Last night in the Carey Center a full house of students and guests enjoyed a fabulous opportunity to hear two very distinguished public servants debate the issues central to this year’s Presidential election. Dr. Brad Watson, Professor and Chairperson of the Politics department was the moderator asking questions drawn from the students and sprinkling in a couple of his own. As a Catholic, Benedictine, and Liberal Arts College, Saint Vincent stresses the importance of the multiple perspectives that the diverse disciplines of study bring to the problems we face. Both Senator Fred Thompson and Governor Howard Dean brought their knowledge and wisdom to our campus last night. Both can be described as truly Renaissance gentlemen, having not only been successful in the political arena, each a veteran of a presidential campaign, but both also found success in a number of other endeavors that, standing alone, most would consider as outstanding careers.
Governor Howard Dean, graduated from Yale University with a degree in political science and then went on to earn his medical degree from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He began his 30 years of public service by winning election to the Vermont House of Representatives. He was elected Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor and in 1991 was sworn in as Governor after the death of Governor Richard Snelling. He was subsequently elected to five additional terms becoming the second-longest serving Governor in Vermont history. Governor Dean ran for President in 2004 and served as the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 - 2009.
Senator Fred Thompson earned a double degree in philosophy and political science from the University of Memphis and a Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt. In his career as an attorney he was involved in several high profile cases including minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. Senator Thompson began another career as an actor in 1985 and has starred in dozens of movies and TV series perhaps best known for his portrayal of DA Arthur Branch on Law and Order from 2002-2007 but I personally like him in The Hunt for Red October. He was elected by the citizens of Tennessee to serve the remaining two-year term of Al Gore in the Senate in 1994 and then again to a full six year term in 1996. Senator Thompson ran for President in 2008.
We are truly blessed to live in a nation whose founders put their trust in what Lincoln described so eloquently as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It is very appropriate that, like all the Presidential debates this year, a debate like this takes place on our College campus. Thomas Jefferson, working on the commissioning of the University of Virginia, wrote that one purpose of higher education “would be to form statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are much to depend.” That has certainly been true at Saint Vincent. In addition to Senator Thompson and Governor Dean, a number of other public servants who have devoted their professional lives and given their talents to ensure the public good were able to join us for the debate – many who are friends and alumni of the College.
Both Senator Thompson and Governor Dean agreed on the importance of this election and pointed to the need to respond to the challenges we face as a nation. One exchange that resonated with me began when Senator Thompson noted that in the discussion of abortion, sterilization, and contraception Governor Dean had characterized these issues as strictly health care issues. He noted that this is a dramatic change in how we have historically viewed these issues and pointed out the significance of this cultural shift, if allowed to proceed. Governor Dean responded from his experience as a medical doctor and while he stated he respected the Catholic position that life begins at conception he did not share this view. He felt these types of decision were both private and individual and that a person’s employer should be required to provide coverage for these procedures even if the employer is an organization, like the Catholic Church, that finds these “health care practices” morally wrong.
I believe that this exchange, sparked by an excellent question, brought forward one of the key issues we will face in making our choice on November 6th, the issue of religious liberty. There are a number of good resources for information on religious liberty from a Catholic perspective. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a site devoted to religious liberty. Participation is central to our democracy. Our duty as citizens is to be as informed as possible and to vote. I look forward to seeing you at the polls next Tuesday.