In a divided Congress, you don’t often see politicians from opposing parties share much more than a formal handshake on the House floor. So when two Texas congressmen—one a Republican, the other a Democrat—took a 1,600-mile road trip together and live-streamed it last March, the country took notice. Their journey continued this week as they won recognition as the recipients of the 2018 Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life.
In March 2017, airlines nationwide had cancelled hundreds of flights because a major snowstorm had hit the nation’s capital. El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Helotes Republican Will Hurd, both stuck in San Antonio, needed to get back to Washington for a House vote. So they jumped in a rented Chevy Impala and launched a bipartisan expedition through the South that they captured on Facebook Live, generating nearly 50,000 views and a whole lot of media attention. The impromptu road-trip-turned-rolling-town-hall gave the two politicians an opportunity to talk policy with not just each other, but also with the communities of people they encountered along the way.
“Every day it seems our news feeds pummel us, with accounts of conflict and contention and even hatred in the national political scene,” Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. said as he presented the award on July 17. “The willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, to argue with respect, all seem in short supply. And demonization seems increasingly to be the coin of the political realm. The Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life is a counterweight to incivility. It’s a reminder to us all, not only that it doesn’t have to be this way, but in fact, it is not always this way. That within our democracy there remain many good people, some of great national stature and others who toil in comparative anonymity, each who fight in the political arena with zeal and with passion, but who seek to do so with civility… This year’s winners of the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life are exactly the reminder we need.”
O’Rourke and Hurd were both present for the ceremony in Washington’s National Press Club, and spoke words of gratitude as they accepted the prize. When Hurd took the stage, he explained that when O’Rourke proposed the idea of a road trip, the Democrat never expected Hurd to say yes. And certainly neither of them expected their voyage to make national news. But during their 36 hours of travel time, Hurd said that they didn’t identify as Republicans or Democrats but as “just two dudes trying to get to work.” Even though some of their conversations were tough, Hurd said that their road trip helped them reach the conclusion that more unites them than divides them, and that the outpouring of support they were met with showed them that Americans are tired of bickering about their differences. “The road trip actually demonstrated the nation’s desire for civility and bipartisanship. We were literally on every news program for like that thirty hours,” Hurd said. “The bulk of the country wants to see us actually work together.”
O’Rourke called civility essential during a critical time in our nation’s history. “Beyond any small difference, partisanship or geography or really anything else, we [must] put this country first at the moment that it counts the most,” O’Rourke said, “when, in my opinion, every single thing we care about is on the line, nothing greater could be at stake. This is the moment to see one another as Americans before we see one another as Republicans or Democrats.”
During their road trip, O’Rourke and Hurd called into Texas Monthly and reassured senior editor R.G Ratcliffe that they’d make it to D.C. by the 6:30 p.m. scheduled vote (although it was clear that the clock was ticking faster than their speedometer could climb). When asked what deadline they were racing to meet, O’Rourke admitted to it being a weekly vote on non-controversial bills. “They are post office renamings. They’re, ‘everyone loves dogs and cats.’ You know easy, no-brainer, feel good bills,” O’Rourke said. “To my knowledge, there are no post offices in either of our districts to be renamed. But there’s nothing to worry about, because we’re going to be there.” During the trip, the two dealt with policy questions from Facebook viewers and weighed in their loves of donuts and Whataburger—and occasionally played songs requested by their audience. They also took calls, most notably from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who commended their bipartisan effort.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College, one of the nation’s oldest liberal arts schools, began annually presenting its Civility in Public Life prize in 2011 to “two public figures, one from the left and one from the right, who argue passionately but with civility for their beliefs.” Last year, the prize was presented to U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia for their great friendship despite opposing political perspectives. In 2016, the prize was presented to then Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Senator John McCain for their civility in the midst of a high-stakes presidential election. With a history of bigwig recipients, the honor of the Allegheny prize is no small feat. This year, the ceremony was hosted by the National Press Club and the award was presented by Allegheny College President Mullen and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and a 2012 Allegheny College honorary degree recipient.
“As a nation, elected officials and civilians alike must stop contributing to a corrosive political environment, and reestablish a climate of bipartisanship,” Hurd said in his closing words at the ceremony. “There is no better way to resist division than to be transparent, trust each other, and work together, because the future of our democratic state is at risk.”