Preface—The following interview was conducted in November 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Kenny Yasger, a political science student and student government Senator at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
I include this interview after much consideration as part of the blog version of “44” for two reasons. First, Mr. Yasger, a volunteer for John McCain in 2008— who in this interview identifies strongly as a staunch, religious conservative— argues passionately and knowledgeably on politics and party ideology, aptly enunciating a common conservative perspective, with noticeable assuredness, following Barack Obama’s victory that gives added depth to the moment. He would go on to become an Army Ranger, and serve as the first openly gay Ranger. In 2013 Mr. Yasger made news for asking the singer Katy Perry to the Ranger Ball for helping him come out, in part with her song “Wide Awake.” It is the interviewer’s humble view that his interview, more than the normal shedding of light on an individual’s political viewpoint in 2008, serves to also highlight the particular cultural revolutions occurring throughout this time, perhaps hinting at how difficult such openness could be, and obviously still is for so many today in 2016. This is my second reason for inclusion. I hope it will be seen in this light.
I was first a Mike Huckabee supporter, but after Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney dropped out—Mike Huckabee stayed in the race—I knew John McCain was going to win the Republican nomination. So I started supporting McCain from that point in time. As soon as John McCain won the nomination in March, that’s when I started campaigning, going to the offices in St. Louis, making phone calls for him.
What was it about Huckabee that you had liked?
He shared a lot more of my conservative core values than any of the other Republican nominees did. The biggest ones are social issues, like abortion, the sanctity of marriage. Those are two of the biggest ones that Huckabee was very strong on. And also one thing I really respected about him was something during one of the Republican debates. A question was asked evolution, and who believed in it versus creation—who didn’t believe in evolution whatsoever—and Mike Huckabee was the first to raise his hand. He’s not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. I believe of the nominees he raised his hand, and Tommy Thompson was another one.
I take it that you do not believe in evolution as well.
No, right. I believe with Huckabee completely.
During the primaries, before you supporter John McCain, were there things at that time you found criticizing about about his stances?
No, no. I liked McCain from the beginning. He’s had a great career in the U.S. Senate. I respect him. He was a P.O.W., served our military for twenty years. You don’t get more respect than that. It’s something not many people have been through or done. He is one of the more respectful men I have ever met in my life.
You met him?
Not an actual conversation, but by going to the rallies and volunteering for him I’ve shaken his hand. The most I’ve had is maybe standing with him for ten seconds.
Then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden, St. Louis, Oct. 2, 2008
What volunteer activities did you take part in?
I volunteered in the office in St. Louis and Maryland Heights. That was the official headquarters in St. Louis. I went to all the rallies. Went to the O’Fallon, Missouri rally when I met Huckabee, Romney, and McCain. And then Palin. I did volunteer at the Washington University debate, between Palin and Biden. I also met Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. Rudy Giuliani—I was never for him. For one, a mayor has never been president. Giuliani’s a very respected man, but he’s too liberal for me. He supports gun control, supports gay marriage, and supports abortion rights.
You have a little more of an insider’s story, concerning the Republican campaign then, than the average voter. Tell me about the mood of the supporters. Was there every any decline, as November neared, based on polling?
No. The supporters were always out there. They were always positive, they were always strongly behind John McCain. A lot of the supporters I met were former military—which tend to be conservative, anyway—and so many had been for McCain in 2000 when we ran against George Bush. So those people were die-hard John McCain supporters.
As far as a drop-off of belief that McCain could win, I never saw it. Never. Myself as well. My faith in his victory never dropped off. To this day I don’t understand how we elected who we did. Through the election day I was hopeful and optimistic, but yeah, towards nine o’clock you saw all these swing states going the other way.
Was there then a sort of shunning of polling data and state projections, leading up to that day?
Right, you’re talking about the media’s coverage of it. I’ve come to not listen to the media too much. I make my own analysis—I don’t just follow blindly. George W. Bush was down 7.5 points two weekends before the election with Kerry, and he won. George Herbert Walker Bush was down 13 points, I believe, to Clinton. Lost by two. I don’t listen to polls, because were you ever polled? Was I ever polled? No. And a lot of times conservatives do have a surge at the end.
Why do you feel we are not talking today about a President-elect McCain?
Because I believe America has an unfavorable opinion of George W. Bush, and no matter who the Republican nominee was, America was going to associate him with Bush. When I asked Barack Obama supporters why they didn’t like McCain, they’d say Bush this, Bush that. ‘Wait, Bush is running for a third term?’ I thought. ‘McCain was running, I didn’t know Bush was.’ The way they were talking made it sound like George Bush was running for a third term. Well, John McCain is not George Bush.
I am a big supporter of President Bush. I think he’s done a decent job. I don’t think he’s done as bad a job as the media and other people say he has. The first six years of his term America was running steady. And then everybody said, “Look at our deficit!” Well, two wars tend to do that to you. Whether it was for right or for wrong, we’ve got to finish the job.
Darfur protests in Central Park, New York City, September 2006
But… America’s shallow. I’m just going to be completely honest with you. America’s shallow. All these signs that say, “Free Darfur.” Darfur, Darfur. Yeah, I think something should be done too, but how long has the U.N. been there? If we go in militarily I don’t think we’d ever see those signs again. Free Darfur—people would be saying “Get out of Darfur.” That’s how America works. They’re in for the cause, until it costs too much money. I don’t think most of the American people worry about American soldiers’ lives more than they do the money.
During Clinton’s administration we were involved in a couple conflicts. We were involved in a war. So we didn’t spend all the money we’re spending now. During the Bush terms, and these two wars, we haven’t spent the same money as during the Clinton administration. Yet more troops died during the Clinton administration than the Bush administration. People don’t see that. Why? Because of the money being spent. We were involved in Bosnia—
More than 5,000 American soldiers were killed in the Nineties?*
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think it was total American lives: troops and civilians. Overseas, due to attacks.
If you count civilians don’t you have to count the other countries’ civilians, Iraqis?
Americans, I’m talking about. Because American people obviously don’t care about Iraqi civilians, or they would have seen that Saddam Hussein killed 30,000. Brutally. Just because they disagreed with him. We say we don’t want to see that again, that we won’t let genocide happen again. Yet it was happening right under the U.N.’s nose. And what was the U.N. doing about it? Nothing. So are we going to just sit back and let Saddam Hussein do whatever he wants?
In the Eighties we did. When he was an ally against Iran.
That was a mistake we made. And did Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? Maybe not when we went over there, but at some point in time had he? Yeah. We gave them to him to fight Iran. When I tell that to people, a lot of them, it’s like taking candy from a baby. Or Indian-trading. We gave them to him, so now we’re just going to take them away? We made a mistake, should we not try to take them away? We made a mistake, should we not try to correct that mistake?
Future Defense Secretary meeting Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, December, 1983.
Beyond Obama and McCain, the G.O.P—also its House and Senate seats—how does it move forward, where does the party go from here? It is chalked up to a bad year, but does there need to be rethinking of direction and platform?
No, no. I was listening to one so-called conservative Republican on a radio show, and they asked, “What do you think is wrong with the Republican party?” He said, “God.”
Funny you say that. The day we were originally to have met there was a column by Kathleen Parker, of the Washington Post, who stressed the need for a break from the Religious Right. I had forgotten about that.
No. I don’t consider myself a Republican. I am a conservative American, not a Republican. I don’t associate myself with the party. Rudy Giuliani is in the Republican party, but he is not conservative whatsoever, in a lot of social issues. Conservative social issues are at the core of the Republican party. It has been in the past, and it needs to stay that way. People are saying that’s what’s wrong with the Republican party and I don’t agree.
What is the difference between a Republican and a conservative? For many it is used synonymously.
The Republican party and conservatives are alike on many issues. And the Republicans are very conservative, compared to the Democratic party. National security is a big one. Welfare is another big issue—limited welfare is what I mean. Limited government. That is the Republican party.
Conservative views are I honestly believe the same, except the social issues have to be there too. Limited gun control. Opposition to abortion is a conservative core value that Republicans have held in the past. It seems that they are getting away from all this, the Republicans, if they are saying God is what’s wrong with the Republican party, I completely disagree.
It’s calculated that with current immigration trends, by 2050, whites, like you and I, will assume a minority status. Given the current racial makeup of the Republican party, do steps need to be taken to broaden the party’s appeal to wider groups?
For one, what’s really not helping the party expand right now is that everyone isquestioning—what their values are, what they should be. You need to not question it; you need to come together. We need to stick with the conservation values that made the Republican party what it is today.
But people are questioning it. Now people are saying, “Well, the world’s changing. We need to change with it.” No, we don’t. The Republican party is being split at its roots because of this questioning, and you start doing that people are going to start falling off and going the other way. If we came together, and stay true to our values, people are are going to respect that. Whether they agree or not, they’ll respect and stick with you due to the fact, just like Mike Huckabee, you’re willing to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what people think.
Education of our history and our core is needed. The history of what this party stands for. Okay, the Democratic party changed. It did change. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King—I honestly believe with their values they would not be in the Democratic party today. They were pro-life, the were pro-religion. They were pro-God.
I’m reading this book called God in Politics, and it’s very interesting. One of my favorite quotes is my Martin Luther King. He was talking about religion—and this is also why people are comparing Barack Obama to Martin Luther King way too much. Obama is not Dr. King. Paraphrasing King said, “I do not conform to the world, answer to a higher power.” He was talking about religion.
And the book also talked about the Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin, in front of Second Continental Congress, in the heat of conversation, said “How can God notice every time a sparrow falls, but a nation be built without his hand?” He said, Without God in this political building we will be as successful as the builders of the tower of Babel.”** And I really thought that was interesting. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington—all spoke and said without God a nation cannot survive.
That is what I believe the Republican party’s core values when they were established in the 1850′s. They were the values of the Founding Fathers believed in, and it is what makes the Republican party what it is today.
The Republican party was very radical at the time of its creation. A segment was later called the Radical Republicans. Being branded “Black Republicans” they sought great institutional change—slavery, the conduct of Reconstruction—at a time when Southern Democrats, conservatively, wanted to hold onto a “cherished,” long-held heritage. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act that the great party swap took place, Republicans assuming a traditional—conservative—platform.
What I consider conservative comes from religion. I am a very religious person, and I do believe that we cannot survive without God. When I say “conservative” I mean Biblically conservative. Slavery is not Biblical. There is slavery in the Bible, but it is not condoned.
What have you thought of Obama’s appointments so far?
I was talking to a liberal friend of mine about this. And I have to say that retaining Robert Gates as the Secretary of Defense was a great choice. Jim Jones [for National Security Advisor], great choice. In a time of war I think those were two amazing choices.
That tells me that during the primaries, and during the election, Barack Obama all along was playing politics. He’s right now making a lot of left-wing people who voted for him very upset. A lot of left-wingers are ticked off at those two choices, especially since Gates was part of the Bush administration. Left-winders hate George Bush, so why would you keep anyone from his team? Now I don’t agree with some of the other appointments, but two some me that he is more moderate than I thought he was. And he’s taking his weakness—I believe national security is a big weakness he has, as well as foreign policy—and he’s putting people in those positions that have been there and know what they are doing. It shows he is willing to reach party lines.
You’re studying political science. What new perspectives have your chosen field given you that the guy on the street might not have?
Right now I am taking a class about state and local politics. And there were a lot of things about state government that I had no idea about. For one, I didn’t know that the governors and lieutenant governors don’t run together in most states, if any.
For presidential elections, I knew about primaries, but I didn’t know about caucuses, open or closed caucuses. A caucus lasts all weekend and few people participate in them because it involved so much time and process. A lot of things I already knew, like Eisenhower getting the idea for the interstate system from Hitler’s Autobahn.
Perhaps the interstate system was Hitler’s Robert Gates—the good idea you keep. What do you want to use your education for?
I’m in R.O.T.C., so first I am going into the Army, but some day I hope to be an elected official. What kind yet I’m not exactly sure.
Have you traveled?
My dad was in the Air Force, so I’ve been all over the place, but I have been to France and England. They were both brief. In 2004 I was in a Texas Children’s Choir that was invited to sing at the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We were the only American group to go.
Before we went to Normandy to sing we played in Paris for four days. The biggest impression I got of Paris was they hated not just America, but hating George Bush. Hated him as in a group was advertising assassinating him when he himself was there. There were fliers urging to not allow the “facist” in the country. They held rallies. That was the biggest thing I took away from France, which away from France, which I didn’t like too much.
Wherever I traveled, from Scotland to Russia to Africa, they first wanted to know if I knew anyone famous, like Brad Pitt. The question was always my opinion of George Bush. But it was always asked for getting to know me as an American, you know? They were honestly curious for my native thoughts.
My dad went to Korea for a year, and she said along with what’s going on in Iraq, it seemed that the educated younger generation and the older generation know why America is still in South Korea. And he said they were okay with them being there. And they, Koreans, also agree with the reason we’re in Iraq. That’s the impression he got. But a lot of the younger Korean generation, unlike America’s youth—and I’m being sarcastic here—protest America being in South Korea. They, young Americans, think America’s trying to occupy South Korea. They think America’s trying to occupy Iraq. They don’t think we should to the “police” of the world. But a lot of the older generation, they know why we are in South Korea and Iraq.
We’re in Iraq to liberate all those people because they deserve all the freedoms we have over here. They don’t need to be ruled by a dictator who doesn’t give them any rights. They love America, South Koreans do. And freedom in general. My dad, who taught English there, said they were the most enthusiastic students. They were so interested by American culture and in English. Most, if not all of them, wanted to come to America one day, if just for a visit.
What formed your political views, your thought system?
For one, I cannot say I just got my views from my parents. I am much more politically involved than either . I actually had to make them register to vote when they moved here to Illinois. They just didn’t care about politics all that much. Having been in the Air Force my dad knows to stay out of it. Which I didn’t agree with. You can be involved without being outspoken.
The biggest factor was not one big specific event. It was chuch. My conservative values are what I base my political beliefs on. And I believe my faith in God, my salvation, and my life in the church has shaped my views. In begins with social issues, and it branches from there.
What goes through your mind when you hear the term “Christian liberal?”
I don’t agree. As a Christian—and a lot of people will disagree with me on this—I believe on of the biggest factors to consider when voting, as of today, is abortion. Why do I say that? Because no matter their views on anything else, this country was created by the grace of God. Creation as a result of the Revolutionary War. Isit realistic that the revolutionary army could have beaten Great Britain? Was that a realistic view? No. By the grace of God he allowed them the strength to fight the British Army. And the basis of this country is religion and God.
But we have gone away from that. Yet I do feel that we shouldn’t vote as American citizens if you are Christian. You should vote as a Christian. Biblically. By Biblical standards. And if you don’t choose the Bible then God will not allow for the country to improve. And right now abortion is the biggest Biblical issue. The Democratic party is just completely —it is murder. Abortion is murder. I don’t care; life begins at conception. And all those women are like, “It’s my body, I can do what I’d like.” No it’s not. When you chose to have sex and get pregnant, it came to have its own body. It’s not your body anymore. You don’t have the right to murder.
I’ve known two girls in my church that were raped, and they both kept the babies. I can’t speak for them, but if they did it I could think anyone could.
Along somewhat similar lines, during the election Barack Obama was called “Islamic” or “Arab.”
I do believe Obama is a Christian. I don’t believe he is a Muslim or an Islamist, whatever. That’s over the top extreme. But as to being a Christian, I do believe a Christian can be a Democrat, but it may mean they are voting incorrectly on issues. You’re not doing your duty as a Christian.
In what way do you disagree with the conservative philosophy?
With the book God and Politics I have actually just changed my views on something. Welfare. A lot of Republicans and conservatives want it disbanded and gone. They want welfare out because when Franklin Roosevelt setup welfare it was meant as only a ten-year program. Just to get us out of the Depression. And it was supposed to be gone after ten years. But America kept welfare going because people then relied on it. And I disagree now with the idea that it should be ended. We need to take care of the poor. Which I didn’t know that Bible talked about until God and Politics. I mean I do know about charity, but God and Politics gave verses that talked about the government’s role in helping the poor out.
I believe that most aid should be through the church, but I have come to think the government has an obligation to help the poor.
The feeding on the five thousand as a welfare handout?
Exactly. But welfare should be limited. It shouldn’t be given out so freely. Because you have to admit there are a lot of people who abuse the program.
Still, there’s a girl from class I know that is living in a run-down apartment with her husband and her three-year old son. The son is disabled. She works overtime as a bus driver every week to pay the bills while also going to school. And her husband works overtime. They receive welfare, but if she makes $40 more a month she’ll be taken off the program.
She needs welfare. They need the program. They are using it as intended. Trying to better your life. She’s going to school while working to support a family. I told her thank you, you are the poster person of what we should be as a nation: hardworking, with good core values. She works so hard for her disabled son, for the weekly therapy on his leg.
At the same time the girl’s mother is a mail carrier, who knows what welfare checks look like. She delivers them some times to amazing high-rise penthouses. Nice places getting welfare when her daughter is living here in a dump apartment just getting by. So people are abusing the program. Regulate it, monitor it, and if they deserve it fine. If not, take them off. I don’t care what happens to them. That may sound harsh, but if others aren’t living to work like she is they don’t deserve it. They then deserve to be living on the streets.
What are your plans for the service?
I want to be an MP, military police. I either want to go in four years and then teach history—I’ve always loved history—or stay in for twenty years. Then I see myself returning here and running for a local office.
There’s something I’m curious about. You are adamant about the sanctity of life, yet are about to join the Army. I’m thinking of the saying, “All children are special.” Yet, as George Carlin mused, we never say “All adults are special.” At some point I guess it’s thought that as we age we lose our specialness in a way. I bring this up because, in a similar way, a child’s life seems to held with special regard that adults may not be. But one day that child will also grow old enough to be killed—an adult you can go to war with. At what age then is it okay to kill that person? It honestly confuses me.
I guess at the point of understanding. As it depends on the cause you’re fighting for. A baby hasn’t done anything wrong, so you can’t punish it for what it hasn’t done. But you can punish an understanding, competent adult for their actions.
What conservative commentators are getting to the truth of the moment, and which in your opinion are a drag on the Republican party?
I guess I’m in the minority of the Republican party because concerning Rush Limbaugh. I don’t like him. And then there’s one more.. Michael Savage. I don’t listen to his show.
I love Sean Hannity. I love Laura Ingram. They are conservatives who—due to religion being a big factor for me—I believe should talk to anyone regardless of their views or opinions. You need to show them love. Jesus never badmouthed anybody. He loved everybody and hoped to convert them to Christianity. If you want to attract people to the Republican party you can’t go about screaming your head off and going crazy. It’s going to scare people away. I think Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram do a great job explaining their points, but doing it in a civilized, conservative way. Then people will listen and might be interested in what’s being said.
*This might also be in reference to a forwarded email that circulated during 2007–2008. 7,500 troops died during Bill Clinton’s term, from 1993–2001. This includes all possible causes—also outside of combat—such as illness, training accidents, and suicide. The same all-inclusive total for George W. Bush is over 11,000. But this should not be surprising when considering the “normal” amount of military loss over eight years—such as the 17,201 total during Reagan’s tenure— in addition to the 5,000-plus combat-related “War on Terror” causalities from 2001–2009.
**paraphrased from Benjamin Franklin, Constitutional Convention Address on Prayer, Philadelphia, PA, 1787
***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here: