BUCKHANNON — Speaking at the college he used to run, Sen. Jay Rockefeller urged students into lives of public service, while bemoaning the money and hyper partisanship that characterize modern politics.
“It’s awful, isn’t it, all this endless money in politics?” Rockefeller asked a crowd of students at West Virginia Wesleyan College on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m so glad I’m not running again for that reason. I’m going to desperately miss the policy and I’m going to desperately keep in touch with my staff and the people that I’ve worked with over the years, but the whole political thing has been turned into a food fight.”
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is retiring early next year after four terms in the Senate, two terms as governor, one term as West Virginia secretary of state and one term in the state House of Delegates.
Rockefeller was president of West Virginia Wesleyan, in Buckhannon, from 1973 to 1976. He urged openness as an antidote to unpopular policies, using an example of his time at the college.
When he was first elected senator in 1984, Rockefeller said, no West Virginia senator ever voted for any foreign aid bill — a perennially unpopular budget item.
“The thing to do was vote ‘no’ and then campaign against it,” he said. “I never voted against a foreign aid bill, I don’t think, because I think the world has gotten very small, it’s gotten very, very dangerous.”
Foreign aid is only about 1 percent of the country’s budget, although people generally think it is much higher. A 2013 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average guess was that 28 percent of the budget was spent on foreign aid.
The same poll found that the percentage of Americans who thought we spend too much on foreign aid dropped in half when they learned how much the country actually spends.
Rockefeller drew a parallel to his time at Wesleyan.
“The faculty was furious because they felt I was spending too much money on athletics, so what I did was I opened up the books and they got to see for themselves that the total budget was 2 percent,” he said. “And I didn’t hear a peep.”
That theme of openness extends to Rockefeller’s recent work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is trying to declassify and release a 6,300-page report on the CIA’s use of torture on terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.
“It was true, we used torture, but the CIA wouldn’t own up to it,” Rockefeller said. “When America makes mistakes — this is what keeps you going — as we did in our interrogation process, you’ve got to own up to these things, you’ve got to own up to it. That’s the way you advance as a country.”
Rockefeller was joined at the college by veteran reporter Ted Koppel, who moderated the discussion.
Both men blamed the loss of moderate Republicans — specifically naming former senators Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas — for the scorched earth tenor of debate in modern Washington.
“They have become so disillusioned by the nastiness of the politics,” Koppel said of the departed politicians. “Being someone who is willing to sit there for two hours every afternoon, that’s not something that gets you re-elected, quite the contrary, that gets you knocked out.”
Rockefeller urged the crowd of about 150 to get into public service — not necessarily politics, but careers like teaching, nursing and social work.
He talked about how his experience as a young man traveling the country and the world, first to study in Japan, then the Peace Corps in the Philippines and then as a VISTA volunteer in Kanawha and Boone counties inspired him to make a career outside of his family’s vast fortune.
“When I went to Emmons, W.Va., I’d never seen that before in my life,” Rockefeller said, recalling how there were 156 families and only one person with a job. “It fundamentally changed me. It gave me a direction in my life that I had been seeking for a long, long time.
“Get out of your comfort zone, understand what the rest of your world is like, understand what the rest of your country is like,” Rockefeller told the students. “There’s nothing more important than learning about the other people in this country and this world who are wonderful, smart, educated, motivated and struggling with all their might just to get through the next day.”
Stephen Seibert, a junior from Doylestown, Pa., said Rockefeller’s talk made him more likely to go into some sort of public service, although the senator may have been preaching to the choir.
Seibert has spent the last two spring breaks working on houses with Habitat for Humanity, most recently in New Orleans and areas of Mississippi still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
They had to tear down a woman’s house, that still had a tree limb in the roof, in order to rebuild it.
“It was sad and uncomfortable and really hard to do, but she was not sad at all, she was grateful,” Seibert said. “Just to go out around the country and see people’s lives, seeing what they do, it’s totally different.”
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com