WEST LAFAYETTE  –  The conversation Monday with Purdue President Mitch Daniels began with concern over the loss of the knowledge and practice of civics in today’s society. To which the former Indiana governor and White House budget director mused about the idea of the American citizenship test in the context of contemporary higher learning.
“I’ve been thinking about every one of our students taking and passing it during their four years before graduation,” Daniels said in his Hovde Hall office.
There are 100 civics questions on the naturalization test. During the interview process, applicants are asked up to 10 questions and must be able to answer at least six questions correctly. The first question is, “Who is in charge of the executive branch?” The possible answers include the president, chief justice, majority whip and speaker of the House. Other questions concern the number of U.S. senators, the length of a presidential term, who succeeds a president if he or she can no longer serve, and what are the two major political parties?
I sat down with Daniels a week after the passing and funeral of President George H.W. Bush. He had written a tribute column for the Washington Post well in advance of the 41st president’s death, running last summer on Bush’s 94th and last birthday. Daniels observed of chance involved in the ongoing American experiment.
“We were so lucky to have him at all,” Daniels wrote of the president’s 1944 chapter when as a pilot he was shot down over Chichi Jima, then rescued at sea by the USS Finback submarine. “What if that parachute hadn’t opened in 1944? Or the life raft had not inflated? Or his fellow pilots not spotted him and strafed away the Japanese boats as they attempted to machine gun the downed American flyboy? Or if, instead of paddling furiously away from it, to his discovery and rescue by a submarine, he had drifted to the nearby island, to almost certain capture and execution? Our nation would have been deprived of arguably its finest single life of patriotic service.”
His penultimate paragraph probed: “Is it too much to hope that the final contribution of this giant life might be to cast before the country an example of virtues that have eroded and nearly disappeared? The very virtues that have sustained the American Experiment through its hardest trials?”
The week of and the day after the president was laid to rest in College Station, Texas, the controversies and scandals surrounding President Trump spiked with the release of three sentencing reports by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York. 
The contrast between a giant life lived, and the current occupant of the White House was too obvious to ignore, and it shaped this 45-minute conversation with a Hoosier public servant who served Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. It was briefly interrupted by two Purdue freshmen, one from Fort Wayne, the other from Monticello, who asked to be photographed with a birthday greeting placard. Daniels was more than happy to comply. In doing so, he briefly quizzed them on their Purdue experience – was it harder than they expected?
Daniels led Indiana as governor for eight years, and is now pushing the envelope at the state’s land grant university where an original charter asks for the keeping and developing of a sense of civics for cascading generations of students.
HPI: I’m fascinated with where we are as a society and I understand your political agnostic state since taking the helm at Purdue. Since Labor Day with the death of Sen. John McCain and then the passing of President George H.W. Bush, after watching those ceremonies, what are we seeing culturally from what we grew up with to these days with President Trump?
Daniels: You may recall about a year ago now, the editors of the Washington Post where I occasionally write a column asked me to prepare something to be held for the time of President Bush’s death. At first, I felt inadequate to the task. What was I going to say that others wouldn’t say better? After I thought about it, I formulated an idea and I suggested to them that they just go ahead and run it ahead of that event, which I was hoping would be much later. The reason I wanted to was it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see he personified some of the many qualities that were once common in American public life and now seem to be vanishing. You didn’t have to be too prescient to foresee that whenever we lost him, it would cause people to stop and think about that. The contrast was just too obvious. I’m not talking about any one figure on the public stage. So if you were to look at that column, which they ran on his birthday, I explained it was supposed to be prepared for the time of his passing, but was being published now by leave of the editors, in the faint hope that with his passing, Americans might begin to reflect on those qualities that he embodied and those qualities might make a comeback. I’m troubled as many others are that his sense of duty, honor and country, his sense of service, of deflecting the credit to others, of not gloating or bragging of things he was raised to do, of forgiving even those who had wronged him most grievously and unfairly… it was obvious to me people would talk about that. The contrast would be unmistakable to many people who are conducting themselves in public life now. When 9/11 happened, it woke people up for a very temporary period. Then we went back to hand-to-hand combat that has only gotten so much worse. I am under no illusions that even though last week was a great time for people to reflect on George Bush and people like him, that will suffice to bring back public demand for that. But, just maybe.
HPI: I’m not so sure. The Republican Party has been taken over by President Trump. With regard to truth, we wouldn’t expect any other officeholder, Gov. Holcomb, or Mayor Hogsett or Mayor Roswarski… we expect standards of truth to prevail, and yet we seem to be exempting President Trump from that standard, when many believe the president of the United States should be setting the ultimate example. Does that trouble you?
One thing I do see is a dichotomy between federal and state politics. Not to say we haven’t seen some fairly dreary, negative, truth dismissive behavior in Indiana. But I do think the nationalization of politics has become a very serious problem. People running for national office are much more likely to be involved in these binary yes/no issues and, because of the perceived stakes, the incursion of outside money and interests. I think that’s dragged a lot of our campaign politics down to a level that’s pretty disgraceful. Whether we work our way out of that, I don’t know. We’ve been a little insulated here in Indiana. Other than 2008, we haven’t been that competitive presidentially. We haven’t seen the outside money and distasteful communications. Until last year, we haven’t had a hotly contested Senate race in the new environment. It’s not been that long ago that we campaigned in this state, touting the fact that we hadn’t run a negative ad against anybody and that was a positive theme. On top of that, we told the Republican Governors Association to stay out because they were determined to do some things we didn’t believe were consistent with the way we wanted to run. It’s only been a few years, but it seems like about a century from what we’ve seen and dealt with.
HPI: One thing that is jumping out at me, and you touched on this in your Ian Rolland address in Fort Wayne a couple of years ago, is that urban America is vastly different than rural America. You can make that case here in Indiana. 
Daniels: You can see that now.
HPI: You see it in each freshman class that comes into Purdue. Do you notice the difference between kids from Indianapolis and those from Greensburg or Salem or Rochester? 
Daniels: Maybe the young people at this stage of their lives are more similar than their elders are. There is no question that, in pure political terms, one way this will become a much more competitive state is if the suburbs decide the Republican Party is something they’re no longer comfortable with any more.
HPI: We’re seeing a little bit of that.
Daniels: We saw a lot. 
HPI: We saw a lot of that nationally, and here we saw a couple of Indiana House seats flip in Lake County and in Carmel and northern Indianapolis.
Daniels: Maybe not enough to change an election yet, but votes have switched in a big way. Go look back at ’08. All my previous experience had taught me that collectively one would hope that let’s say the Indianapolis suburbs might offset the loss in Lake County. By ’08 – now granted we did better in Lake County; after 77 trips, you hope to do a little better – but it was a huge vote turnout due to the Obama election. And yet there were three or four individual counties – Hamilton, Johnson, pretty sure Hendricks – which alone offset Lake County voters. It was a huge difference. In subsequent elections those margins have shrunk a lot. They were narrower than ever this year. You’re seeing that happen across the country. For people who look at elections, that was one of the most clear cut patterns, like Orange County, California.
HPI: Axios reported today that the Republican Party is going to be extinct in urban areas, and Democrats are pretty much extinct from rural Indiana.
Daniels: At least historically, parties have been adaptable. Sometimes it takes a while. They exist, in the end, to win elections and not to go down in flames over some inviolate catechism. But we’ll see, now that each has become more deeply identified in one set of views and deeply captured, in many cases, by the most zealous people. Socialists on the Democratic side and people who are dug in on certain issues in today’s Republican Party. You saw the survey work by Pew and others that describe the so-called “exhausted middle”? Tired of both ends, tired, yet nowhere to go. Homeless. Historically, one or both of the parties would see an opportunity to move to respond. Republicans to maybe urban and suburbanites, Democrats to places where they’re not doing well. If they’re so doctrinaire that they don’t do that, then the door is open for a new alternative. Look at what Macron did in France. Granted it’s a little easier over there because they’re more familiar with multi-party systems, I understand all that, but that wasn’t just an entrepreneurial campaign. He built a legislative slate in weeks and won a majority in the legislative branch, which is the way if you really want to get things done. If those things seem a little far-fetched, so would today’s situation just a few years ago.

HPI: Republican Chairman Reince Priebus put together the GOP autopsy report in 2013 after the 2012 election and advocated a more inclusive party, reaching out beyond the traditional white, business constituency. And yet the Republican Party we’ve seen since 2016 and certainly during the mid-terms …
Daniels: Once again, there was one skillful campaign with its own set of views out of, what, 19 candidates to start with?
HPI: Yes. And we’re probably going to have 25 or 30 running for the Democrats in 2020.
Daniels: There was only one, Donald Trump, that I remember. I don’t remember anyone else running in that direction. It was skillfully done. Like so many people, I was guessing wrong. I thought after he continued to progress, it might resolve itself in the end. It always comes down to two.  Between Trump and not Trump, I thought “not Trump” would prevail, but I was wrong. 
HPI: My take on 2016 was that out of 325 million people, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became the choice. We had two really flawed nominees. I kept saying, “Is this really the two best nominees we could come up with?”
Daniels: This is not a comment on anybody’s merits, but I told people once it became clear who was running, what an amazing situation: Republicans have nominated the only person in America who can lose an election to Hillary Clinton, and the Democrats have nominated the only person who could lose to Donald Trump. I wrote a book back then, back in 2011…
HPI: “Keeping the Republic.”
Daniels: …which is obstinately optimistic about the country and the people in it, who will ultimately make mature decisions and think about the future more than the present and come together around certain issues. I’ve admitted in a couple of speeches, would I write the same book today? It might be a little harder, but as I said then, I don’t know any operating principle that works in life other than optimism. If you take a defeatist attitude, you’re sure to realize your expectation.
HPI: When you see these freshmen classes arriving at Purdue, does it give you optimism that we’ll ultimately get it right and thrive? Give us a dose of optimism.
Daniels: Certainly the students we have here are enormously bright, very technically and technologically adept, which Americans will have to be, or led by people who are, in the kind of world we’ve moved into. The technology itself has caused a lot of problems we have, whether political or economic, or automation and all of that. Especially at a center of excellence in disciplines Purdue excels in and is known for, you can’t help but be impressed and hopeful about that. These young people care about each other, they’re very comfortable with each other…
HPI: More tolerant?
Daniels: Yes. We have all of that going for us. Back to something you and I discussed earlier: What troubles me is their lacking of understanding of American history and our civic traditions. Therefore, I think, their innocence about proven bad ideas like socialism. But that’s what college is for and that’s what lifelong learning is about. 
HPI: We grew up through two traumatic periods in the 1960s and ‘70s, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. We’re in for some real political turmoil coming up here. What did you learn from the roiling of American society during that period? 
Daniels: What we all learned then was we were a resilient country that is still fundamentally in agreement on basic principles. We didn’t put up with the wrongdoing. We insisted on changes of leadership that brought the country back in a very strong way. I don’t know if that’s predictive; I sure hope so. A country that loses sight of its own history and its own best traditions, a country that has never been organized around ethnic or religious bonds, but simply around an idea. If it forgets what the idea is, it will have lost its moorings. We have also had political parties which have sought the center, wherever that happened to be. At least for the moment, as we’ve been discussing, you see a little less instinct on their parts to do so. I don’t think that lasts. Frankly, right now I hear more Democrats talking about finding ways to do better where they have left people cold. The party that does that most effectively and promptly probably will be successful.
HPI: The last time I was at this table, we talked about whether an American middle class is sustainable, and the coming of artificial intelligence and whether there would be enough middle class jobs. What keeps you up at night now?
Daniels: Tribalism, which I’ve been spouting off now for a couple, three years.
HPI: I thought your commencement address last May was spot on.
Daniels: I said to the young people there that I was not uncomfortable we wouldn’t overcome our material challenges, our economic challenges, even the ethical challenges and dangers that some of these technologies, A.I, biotech, will bring. I’m more worried about our ability to come together and stay together as a people.
HPI: But we’ve always figured it out. Throughout our history, just about every 80 years we’ve had a cataclysmic event: The American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II, which occurred a little less than 80 years ago. What strikes me is we’ve always had the leadership, the right person at the right time, whether it was Washington and Jefferson, or Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan, who came in and restored our promise. So you have confidence in that today?
Daniels: I do. I prefer it doesn’t happen in a cataclysm. 
HPI: Well, we’re about due. 
Daniels: Some of the people you mentioned were hardly figures of unity at the time, Lincoln for instance.
HPI: And Reagan. Some people thought he was radical and unstable. 
Daniels: Let’s hope that the long era of peace and prosperity we’ve been enjoying continues. But, it will make the peacemaker’s job harder. If you have a genuine national emergency, whoever was there would rise to the occasion and lead us through it. The situation would cause these people to put aside these hostilities that seem so important to them right now. You’d rather we wouldn’t have to come back together that way. Absent a real crisis, the job will be harder. When somebody as good and decent as George Bush passes on, and there are still a few people who cannot restrain themselves from saying hateful things; golly, can’t you hush yourself during a week like this? Someone who is going to find the vocabulary and set an example that is open enough and welcoming enough to woo back people who have become so very hostile to each other is going to take more skill than even the greats you mention.