Former Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman told more than 100 members of the Yale Political Union Tuesday night that compromise is “not a dirty word,” but that extremism — too often the tune of political parties — might be a sin.
Taking broad swipes at the propensity of both parties to stifle debate and to champion the views of political extremists, as in the recent Terri Schiavo case, Whitman warned against believing that those who disagree with you are “bad” or “evil” people. Whitman, a Republican, was the governor of New Jersey before heading the EPA under President George W. Bush ’68.
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Although Whitman, who is now the head of the Republican Leadership Council, garnered the support of many in the room, she also faced a string of impassioned student speeches and angry hisses in opposition. The students argued that views outside the mainstream, not moderate beliefs, are ultimately better for the common good and are the source of true change in society.
Whitman took issue with the idea that moderates “have no back bone” and are looking for an easy way out of issues on which they do not hold a real position.
“I would argue that in fact the opposite is true,” Whitman, 60, said in her opening. “It’s much harder to find positions in the center … And that frankly was one of the ways I judged my success in policy-making: if I was getting attacked by both sides I was probably right where I should have been.”
The comments earned Whitman, whose husband comes from a family of many generations of Yalies, resounding applause. She went on to explain that she first heard the word “extremism” during the 1964 Republican National Convention when Barry Goldwater said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no sin.”
“The raucous appreciation of that sentiment in that hall was something that disturbed me greatly,” she said.
“Extremism in defending anything is enormously troubling,” she added. “Expressing of opinions has been a critical part of how we have reached good policy, but when extremism starts disturbing policy, it has a very chilling effect on the democratic process overall.”
Whitman, who recently wrote the book “It’s My Party, Too” and was described by YPU President Daniel Thies ’07 as an “up-and-coming star in the Republican Party,” warned that pushing issues without federal significance but with the ability to energize a base — such as flag burning and gay marriage — decreases voter turnout and stifles constructive conversation among lawmakers. But her call to “be civil and move forward” drew impassioned and often extreme responses from some of the union members.
Noah Mamis ’08 listed members of the YPU who he sees as extreme but from whom he learns anyway, saying he does not think that extremism is the problem, but rather that the “thought police” is the problem.
“Without extremism, we don’t get anything new,” he said. “We just walk around in circles.”
Roger Low ’07 and Alex Rodriques ’10 both asked Whitman how she reconciled her view with the fact that certain positions, such as support for emancipating slaves and women’s suffrage, were extreme at the time they were espoused. She responded that extremism ultimately fails when it cuts off dialogue completely.
“Where it starts to break down is the inability to speak to people who hold dissenting views, who hold views and won’t talk about modifications about that idea with anyone else,” Whitman said. “It’s about saying, ‘I am right, you are wrong, and you’re a bad person for being wrong. You’re evil.’”
In an interview with the News before the debate, Whitman said it was “too early” for her to choose a presidential candidate to support.
She also noted the renewed interest in global warming in America following Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Although Whitman was criticized by some on both sides of the aisle for her policies as leader of the EPA, from which she resigned in 2003, Whitman said definitively Tuesday that she believes global warming is real and that action must be taken to stop it. Yet she said she was “disappointed” that the moviegoers probably came away from the film with the false presumption that significant environmental solutions were explored during the administration of Bill Clinton LAW ’73.
“I believe climate change is real,” said Whitman, who said she would not rule out running for political office again in the future. “I don’t believe humans are causing it, but humans are exacerbating that trend to the point that nature can’t accommodate it in a way that it’s used to. It’s happening much too rapidly and the changes are too sharp and severe, so we need to take it seriously.”
During the debate, in response to many of the more “extreme” views and sarcastic comments expressed — that religion and liberalism should be eliminated, for example, or that several leaders in the Yale Political Union constitute a “thought police” — Whitman laughed heartily. And when she saw that members of the Party of the Right were drinking red wine during the debate, she asked facetiously for a glass of her own — and received one promptly.
The resolution, entitled “Extremism is Bad for the Political Process,” ultimately failed by ratio of about two to one.