Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The World Affairs Council of San Antonio honored Texas House Speaker Joe Straus as its International Citizen of the Year on Thursday, as city leaders and guest speakers applauded the San Antonio Republican for his open-minded approach to political, civic, and global matters.
Addressing around 700 people who filled the Witte Museum's Mays Family Center, Straus made light of divisive, ideological politics.
Straus announced last fall that he would not seek re-election as the District 121 representative, capping a 13-year tenure in the Texas Legislature. Hardline conservatives have, over the years, criticized Straus' moderate, bipartisan tone. But Straus was unapologetic and even jovial about his philosophical outlook on politics and international affairs.
"Since I'm not running for re-election in this year's Republican primary, I can admit something I've kept well-hidden: I watch Morning Joe and not Fox and Friends," Straus joked, referencing the competing morning news shows on MSNBC and Fox News. The crowd, which included numerous past and present local civic, elected, business, and military leaders, laughed and applauded.
Striking a more serious tone, Straus thanked the World Affairs Council for the award and for promoting public understanding of global affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and civic participation in the global community.
"It's great to be with so many people who understand the world is a complex place, and who are not afraid to think deeply about its challenges," he said.
Straus maintained a level of levity, suggesting an organization like the World Affairs Council could educate some of his legislative colleagues who lack awareness of specific global issues.
"A couple of state senators could tell you all about a secret United Nations plot to take over the Alamo," he said, spurring howls of laughter.
"You think I'm joking. And I can assure you that your Legislature is closely watching the looming threat caused by what many of my colleagues consider today an evil empire – California."
All jokes aside, Straus said the World Affairs Council's service is invaluable to today's society.
"There's a lot to be concerned about: attacks on the rule of law, weakening of our democratic norms, and political assaults on long-trusted institutions," Straus said.
"Political leaders are all too eager to divide us against each other. There's too much focus on building walls, and not enough focus on building trust."
Straus lamented that divisive political rhetoric, in all levels of government, is preventing people from seeing "a lot of good happening in the world."
Without naming names, Straus cited an example of some good coming out of politically divisive behavior in an election year: "Some state leaders and their friends have tried to intimidate public school employees and discourage them from voting."
"Supporters of public education, to their credit, turned this attack into a positive. They've taken to social media to highlight the heroic ways teachers serve their students every day."
Straus said he learned of one teacher who washes the clothes of a student whose family lives in a car, adding that the teacher also packs snacks for the student when returning the clean clothes. He cited another example in which a teacher takes senior photos of high school students who cannot afford to pay for professional pictures.
"These people should not be silenced, they should be celebrated," Straus said, adding that he sees acts of local generosity daily, from piles of donations for hurricane victims to volunteers who help the homeless and battered women and children.
These acts of selflessness are acts of leadership, Straus said. "Leadership is important. Political and moral leadership matter, but our people are much better than our politics.
"Those of us who serve in office are great at taking credit, whether it's for economic growth or even if it's the fact that airplanes aren't crashing as often as they used to," he added in a dig at President Donald Trump.
In his final remarks at the dinner, Straus said citizens must work together for the greater benefit of their community and the world.
"It's been an honor to represent this community and, whether it's in some future office or in another capacity, I will continue to stand with you in service to the people of our city," he said.
World's Affairs Council officials and other speakers praised Straus as someone whose actions and words have reflected the organization's ideals.
"Our honoree tonight, Speaker Joe Straus, inspires us with his commitment, his talent and his passion for community and service," said Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El. "A leader who puts the good of all before the beliefs of a few, and favors dialogue, compromise, and community over partisan perspectives, may Joe Straus' contributions to San Antonio and the great state of Texas forever be a blessing to our community as a whole."
Local attorney and event co-chair Patrick Tobin shared Nathan's sentiment, calling Straus a respectful and principled leader who practices pragmatism and diplomacy in public discourse.
"Isn't that what we want in a leader"? Tobin asked. "Yet, in my opinion, some have wrongfully attacked him and his principles for being just that kind of leader. Through it all, he has stood firm in doing what he thinks is good for all."
Outgoing University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven introduced Straus as a model leader who has withstood attacks on his politics and characters in order to effectively represent his entire constituency and the state.
"No man has done more for the State of Texas in the past decade than Joe Straus," McRaven said. "Just as importantly, he has always represented the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas with dignity and resolve."
Presidential historian and author Jon Meacham, the event's keynote speaker, talked about the role of character in public service, adding that Straus and the World Affairs Council both embody the spirit of empathy and humility that everyone needs to better understand the world.
"A republic is only as good as the sum of its parts," Meacham said.
"Our capacity to give when our instinct is to take, to be open when our instinct is to be closed, is the hallmark of democratic progress. That's what our founding fathers were about, and that's what our best leaders and our country at our best moments are about."