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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Watts Solution

Republicans want to show that they care. J.C. Watts is their man for the moment

By John F. Dickerson/Washington

TIME magazine

Republicans are still a bit hazy about what message voters sent them in the election. But they know what their response is: J.C. Watts. Born to the first black policeman in Eufaula, Okla., and dressed as a child in just two pairs of jeans (the "good pair" had patches), Watts is the first African American to become a Republican leader in the House. The third-term Congressman, now clad in closely tailored suits and ostrich-skin boots, was elected chairman of the Republican Conference and in that role will help carry the Republican message to the world. The Oklahoman introduces diversity to a slate that has white men from Texas and Louisiana in the top three spots. And Republicans also hope that the football star turned Baptist minister who speaks about "politics of the human heart" will transform the party's image from preachy and vindictive to patient and caressing. Says Florida Congressman Bill McCollum of Watts: "He just exudes, 'I care for you.'"

The Republican Party has long struggled to show its sensitive side. Self-appointed pundits of pathos, from Bill Bennett to Arianna Huffington to Lamar Alexander, have tried to teach the party the sharing-caring nod, but loosening up the body language hasn't worked. And now that the party has made a black "compassionate conservative" one of its headliners, Republican leaders must deliver on the image of openness that appears on the marquee. "You can't just wear lace panties with Republican business suits," says G.O.P. consultant Alex Castellanos. "You have to actually help people."

That challenge has got harder for the slim G.O.P. majority in the House, where big ideas can falter on just six votes. Speaker-elect Bob Livingston and his team are promising tax cuts, more money for defense and a new way of bookkeeping that will do away with the accounting trick of using Social Security money to mask budget deficits. Enacting such a bold program while keeping the budget balanced will mean pinching funds that pay for programs to which voters seem attached, such as low-income home-energy assistance and environmental enforcement. Moderates within the G.O.P. are likely to use their increased leverage to block major cuts in those areas. Democrats will be happy to join that fight or start their own over the minimum wage, funding for school construction and for children's health--if only to make sure the g.o.p. doesn't steal those issues.

In that climate, Watts will find it hard to be any more successful than he has been during his four years in the House pushing legislation that mixes self-reliance and a helping hand. He has offered a plan to revive low-income areas with tax breaks for investment, school vouchers and federal funding for church-sponsored social services. A member of the upstart class of 1994, Watts rode to Washington on a promise to reform welfare, arguing that "race-hustling poverty pimps" in the Democratic Party had used it and other social programs to hook blacks on government checks. But he has also defended affirmative action. The G.O.P. cannot move to dismantle it, Watts has argued, without offering a credible alternative.

The street on which Watts was born in a lakeside community in eastern Oklahoma now bears his name. It was the least the city fathers could do after the former University of Oklahoma quarterback guided the Sooners wishbone offense to its second Orange Bowl victory. But those glory days were not far removed from the time when some of Watts' white high school teammates quit over his being named quarterback. He and his future wife were forced to sit in the blacks-only balcony of the local theater. And Watts had his own brush with social imperfection. He conceived a child at the age of 17 with a woman not his wife. Watts went on to marry Frankie Jones two years later. He first courted her in the sixth grade with a letter.

A teetotaler, Watts was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1993 after a career in the Canadian Football League. A wooden plaque on his desk reads merely PRAY. His staff knows that his congressional Bible-study group and workout time in the House gym are events they need to schedule around. Opponents have dented Watts' reputation for rectitude by citing debts he incurred after a series of oil and gas investments bottomed out. They also point to various tax problems and to his involvement in an FBI bribery investigation that caught him on tape seeming to be interested in receiving campaign cash from a lobbyist while he was a public utility regulator. Watts says he has been open about his financial difficulties and that he was never charged in the bribery probe.

Within minutes of his victory last week, there were already signs that Watts might take some of the self-importance out of the party rhetoric. When asked where he was heading next, he joked with a broad smile, "I'm going to Disneyland."


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Cover Date: November 30, 1998

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