When talking politics: Discuss substantive issues with children

For the first time since John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a generation of young people has become passionate about the electoral process. They have registered to vote in record numbers and influenced the direction of the campaign. Unfortunately, the protracted Democratic primary with all its mudslinging and the omnipresent negativity has the possibility of disenchanting the young.

David Gergen, distinguished professor of public service at Harvard and advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, cautions, “Rarely have I seen in any presidential race stretching back more than 30 years as much of a disconnect between the world of the candidates and the rest of the world. It may sometimes feel like good fun and games to have all this adolescent squabbling, but the day is coming when we will need a strong, mature adult sworn in as our next president.” All one needs to do is turn on the television, and a candidate or surrogate begins attacking the other’s credibility. These attacks, no matter how far fetched, are brought up again and again and imprinted on the minds of voters. Barack Obama’s middle name, his religion, pastor and the Arugula omelet he ordered in Iowa have not escaped scrutiny.

Hillary Clinton has been postured as a doyenne of working class America, slugging down a whiskey, using the coffee machine at a gasoline station pit stop and broadcasting her childhood experiences of shooting ducks with her grandfather in Pennsylvania. YouTube has been inundated with a plethora of clips favoring a particular candidate or smearing another. We have Hillary Clinton compared to Glenn Close in the film “Fatal Attraction,” Barack Obama compared to Osama Bin Laden and the presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, satirized with a version of the song “Its Raining Men.”

All of the above has nothing to do with substantive issues or the myriad of problems that will face our next president. Although parents may be of a particular persuasion, the role of the classroom teachers is to maintain neutrality while encouraging debate that may result in heated discussions. It is important to discuss issues of the day and also to reflect on the lives of the prospective candidates before the spotlight was turned on them.

Clinton, Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, rather than stepping into lucrative positions that could have been theirs for the asking, made a commitment to public — or in the case of McCain, military — service. Hillary Rodham Clinton, always a strong student and the product of an outstanding education, became an advocate for children after graduating from the all women’s Wellesley College and Yale Law School. Clinton spent approximately 10 months working for the Children’s Defense Fund under a grant that she herself secured. This experience paved the way for a longstanding commitment to advocacy for children and early education in particular.

After graduating from Columbia University in 1985, Barack Obama decided to become a community organizer accepting a paltry salary rather then seeking the high-paying position he might well have secured. He spent three years earning a salary of $13,000, driving a $2,000 car and working in Chicago’s crime ridden Altgeld Gardens public housing project.

Obama credits the experience as being life changing and pivotal in determining his commitment to a career in public service. Furthermore, he finished near the top of his Harvard law class, then rejected big firms’ salaries to work as a community organizer in Southside Chicago. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, has a better-known trajectory. Following his family’s tradition, John McCain graduated from the United States Naval Academy and immediately reported for combat duty in Vietnam.

As a naval aviator, he flew attack aircraft over North Vietnam and was shot down on his 23rd mission. McCain was badly injured and captured as a prisoner of war. He spent 5_ years in deplorable conditions at a prison in central Hanoi, which became known as the Hanoi Hilton.

After his captivity ended, he chose to devote his life to a career in government as the distinguished senator from Arizona. Whatever the eventual outcome of this historic political season, one cannot help but applaud the choices each candidate made long before entering the rough and tumble world of politics. Those choices may best inspire the young to become and remain engaged being committed to living purposeful lives.

Giving back to others, serving, be it in impoverished communities, with not-for profit organizations and/or in the armed services lays the groundwork for a life that is enriched by its compassion towards others. Although the attack ads are likely to continue, how much better to move above the mire, discussing substantive issues and encouraging others to do so as well.