By Louise Witt
Without mentioning Donald Trump in her remarks to Drew University’s Class of 2019, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman on Saturday challenged young people to reject the president’s divisive politics and build a system where people can work together to solve pressing problems.
On a bright and sunny morning at the Simon Forum, Whitman conjured a bleak future with global warming, gun violence, opioid addiction, income inequality and political dysfunction.
She addressed 468 graduating seniors and graduate students from the Madison university’s three schools — the College of Liberal Arts, Drew Theological School and the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.
Saying the country “hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War,” government “seems incapable of getting anything done,” and society “is increasingly doubtful that the future will be better than the past,” Whitman called on the graduates not only to vote, but also become more involved in politics to battle the entrenched partisanship.
Former Gov. Whitman challenges 2019 Drew grads to save the world. Video by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com. Annotations at end of story:
Known as a moderate Republican who worked with Democrats, Whitman served from 1994 until 2001 as the state’s 50th governor. She was the first — and only — woman to hold that office.
After leaving Trenton, Whitman joined President George W. Bush’s cabinet as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January of 2001 until June of 2003.
During her tenure, the EPA helped pass and implement “brownfields” legislation to redevelop and reuse contaminated sites. She supported regulations to reduce sulfur emissions, and promoted policies to protect watersheds.
However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Whitman ran into controversy, assuring people living and working near the New York and Washington, D.C. sites that their air and water were safe.
Whitman took on her party in a 2005 book, It’s My Party, Too, on the dangers of social fundamentalism she saw in the Bush administration. Over the years, she has joined groups to bring both parties together to work on issues such as climate change. She specializes in energy and environmental issues as president of The Whitman Strategy Group.
The former governor has been an outspoken critic of the president. In the 2016 primary, she endorsed John Kasich and later proposed voting for Hillary Clinton in the November election.
After Trump’s unusual 2018 meeting with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, she penned a tough op-ed for The Los Angeles Times saying he is “unfit to remain in office.”
Whitman reminded Saturday’s audience she gave her first commencement speech at Drew in 1997, joking about “recycling” her original comments. But she said the world has changed considerably since she received an honorary doctorate 22 years ago.
(She didn’t receive a graduation hood at that time, so Drew University President MaryAnn Baenninger gave her one this time.)
Back then, Whitman’s remarks made references to Tamagotchi — popular digital “pets” for kids — and Rosie O’Donnell, who still was in the headlines.
Since then, Whitman said technology has both enriched our lives and diminished them. Without citing Trump’s tweets, she lamented how social media have degraded our national discourse.
“It is virtually impossible to have a serious discussion today on any topic when you’re limited to 280 characters,” she said. “You can’t do it. The world is much more nuanced and complicated than that.
“The rhetoric can get very ugly, very fast,” she went on. “You say things in tweets and in blogs that you would never say to someone’s face. Where we once put a premium on the ability to persuade, the ability to provoke, to promote, to outrage seems to be now the norm.”
To counter this trend, Whitman urged the graduates to reach out to those on the other ideological side.
“We must reject the knee-jerk reaction to attack and dismiss those with whom we disagree,” she said. “Because they hold a different opinion they are not our enemies. They just hold a different opinion.”
She also suggested they seek common ground when discussing hot-button issues.
“Maybe don’t talk about climate change, which upsets a lot of people,” she said. “Let’s talk about human health. Let’s talk about what we know.”
For example, she said, the American Lung Association recently reported that a 141 million Americans live in places with unhealthy air.
“That’s almost 40 percent of our population. That represents 13 percent increase from six years ago. We’re starting to slip backwards.” Climate change with hotter temperatures and higher greenhouse gases emissions lead to more air pollution.
To show how air pollution affects a large number of people, Whitman asked audience members to raise hands if they themselves or someone they know has asthma. Many arms went up in the air.
“When we start talking about health, they understand it,” she said.
But Whitman’s main point was encouraging graduates not to forget their basic civic responsibilities.
“The most fundamental way to make change is to register and to vote,” she said to cheers and applause, marking the first time the audience reacted to her rather somber speech.
“Voter turnout in the United States is depressing,” she said. Fewer than two out of three eligible voters went to the polls in the 2016 presidential election. In the 2018 mid-term election not quite half of the eligible voters cast a ballot. “We must do better than this. Frankly, I am calling on each one of you to do that.
“I would also ask you take it a step further –- and it’s something you probably don’t want to do it – and that is to vote in primary elections,” she said, to more applause.
To vote in primary elections, young people must register with one of the major political parties, Whitman explained. If they remain “independents,” they won’t have a say in who is on the November ballot.
With so few voters participating in primaries, the more extreme candidates usually win. And these candidates usually feel an allegiance to their base, not to all their constituents.
“While it might feel momentarily satisfying to say, ‘I’m an independent, a pox on both these houses,’” she said, “what I say to young people is find a party that you least disagree with, get in it and make it to be what you want it to be.”
Whitman attempted to imbue the graduates with a sense of purpose.
“We’re counting on you to make a difference: To build on successes of the past and to address the shortcomings that we find today. As you leave Drew to make your way in the world, I urge you to do your part to making our world a better place. Do your part to make the future better.”
- On the responsibility to vote and primaries: 2:56 to 5:17
- Primaries breed extreme candidates. Why a pox on ‘both houses doesn’t work.’ Country needs a two-party system: 5:20 to 6:55
- Climate change, air pollution and health: 7:36 to 9:22
- Depending on you to make a difference: 9:33 to 10:14