Gov. Jon Huntsman confessed to a group of students in Professor Heather Poole’s “Responsibility and Freedom” class that he’s not exactly proud of the way his generation is leaving the country for the generation of leaders sitting in college and university classrooms across the country. But he also made it clear that the country and the world are depending on them. “There are things we have to get done to save this country,” said Huntsman, “and you all will be a part of that.”
Huntsman was visiting campus as part of the Mary Elizabeth Babcock Lectureship in the American Conservative Tradition. Prior to his talk in Swasey Chapel on Monday (Feb. 24), he spoke with small groups of students in classrooms and over meals discussing the current state of politics in America and the future of the country facing rising powers in the East.
Huntsman, former Republican governor of Utah, served five U.S. presidents in critical roles, including White House staff assistant under Ronald Reagan, U.S. ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, and ambassador to China under President Barack Obama. Huntsman also made a run for the presidency in 2012.
Today Huntsman, whose original life dream was to be a rock star, serves as co-chair (with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin) of No Labels, a group of politicians from both sides of the aisle hoping to come together to produce productive legislation. The group, says Hunstman, simply “did the not-so-novel thing of finding a room where Republicans and Democrats can get together to get work done. … We hope it changes the operating environment of politics from finger-pointing, acrimony, and hostility to problem-solving.”
While Huntsman says he’s never been more optimistic about the state of the U.S., citing oil production rates, the hope of energy self-sufficiency, and our ability to solve problems within our political arenas if we so choose, he also discussed ways in which students at Denison and other colleges across the country will be challenged as leaders.
When the history books of the 21st Century are written, said Huntsman, he imagines they’ll highlight the rise of technology and the ways in which it challenged our morals and our abilities to make sound policy; the expansion of biotech and how it cured disease and extended human life; and the rise of Eastern powers, specifically China, and the way the U.S. chose to respond.
Huntsman is an expert on China-U.S. relations, having served as ambassador to the country, but he also was there at the very moment the U.S.-China relationship began. He was an 11-year-old boy wandering the White House where his father worked as associate administrator of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Nixon. In search of the Coke machine, he ran into Col. Alexander Haig, who introduced him to Henry Kissinger, who in turn asked him to carry his bag to West Executive Drive, where is car was waiting to take him to the airport. When the young Huntsman asked Kissinger where he was going, the national security advisor replied: “Young man, it’s a state secret. Don’t tell anyone. I’m going to China.” Within days, Kissinger would shock the world by shaking the hand of Premier Zhou Enlai on a secret trip to China.
“The rise of China will cause confusion and fright among the American people,” said Huntsman. It will be up to the current generation, he said, whether we approach the rising power with war or with ways that will preserve peace and prosperity.
Huntsman has faith that future leaders in business and public service, like the students at Denison, will make the right choice.