It was more than 50 years ago that Christine Todd Whitman’s father gave her a line of advice that would become the guiding star of her professional career: "If you don’t participate, you lose the right to complain." These words, an exhortation to caring and committed involvement, were like a mantra that ran through her political life as the first woman governor of New Jersey, serving two terms from 1993 to 2000, and as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
These days Whitman is not running for elected office, nor is she defining environmental policy. She is, however, engaged in a different kind of battle, one that is no less heated and high-stakes than any she has encountered in her political career, and one that has far-reaching implications not only for the future of the Republican party but for the future of the entire nation.
This battle is to steer the hearts and minds of the Republican Party back to the middle, away from the far-right conservative faction that has alienated much of America with what Whitman calls its policies of "social fundamentalism." In her new book, "It’s My Party Too" (Penguin, 2005), Whitman asserts that the party of Lincoln, the party that propelled the Reagan Revolution with its appeal to a broad base of Americans, must move back toward its more moderate wing. At immediate stake in this ideological tug-of-war are such roiling issues as gay rights, abortion rights, and stem cell research. Also at stake in just three short years is the 2008 election. But the biggest prize would be an American way of life that is more tolerant of every constituency, not divided along harsh and rigid ideological lines.
"The aim of my book is to start a grassroots movement to move the party back to the center," says Whitman, who gives a book signing at Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, September 27, at 7:30 p.m. "We’re creating a 41-member advisory board that includes people like John McCain, former president Gerald Ford, Bob Dole, Arlen Specter, past and former politicians, people who care about the party. The effort is to raise money, support candidates and groups that want to move the party back to where it should be."
Whitman illustrates the popularity of the website, www.mypartytoo.com, as an indication that there is a genuine desire in this country to make the Republican Party more responsive to its members and to make the issues more relevant. "We’ve had 4 million hits on our website, and about 30 groups are actively working with us. To be successful would be to win the White House in 2008 for a moderate Republican, someone like Tom Ridge; John McCain; Rudy Giuliani; or Linda Lingle, the governor of Hawaii; candidates who would not be viable at all should the election be held today because of their positions on certain social issues."
Speaking of elections, Whitman is involved in the effort to put Republican Doug Forrester in the New Jersey governor’s seat in two months. New Jersey is one of only two states with a gubernatorial race this year and right now Forrester is lagging some 20 points in the polls behind his Democratic rival, Jon Corzine. Whitman was in a similar situation in 1993, when a September New York Times poll showed her down by 21 points. She came from behind to win the election, ousting Democratic Governor Jim Florio just two months after the polls showed him in a solid lead.
"These are not solid voters. The majority of those in the 20 percent lead for Corzine could change their opinion," says Whitman in a phone interview. "So for Forrester, it’s entirely doable. What you’re seeing is a reaction to Bush who has a dismal 38 percent approval rating. Right now it’s the negatives that are driving press coverage and Forrester is suffering from that connection. It won’t be until October that Forrester will really have a chance to get his message out."
Whitman assails what she calls the tragedy of mismanagement that has gone on in the state of New Jersey for the past four years. "One of the biggest ironies here is that we can take hurricane victims and put them up in housing that people in New Jersey were kicked out of so schools could be built. And then they didn’t build the schools because they ran out of money."
Some pundits have been making hay out of the disaster in New Orleans to illustrate how out of touch the Republican Party is, that the mishandling of the crisis and the slow response stemmed from racism. Whitman says that charge is simply not fair. "I think it’s unjust to say that somehow the slow response was caused in part by the makeup of people. It was definitely a failure at various levels of government. But the first responders are the mayor and the governor. The federal government can’t come in until certain steps happen. That’s not to say that the FEMA response was what it should have been. But nobody’s ever seen anything of this scale."
Whitman says the president did make a mistake about the severity of the disaster and should have returned to the White House sooner. But the fact is, almost everyone initially underestimated the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. "In fact, the early reports were that the hurricane had blown to the east and New Orleans had largely been spared and it wasn’t until the next day that the severity of the flooding became evident to everyone. So yes, there was a misjudgment by many parties but not because of the racial makeup of the people."
The fire in her voice emerges when she talks about the breakdown in communications that happened in New Orleans. "It’s inexcusable," she declares. "It shouldn’t be happening, especially after 9/11." She recalls that post 9/11, the EPA was the first to do a lesson-learned study to look at what was done right and what was done wrong. "The problem is that when outside observers get hold of it they only look at what went wrong. We want a good hard look at what happened in New Orleans. But we want an honest, bipartisan, above-the-board look. What upsets me is people like Howard Dean who are trying to make it a racial thing and make political gain out of it."
She is also concerned about another issue that hasn’t received a lot of publicity: prisoners all over the south whose records were lost in the floodwaters. "So officials don’t even know what they were charged with. How long can you hold them? And what do you say to those who say those prisoners are being denied swift justice? There will also be all sorts of questions about insurance and who has to pay for what. It’s extremely complicated."
Whitman is also animated when the discussion moves to the United States Supreme Court and the president’s opportunity to leave behind what could be his greatest legacy. Is there a danger that he might cater too heavily to the social fundamentalists in appointing two justices who might not be sympathetic to such emotionally-charged issues as Roe vs. Wade, stem cell research, and gay rights? "The point is, what you don’t want is an ideologue. Hopefully the president will look for justices who understand the role of the court and have a respect for precedent. I want a justice who will look at the specific merits of the case. It’s a big time in judicial history and a huge responsibility for the president to nominate someone who will show that kind of judicial temperate. With his second appointment he has an opportunity to raise a minority to the bench. I would like to see a woman to replace Sandra Day O’Connor."
And finally, four years after 9/11, the war in Iraq is going badly with daily casualties of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Did Bush play to the hawks, the extremists who wanted to go to war and made up the story of the weapons of mass destruction to get the rest of America on board?
"The weapons of mass destruction simply were not there," says Whitman. "But at the time we believed it and so did other countries. The problem is that now that we’re there, we can’t just leave. If we gave a date and walked away, it would be the biggest terrorist recruiting tool ever. We have to shore up the Iraqi resources and get some form of stability in the government before we leave. We have Iraqis who want to change the government and we have to help them. If we were just to walk out, our credibility around the world, bad as it is now, would be even worse and would put the rest of the world in greater danger. It would say that you can’t trust the United States and our word is no good. It would also mean that we’ll have to be more defensive on our own soil against terrorism. So like it or not, we’re stuck. We have to stabilize the country and turn it over to the Iraqis before we can get out."
Whitman now runs the Whitman Strategy Group with offices in Gladstone, and Washington, D.C. Among her clients are energy companies that have asked the company to benchmark their environmental performance and come up with ways to do better. For the last year she has also sat on the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation in a position appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. She says: "It’s a new way of giving foreign aid to the poorest of the poor countries, for example, Madagascar, and Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Countries that receive aid have to meet certain standards, say, concerning corruption. It’s a bipartisan effort aimed at relieving poverty in the poorest countries around the world and doubling our foreign aid."
As for running for political office again, Whitman hedges her bets and her answer. "While I can’t envision it right now, I can never say no." Whitman is also reveling in the joys of private life with two new people in her family, twin grandsons, just five months old, born to her daughter, Kate.
But anyone who has known Christine Whitman and her longtime relationship with the Republican Party knows she will always remain passionate, whether in front or behind the scenes. After all, as she says in her book, "These basic core beliefs (limited government, lower taxes, the power of the markets, and a strong national defense) are shared by millions of Americans who, although they may not be comfortable with the rightward shift in the party, are not ready to give up on it. The way to change the party is from within. That is why I stay."
Writers Talking Series, Tuesday, September 27, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Lecture and booksigning by Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and author of "It’s My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP" and "Future of America." A percentage of sales of books purchased at the event will be donated to Princeton Public Library. 609-924-9529.