CIVIC’s Gift to Iowa City

Remarks on the occasion of the presentation of the
2015 Citizen Diplomat Award
from the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities

Nicholas Johnson
Vetro Hotel, Iowa City, Iowa
January 27, 2016

Thank you Jo, for that introduction, and for all you do for all of us.

As a former law professor, I’m used to speaking for entire semesters at a time. So you’ll be relieved to know that Jo is going to give me the hook after five minutes this evening.

Why is CIVIC important to me?

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when my term at the FCC ended, I wanted to re-visit the America that lies outside “the beltway.” Ever since a college anthropology course, I’ve been fascinated and enriched by human diversity. The discovery that, as Ruth Benedict titled her book, others’ different patterns of culture can work as well or better for them as ours does for us.

I want to know as much as I can about the full range of human existence. Indeed, among the comments of my critics is that I seem to be more interested in interviewing everyone than merely conversing.

After the FCC, some suggested I get a truck, a dog, and drive around the country. At first an appealing idea, I soon realized I’d meet few people who weren’t either truck drivers or waitresses. So when the Democrats in Iowa’s old Third District asked if I’d consider running against Congressman H.R. Gross I took a look at that big square of Iowa, with its square counties, bordering Minnesota.

It had union members in the UAW’s Local 838, working in the world’s largest tractor factory. An African-American population in Waterloo, Hispanics around Mason City, and the Meskwaki Indians in Tama – one of whom became a real teacher for me. The District has more colleges per square mile than elsewhere. A range of religious and ethnic affiliations, young professionals, business owners, newspaper editors, and of course, farmers.

What an ideal alternative! I could experience America without leaving Iowa, just driving around the District – and with much less expense for gas. Moreover, as a candidate I had a legitimate excuse for stopping and interviewing strangers.

The only downside was the remote possibility I might be elected and have to start commuting between Washington and my rented farm house. Fortunately, I was able to lose the primary by a full six-vote margin, and thereby enable former Iowa legislator Chuck Grassley to begin his 40-year congressional career.

So what does this story have to do with CIVIC?

That political campaign, plus world travel before and after my Washington days, is but one illustration of my gradual evolution in self-identification -- from Iowa City boy, to Iowan, to American, to global citizen, to acceptance of my role as but one lowly member of our mammalian species.

Today the airlines have become a dysfunctional way to move human bodies about, and there are fewer folks willing to pay for my tickets.

Iowa’s Third District offered me the opportunity to explore the diversity of America without leaving the state. How fortunate we all are that CIVIC offers us the opportunity to explore the diversity of the world without leaving our city.

It is CIVIC that has given me a gift. And now it wants to recognize me for accepting it. What an odd organization.

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