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In the Crossfire

J.C. Watts exits political arena

Rep. J.C. Watts
Watts: "I'm not one that believes that affirmative action should be based on one's skin color or one's gender, I think it should be done based on one's need ..."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, cast his last vote as a member of Congress on Thursday. Now that the highest-ranking African-American in Congress has stepped down, what does the future hold for African-American conservatives?

Watts joined "Crossfire" hosts Paul Begala and Sandy Rios of Concerned Women for America to discuss politics, race and his new book, "What Color is a Conservative?"

BEGALA: By any standards you can imagine J.C. Watts is an amazing American success story. In college, he quarterbacked the Oklahoma Sooners, breaking my Texas Longhorn heart by winning two consecutive championships. He was twice chosen most valuable player in the Orange Bowl.

He played in the Canadian Football League and was most valuable player in the Gray Cup, the CFL's version of the Super Bowl. He went to Canada because the NFL didn't like the idea of him being a quarterback here. After being elected to the Congress in 1994, J.C. Watts rose to become the chairman of the Republican conference in the House of Representatives.

But this year he decided to walk away from politics. He was a shoo-in for re-election but he decided not to run. He just published a new book called "What Color is a Conservative?" Today, his last day casting votes as a member of the Congress, he joins "Crossfire." Congressman Watts, thank you, sir.

Let me begin with page 150 [of your book.] Let me say, I'm a liberal. You're a conservative. That's not our biggest difference. I'm white, you're black, that's not our biggest difference. I'm a Texas Longhorn and you're an Oklahoma Sooner, and ...

WATTS: That's our big difference.

BEGALA: That's the biggest. That's bigger than anything else.

Well, on page 150, you quote your father. Let me read it to you. It's a wonderful story of father and son.

"A reporter for the Tulsa World once asked [my father] Buddy, who loved a good joke, about our political differences. 'I'm not like my boy,' this dyed-in-the-wool black Democrat told the reporter. 'I told him that voting for the Republican ticket made as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.'"

Your daddy notwithstanding, it probably has not been easy to be an African-American conservative Republican?

WATTS: Well it has been easy, Paul, because I've got a good sense of who I am. I'm secure in who I am. I don't need the validation of those that would say, you have to be a certain thing in order to be accepted. I'm comfortable going against the grain if I need to.

And by the way, Daddy -- that same fellow that said that -- voted for Richard Nixon in 1960. [He] thought that John Kennedy was too young to lead the country. And never voted for President Clinton. And I can't say he would have voted for George W. in 2000 had he been living, but I can assure you he would not have voted for Al Gore.

RIOS: Congressman Watts, let me say first of all you're going to be so missed. I can't tell you how much we're going to miss your smile, your voice, your wisdom.

But let me ask you this, you just walked off the floor from the House, cast your last vote, maybe the last one of your lifetime and came here to us. My question is how did that feel?

WATTS: Well, Sandy, I hadn't actually cast our last vote. We're probably going to have two more before the night -- two or three more before the night is over.

But it is the last night, right. And this has been a tough week emotionally because over the last eight years I've built some wonderful relationships with Republicans and Democrats. This atmosphere has been somewhat like a locker room for me where you build relationships based on real friendships. And of course, you know, I obviously agree with many Democrats, but I've made some good friends there. I've disagreed with some Republicans. But I've created some lasting friendships.

So you know, this is a very impersonal arena. You don't get to know a whole lot about people. You kind of keep things close to the cuff. But I've made some real friendships that will last for a lifetime in spite of the political differences that we might have. So this has been a tough week, Sandy. I've learned after three different meetings of saying goodbye, to not say goodbye, but to say so long. And I suspect I'll get a chance from time to time to come back and see those friends that I've created over last eight years.

BEGALA: Let me quote another passage from your book because you draw a terrific parallel between football and, as we say in Texas or maybe Oklahoma, life its own self.

On page 206, let me read this to you, "Affirmative action," you write, "is a little like the professional football draft. The NFL awards its No. 1 draft choices to the lowest-ranked team in the league. It doesn't do this out of compassion or guilt. It's done for mutual survival. They understand that a league can only be as strong as its weakest team."

Now that's a courageous disagreement with many Republicans who think affirmative action is wrong.

WATTS: Well, Paul, I think there is a role for a system or some type of design to say to least, to say to those trying to get into the system, to get contracts, to grow a business, to get scholarships, we are going to assist you.

I'm not one that believes that affirmative action should be based on one's skin color or one's gender, I think it should be done based on one's need, because I think if you are from a poor white community, I think that poor white kid needs a scholarship just as badly as a poor black kid.

So why would one say we're going to colorize education? I think that anybody that stays in school, gets good grades, pays the price, I think we are wealthy enough in the public and the private sector in America to make sure that every child in America that wants to continue their education, they should be able to do that.

And so my affirmative action is based on need, not on skin color. And in the NFL, they do a great job of it. Paul Tagliabue understands if we can make the Cincinnati Bengals a much better team, we're going to sell more advertising; we're going to get more people in the stands. It is going to be good for the entire league.

Paul Tagliabue says, "We want to make the Cincinnati Bengals a resource as opposed to a drain on resources." I think that's the same theory that I apply in everyday life in trying to help the underserved community, all that I've done there. That's the purpose, to say let's make people a resource as opposed to being a drain on resources.

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