Adam Schiff’s message for Duke Law (and other) students…and more

The Aspen Security Forum does not have many repeat speakers, but Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is one of the few.  Given today’s hyper-polarized and often discouraging political environment, I asked him last week what message he would want me to convey to students interested in serving in government.

A little context: I first spoke with Congressman Schiff in 2016 at Aspen when I queried him about U.S. efforts to influence foreign elections (see here).  I also referenced his comments in another essay (see here).

Cong. Schiff with Duke Law students in 2017

In 2017 he was the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecturer here at Duke, and afterwards he dined with some Duke Law students.  In 2018 at Aspen, he discussed the classic “balancing [of] resources with objectives and means with ends” conundrum with my friend (and Lawfire® guest blogger Matt Cavanaugh – see here).

With NBC News Correspondent Kristen Welker

This year Schiff was interviewed by NBC News’ White House Correspondent Kristen Welker(Since Welker hails from Philadelphia as I do, we had an immediate connection!).  As might be expected, Schiff was pressed by Welker on a variety of topics, including the upcoming Mueller hearings.  He said his “broadest concern is the ideological struggle that we are in between democracy and authoritarianism.”  Schiff made some headlines when, as Betsy Woodruff of the Daily Beast put it, Welker “asked how confident he was in the U.S. government’s ability to deter future election interference.”

Woodruff reported Schiff’s response:

“I’m not particularly confident,” he said. “I think back a year ago to this conference, when one of the representatives of Microsoft was on a panel and revealed that two or three Senate campaigns had been the target of spear-phishing attempts by an actor that appeared to be the same Fancy Bear actor, the same Russian GRU unit, that brought us the intervention in the 2016 election. Well, that was the first time I was hearing that. That should not be the first time the Intelligence chair is hearing that. And I went back to D.C. and I talked to my contacts at NSA and CIA and I said, ‘Did you know this?’ And they did not. And I said, ‘This should not be the first time you’re hearing this.’ And that told me as a matter of quality control that something is broken here.

My question attempted to steer clear from the partisanship that crept into Schiff’s and many other discussions at Aspen this year.  Here’s a lightly edited version of the relevant part of the transcript found here about my question and Congressman Schiff’s answer.  Keep in mind that the “authoritative record of Aspen Institute programming is the video” which is found here).

Kristen Welker: On that note, let’s open it up to questions. Are there questions?  Charlie, let me start with you and just wait for a mic and make sure you introduce yourself.

Charlie Dunlap:  Hello Congressman. Thank you very much. Charlie Dunlap from Duke Law School. What message would you have for young people interested in government that would resonate [with them] irrespective of their political views? Is there some advice that you would give people like me to pass to them about, you know, serving in government, irrespective of what political party might be in power?

Adam Schiff: That’s a great question and it’s certainly one I think about a lot.

When I talk to young people, I say, we need you to be involved. Our generation is doing a damn good job screwing everything up.  We need you.  And I think the good news is that young people are becoming involved to a degree that I’ve never seen before – young people who would never politically active – like older people who have never been politically active have found it a necessity, and that’s encouraging to me.

I’ve wondered, you know, I’ve worried for several years and I know that when I was growing up – I was, I was born in 1960 in Boston – I feel my kind of formative years were the Kennedy years. I was just a child, but it was in the ether. The idea that public service was a noble calling that, you know, don’t ask what your country can do for you. I mean, that was sort of in, in the air. We were breathing [it], and the Kennedys were an inspiration. And I think for many young conservatives, Ronald Reagan was that same inspiration. And for a newer, younger generation, Obama was that inspiration.

What are people inspired by now it’s just an ugly mess. And so I’ve worried about that. Are we going to turn off a whole generation of people? But it doesn’t seem to have had that in effect. Instead I think it is mobilized a tremendous number of young people to be involved and, and that will be our savior. I think that the next generation is not going to put up with this and thank, thank God they won’t, they’re not gonna put up with what we’re doing to our planet. They’re gonna demand an end to the kind of bigotry of their parents and grandparents generation and, and so I’m optimistic about the future if I wasn’t, I couldn’t get up in the morning. So, and I think the young people are going to be the key to that change.

A 1925 anti-Catholic cartoon by the KKK

Schiff’s reference last week to John F. Kennedy as being an inspiration to him really resonated with me.  Even though only a grade-schooler at the time of Kennedy’s run for the presidency, I was well aware – as many Irish Catholics were – of what journalist Rory Carroll characterized in 2015 as America’sdark and not-very-distant history of hating Catholics.”

In a 2008 article in Notre Dame Magazine historian Jay Dolan, citing those questioning then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion, reminded readers how Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was also marred by religious prejudice.

Dolan particularly cites a “well-known clergyman’s” claim that “Kennedy’s religion made him unacceptable for the presidency” as one of most serious challenges Kennedy had to try to counter in his famous 1960 speech on religion to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association which had invited him to “to discuss his religion and defend the right of a Catholic to be president.”  One of the points Kennedy made was this:

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew– or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom.

Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”

Nevertheless, in the end, Dolan says:

When the voters cast their ballots on election day, Kennedy’s religion hurt him more than it helped him. Though he received a majority of the Catholic vote, he clearly lost votes because of his religion. One analyst summed it up best: “Kennedy won in spite of rather than because of the fact that he was a Catholic.”

Kennedy’s assassination-shortened presidency is controversial these days, but the quote to which Schiff alluded has stood the test of time.

One of my most treasured family heirlooms is a framed embroidery (on the left) of the quote – a project begun by my grandmother and finished by my mother.  It’s been displayed in my home for decades, and represents one of my core beliefs…and I hope it’s one of yours as well!


Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, consider the views, and decide for yourself!

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