Former Sen. Jeff Flake at Drew: ‘Searching for our better angels’

Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake addresses the Drew Forum, Nov. 13, 2019. Photo: Drew University
By Marion Filler

If people came to the Drew Forum on Wednesday expecting former Sen. Jeff Flake to lambaste President Trump –about whom Flake has been openly critical– or perhaps to announce he was considering a presidential run himself, they would’ve been disappointed.

What the audience at Drew University in Madison heard instead was an “earnest supplication” for unity.

It was a well-rehearsed, almost folksy talk, familiar to anyone who has read Flake’s book or seen him as a contributor on CBS or giving interviews on the Sunday morning political shows.

“I’m searching for the better angels of our nature,” Flake said, citing a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which he always has loved. “Never since the war between the States has our nation been so divided.”

Flake, who before leaving the Senate in 2018 before blasted Trump for having “debased” the presidency, is now a Resident Fellow at Harvard. He’s been crisscrossing the country promoting his book, Conscience of a Conservative and giving speeches lamenting the political impasse gripping the nation.

Jeff Flake, author of ‘Conscience of a Conservtive,’ addresses Drew Forum, Nov. 13, 2019. Photo: Drew University

On Wednesday he spoke about growing up on a ranch as the fifth of 11 children in a Mormon family. He described how the town of Snowflake AZ was named after his family, and how civility ruled the day at home and in politics, and was a very good way to get things done.

Flake remembered how his father, a councilman and ultimately the mayor of Snowflake, “neither had the partisan gene nor passed it on to me.” He followed up with stories of collegiality among Republicans and Democrats, using himself and others as examples.

“Today it’s difficult to read the newspapers or watch TV or listen to social media and not be alarmed at the vitriol and cruelty that accompanies virtually every discussion of politics,” said Flake, who represented Arizona for 12 years in the House before serving his term in the Senate.

“I hope you are still alarmed and I hope you haven’t accepted as normal the current state of affairs. I fear that such acceptance becomes closer by the day.”

His advice: Get your news from several sources. “Just change the channel.”

Jeff Flake at Drew: He could not endorse ‘lock her up.’ Video by Marion Filler for, Nov. 13, 2019:

How did this state of affairs come to be?

Among other things, he said, members of Congress once moved their families to Washington instead of commuting to their home state on weekends. As a result, their children attended the same schools, played on the same sports teams, and families entertained and socialized together.

“The push of partisanship on the weekdays was no match for the friendship on weekends,” he said, quoting an old political adage: “You don’t question the motives of your colleagues if you know the names of their children.”

With the advent of cheap airfares and the need for endless fund raising, it became easier to go home on the weekends. He believes that Newt Gingrich accelerated the trend in 1990 when he advised Republicans to “stay in your state.”

Once a poster boy for conservatives – articulate, gentlemanly, and willing to work with the opposition — Flake now is the rare Republican unafraid to speak his mind. It appears his problem is not his disagreement with the message of his party, but with the messenger instead.

Jeff Flake at Drew: ‘The problem is the messenger.’ Video by Marion Filler for, Nov. 13, 2019:

A review of past voting positions confirms his conservative bona fides. For starters, Flake has opposed universal background checks on gun sales, opposed Federal funding for abortion and embryonic stem cell research, and opposed federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

He opposed President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and later approved President Trump’s pick, Brett Kavanaugh.

Flake consistently supported a balanced budget amendment and voted “Yes” on constitutionally defining marriage as between one man and one woman and “Yes” to ban same-sex marriage.

Next up at the Drew Forum: The NPR Politics Podcast: The Road to 2020, on Jan. 22, 2020, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $32.

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