Q&A with Senator Chris Coons '81

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

On a busy day booked with an MSNBC interview and a speaking engagement at the University of Delaware, U.S. Senator Chris
Coons ‘81
made time to sit down with Student Government Association President Rory Britt ‘18 for a broad conversation spanning favorite books, studying abroad, foreign policy—and pizza.

Rory Britt: What would you say is your favorite memory of Tower Hill? 
Sen. Coons: Going to football training camp the summer before my freshman year was a harrowing experience—it was a new school, a new culture, a new group of guys—but some of my closest friends through high school, college and into today came out of that experience.
 
What is your favorite book and why? 
My favorite book of all time? [laughs] That’s a long conversation. I spend a lot of time with the Bible. I do Bible Study daily. I dedicated a lot of time in divinity school studying it and trying to understand it and trying to get my head around it and trying to engage with it, both as scripture and as literature. 
 
If you’re asking for my favorite book, something I came across long after I came to Tower Hill called The Alexandria Quartet, which is a very complicated, engaging book, is sort of travel writing by a British author. It’s situated in Alexandria, Egypt, right at the end of the Second World War. Fascinating book. I recommend it. 
 
But if you’re asking my favorite Tower Hill book experience… I remember clear as day being taught The Great Gatsby. Now this may be reinforced by my high school-aged boys just going through The Great Gatsby in English, too. But I remember reading it and thinking, “OK, fine, got it. Bunch of parties, Long Island, 1920s.” And then going through class discussion going, “Oh… that’s what the green light at the end of the dock meant. Oh… that’s what the glasses and the billboard meant.” And seeing all the complexity in the layers, and really getting the excitement of what literary analysis can reveal about a piece of writing.

How do you think Tower Hill best prepared you and in what way? 
My transition from public school to Tower Hill was pretty rough because the expectations were so much higher: the expectations of my writing, of my analysis and of my class participation. When I got to Amherst College, my two freshman roommates were outstanding students from the largest public school in New Hampshire and one of the largest, most prominent Catholic schools in Philadelphia. As we prepared for our first final exams, I was really struck by how much better prepared I was than they were. I was better prepared to study, I was better prepared to write, I was better prepared to participate in class. I worked harder in high school than I did at Amherst College or at Yale Law School, and if I hadn’t had Tower Hill, I don’t think I would have made it through either. 
 
You studied chemistry, political science, religion as well as law. What made you finally click with politics and government? 
I studied chemistry and political science at Amherst, and the idea that I could find the harmony between two such disparate fields of inquiry came out of having had an excellent education at Tower Hill. My interest in chemistry as a major came partly out of Delaware. At the time that I grew up, the majority of the heads of household in the neighborhood where I grew up as a kid were DuPont chemical engineers, so I had a sense of its importance and excitement. But it was cemented by having an excellent chemistry teacher, Flo Williams, at Tower Hill who really helped make what is often an arcane and difficult subject really interesting and engaging. 
 
I had excellent science teachers all four years at Tower Hill. I also had Jim TenBroeck and Ed Hughes and some other teachers—fantastic teachers around history and government and political science. So I went to college thinking that I didn’t have to choose and that I could pursue really deep study in both science and humanities because I’d had that experience in high school.
 
I then later had an eight-year work experience where I was a lawyer for a materials-based science company, so I was continuing some of that work of translating the work of engineers, who were mostly materials scientists in chemistry, into either contracts or public advocacy or government relations work. 
 
The divinity was less of an obvious turn. I was going to Yale Law School, and I just had the unexpected blessing of a friend who said, “You know, you really ought to take this one class. You should audit this class at the div school.” And again I was fortunate enough to encounter a teacher like Flo Williams who was just riveting. I mean she could have taught anything, and it would have been fascinating. I ended up taking class after 
class and then ultimately getting a degree. 
 
So another big change that happened in college—and I take this with a grain of salt because it came from your Wikipedia page—is that was the time when you switched from being a Republican to becoming a Democrat. What propelled that change? 
I was from a Republican family. All of my grandparents were active Republicans. My parents were registered Republicans. Certainly Tower Hill was a very Republican institution at the time. And Ed Hughes, one of my favorite high school teachers, had urged me to get involved in local politics. I volunteered on Mike Castle ‘57’s campaign for Lieutenant Governor in 1980 and got to know Mike Harkins and a number of other folks. I interned actually for longtime U.S. Senator Bill Roth early on in my college years. 
 
The ‘80s were a time of great tension and change. And it’s a long story, but as a junior in college I spent a semester in Kenya at the University of Nairobi, and that was the time that the anti-apartheid movement—not just in the United States, but globally—had taken a lot of prominence. The United States was supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa, and I had a lot of difficult arguments with Kenyan university students about why does this country that supports freedom— and supports the Constitution, rule of law, human rights—why are you supporting this white, racist regime? It was because we were singularly focused on anti-Communism at the time, so it forced me to really re-think a lot of my core assumptions. 
 
My education at Amherst and the folks I met there from around our country and around the world also had an impact. I was an active member of campus Republicans my freshman, sophomore and some of my junior year, and then by my senior year I was active in the campus Democrats. 
 
Going back to your time in Africa: You spent a lot of time and have a lot of experience on the continent as a whole. What have learned from your time there? 
That’s a big question. I’ll tell you that the thing that was most striking to me in the spring of 1984 in the different homestays that I did across Kenya—with different families in Nairobi, in a tough neighborhood up in the desert with the Samburu—was just the shocking hospitality. The arms wide open, welcoming, warm, generous hospitality I experienced, which I really didn’t expect. I hadn’t had the experience of living with an African family and having them be so incredibly family focused and so incredibly open hearted. 

To this day, that’s often my experience. Now I think I’ve been to 28 African countries. I just went to Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia over Easter to visit refugee camps and see the famine, and then to advocate for what we can do to address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan and Somalia as well as Nigeria and other countries. It was a bipartisan trip. I traveled with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is the chairman of Foreign Relations. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about working on the U.S.-Africa relationships in my seven years is that it’s genuinely bipartisan. There are as many Republican senators passionate, engaged and interested in Africa as there are Democrats. And it’s a small subset. Out of the 100 senators, there are maybe a dozen who pay real attention to Africa or are engaged with it. I mean frankly there are a lot of other, more pressing crises in the world. There always seem to be, whether it’s in the Middle East with Syria, or Iran or North Korea, Russia, Ukraine… There are a lot of other things going on from a national security perspective. But I’m convinced that because of demographics, economics and other trends, Africa will be one of the most important continents of this century. 
 
I was wondering what your opinion was on the fact that the Chinese government and also Chinese companies have been investing enormous amounts of money in Africa, usurping both European and American influence on the continent as a whole? 
When I was the chair of the African Affairs subcommittee, which I was for my first four years, we issued two reports on this question—so for a fuller answer, I suggest you look at the 50-page report [laughs]. The bottom line is you’re absolutely right, in corporate board rooms all over the United States, CEOs and their teams of advisers are trying to figure out, “What’s the next China?” because 20 years ago, when I was in the private sector here in Delaware, China was not obviously the dominant Asian-Pacific economy that it is today. At that point, it wasn’t clear what China’s future trajectory was going to be. 
China has figured out what the next China will be: It’s Africa. And China is there. And in every country I’ve visited in seven years, our ambassador, the African head of state, their ministers of economics, imports or manufacturing—they all say, “Why aren’t Americans here more?” We are genuinely positively viewed across the continent of Africa. We have a very positive reputation. African countries want more trade with the United States. They want closer economic ties to the United States. But the Chinese show up, they’re there constantly and they’re offering loans in exchange for concessionary agreements where they get to extract natural resources. The United States used to be the major trading partner of the continent of Africa. Today, it’s China. The United States used to be the source of the most foreign direct investment in Africa. Today, it’s China. And I think we’ll look back on this decade and genuinely regret that we allowed our leadership role in Africa to be eclipsed. 
 
Do you believe that Tower Hill students, and really American students as a whole, should be embracing more multiculturalism and globalism—or should we more take a step back and look inward as well?
I absolutely think that education for global engagement has to begin early. I had the opportunity through my business experience to get to know well and work with people from around the world. And it genuinely challenged some of my worldview and some of my assumptions. The ways of doing business, the ways of engaging with each other, the ways of engaging with politics in society in Japan and China are very different than in the United States. Europeans are in some ways the closest to Americans in our culture and approach, but they’re still very different, and we’ve got the whole rest of the world—Africa, South America, Southeast Asia—to understand and try to engage with. 
 
I think being exposed to a broader curriculum, a broader range of students and a broader range of questions is the best way to prepare high school students to be successful in college and then to be successful leaders, whether it’s here in Delaware, nationally or internationally. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s consumers, markets, people and future are outside of the United States. We have had the luxury of living secured by two oceans and two very long land borders with very relatively friendly neighbors. So we’re 350 million people, we’re a relatively small percentage of the world’s total population, but we are still the dominant economic and political system. Solving the question of how we engage with the world in this digital age is the challenge that faces your generation. 

What do you think is one policy issue that is not being discussed enough?
Picking one would be hard. So to try to pick a theme that builds on what you were just asking me about, civility sounds almost too simple, but in a digital age, how do we hear each other? How do we genuinely respect each other across party differences, race differences, class differences, regional differences? The United States’ unique strength is that it is a country that has a significant number of people from virtually every major country on Earth. The United States is a melting pot of people—or perhaps the more common metaphor today is a salad bowl—of people from a wide range of languages, religions, cultural traditions. If we can figure out how to listen to each other, how to engage with each other and how to make our democracy work, we’ve got something that the rest of the world will want to emulate. 
 
So I sent out a message to some classmates asking for questions, and I’ve got one that really came out of left field: This is a question that has plagued not only the internet as a whole but also many late-night talk shows and local news stations. And that question is, do you believe that pineapple belongs on a pizza? 
Great question [laughs]. I’m not a big pineapple-on-pizza fan, personally. I’ve had Hawaiian pizza a couple times. What I like about it is it’s experimenting, it’s breaking the mold of what pizza is and ought to be, but it’s not on my menu—and if I were running a pizza shop, I wouldn’t have Hawaiian pizza on the menu either. 
 
What advice would you have for Tower Hill students looking to make their marks on this ever-changing, increasingly competitive world? 
When you leave and go to college, and one of the impressive things about Tower Hill is everybody goes to college, you have a chance to completely redefine yourself. In almost every case you’re the only person you know going to that college. It is an enormous opportunity. It’s a moment of freedom to figure out what parts of who you’ve been at Tower Hill you want to extend and continue, and what parts you want to leave behind. You can redefine who you are. Take it as the exciting opportunity that it is. 
 
What’s the most important thing for making a difference in the world? Get out and get into the world. I took three years between college and graduate school. Lots of parents push you really hard to go straight from college into graduate school into the workforce. The best thing you can learn in your early to mid-20s is what you don’t like and what you’re not good at. So if you go to New York and work in financial services for a year and discover, “You know, I really don’t like this and I’m not really good at it,” you just learned something of great value. If you go spend a year working with the homeless, as I did, and traveling around the country and staying in homeless shelters and discover, “You know, I’m actually really interested in this, this really excites me.” Even though it might not be the career that your parents had hoped for you, that’s a great thing. If you can figure out how to engage with the rest of the world that wasn’t represented at Tower Hill, that’s a big deal. So don’t limit yourself. Recognize you have unbelievable freedom, just a huge gift of freedom, and your parents and your teachers have invested immensely in giving you this opportunity, so take it. Take it and run with it. And enjoy the excitement that that means. 
 
I am eternally grateful for the education I got at Tower Hill. I had amazing teachers, I had great classmates, I had a wonderful experience. It wasn’t always perfect, but high school never is, and looking back on it, it was the foundation that made possible everything I’ve done since that was in any way successful. 


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