On November 1, 2012—just five days before the 2012 presidential election contest—Governor Jon Huntsman, a former Republican candidate for President, spoke at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum.
Huntsman served as Governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, when he resigned amidst his second term after being appointed the U.S. Ambassador to China by President Barack Obama. In June of 2011, he left this post and announced his candidacy for the Republican party nomination for President.
Huntsman’s speech at the Athenaeum covered a wide variety of topics, including U.S.-China relations and the state of American politics. Huntsman, who publicly endorsed Mitt Romney in January, was wary of making a precise forecast for next week’s election but told students that, post-election, he expects Americans to reach “a moment of clarity.”
Huntsman described what it was like to be a candidate for U.S. President and participate in “game show”-style political debates, which he admitted he found frustrating. He contrasted these debates with the Lincoln-Douglas-style debate he had with opponent Newt Gingrich last December. Huntsman called that debate “the most refreshing thing I have ever done.”
Throughout his speech, Huntsman emphasized the importance of finding common-sense solutions and putting pragmatism over partisanship. He criticized the signing of political pledges, adding that his wife would not allow him to partake in it. “At the end of the day, I like my wife more than I like politics,” he told students. Huntsman also criticized the level of discourse about China in this presidential election, calling it “woefully inadequate.”
“I didn’t give political speeches in Beijing, believe me,” he joked, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Huntsman’s visit was sponsored by CMC’s Res Publica society, a group “comprised of the most generous donors to the Fund for CMC every year,” according to CMC’s website. A few hours before arriving in Claremont, Governor Huntsman spoke at a separate Res Publica luncheon in nearby Costa Mesa to an audience of around 300 CMC alumni, family, and friends.
While both speeches touched on similar themes, Huntsman’s speech at the Athenaeum was clearly more tailored towards current students. Huntsman told Athenaeum guests that he would be speaking “from the heart” and offered a range of personal anecdotes that were absent from his Res Publica speech—from what it was like to sit backstage at the Colbert Report to how he felt losing his younger sister to drugs.
Throughout his Ath speech, Huntsman offered both career and life advice to students. “I don’t want you to leave this campus undecided about what you are going to do with your careers,” he told CMCers.
Students asked a series of follow-up questions on topics ranging from U.S.-Taiwan relations to gender equality in the workplace. When asked whether anyone from the Obama administration should be prosecuted after the September death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Huntsman rejected any politicizing of the issue, calling it “sorry commentary.” “Let’s wait and let the experts sort through the information,” he suggested.
Overall, students reacted positively to Huntsman’s speech. “I felt like that was something he really wrote for the school,” said junior Nathan Levine ’14. Manav Kohli ’16 described Huntsman as a “master pragmatist,” while current Ath Fellow David Leathers ’15 called Huntsman’s speech “a perfect combination of a hopeful outlook for America but yet a critique of our current political system.”
The feeling, it seemed, was mutual. Huntsman complimented CMCers at the start of his Athenaeum speech, noting, “I haven’t met one of you I wasn’t impressed by.”
Between speeches, Huntsman sat down for a brief interview with the CMC Forum and the Claremont Portside. During this time, he discussed the implications of CMC’s strong focus on government and economics. Huntsman argued that, when the economy becomes stable again, U.S. policy will return to a “back to basics menu,” and a mastery of the more theoretical aspects of economics and government will become invaluable. “Pay close attention to what you’re discussing and reading,” he warned students, “because there will be an appetite for it in the real world.”
Many Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, have complimented Governor Huntsman. When asked by the Forum whether he finds the Democratic attention flattering or frustrating, Huntsman replied, “[The compliment] comes from people on both sides. A lot of people don’t know where they sit.” He added, “I just say, ‘You must be a common sense person.’”
Throughout the day, Huntsman insisted he was optimistic for the future of the country. His advice for students was to maintain a similar attitude: “Don’t become a cynic.”
Photos by Sean McQueen ’13.