George Washington University students came together Thursday night to find understanding about how to heal the political divide in the United States in a discussion with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and GW’s Frank Sesno.
Thursday’s discussion at Jack Morton Auditorium was the inaugural event for The Sesno Series, a speaker series that will bring to GW’s campus influential voices from across the political spectrum to discuss the future of our country and our world.
Alumni Ted Segal, B.A. ’03, and Meredith Perla Segal, B. Accy. ’05, created the endowed fund to honor the contributions of Sesno, a School of Media and Public Affairs professor and former CNN reporter, anchor and Washington bureau chief.
President Ellen M. Granberg began the event by thanking the audience for showing up for a night designed to ask tough questions about the world's most pressing challenges.
“I am delighted to welcome you to this first event in a series that will critically examine the issues surrounding democracy, public understanding and civil discourse at this important moment in our nation's history,” Granberg said. “This series exemplifies the core ethos of George Washington University. Sitting just steps away from the heart of our nation's politics, GW is a community of diverse thinkers, activists and leaders from across the political spectrum and around the globe.”
Sesno said the goal of the speaker series is to cultivate understanding and identify solutions despite political divisions. He said it is especially important for students to be involved because they are the future. Sesno told students they will be the ones to make the change they want to see in the world.
“We're going to engage red and blue, liberal and conservative, Democrats and Republicans and people without labels,” Sesno said. “People who do politics and people who are far from politics. To bring creative, bold thinkers for us to listen to and learn from and who have a roadmap of sorts to share with us.”
Sesno began the event with a video from a focus group of GW students, led by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, that considered the state of the country. The students discussed their concerns, hopes and fears.
“I've never heard it this bad,” Luntz said to the group. “And you're the generation that's supposed to be positive. What's gone wrong?”
One by one, the students shared their experiences of being ostracized for their political beliefs and their fears the country will only continue to be more divided. One student said he felt like he couldn’t openly discuss his views supporting the Second Amendment without facing backlash and losing friends. Another student said she faced backlash from her high school teachers for organizing a protest in the name of equality.
As the discussion went on, students agreed there is a huge political divide in America. One student asked the poignant question: If students upset about the political divide can’t reach across the aisle and work together, how can they expect the government to do the same?
Sesno posed that same question to Booker.
“What one of our students said is if we can’t do this as students, how do we expect our senators and others to do it,” Sesno asked. “What do you do on the Hill in terms of reaching across to people with deep differences to keep some sense of relationship going so that you can do business together?”
Booker responded with a story about a bipartisan amendment he helped pass in 2015 aimed at supporting children in foster care and homeless youth by reaching across the aisle to former Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).
“Do not be someone who expects the world to become more hopeful if you're not an agent of hope, more tolerant if you are not an example of tolerance,” Booker said. “I ran a whole presidential campaign talking about the urgency that we love one another. I think the only challenge America is truly threatened by is not external. It's the internal inability for us to honor each other, to respect our democratic traditions and to create an environment in which we can find common ground. Now I have to live that.”
Booker said one of the biggest pieces of advice that stuck with him throughout his career came from one of his mentors, former Sen. Bill Bradley, who told Booker to meet with every Republican senator. Through that process, Booker said he met with Inhofe, a man who had said things in the past that Booker strongly disagreed with.
One day, Booker went to Inhofe’s office for a Bible study. While inside Inhofe’s office, Booker saw a photo of Inhofe embracing a child sitting on the mantle.
“He [Inhofe] looks at me and he tells me this beautiful, moving story of his Christian family adopting a little girl out of a very, very bad situation,” Booker said. “And I was moved.”
Several months later, when Booker was in the process of trying to get an amendment to help foster children passed, he remembered the story Inhofe shared with him.
“I said to him, ‘Sir, I know how much you care about disadvantaged children,’ and I made my case,” Booker said.
Inhofe agreed to co-sponsor the amendment and through their combined efforts, it passed.
“Now, that would have never happened if I did not get over myself, go to another colleague's inner sanctum, sit down with him and see his humanity,” Booker said.
Sesno said that the story highlighted an important lesson people could learn from. “We have to listen,” he said. “We have to embrace our own implicit biases, overcome them and talk to people who are very different.”
Booker closed the discussion by making the case that the only way forward is through wading through political division and polarization.
“My journey, and we're all making this journey of humanity, but my personal journey has been trying to shift from being ‘us’ versus ‘them’ to just us,” Booker said. “My basic understanding is that I am connected to you and that we have shared humanity. And we need each other. And yes, the best rewards I've had in my life have been the times I've stepped out of my comfort zone to embrace people that are different.”
Booker’s message, which resonated with the audience, may be a warm-up to more. Earlier in the evening, Sesno asked Booker, who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, would consider another bid for the White House.
“It’s likely,” Booker said. “This is the best field of talent that I have seen on the Democratic bench in my lifetime. It’s because I know a lot of these people, but I can’t tell you what I’m going to do in 2028. I had a reason to run last time. And that’s why I ran. If that reason is still there, then I will run again.
“But I see a lot of rising stars. I am looking not for just someone that can manage the federal government, get to difficult issues. I want someone who can inspire us to understand that the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us.”