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Former White House official Chapman talks politics with students

Barry McNamara
02/26/2018
Former Monmouth reisdent Bruce Chapman meets with a group of Monmouth political science students Feb. 21 in the Tartan Room of the Stockdale Center.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Serving others and building a network are keys when trying to break into and ascend the ladder in politics.

That’s what a former White House official told a group of Monmouth College political science students Friday.

“The whole nature of politics is organizing and getting people who share your views to do something,” Bruce Chapman told the students over lunch in the College’s Stockdale Student Center.

A Monmouth native, Chapman served as deputy assistant to President Ronald Reagan, as well as director of the White House Office of Planning and Evaluation and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna.

When beginning a career in politics, Chapman told the students to ask “How can I be of use to others? How can I serve?”

“Get involved in a campaign, and do the grubby things, like driving around a candidate,” said Chapman. “That can lead to things because that gets you a kind of access that others don’t get. So many people want to start at the top and just parachute into a high-ranking position. I think working your way up is the way to go.”

Chapman told the students that building lasting friendships is also a key element to political success.

“If you want to have a friend, be one,” he said. “If you do things with people, they become friends. You see that it happens in war, with soldiers who serve together having that very special bond. Politics is a little like that, in a milder way. You see that type of connection with people who have served on a campaign together.”

From councilman to D.C.

Before he landed in Washington, D.C., Chapman was a councilman in Seattle and was Washington’s secretary of state. Reagan named him director of the U.S. Census Bureau and then his deputy assistant.

Chapman was back in Monmouth to attend the funeral of 1950 Monmouth alumnus and longtime local sixth-grade teacher Bob Matson, who helped a young Chapman get started in politics.

“My mother was a teacher, and she’d drop me off at school early. One of the things Mr. Matson had me do in the time before school started was write letters to famous people,” he said. “I wrote a letter to Sen. Robert Taft (of Ohio), encouraging him to run for president.

“I remember getting a letter back from him that started, ‘Dear Mr. Chapman.’ No one had ever called me ‘Mr. Chapman’ before. He encouraged me to go to the Republican convention, which was in Chicago that year (1952). My parents were divorced, and my father lived in Chicago. So we went to the convention, and so many things happened for me from that experience.”

Chapman’s career is certainly one of working his way up the political ladder. He said that critical points included a magazine he started as a student at Harvard University, The Advanced Journal of Political Thought, and his work as director of the Census Bureau. He did a study about the 1980 Census and how it affected public policy, a report that got him an audience with President Reagan and his cabinet.

On an occasion when he found himself in the Oval Office with Reagan, who spent a year of his childhood in Monmouth, Chapman pointed out how unique it was that two boys from Monmouth now found themselves together in the White House.

The president responded by telling him a story about how he walked the two blocks from his home on South Seventh Street to campus after a storm had downed several trees. He “shinnied” up a tree to replace a bird nest that was on a limb lying on the ground. The act was noticed, and Reagan received an award from the Audubon Society.

“That’s the probably the last honor he received from the Audubon Society,” said Chapman.

Life after D.C.

After his time in Washington, D.C., Chapman founded the Discovery Institute, a public policy think tank in Seattle.

“I’m not the expert at the institute; I’m the band leader or the producer,” said Chapman, who serves as the institute’s chairman. “The great fun I’ve had is bringing people together.”

Among the issues explored at the Discovery Institute is how technologies such as driverless cars and robotics will affect the workforce.

“I’m very concerned right now with what’s happening to people who are endangered by technology,” said Chapman. “What happens when driverless transportation puts a couple million truck drivers out of work? And on one hand, robotics offers much greater precision in the medical world, but on the other hand, what happens to the people who were doing that type of work?”

Chapman has also written a book, which will be published later this year. Its title, Politicians: The Worst Kind of People to Run the Government, Except for All the Others, is a take-off on a quotation about governments attributed to Winston Churchill.

Chapman gave the students an encouraging word about the United States, and also challenged them.

“This is a fascinating time, a great time. I don’t think this time is worse than others,” he said. “We were on the edge of nuclear war in the early 1960s and again in the early 1980s. This time is ours, and it’s fresh, so it seems more important. The big question is, ‘Are there people who can handle it?’ ... We have a great need for debate in this country. We’re good at yelling at each other on the television or on social media. I’m talking about civilized discussion without the idea of drama.”