The Ringling College Library Association hosted former Utah governor Jon Huntsman at the Van Wezel on Monday, February 2 for two lectures, part of its 35-year-old Town Hall speakers’ series. Billed as “Sarasota’s Premier Lecture Series,” the program has brought in international luminaries such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush. Huntsman’s lectures focused on China; he was U.S. ambassador to that country from 2009-2011, had previously served as ambassador to Singapore, and ran for president in the 2012 election cycle.
Huntsman, 54, has been called “Every Democrat’s favorite Republican” for his moderate policies as Utah governor, including supporting same-sex civil unions and immigration reform against the majority opinion in his state. A pro-business and anti-tax conservative, the Mormon father of seven (he and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted one child from India and one from China) served a Mormon mission in Taiwan and speaks fluent Mandarin. He brought a casual and open lecture style to the capacity audience at the Van Wezel, telling off-the-cuff stories about his experiences as ambassador and how running for president affected his family. His lectures gave some political balance to the series, which had most recently hosted the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Of the coming 2016 presidential election cycle, Huntsman told the audience, “For those of you who haven’t run for president, I want to share with you what’s happening now in the heads of the long list of candidates who are thinking about [running], because we’ve been through it. The invisible primary is now underway and families are having tough conversations; it’s not an easy conversation to have with your kids, with your spouse, with your extended family. Secondly, your campaign team is sorting through every aspect of your past. [Lastly], the race for donors is on. You get the distinct impression that the run for president isn’t about ideas.”
Huntsman warned that major political contributions from single sources have had a negative effect on the U.S. political system in that elected officials feel tied to towing the party line, even against core principles. He also said that the pool of people who run for president must be expanded. “You stand on the debate stage and you look at everybody and what comes to mind is this: In a nation of 320 million people, entrepreneurs, leaders of higher education, great moms and dads, this is the best we can do? I go to different corners of our country and I am blown away by the level of talent, but nobody wants to do politics,” Huntsman said. “Nobody wants to run for the highest office in the land because it is painful, it’s invasive, you’re going to be tripped up and embarrassed and you may never recover. We should make sure that those who are on the way to the highest office in the land have a sense of direction for this country, a strategy, and not talking points, pre-cooked lines from the RNC or DNC.”
He spoke at length on the rise of China on the geopolitical stage, saying that outcome of the U.S.-China relationship will be what is written in the history books of the 21st century, and not our wars in the Middle East. Asked via email by a student in the Q&A session after the lecture about his fluency in Mandarin and understanding of Chinese culture as ambassador, Huntsman said, “We have a history of sometimes sending out people who don’t represent the best of our country. [Ambassadors are appointed] for reasons that are purely political, which is a really unfortunate thing.”
Huntsman did not address whether he will run for president in the coming cycle, though many pundits suspect he will. He blamed the failure of his last run on receiving endorsements from Michael Moore and Bill Clinton, which set the audience into a fit of laughter.
Sarasota Magazine also caught up with Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, just before her husband took the stage. An Orlando native, Mrs. Huntsman said, “Every time we come to Florida, I tell my husband we need to think about [moving here]. The air is good, the weather is good, the people are kind. Utah is obviously home to us as well, but we try to escape the cold. The older we get the more we want to be in the sunshine.”
RCLA’s next speaker will be the explorer Dan Buettner on February 23. The series sold out shortly after the 2015 schedule was announced.