white one is Steve Largent, who represents Tulsa. The black one is J.C. Watts, who grew up poor in the hamlet of Eufaula and represents southwestern Oklahoma.
From the moment they arrived, the two have had an aura about them. Both won desirable committee assignments. They are frequent guests on talk shows and favored speakers at GOP fund-raisers. Largent has been touted in conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard as having what it takes to be a Republican vice president. Watts, who is also frequently mentioned as veep timber, gave a big speech at the party’s 1996 convention in San Diego and was selected by Newt Gingrich to deliver the Republican response to Bill Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address. (His signature line, used in both speeches: “character is simply doing what’s right when nobody is looking.”) Even nonconservatives praise Watts in somewhat patronizing tones. “The cynical, secular world of Washington might snicker a bit at his home-made, hand-me-down wisdom,” Steve and Cokie Roberts write in their syndicated column. “But in the Eufaulas of America they know he’s right.”
You’re not supposed to say that Watts and Largent are dumb jocks. This taboo is a form of political correctness that even Republicans endorse. But in truth, the stereotype is not too far off the mark. Both are embarked on undistinguished, if not utterly futile, careers in Congress. While they’re both very nice men, in an unworldly sort of way, they’re in way over their heads. Treated as stars, they’re really just mascots.
Largent was the more successful football player and is a more extreme conservative. A pass receiver for 14 years on the Seattle Seahawks, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. His concerns are principally the taxes that afflict upper-income earners like himself (he’s worth several million dollars) and issues that flow from his evangelical Christianity, such as opposition to gay rights. “My faith is the foundation of my life,” he says. “I won’t deny that, because the way I relate to people is a reflection of my faith.” On his Web site is a profile touting his anti-tax zeal. It is reprinted from the Spotlight, the newspaper of the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby. (A spokesman for Largent said he thought the Liberty Lobby was merely a “conservative, pro-family organization” and didn’t know it was anti-Semitic.) Largent’s two signature proposals are abolishing the tax code on Jan. 1, 2002–an idiotic gimmick Largent is either stupid enough to believe in sincerely or cynical enough to push despite its idiocy (I have my hunch) and something called the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act.
W hat makes Largent ineffectual is not his extremism but rather his disinclination to compromise or operate as part of a team. As part of the small, ongoing insurrection of conservative true believers against Speaker Gingrich, he has essentially given up his chance to get bills introduced or to have an influence on the Republican agenda. Largent appears to have decided early on that Gingrich was spineless. When the speaker decided to surrender to President Clinton during the government shutdown, Largent voted to keep it closed. He subsequently opposed the 1996 budget agreement and called on Gingrich to step aside during his ethics trouble. During one heated GOP caucus, he made a scene by telling the speaker that he wouldn’t succeed in intimidating him, because burly NFL linebackers had tried and failed.
Largent does have a kind of blinkered integrity. Along with another colleague from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, he blew the whistle on House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster’s offer of $15 million in road pork in exchange for votes for the highway bill. But Largent’s own passes have all been intercepted. He had to withdraw his parents’ rights bill when even religious leaders opposed it as too extreme. His end-the-tax-code initiative had merely given fodder to the Clinton administration in its efforts to paint Republicans as irresponsible. On a daily basis, Largent spends his time trying to attach anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and anti-NEA amendments to anything with an H.R. number. (On Meet the Press, he recently advanced the novel argument that without Roe vs. Wade we would have 26 million more workers helping to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent.) He sees Washington as a city filled with “temptations” and pines openly for his family in Tulsa.
J.C. (Julius Caesar) Watts was not Largent’s equal as a football player. A quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, he led his team to two Orange Bowl championships but never made it from the Canadian Football League to the NFL. He has been marginally more effective as a congressman, because he has cooperated with the leadership. Watts has succeeded in helping his district and state–saving an Air Force base from closure and winning $90 million for a new cross-town bridge in Oklahoma City in exchange for his vote for the transportation bill. His pet community renewal bill, an enterprise-zone type proposal, was defeated–but at least it got to the floor.
But despite his go-along, get-along affability, Watts is unlikely to accomplish much in the House. The problem is that Watts would never be given a leading role in his party if he weren’t black. Republican affirmative action is the basis for his career, and Republican political correctness is the basis for his reputation. Though Watts is a minister, when he speaks without a script, he can do little more than utter what Steve and Cokie gently describe as “home-made, hand-me-down wisdom.” Here’s a sample from our phone conversation: “We can agree without being disagreeable. I’m not trying to be like anybody or different from anybody. I’m here to be who I am. I’m comfortable with that. I am not an anti-conservative kind of person–whoever else is who they are, and whoever else isn’t, is something different. I didn’t come to Washington to be like somebody or be different from somebody. At end of the day, I’ll let the talking heads and experts do their thing.” A world-class waffle. Watts can go on like this forever. On affirmative action, he has urged “caution.” When I asked if he would have voted for Proposition 209 in California, he said, “I understand the people who have voted for it, and I understand the people who voted against it.” Asked which he would have been, he answered, “Good question.”
If Watts sticks to his pledge to step down after six years, next term will be his last. But like other term limit traitors, he is now hedging. “I think I’ll do what the state of Oklahoma wants,” he told me on the phone last week. “I’ll just weigh it.” But then Watts added that he had seen too many people fail to leave the stage while the audience was still applauding. “Whenever I leave, whether six or eight or 20 years, I’m comfortable to allow history to speak,” he said.
Oklahoma’s jocks may be no denser than many of its other Republican politicians. This is the state, after all, that gets credit for sending Don Nickles and Ernest Istook to Washington. Indeed, Largent and Watts could match lack of wits with plenty of House members from both parties and all 50 states. But it’s uncontroversial that many Congress members are dim. Only about former football players are you not allowed to say so.