The remarkable legacy of Dan Coats
Monday, December 19, 2016 9:41 AM
In 1988 Dan Quayle became vice president of the United States and Dan Coats was plucked from near-obscurity by Indiana Gov. Robert Orr and appointed the new U.S. senator from Indiana. Without peer, Coats was the right man for the job because his character and integrity were unassailable and because he had never lost an election. Even though most Hoosiers hadn’t a clue who he was, those who knew him best knew his personal integrity and natural grace would carry him to the heights of political power.
He was, and is, one of the most virtuous men in American politics, loved and respected roundly and widely by men and women on both sides of the political aisle, a Wheaton graduate and serious Christian, a family man par excellence whose elemental goodness is matchless in American public life.
This Quayle-Coats series of events propelled me to contact my friend Curt Smith, who was the press secretary for Coats in the House of Representatives and for whom I had interned while at Indiana University. I conveyed to Curt how much I respected Coats and said that if there were ever any openings on the new Senate team in 1989, it was one of the positions that might lure me away from Indiana to Washington where I had interned for both Quayle and Coats in the mid-’80s.
A few months later, while I was sitting in the newsroom of WKJG-TV in Fort Wayne where I was the executive producer of the local news, I received a call from Curt. The newly-appointed senator, he said, wanted to offer me a job as his deputy press secretary, overseeing all the senator’s radio and TV. This would be a pivotal position in the era before the contemporary use of the internet because Coats had to stand for election twice in four years instead of getting a full, six-year term like most new senators. It was important that he was seen and heard across the state as often as possible.
Would I take the position, and if so, could I be in Washington to start in the next three weeks? I knew this was a generous offer, but I also knew it would be a large step for me, a major shift away from a state I loved to the nation’s capital. It also meant a shift away from my extended Hoosier family, to whom I was very close. This would be the hardest part about moving.
We prayed as a family about this wonderful offer; we discussed the upsides and downsides; and in my mind and heart, despite the tug toward home and the familiar, I knew being part of two pending hard-fought Senate elections in Indiana would be the faith and action slot I had envisioned for myself for much of my young adulthood.
Coats, during his near-decade in the House of Representatives, had built quite a reputation for the ideas in public policy he was most committed to. He was known as a leading fiscal conservative, a security and foreign policy hawk, and he was fully within the Reagan mantle as a young member of Congress dating from the first term of that great president in 1980. Above all in those years, Coats was known as a leading voice for cultural conservatism whose original election to the House from the old 4th District of northeast Indiana was a culmination, in part, of people of faith becoming newly and actively engaged in the political life of our state and nation.
The new senator was known in Congress as the primary defender and champion of the traditional family and the sanctity and dignity of every human life. From the beginning, Coats intentionally widened his gyre in a manner that would serve him and our country powerfully in all the years ahead, seeking to become a well-rounded leader.
His support of the Reagan defense buildup; his anticommunism; his defense of the Reagan tax cuts and entrepreneurial policies; his original membership in the House Opportunity Society; and his close friendship with the great Rep. Jack Kemp all made Coats an ideal candidate for the U.S. Senate when Quayle went to the White House.
From the beginning, it was Coats’ character that carried him up the invisible ladder of political and cultural influence. His colleagues knew him as prudent, winsome, generous, witty, competitive, athletic, yet humble by nature. His pleasant and unflappable temperament guided him in the way in which he chose to share his deeply-felt faith with others.
It is that faith that is at the heart of the man himself – utterly foundational to understanding everything he finds most important in life: his long marriage to Marsha, his boundless love for their three children, and the unmatched devotion he has for their many grandchildren. His exceptional respect, love and devotion to his wife and family are his pillars.
Coats is that rare public man – the same in private as he is in public, and utterly comfortable conducting himself on a large national and international stage with aplomb, an affable open-handedness, and always showing the same grace to those who agree and disagree with him.
As a result, he developed a kind of rare sixth-sense of spotting and then surrounding himself with a team of people who were both talented and committed to immutable first principles, and who, having gained a credential working with a man of his caliber, moved on to have influence in other important positions in the life of our nation – in business, in law, in journalism, in ministry, in public service and in the not-for-profit sector, and all with a common foundation working and learning from Coats day by day.
Those were halcyon days for young, earnest public servants. All of us who have worked for him owe a debt of gratitude to this good man. And on Jan. 20, when members of a new Congress step-up to be sworn-in and retiring members stand-down to commence the next chapter of their lives, Washington will somehow be a lesser place for his retirement.
Coats’ legacy in the public arena is a great one, and yet that legacy will not be primarily rooted in a decade in the House, nor 16 years in the Senate, nor in his tenure as the American Ambassador to Germany. Instead, Coats will enjoy a more enviable and rarified legacy: He will be remembered by those on the left and on the right as a statesman – that rare public servant who puts the good of the nation above any partisan consideration and all rooted in a categorical civility, genuineness, kindness and diplomacy.
The great British statesman Edmund Burke wrote: “magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; a great empire and little minds go ill together.” The foundation of Coats’ magnanimity is a mixture of ardent constitutional resolve, religious conviction and an impassioned patriotism.
Next to my own dad, there is no man I admire, love, respect or honor more than Dan Coats. I believe he will be remembered and venerated as one of the noble, great-souled public servants of the 20th and 21st centuries whose moral compass was always refreshingly due north – and all for the best and brightest reasons.
And who knows? Given the remarkable career in public life he’s had this far, perhaps there is yet another chapter to come for the senior senator from the great state of Indiana. Only Providence knows.
Timothy S. Goeglein, a Fort Wayne native, is senior adviser to the president and vice president of Focus on the Family.