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Children Are Watching

I remember the first time I watched political conventions on TV.

It was the summer of 1964 and I was 9 years old. That year the Republicans had a contentious primary fight as Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller battled for the nomination. Other candidates also emerged (William Scranton from my hometown, and Margaret Chase Smith) as moderates in the party tried to stop the conservative Goldwater. The Democrats did not have any question about who their candidate would be – Lyndon Johnson was completing the term after taking office following President Kennedy’s assassination and was unopposed – but he did have to select a vice president in Hubert Humphrey. And there was controversy over whether to seat an all-white Mississippi delegation or a mixed delegation that included black delegates.

I remember being completely captivated by it all. The pageantry, the celebrities, the speeches, the roll-call votes where minor local political celebrities relished in their moment in the spotlight and milked every second out of it (“Mr. Chairman. The delegates of the great state of whatever, where the sun shines bright on the golden fields of . . . . “). It all seemed so grand. The speakers seemed so polished and sure of themselves. The language so rousing. And public service and the work of government seemed to me like an important and, well, commendable business.

So I wonder what children are thinking as they watch the political conventions this year.

Are they getting the impression that their political leaders are good people, honorable people, people who they can trust with the most important responsibilities of governance? Or are they learning that some, if not all, who aspire to lead are villains, mean-spirited, untrustworthy, and dangerous? Do they think governance is important work performed by able men and women, or a dirty business performed by self-serving scoundrels? Most of all, are they learning that in a country as large as the United States there is room for more than one way of thinking, that being right doesn’t necessarily mean that people who disagree are wrong, and that there is more that unites us in this country than divides us?

Language is important. We need to be able to disagree, as the saying goes, without being disagreeable. The contest of ideas can be strenuous, but it doesn’t have to be nasty. We can demonstrate the differences in our positions without demonizing the other side. The United States was built on the principle that self-government is the work of the people and that in a large and diverse country, compromise is essential. I hope in this campaign going forward that our political leaders will keep that in mind.

Because children are watching.

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