2011 Governor’s Scholars quiz Trey Grayson on civil discourse, politics and engagement
Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson opened his talk with self-deprecation.
“Am I your first convocation speaker?” he asked a packed house of 2011 Governor’s Scholars. “It gets better.”
Grayson, who was a Governor’s Scholar on Centre College’s campus in 1989, was sworn in as Kentucky’s Secretary of State in 2004. He was, at that time, the youngest Secretary of State in the nation, and he held that position until 2011.
After an unsuccessful U.S. Senate race, Grayson now serves as the director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Grayson said the institute focuses on promoting civility in politics.
“This is something that is a big concern of mine as a former elected official and the director of the IOP,” he said. “I’m not saying we all have to sit around and agree. What I mean by civility is not that you should always compromise and meet in the middle, but that you have conversations where you respect your different points of view.”
Grayson said the solution to an increasingly hostile political environment in the United States lies, in part, with the electorate.
“A lot of the solution is going to be incumbent on all of us to demand more from our candidates, our news media, our neighbors and our families,” he said. “I want to call upon all of you on this campus this five weeks to engage and have some tough conversations, but do it in a respectful way.”
With that groundwork laid, Grayson opened the floor to questions from the scholars.
Hunter from Cadiz asked Grayson how he got interested in government and politics.
“As a kid, I did have an interest in politics,” Grayson responded. “I studied political and social theory at GSP, and I read a lot of books as a kid. The mission of the IOP is to get more young people interested in politics and encourage you to have a career in politics. Whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, whatever—you can get involved at a young age.”
Laurel from Mercy Academy in Louisville asked about the difficulties of campaigning.
“You are on the road so much. Traveling a lot wasn’t a big deal—I was used to that,” Grayson said. “But I was flying around the country to get support because people cared about the race. The time and pace were very difficult for me personally.”
Grayson also said that in the spring of 2010, the Republican Party electorate was angrier than he understood.
“The voters wanted the guy who would give the bird to Washington,” he said. “There were times I would say things that I wasn’t 100 percent believing in, because I was trying to figure out how to navigate that without conceding too much—without becoming someone I wasn’t.”
Jonathan from Atherton High School said this mantra seemed to him like pandering for votes and asked for clarification.
“As a candidate, I want you to elect me for who I am,” Grayson responded. “If I compromise too much, people will see that as just being a pandering politician. But if you say you’ll never compromise, most times you are going to lose. Where is that fine line?”
Jorge, another Atherton High School scholar, asked Grayson to rebut the idea that all politicians are corrupt, dishonest and power-hungry.
“Most people aren’t corrupt,” Grayson said. “As young people—directly as candidates or indirectly as volunteers—you can get good people who will make good candidates. The best way to counter that is to say I’m not corrupt, I’m going to get into politics to do the right thing and I’m going to prove people who say that wrong. Do it the right way, the civil way, and address the problems we have as a state.”
Grayson’s dialogue with the scholars is the beginning of many activities the high school students will be participating in during their five weeks on Centre’s campus.