A Milwaukee patriot tackles America’s identity crisis

Michael Grebe is an American patriot. His resume of service to his beloved country is impeccable.

After graduating with honors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Grebe served in combat for the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and two Bronze Stars (one for valor).

Along the way in his patriotic journey, Grebe has served as president of the Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin System, as chairman of the Board of Visitors for the U.S. Military Academy, as a member of the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs and as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the U.S. Army.

An attorney by trade, Grebe rose to become the chairman and chief executive officer of the Foley & Lardner law firm in Milwaukee, where he concentrated his practice on corporate and financial law.

With that legal expertise, Grebe became a member of the Republican National Committee for 18 years and eventually served as the party’s general counsel.

Grebe is Milwaukee’s ultimate conservative insider. He has been a leader in the back rooms, devising political strategies, platforms and policies. He is on a first-name basis with the likes of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and presumptive nominee John McCain.

Grebe left his position atop Foley & Lardner to become the president and CEO of the conservative Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee in 2001. Under Grebe’s guidance, the foundation recently launched “E Pluribus Unum: The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity” (see accompanying story for more details about the project).

The Bradley Project was recently unveiled and is sparking a national discussion about America’s national identity at a moment in history when the country is more ethnically diverse than at anytime since the early 1900s. Grebe believes America’s national identity is in crisis, and he believes American businesses have a patriotic obligation to play a role in preserving that national identity, even as the global economy expands. Grebe recently discussed the Bradley Project and other topics with Small Business Times executive editor Steve Jagler. The following are excerpts from that interview.

SBT: This project began with a significant research component. The Bradley Foundation hired HarrisInteractive to conduct a survey of 2,421 American citizens. Of those surveyed, 84 percent believe there is a unique American national identity that is based on shared beliefs, values and culture. The survey also found that 63 percent believe that America’s shared national identity is becoming weaker. Tell me about how this project came about.

Grebe: “I think that we went into this, both at staff level and with our board, having a hunch that there was a problem out there in this area (of national identity). To the credit of the people who did the work, they began scientifically to confirm that yes, the American people think there is a problem in this area.”

SBT: I presume you are interested in driving a national discussion about this issue.

Grebe: “I think, yes, we are interested in motivating a national discussion or dialogue on this topic.”

SBT: You’ve done so much in your career. Tell me, how important is this project to you personally?

Grebe: “It’s very important to me personally. I’m delighted that our board agreed that it was important, and one thing we haven’t shared with you is we did fund this almost to the tune of $250,000 through an organization in Washington, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. It’s important to our foundation.”

SBT: One of the more interesting parts of the report points out that America is not a country that is perpetuated by ethnicity. It is a country that was founded and is passed along as an idea. Does that very fact make it more precarious than other civilizations?

Grebe: “I believe so, and I believe the report makes that statement. I think it does require constant nurturing by our citizens. I think the report makes the point, you have to begin with every generation, begin anew, and when I speak of generation, I don’t speak of just chronological. It’s also generations of immigrants who come here who really need the same educational opportunities.”

SBT: You know U.S. presidents personally. You’ve been in the back rooms when public policy issues are discussed and decided. To you, what does it mean to be an American?

Grebe: “Along with many of the respondents to the survey, I think the word that most comes to mind is freedom. We enjoy more personal freedom in this country than anyplace else in the world and at anytime in our history. So, to me, the first word that comes tomind is freedom.”

SBT: With this project, are you calling for a discussion preserving a national identity or are you calling for an enforced national identity, legislating for people to embrace someone else’s idea of what America is about?

Grebe: “The former. Now, the Bradley Foundation thinks we have a pretty good notion of what those principles ought to be. But we’re not suggesting that we have to enforce it on (people).”

SBT: But with the issue of language, you believe that there needs to be an “official” language in America, and that language needs to be English, and immigrants who come here need to learn English, right?

Grebe: “Yes. Definitely.”

SBT: Does language need to be an enforced mechanism of citizenship?

Grebe: “I don’t think you enforce it. What I think you do is reduce the government-based opportunities for people to avoid learning to speak English. I really believe that.”

SBT: I did not see specific references in the project’s report about the issue of illegal immigrants. Are illegal immigrants, from the Bradley Foundation’s point of view, a threat to the American national identity?

Grebe: “I’m not sure the Bradley Foundation has a position on this. We did not see the illegal immigration problem as part of this subject matter. We’re talking about the assimilation of immigrants once they’re here. I personally have concerns about illegal immigration, but they’re really not part and parcel of this report.”

SBT: The report tries to debunk the notion of someone aspiring to be a “citizen of the world.” Can you expand on that?

Grebe: “Well, we see some risks there. We see some risks developing in our legal system, where people increasingly look to apply international law to American justice. We see it in some educational settings, particularly in higher education, where the emphasis in certain programs, in social studies and history, stress being a global citizen rather than an American citizen. Now, we’re not trying to stop globalization. I mean, that’s a natural trend that is certainly going to accelerate, but we are concerned, yes, about people seeing themselves first as global citizens, rather than as American citizens.”

SBT: I want to come back to the issue of globalization. The report makes the point that American history is not effectively taught in public schools in this country. As children, we learn about American heroes, almost in fable-like fashion. You know, George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, and he did chop down that cherry tree, and all that nonsense, rather than learn about the historical, analytical narrative of American history in high school.

Grebe: “We think there’s an important role in history education of (about) American heroes. We think it’s important for young people to learn about individuals who were very important in this country’s history. We understand that they all had their foibles. Jefferson had slaves. He also did some wonderful things. One of the concerns we have about the teaching of American history right now is there’s just too much focus on the negative and not enough on the positive. We don’t see the balance.”

SBT: Back to the topic of globalization. The report states that American businesses must play a role in the preservation of the American idea, the American identity. Many of America’s largest multinational corporations view themselves as just that, multinational corporations. They shift jobs overseas to save labor costs, without regard to the impact on the American citizenry. It happens every day. Is your notion of preserving the national identity in conflict with the globalization of the economy?

Grebe: “I don’t think it’s in conflict. But speaking personally, I do think globalization makes it more difficult for American-based companies to remain loyal to the country where they were founded and to the system of democratic capitalism which gave them the freedom to succeed. There is, I think, a natural tension between a corporate entity’s loyalty to their stockholders to prosper financially, which drives them to maybe moving jobs overseas, and an allegiance to the system of democratic capitalism that helped them flourish in the first place. I think they can strike a balance between those things. I agree with the report’s notion that American businesses need to remember where they came from. Corporate philanthropy is one area, for instance. I was just looking at a report of (Racine-based) S.C. Johnson (& Sons Inc.). I was amazed at the level of their philanthropy.”

SBT: But I presume you would acknowledge that there are CEOs who will look you straight in the eye and say, “We serve our shareholders, and we’re going to maximize our bottom line. Period.” Even at the expense of the country.

Grebe: “Sure. Part of the problem, though, is over the years, we have developed a legislative and regulatory framework that is making it difficult for some American companies to do well in their home country.”

SBT: You’re calling for a national identity and an official language. Go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were people who came here who never learned English. They set up ethnic neighborhoods, businesses and schools, and they continued to speak Polish, Italian, German, Russian or whatever, and they never did really assimilate into America. Their next generations did, but they did not. The American identity overcame that. What’s different now?

Grebe: “It’s always dangerous to extrapolate from one’s personal experience, but we all do. My paternal grandparents spoke German in their home, but they insisted that their children learn to speak and write English, and they insisted that their children take advantage of every educational opportunity presented to them. So, my father spoke English. To come to an answer to your question, what may be different now is that through all of these multi-cultural programs of prolonged period of time into subsequent generations, where people don’t pick up English, they don’t become assimilated.”

SBT: Is your point that there are programs that help immigrants get by without assimilating into American culture?

Grebe: “Exactly.”

SBT: There have been times in American history when political dissent against the government, against the establishment, was patriotic … The civil rights movement, for example. Some would say that dissent against the Bush administration’s policies and the Iraq War is patriotic. The Bush administration has said, both domestically and abroad, “You’re either with us or against us.” I mean, look back to the Boston Tea Party. This country was founded on dissent. George Washington even warned against the creation of political parties. Look at how divided we are now as a nation. Within your discussion of the American national identity, is there room for dissent?

Grebe: “Absolutely. If there wasn’t room for it, then there wouldn’t be the America we’re talking about.”

SBT: The readers of our publication are the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Going forward, what do you want them to take away from this report? What can they be thinking about? What should they be thinking about, as it relates to the issue of a national identity crisis?

Grebe: “Well, among other things, we think a well-educated workforce must necessarily have a good understanding of the American identity and the American narrative in order to be fully participating citizens in their communities. I would think that the owners and managers of small businesses would have an interest in their employees being actively engaged in citizenship. It’s good for the community in which they work and prosper. And it’s good for their business.”

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