John J. Waters

2023 Lincoln Fellow

John J. Waters is an attorney and writer from Nebraska. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he was commissioned into the U.S. Marine Corps and served as a scout sniper platoon commander and intelligence officer on deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Horn of Africa. After leaving the Marines, Mr. Waters served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Weapons.

What is your current position?

I’m a lawyer. I do art as much as I can.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

I was a second-class Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and contemplating what I would do as a commissioned officer, when I picked up a book called The Nightingale’s Song by Bob Timberg. The book is about Annapolis, Vietnam and politics through the lives of several distinguished graduates, including John McCain, Oliver North, Jim Webb and others. I was moved by the story of Webb most of all, by his intensity, sacrifice, leadership, and the artistic sensibility that compelled him to write Fields of Fire while a law student after leaving the Marines. So, I commissioned as a Marine officer … then I went to law school and wrote a novel.  

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a book about how people experience combat – how American battle explains American character. I’m also developing something about Nebraska, which I call Project 2067.

How did you hear about the Claremont Institute?

David DesRosiers of RealClearPolitics introduced me to the Claremont Institute. David had been a Publius Fellow. He told me I was a “sniper with a clear eye for the truth,” and that I should set my sights on a Lincoln Fellowship. I started applying and didn’t stop until they accepted me.  

What is your fondest memory of the Claremont Institute?

Toward the end of the program, I noticed a man milling around the patio of our hotel wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. I didn’t know what to think of seeing John Yoo dressed so casually, as if he were just another person on vacation. I had written a paper in law school about enhanced interrogation and spent long enough thinking about Yoo’s excellent book War by Other Means to recognize he is intellectually formidable, tenaciously detail-oriented in defending his administration’s most significant decisions in the war on terror. His arguments were convincing, and unrelenting. When our class began later that afternoon, Yoo had shed the beachy attire and donned a pressed white shirt, tie and blue sport coat. His gold cufflinks sparkled under the lights. Rather than lecture, he worked his way around the classroom table, hurling questions like lightning bolts at one Fellow after another. It was thrilling. Then it was my turn. I can’t remember what Yoo asked, but I was awestruck and speechless. I couldn’t think of anything to say. “I’ll get you to answer before we’re done!” Yoo said, fixating on me. I never managed to give him an answer. It’s become a very fond memory, to have been interrogated that afternoon by Professor Yoo.

There are all sorts of educational programs out there for current and rising conservative professionals. What do you think makes the Claremont Institute’s Fellowships unique?

Mission. The Institute has an unconditional belief in the idealism of America’s experiment in self-government, and takes this belief into the public square. Claremont sends to a prospective Fellow a box the size of a casket filled with books by Aristotle, the Founders, Harry Jaffa, C.S. Lewis, John Marini and Angelo Codevilla, speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn, and much more. Claremont asks you to read all of it, not for the purpose of taking a test or gaining a credential, but to debate the meaning of the work. Then they ask you to hold up that genius against new modes of fashionable thought and cynicism, all the slogans and marketing and pseudo-intellectual hucksterism that deconstructs or warps American genius in favor of entertainment and market efficiency. More than other organizations, Claremont defaces those false currencies and revisionist histories that undermine American genius. The program’s spirit is independent. Its speech is audacious. Claremont Fellows and scholars need very few things to sustain themselves … they do love a crowd, though. 

If you could have a fireside chat with an American Founder, or any great thinker, who would it be, why, and what would you discuss?

I would spend more time with John Marini, whom I met at the Lincoln Fellowship. In front of a classroom, in the back of the hospitality suite or on the patio during lunch, Marini kept talking about the “in-dee-vidual.” He sounded it out that way and held up his fingers as if to touch this tiny, lonely, insignificant person living somewhere inside the mass of modern bureaucracy. A simple person in an overcomplicated world. Marini told us that Plato understood the soul poetically, and it seems that Marini does as well. If, like Robert Graves, I had a richer imagination for history, I might picture myself having a conversation on tragedy with Aeschylus.

Who was more important for their time, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? Why?

An impossible question. A historian told me that after the Civil War, many homes had three pictures on the wall: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. Father, savior and defender. We could debate who else to add since then, but those three, at least, have secured their places.

What would the artifact be, if you could hold one piece of history from the early founding of the United States and why?

A dark blue wool coat of a soldier in the Continental Army. The theme of an infantryman is suffering pain, discomfort, hunger, heat and cold. Either you know how this feels or you don’t. Ordinary foot soldiers in the Continental Army performed heroically, and they deserve whatever we can give their memory.

What qualities do you believe will make impressive leadership in this century and why?

Character and excellence. Both must be cultivated, slowly and honestly, preferably someplace far away from the seat of power, where all the temptations and corruptions that come with a proximity to power make it difficult to stay the course. I want my children to be brilliant, athletic, charismatic, and proud. Most of all, I want them to have faith.

What is the greatest challenge facing the United States military?

Civilians who defer too much to military leaders. We allow our general officers and admirals to answer too many big questions, to project their own plans or ambitions on our foreign policy. “Give me just a little more time,” these officers said time and again during the war in Afghanistan. Their pride and self-deception mingle with a lack of imagination; we ask too much of them. I’ll contrast what I said about our seniormost commissioned officers with the strength and seriousness of our noncommissioned officers, who are the best in history.        

What regimen do you follow in the writing process?

When I think of, hear or read something that strikes me, I write it down. Later, I pull out a blank sheet of paper, set a timer for 20 minutes, and write as much as I can as quickly as I can about whatever it was that struck me. Sometime later, I’ll touch up that writing by hand before transferring the whole thing into Microsoft Word, typing and reading and typing again until I’m just moving periods around. I’m more or less done at that point. 

What would the subject be, if you were to write an editorial on one pertinent topic and why?

A father leaves his family. A wife leaves her husband. A child grows up and stops coming home. Your college’s new football coach promises a turnaround, a championship, then leaves for the bigger school after one season. You forget old friends; you don’t notice the people around you; you stop saying hello to strangers. My subject is abandonment, how we leave people behind.

What did you discover were the greatest challenges and/or rewards in writing your recent novel, River City One?

I discovered how much I loved doing it. The greatest challenge is explaining why I did it.  

What books are you currently reading?

Agamemnon by Aeschylus. He was the father of Greek tragedy but wanted to be remembered for having fought to defend Athens at the Battle of Marathon. 

What book, film, or speech has left a lasting impression with you and why?

I have been thinking about Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat. Schnabel is a big artist. He was big in the 1980s. He makes big oil paintings that have sold for big money. He lives in a big, pink building in the West Village. The art critic Robert Hughes said very pointed things about Schnabel’s work in the 1980s, and I think that hurt him but also motivated him to conceive more serious ambitions. Schnabel was advising another filmmaker on this project about his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, when he realized the story was so intricate and personal that he had to be responsible, and so he became a film director for the first time. There’s a scene early on where Jean-Michel is offered his first studio space in the SoHo basement of gallerist Anina Nosei. He flips on the lights and it’s a generous space. He’s alone, canvas laid out on the floor, paints and paintbrushes there for him; everything he’s never had, all the possibilities we know he’ll soon realize. The song “Flamenco Sketches” by Miles Davis plays and I’m thinking about everything that is possible through art and what I know will happen to Jean-Michel. Those few seconds make Schnabel an unforgettable artist. Our country keeps creating unforgettable, unclassifiable people like Schnabel and Basquiat, people who leave a mark and have an affinity for one another.

Do you have a favorite quote, and if so would you share?

“Never throw a day away.” This is something I heard from my wife’s late-grandfather. He was a sailor in the Pacific during World War II.  

What is the most distinctive attribute/character of the people in the state where you grew up that you genuinely admire?

It’s winter in Nebraska, when the ground turns so cold and hard it might bruise your feet. Willa Cather called Nebraska the Iron Country in winter. The modern slogan for Nebraska invented by business people and politicians is the “Good Life,” but that’s never been true. Our motto should be the “Hard Life.” People are obsessed with the weather because somewhere in their DNA is the knowledge that they must fear nature. Fires, floods, tornadoes, drought, plagues of grasshoppers that denuded corn fields in minutes. Rural populations in states like Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee sang songs, made moonshine and told stories about their ancestors or where they came from. But Nebraska didn’t have those states’ trees, or mountains or pleasing weather to soften the people who chose to live there (along with Nebraskans being loath to draw attention to themselves). Nebraska people are some of the hardest people in America. We know how to endure.

What brings you peace of mind at the end of a stress filled day?

Having a conversation with my wife after our kids are asleep.

And just because … where do you see yourself in ten years?