For most every teacher, I suspect, there are handful of classroom experiences that remain memorable long after the class is over, usually because of the mix of students in that class. For me one such experience came very early in my teaching career while I was still a graduate student. Fortunately, in the Harvard Ph.D program grad students were encouraged to teach as part of their training, and I put together a seminar based on my research into the White House staff (the subject of my first book). To my everlasting gratitude, the course attracted an outstanding group of undergraduates, many of whom I am still in touch with and all of whom went on to lead distinctive lives.
One of those students was Artur Davis.
If you don’t know Davis, you will after tonight. He is scheduled to give a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that two years ago Davis, who was the first Democratic congressman outside Illinois to back Obama’s presidential bid, was considered a rising star in Democratic political circles. In 2002, he had bucked the Democratic establishment to win a seat in the House, representing a district in his home state of Alabama, and he later became one of Obama’s early political supporters. As a reward for that support in 2008 Davis was given the honor at the Democratic Convention of seconding Obama’s nomination to be president.
But in 2010, Davis lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Alabama. His defeat was attributed in part by his decision, looking ahead to the general gubernatorial election, to position himself more to the ideological center by, for instance, voting against Obamacare – a strategy that some say cost him support among his core constituency during the primary. Shortly after his defeat he moved to Virginia and began a political conversion that will culminate in tonight’s major address.
If Davis’ is going to reboot his political career, tonight is a big moment for him. Polls indicate that few Virginians know who he is, and those few who do don’t particularly like him. But, as we all know, a primetime convention speech can do wonders for an aspiring politician’s career prospects.
As you might expect, Davis’ Road to Damascus moment is not sitting well with his former Democratic colleagues. The Congressional Black caucus released a scathing letter today, no doubt timed to blunt the impact of Davis’ speech, that basically accuses him of political treason. Liberal blogs have also taken Davis to task for his political apostasy while their conservative counterparts are applauding his new-found reason.
I would like to say that I had something to do with Davis’ decision to embark on a political career, if not necessarily his choice of this particular political path. But I would be lying. Davis came to my seminar with his political instincts already well honed. He was a smart student, but in a class of exceptionally bright undergraduates – (four went on to law school, one clerked for the Supreme Court, another served on Capitol Hill), he didn’t stand out for his academic prowess. Instead, what I remember most about Artur is his insatiable interest in political gossip and current events. When I discussed in class some of the findings from the White House interviews that I was conducting, Artur was most interested in knowing who was feeding me the information. Similarly he paid less attention to my discussion of principal-agent models as a means of understanding presidential-staff relations, but was all ears when it came to analyzing the current White House staff. It came as absolutely no surprise to me that he went into elective politics – it was clear that he was already a political animal.
Tonight is big night for Artur and, as I do with all my former students, I wish him well. This is not to say I endorse (or do not endorse!) his political conversion. But politics can be a harsh mistress, and Artur has already developed a noteworthy enemies list. There’s no need to add to the list. Instead, he should expect some moral support from a former teacher.
So, knock ‘em dead, Artur. I’m rooting for you.
Addendum 1:15 – Olivier Knox picked up this story at Yahoo.com.
Here is an additional reason why the Congressional Black Caucus is irked with Davis – he has come out in favor of stronger voter ID laws. In an editorial citing his support of strengthening voter identification law, Davis noted that he saw numerous instances of voter fraud in Alabama.
Addendum II 2:45 p.m. Another student from that illustrious class, Jeff Cooper, forwards me this youtube video created by the DNC showing the “good” Artur in anticipation of tonight’s speech.