Nearly 400 audience members attended three events in the lower level of the Johnson Center at George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus Tuesday night, each of them with a common theme: Civility in political discourse.
The three events were co-hosted by the New York-based nonprofit Common Ground Committee, the Christian Science Monitor, and Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
The main event, which drew more than 300 students, faculty, staff, and members of the community to Dewberry Hall, was a discussion called “Finding Common Ground on the New Cold War” between former ambassador to the United Nations and National Security Advisor Susan Rice (D) and former CIA Director General David Petraeus (I). The 90-minute conversation was moderated by Today show host and MSNBC correspondent Craig Melvin, who engaged the panelists in topics ranging from China-Russia relations and Turkish aggression to the recent U.S. pullout of troops in Syria and the idea of mandatory national service.
First and foremost, however, was a discussion of what Melvin called “the Phone Call,” alluding to the call President Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky which is at the center of the ongoing impeachment hearings. Rice said that in her experience as a diplomat Trump “wasn’t prepared, he went off the script, and what he said had no relation to current Ukrainian relations. There’s no policy in that phone call.”
When asked if the call’s content was an impeachable offense, Petraeus offered that “I’m not a Constitutional lawyer” before describing his own experience in the region, realizing that Ukraine desperately needed the national security funding Trump threatened to withhold if there were no investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son.
Petraeus enumerated five reasons the U.S. should keep forces in Syria, and among them was to achieve “a sustained commitment” to the region. Rice pointed out that the Kurdish population of Syria, which saw 10,000 casualties in fighting as a U.S. ally against the Islamic State, was an abandonment that allowed Turkey to invade with Russian assistance. “We gave a moral commitment we would not abandon them, and we did. What local forces are going to partner with the U.S. now?”
At one point Rice suggested that mandatory national service—either civilian or military—would serve to “bring people together. The doubt, fear, and hate, the distrust that divides us so profoundly starts us to doubt our institutions and our democracy.” By serving the country, she said, “at age 18 to 22, for 6 to 12 months, all races, all religions, everyone would have to work together for the common good. They have to know each other.”
The suggestion was met with widespread applause.
When the discussion concluded, each audience member received a copy of Rice’s new book, “Tough Love: My Story of Things Worth Fighting For.”
Prior to the conversation with Melvin, Rice and Petraeus met with 17 Mason students, many of them majoring in Government and International Politics, for a private session in the Bistro of the Johnson Center. The intimate setting afforded the students one-on-one time with the dignitaries who, in addition to addressing civility in public discourse, described their own career paths and made detailed recommendations for those thinking of entering public service. Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Schar School’s Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, hosted the session.
Despite the current political climate, Rice began, “if you are thinking of a life in government, please do. It is the most rewarding, challenging, gratifying, but frustrating—in the right way—thing you can do on behalf of your country. You will meet and work with incredibly smart people who are working for the same thing as you.”
Rice advised the students to “plan on getting a graduate degree” in order to advance in government service. “We need as much talent as we can get, now more than ever,” she added.
“Recognize there is no greater privilege in life than to serve something larger than yourself—your country,” Petraeus said, warning the students to double-down on their studies. “Your academic preparation is important. What you do academically sets you apart, it distinguishes you.” He also advised strengthening analytical and communication skills that will be vital in a government career.
Students were impressed with the discussion, but more so with the guests.
“This was exceptionally cool,” said sophomore government and international politics major Erica Kelly. “One of the reasons I chose George Mason is its proximity to Washington, D.C., and the connections the faculty have—it’s exciting to see that bear fruit. I’m very proud that the university I attend brings in speakers like this.”
“The fact that our school carries enough weight to bring in members of the federal government with high public profile positions is an asset to us,” said sophomore government major Ian Waite. “It’s a great benefit to students to see first-hand what their experiences are like, and to do it in a question-and-answer, very personal setting was amazing.”
“The opportunities at Mason exceed my expectations,” said sophomore government major Molly Reed. On Monday night, Reed not only listened to Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a staged conversation at Mason but was invited to a private dinner with Kagan afterward.
As the students met with Rice and Petraeus, at the nearby JC Cinema, about 40 audience members—many of them journalism and communication majors—listened to a 90-minute discussion between Mark Sappenfield, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and long-time Monitor Washington correspondent Peter Grier. The topic was on how journalism is expected to function in a time of civic polarization.
Sappenfield demonstrated with PowerPoint slides that statistics indicate polarization has been occurring “over the last 20 years,” he said. But now, “in the age of Trump, we are fundamentally two different countries, but Trump isn’t the cause, he’s an expression of it.”
The erosion of honesty among public officials, Sappenfield and Grier pointed out, makes diligent journalism more crucial now than ever. Modern journalists, Sappenfield suggested, have to accept that “we are coming to a place where facts and truth aren’t enough.”