By Patrick B. McGuigan
Robert Henry has had one of the most diverse careers of any living Oklahoma leader. He was elected a state representative from Shawnee in his early twenties, served a term as state attorney general, then was dean of the Oklahoma City University Law School. He left OCU to become a member of the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served for 15 years.
Judge Henry left the bench on June 30 to become president of Oklahoma City University the following day. CapitolBeatOK visited him on the OCU campus this week.
In a lengthy interview, touching on a wide range of issues, Henry reflected on several matters of public policy, including weaknesses in contemporary civics education.
While the particular points he made were different than those raised in a notable address by University of Oklahoma President David Boren early this year, it is clear the two men share insights into the essential nature of an informed citizenry for the workings of a free society.
Henry said, “I am a passionate believer in the liberal arts; and a defender of our system with its Greek and Roman roots, and of course a Jewish overlay. I believe that if people want to be free, they have to learn some things. People must be challenged if we are to retain and build on the freedoms and the system we have.”
Responding to questions about the lack of interest -- even overt hostility in some cases -- to political reporting and commentary, Henry told CapitolBeatOK, “I often ask students if they’re interested in politics. Most of them say no. So, I ask them what it is, what politics is about. They say they don’t know. If they do answer, many talk about scandals or problems.”
Henry continued, “I give them a scholarly definition like David Easton’s, which is that politics is the authoritative allocation of values. Or, I’ll throw out Harold Lasswell’s definition, which is that politics decides who gets what, where, when, how and why.” That sketch of what politics is about echoes the essentials of good news reporting, which seeks to discover the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of events.
Beyond civic virtue and the ethic of public service, Henry commented as follows: “In some ways, politics is the way we decide who gets ‘stuff.’ So I say to the students, to pique their interest, if you don’t want ‘stuff,’ don’t get involved in politics. If you want ‘stuff,’ then you have to play this game. What I’m really saying is that you don’t participate in politics at your own great peril.”
Among several books President Henry is re-reading as he begins his new job at OCU, a Methodist-affiliated university founded in 1904, is “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville, a French writer who traveled throughout the young nation in the 1830s.
Henry recounted, “Tocqueville was fascinated because in America, he reported, we use juries even in civil cases. Their function was and is not limited to criminal cases. What fascinated that French visitor to our country in the early days of this great Republic is that nothing teaches you better about your government than to be your government, in juries and in the ways our system of law works.”
He continued, “One of the things we do at OCU that’s kind of cool is that from the student fees a pretty substantial amount of money is provided to the student government. They actually control how it is spent. The students are responsible for the outcomes and results. They are have committees and real authority. My predecessor started this and did a good job letting the students have real power and control.
“It was the student government that identified the need for 24/7 study places, and even for micro-credit loans so students can get things like car batteries and meet other emergency news. It has been very instructive. We really do have to teach civics, and it would be good to practice civics more than we do.”
In the midst of nearly an hour's conversation devoted exclusively to arts and literature, Henry's comments manifested how great art informs his views of governance and public service. He said, “My favorite book is Homer's 'Illiad,' with close competition from the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes. I often tell students, ‘You don’t get to be an ancient text unless you have something to say.’
“I’m very interested in the recurring themes of history and literature. We are constantly in a state of discovery and recovery. I’m very interested in the ideas of great literature. I love the Torah.”
He continued, “A book I am enthusiastic about right now is Steven Pressfield’s 'Gates of Fire,' concerning the Battle of Thermopylae.” In that three-day conflict (480 B.C.), 300 Spartans stood alone against the mighty army of the Persian Empire under Xerxes. Every one of the Spartan warriors died, but inflicted horrific casualties on the invaders of the Greek Peninsula. Eventually, Greek city-states united to defeat the Persians in later battles. Victory for the Greeks assured continued development of the governing and artistic traditions that became a fundamental basis for Western civilization.
Henry commented on some of the lessons he drew from Pressfield's novel: “The Athenians hadn’t been able to get their act together. If it wasn’t for the Spartans and what they did at Thermopylae, there might not be an America. Certainly, our governmental system wouldn’t be what it is today. Our concept of the office of the president comes from the Spartans' idea of a king with limited authority, who could act boldly when needed but ultimately subject to limits. Thermopylae was a true pivot moment in history.”