George Nethercutt Jr. ’67 may not be in Congress anymore, but he still yearns to shorten the distance between Washington, D.C., and his home state of Washington.
The effort has kept the Spokane native busy since he left the House of Representatives in 2005, when he transformed a project from his office into the George Nethercutt Foundation, a nonprofit organization to promote civic literacy and foster leadership qualities.
“We as Americans just don’t know the story of our country. And it troubles me. As a citizen, it bothers me,” says Nethercutt as we meet one afternoon last fall in Seattle, where he’s visiting on business. He is legal counsel for the Lee & Hayes law firm in Spokane and BlueWater Strategies LLC, an energy, natural resources, and telecom lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. He is also on several boards of directors, including the Hecla Mining Company and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Still, he makes time to think about, talk about, and engage others in U.S. history and politics. As a lawyer, former congressman, and parent, Nethercutt doesn’t want to see his children or their peers become disengaged from public policy. So every summer for the past three years, his foundation has awarded a group of college students scholarships to attend courses in economics, political science, and constitutional history. Then the Nethercutt Fellows embark on an expense-paid 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., where they visit the White House and the Capitol and meet politicians, business representatives, and government employees.
Though a life-long Republican himself, Nethercutt says he tries to be non-partisan in choosing whom the students will visit. “We meet with Republicans and we meet with Democrats. That’s what we do,” he says. “I don’t proselytize to them. I just want to have their eyes open. I want them to learn about our system and participate.”
There is something about being in Washington, D.C., and walking in the footsteps of the nation’s founders, leaders, and decision-makers. Nethercutt knows that first-hand. When he was 28, he joined the staff of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, eventually becoming his chief of staff. It was a wonderful opportunity to live in Washington and a great way to learn the ropes, he says. “It was graduate school with pay,” he says. “And I loved working in that environment.”
In April of 1977, he and his wife Mary Beth moved back to Spokane to practice law and start a family. In private practice, he focused on corporate, estate and probate, and adoption law. He also participated in several community service organizations, including the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
His time in the capital helped him as a lawyer, and in 1994, “It helped me become a better candidate when I decided as a first-time office seeker to run,” he says. “I didn’t feel afraid of Washington, D.C. I felt I had some sensibilities about it and I wasn’t fearful of giving it a try.”
Nethercutt was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, unseating the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tom Foley. He served as a Congressman for 10 years.
Nethercutt says that every young American should have a chance to at least visit the nation’s capital, if not work there. With his foundation, Nethercutt’s focus is college students, including those from WSU, Gonzaga, Whitworth, and Eastern. “I tell students this will change your life,” he says.
He has also undertaken a video project called U.S. History by the Minute, in which he narrates brief clips on subjects that include Edward R. Murrow and War Correspondence, the Moon Landing, and Woodstock.
Most recently Nethercutt’s efforts have manifested in a history book titled In Tune with America: Our History in Song. He wanted to write about America’s history, and he wanted it to be accessible and inviting, so he settled on history with, as he calls it, “a musical twist.” He looked for what music punctuated each era, which songs spoke to the times. Combining his lists, he came up with nearly 80 songs that fit with key moments in the development of our country. “I knew I needed to cover the Depression, I knew I needed to cover the World Wars, I needed the cover the military,” he says. Using lyrics of songs, including the Beatles “Revolution,” the text wends its way from talking first about the cultural revolution of the 1960s back to the American Revolution and “Hail Columbia,” the un-official anthem for our young country. Using songs like “Shine on, Harvest Moon,” Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop (thinking about tomorrow),” and “Anchors Aweigh,” he matches the music with the history of the time it was created.
“It seemed to be the right combination to interest people of all ages, but specifically young people,” says Nethercutt. He co-wrote the book with his former press secretary Tom M. McArthur. “It was really fun to do it,” says Nethercutt. “I relearned a lot of history.”
Last July 4, USA Today published an editorial he co-wrote with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor calling for civic literacy to be a national priority. “This basic knowledge of our past is critical to our present and to our future if we are to continue to enjoy the freedoms envisioned by the Framers (of the Constitution),” they wrote.
It all boils down to having an informed and educated citizenry, says Nethercutt. If you don’t know how our justice system works, how can you be a juror? If you don’t know how our country works, how can you be an effective citizen? It’s a non-partisan issue, he says. “I’ve found that Democrats and Republicans and Independents all warm to this idea of civic literacy.”
On the web
In Tune with America: Our History in Song
Celebrate America by learning about her (editorial in USA Today co-written with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor)