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TV interview
Alan Keyes on C-SPAN's Road to the White House
September 9, 1999

Q: Ambassador Alan Keyes, what, in your own estimation, is the likelihood that you will be President of the United States?

A: Oh, I have no idea. I think that that will depend entirely on the heart of the American people over the course of the next few months, and the effectiveness with which we are able to get the message of moral renewal to people at the grassroots.

Q: Is your campaign, in its essence, really all about achieving the presidency, or influencing the process?

A: I don't understand the question, because it seems to me part of the problem with our politics these days that we think that the process ought to be about the ambition of personalities--when in fact the process is about the fate and future of our country. And in my mind the two are indistinguishable. When I talk to the issues that affect the future of the country, I believe and hope that I am doing what is necessary to achieve what will help to bring about what is better for this country. If that involves Alan Keyes being elected to the presidency, that's what will happen.

Q: As someone who has never held elective office, could you explain why you feel you are qualified?

A: Well, I'm not sure that's a relevant question. Citizenship is not a matter of holding elective office. It is a matter of being seriously concerned about the future of the nation, the problems that we face. As a matter of fact, some of the things that are involved in holding elective office up to this point seem actually to corrupt the will in such a way that you become incompetent in serving the people. The notion that somehow politics is a professional business ought to be anathema in a representative government. Politics is the business of the citizen; that's literally what the word means. And any citizen who feels in their heart of hearts that they have something to offer to this polity ought to be able to stand up for any office in the country, and should be judged thereafter on the basis of their merits, not on the basis of questions about where they have been or what they have been doing. If those had been the most important questions, we would have been deprived of the leadership of a lot of the important statesmen in American history, including, of course, our first statesmen, who were elected to nothing at the time they put this government together.

Q: One of our goals is for our audience to get to know you a little bit better. Where were you born?

A: I was born in New York. As I recall, it was the Naval Hospital on Long Island. My mother was in New York; my father, I think, at the time I was born was serving the country in Korea. She was staying with my aunt at the time that I came into the world.

Q: And where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in a number of places. I suppose the best answer would be, I grew up in the army, since I was an army brat and we moved from place to place. When I first came into the world, we were in New York; we lived in New Jersey, in Georgia; were overseas for a while, lived in Italy; came back, I think we were in Maryland and Virginia for a while; then in Texas. So I lived the life of an army brat. But all of that moving from place to place actually belies the truth, since there is a lot of stability in that life, since army life is basically . . . as you move from place to place, from post to post, there is a universe that you live in: with the commissary, and the PX, and the movie theaters, and the life of an army people, that is pretty steady and pretty consistent from place to place.

Q: Of all those places, do you remember one most vividly?

A: Not really. I think, obviously, I was probably more aware of things, in a lot of senses, self-consciously aware of them, when I was in high school. Because, obviously, when you are a child things tend to blend more together. But I have memories from all those different times of my life.

Q: Brothers and sisters?

A: I have a sister and three brothers.

Q: And are your parents still alive?

A: No. They are both dead.

Q: When you think about yourself as a speaker--which you do well and people credit you as doing well--when did that skill first become apparent to you?

A: I have done public speaking, and sort of done well at it, since I was in high school. In fact I was involved a lot in oratorical contests, and speech contests, and debate, and things like that, and did very well. So I guess, in that sense, some kind of speaking ability has been clear since I was young.

Q: Is it something that your parents said, "Boy, this kid can talk; let's urge him into these activities"? Or did you have a teacher that recognized it? How did it blossom for you?

A: No. First of all, I think it is a mistake to believe that there is some special skill in public speaking. And there is a lot of talk about it these days, as if it is a skill that is separate from ability, and it is not. And in fact, I have to confess that I find it kind of insulting that folks will listen to what I have to say, and say, "Oh, that was a good speech," instead of understanding that there is no good speech apart from the thought that goes into it and is expressed by it. There is no trick involved that can turn something that has no substance into a good speech. That is nonsense. And the notion that somehow or another I give "good speeches," and then one does not show respect for the intelligence of the substance, is, I think, something that is more than subtly racist.

This is not a trick. It is not like performing in some song and dance routine. Speech is the business through which citizens communicate to each other, and those who are able to do it well are better qualified to lead than others.

Q: But, in fact, the flip side of it is that some people can have wonderful ideas but not have the gift of communication.

A: Maybe, maybe not. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that is a misnomer. Maybe what you are saying there is not true. Maybe, in point of fact, the inability to communicate is a reflection of some flaw in the ideas. A lot of people don't want to acknowledge that, but what if it is true? And that would then put us in a situation, wouldn't it, where we are making a distinction that is, in fact, false.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: In a number of places. Since I was an army brat, I went to different schools when I was growing up. I went to high school in San Antonio, Robert G. Cole High School, which was on the base. Actually spent all four years there. And then did the first part of my undergraduate work at Cornell, finished up at Harvard, and then did my graduate studies at Harvard.

Q: How did you choose Cornell and Harvard?

A: Well, I actually went to Cornell, initially, because I was interested in something they called the "six-year Ph.D. program" there. I was in a hurry when I was finishing up high school, and I thought, "Oh, I'll go in. I'll finish up"--because it was a program where you took the four-year, usual undergraduate course work, and you compressed it into two to three years, and then you would add on top of that another several years, so that you would finish a Ph.D. in a six-year course of study from the time you started undergraduate school. Moving along fairly quickly, in other words--and that intrigued me, and I applied for it and got in.

And then when I got to college, I discovered that learning wasn't something I wanted to speed up. So I actually ended up abandoning those ideas and settling in to spend more time at things that I thought were worthwhile to study.

Q: And what is your doctorate in?

A: Doctorate is in government.

Q: And did you have a specialty, your thesis that you wrote?

A: Political theory--and the thesis was particularly focused on the theory of American Constitutional government.

Q: Along the way, greatest influences among your teachers?

A: I think that, without any doubt, the greatest influence among my teachers was Allan Bloom, who was a professor at Cornell when I started there, went to the University of Toronto. I think ended his life and career at the University of Chicago, was well known as the author of a book called The Closing of the American Mind, which enjoyed some popularity a few years ago. Without doubt, Allan Bloom was, in terms of my academic and intellectual formation, the most important teacher I had.

Q: Can you explain why?

A: I think because, in a way that ended up, really, capturing my both interest and serious thought, he understood the moral foundations of politics--at least the importance of those moral foundations. And instead of approaching a political life and the questions that we are involved with in politics and morality, as is often popular these days, as if it is all somehow a consequence of material relationships, he took seriously what had been the view of societies and eras before our own, which saw a self-subsistent basis for moral things, and therefore for political life, and which took that seriously, going all the way back to ancient times with Plato and Aristotle and others. And I just felt, and still deeply believe, that there is more truth in that than in those approaches that try to reduce human things to some kind of sum of the material forces that operate upon us as material beings.

Q: What happened after you received your Ph.D.? What was next in life?

A: Well, I then went into politics briefly; I worked a little bit on a campaign with a friend in New Jersey. And then, fairly quickly after getting the doctorate, ended up in the Foreign Service--went into the Department of State.

Q: At what point in your growth and development did you decide that you would want to pursue public service?

A: Public service, I think, I've known I've wanted to pursue since I was in high school. And that's why I studied government, and why I ended up going into the State Department, and doing other things of that kind. So, since I was very young, I have understood that this was what I wanted to do.

Q: Do you know how that came about?

A: I'm not entirely sure. I think that in my life there were things going on that were very critical, in a larger sense, to this country, but that also, when I was young--and by that I mean even eleven, twelve years old--because obviously, for instance, John F. Kennedy was assassinated when I was, what, I would have been thirteen, I guess. And that was one of those events that kind of drew everyone in the country into our common life, right? And for a few days there, we were all of us glued to the television screen as we watched these events unfold, which also, as a young person, would have drawn me into the whole consciousness and awareness of our public life and political things in a very big way.

It was also an era when the civil rights movement was going on, and when, for somebody, a black American coming along at that time, there were events happening that had a very deep significance, even personal significance, for I think most black Americans at the time. And all of that involved the drama of our public and political life, and deep questions about what kind of people we were in that common sense, because they were deep questions of justice, and what constituted the right and wrong of things for Americans.

And so I came along at a time when, for me at least, those things drew me in to a large degree, and I became quite preoccupied with them. And I think that is part of the reason why I then ended up going in directions that allowed me to focus a lot of my time and attention on those kinds of questions and what we do about them.

Q: At what point did ideas and issues translate into a choice of a political party?

A: Like most people, you have a choice of a political party sort of because of where you are born. I mean, I was born into a family that was Democrat, and I think in the younger years of my life if you had asked me, "What are you?" I would probably have said, "I am a Democrat," because that's what the family background was.

As a matter of conscious choice, I think that happened for me starting late in high school, and then culminating in a decision which was kind of important, obviously, because for me it was something that involved a break with that pattern I had grown up with. But I would say around the second year of college confirmed that I was really not a Democrat, after all, but identified with the Republican Party, and also increasingly with the conservative views within that party context.

Q: When you describe yourself, do you think first, "I'm a conservative," or first, "I'm a Republican?"

A: Actually, when I describe myself, I think first, "I am a Christian." Then I think, "I'm an American." And then somewhere down the line I think, "I'm a Republican." Because the party label is, in some sense, for me, incidental. It is not essential. I am not a Republican because being a Republican is somehow intrinsically good; that would be nonsensical, I think. Parties are instruments. They are tools. Being instruments or tools, they have no intrinsic worth. They have worth only in terms of those things which they help us to realize and achieve in the way of things that are good results for the country, and good results overall in terms of those standards we believe are right and wrong.

And so, the first things in my life are things that have to do with the duties I have to God, to country, and to family. And I think that my sense is still that an allegiance to the Republican Party serves those things best in the America of today. But there are times when, I have to tell you, I'm not entirely sure of that any more. But I believe it still, on balance, to be true.

Q: If president, how well would you get along with the current leadership of the Republican Congress?

A: I think that is a question that cannot be asked in a static way. As we saw during the Reagan era, victory entails a change of perspective on the part of those who are dealing with you. Before Ronald Reagan became president of the United States, there were an awful lot of people who were quite willing to badmouth conservatism, and talk about him like he was some kind of fringe loony, and so forth. Once he had gotten elected president, they treated him with great respect, and the ideas he represented, in fact, came--through, I think, serious and able articulation, too--to be ideas that transformed the way in which we think about a lot of things, starting with international relations and communism, and ending up with things like welfare and education.

That is true of any political movement. And that his why, in the beginning, when we were talking about politics, I distinguished between personality politics, which I think is what a lot of people practice, and movement politics, which is what I think I represent. Alan Keyes being elected to the presidency would be the result of the ability to put together a movement in the country that fundamentally transformed the nature of our grassroots politics. And I think politicians in Washington would respond to that--they would have to.

Q: Among presidents, who are your most admired.

A: Without any doubt, at the top of the list is Abraham Lincoln. I think that he was, so far, the greatest statesman, in the largest sense of the term, that this country has ever produced. And by that I mean someone who not only fulfilled his role in the presidency, but did so with a conscious sense of what that implied for the idea and ideas that the country is based upon and represents.

And I think that is important. That self-conscious grasp of how your service contributes to the more permanent being and situation of the country is in my opinion the essence of statesmanship. It is not just a matter of coping with the political challenges of the moment, and doing well at getting elected, even meeting immediate problems in the right way. You must approach them according to an understanding, according to a set of principles, that reflects a sense of the permanent destiny of the nation. And I think Lincoln had that.

Obviously, that was something characteristic of a lot of the folks who were part of the founding generation. Of those people, obviously Washington stands out as someone who was of great character. And there we speak of something that doesn't have to do with policy only, but has to do with the kind of person that he was, and the way in which he embodied the virtues that are required for leadership in a free society.

Also I would point to Reagan as somebody I greatly admire. Now, that might have something to do with the fact that, in my lifetime, I think he was the president who has been most impressive, and who had, in my opinion, the greatest sense of instinctive grasp and commitment of the challenges that statesmanship faces in our time, particularly when he was dealing with the communist challenge, and understanding the extent to which it had to be dealt with as a moral reality, not just as a question of geopolitical strategy. And that, I think, reflected a sense that this country isn't just about our power in the world, but it has also to be about the extent to which we are able to realize the values and ideas that America is supposed to represent, not just for ourselves but for humanity, in the broadest sense of the term.

Q: You worked in the Reagan Administration. In what role?

A: I was mostly in foreign policy. Well, altogether, I guess, in foreign policy, in those days. I was part of the Policy Planning Staff, during the early years of the administration, served at the United Nations as an Ambassador to the Economic and Social Council. Jeane Kirkpatrick was the perm rep and I sat on ECOSOC, and also represented the U.S. in the General Assembly Budget Committee and the Economic and Social Committees. I then went to be Assistant Secretary of State, overseeing our participation in the whole UN and international organizations system, and was also briefly part of the National Security Council staff. So I covered a number of areas in foreign policy and national security policy.

Q: Talked about teachers who have influenced you. How about along your years in public life--greatest influences?

A: Well, I think at the top of the list, probably, in one sense, would be Jeane Kirkpatrick. I greatly enjoyed the years that I spent working at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, and I think that she is somebody who represents a clarity, in terms of thinking and intellectual integrity, in our approach to foreign policy especially, that I greatly admired.

In other respects, the president himself, Ronald Reagan . . . because of the extent to which he was able to understand that you really have to think through what you believe is right for this country, and then stand for it. And stand for it in the sense that you are not just calculating what people want to you, but you are quite willing to take the ups and downs that are inevitable with shifting opinion, while people listen and eventually come around to the point of view that you think is right. That requires a lot of integrity. It requires a lot of courage and persistence. It especially requires a lot of sincerity, in terms of your own thinking and the way in which you are willing to present that thinking to others, regardless of the political consequences.

I think that there has been a tendency to want to focus on the Reagan presidency, and to think of it then in terms of, "Well, here's this successful politician who did this and that," and to forget that for the twenty years previous to that presidency, he had essentially been a politician of principle who, regardless of success or failure, stood where he believe it was right to stand for the sake of this country. And that, I believe, is the kind of integrity that we ought to bring to political life.

Q: Are you married?

A: Married. I have three children.

Q: How did you meet your wife.

A: I met my wife when I was on posting in India, in the Foreign Service. She's actually originally from Calcutta.

Q: And . . . you have how many children, did you say?

A: Three, two boys and a girl.

Q: How do they take to the presidential campaign?

A: Oh, I think with mixed feelings. Which, honestly, is what one ought to expect from folks. Because my family is very much about the family. And we have tried, in the course of our life, to raise our children to understand that there are things in life more important than material goods, and all this other sort of stuff. And so I think that the effect that the campaign has--drawing me away from home; spending a lot of time on the road--obviously gives rise to mixed feelings on the part of my children. I think that when they get involved, obviously there is a certain kind of excitement to the campaign, and I think they take an interest in that. But at bottom, overall for the family, I think the whole situation is a sacrifice more than anything else.

Q: How many miles do you think you have logged so far?

A: I have no idea. Thousands and thousands.

Q How do you keep the pace, the stamina for it?

A: A combination of things. I think in the course of the last go around--because I was involved in the primary season in the '96 campaign--I did not do very well. I kept up the pace, but it took a tremendous toll. I gained a lot of weight, I think I didn't take proper care of my health, and I ended up the campaign feeling like I had put myself through a ringer. I went through a kind of process--I lost weight, got back to exercising, and have gotten myself in much better shape--and I am determined that, whatever goes on during the course of this go-around, I'm not going to let that happen again.

But what really keeps you going on a day to day basis is a combination of a sense that it is important--and in my life, that is a sense that it is important to God that I do what I do--and also the inspiration that you get from people. Because my campaign is very much about that, and whenever I am feeling discouraged, and thinking that maybe it is not worth it, I will then go and the folks that I see and meet with, and the people who are working on the campaign to put things together at the grassroots, will re-inspire me.

Because I will realize again that what we are doing is not about me; it's really about them, and about the fact that there people in this country deeply grieved at the prospect of the destruction of our self-government that will in fact result from the continued corruption of our moral culture, and who are deeply committed to restoring that public moral culture as a way of assuring that self-government will be around for their children.

And they really, deeply, believe this. It is hard for me to convey the sense of commitment that I get from folks at the grassroots, who have been struck in their hearts and minds with the importance of this cause.

Q: Will you tell me a story of one particular person?

A: There are several. But the one that struck me right at the beginning--my wife and I--was . . . at that point, I had not, in '95, actually decided to get in, but I was going and giving speeches at various Republican events, talking about the things I thought were critical. And we went, I gave a speech in New Hampshire, which was then rebroadcast on a radio program that Jim Dobson does. He put together a little tape of all the different speeches, and presented them to people and said, "This is what the candidates had to say."

And the reaction to my speech from around the country, on the part of a lot of folks who were listening to his program, was massive. And they were calling and writing and trying to find out, "Who is this guy?" And by a series of not altogether inadvertent errors, the folks at the Republican National Committee ended up, when people were calling them saying, "How can we get in touch with Alan Keyes?", they ended up giving them my home phone number and address, rather than the campaign's phone number and address. Now, we won't go into how this mistake occurred, but it did.

So for a while there, our phone was ringing off the hook at home, and we were getting all this mail. And my wife and I would sit down with the mail, as we do during the day, and we would go through it. One of the letters came from an individual who was bed-ridden--an older man who had been bed-ridden--and he said that when he heard the speech, he had literally rolled himself out of bed for the first time in a long while, gotten down on his knees and thanked God that someone had said what was in his heart.

It was letters like that, and reactions like that, that came in from around the country that ultimately reconciled us to the thought that rather than just get in, make a point, and get out--which was my original intention when I started in 1995--I would actually work with the people around the country who were putting the effort together and stay involved, which we did for several months. Because people were putting together the effort, and getting the name on the ballot, and so forth; and this happened in state after state. We didn't have a big national organization or a lot of money, but people in different states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, places like this, they put it together themselves; raised the money within the state; put together ad hoc, grassroots committees, and got the work done.

I think that those kinds of stories of commitment are the kinds of things that keep me going.

Q: Can you give a sense of your strategy for the 2000 campaign?

A: The strategy of the Keyes campaign is people reaching people. And so essentially what we do is gather folks together, particularly in venues in Iowa and New Hampshire--because those are states that are not only important in terms of national attention at the beginning, but they are also states where grassroots campaigns have been and can be very effective. And we concentrate on drawing in those people who believe, as I do, that the moral challenge is the greatest challenge that the country faces, and then commissioning them, basically, to go out and find others like themselves, so that they will understand that the business of what we are doing is not something that is going to take place in some battle of TV commercials and moneybags. It is going to take place in the battle within the hearts and minds of people, who will then have to decide that they have enough commitment to what we are doing to get out and be the leaders in their families and communities, searching out those like themselves who share this commitment, and recruiting them to come to the polls and support it. And that is what our effort is about; it is a real grassroots organization effort.

Q: In how many states will people be able to vote for you?

A: We will be on the ballot, as we were last time. I think that the only folks who were on the ballot in more states than I was in the last go around were Buchanan and Dole. And we will be making an effort to make sure that we are on the ballot everywhere this time.

Q: And do you expect to go all the way through to November, no matter what?

A: Well, I'll leave that in the hands of God, but what I expect to do is what is necessary in order to serve the cause and purpose that I believe is critical for the survival of freedom in this country. Which is important to me in a very real sense. Because you asked about early formation and all of this, but one of the things that very much forms my understanding of American life and politics had to do with civil rights, and my introduction as a black American to the whole reality of what slavery had meant in this country and in the life of my ancestors. The thought that my children would grow up in a country where, after all that struggle and effort to gain full citizenship and real liberty, we as a people, as a whole, had thrown away this system of self-government--it breaks my heart.

I think it is really happening, though. Everything I have studied over the course of the years of my life--and I spent a lot of time looking at it--tells me that we are in the era in which we are dismantling the foundations of self-government in America. We are moving from the republic period of American life into a period that will be like the imperial period in Rome, in which a handful of people govern the destiny of our country. This is not right. We should not let it happen.

And it will happen if we don't restore the underlying moral character and imperatives that give a people the energy and common sense to govern itself. We are losing those things, and as we lose them, this system is faltering.

Q: I hope on our network people have an opportunity to follow you on the issues, but I thank you for the past half hour to learn more about you and your background.

A: Thank you.