I was trying to be a responsible teacher for our next generation of civic leaders.
As a professor of political science, I asked my students to watch last Tuesday’s presidential debate so we could later discuss policy contrasts between the candidates. But seconds after moderator Chris Wallace broached the first question, the verbal fireworks erupted. I immediately realized my premise was mistaken: There would be no rational discussion of policy.
We convened class the next morning on Zoom, and I invited students to share a word or phrase that described how the debate made them feel. I braced myself as their responses cascaded down the chat window: “disappointed,” “frustrated,” “angry,” “embarrassed,” “disheartened.”
Many of these young people are preparing to cast their first vote. On the whole, they’re a socially conscious generation that pays attention to politics. Some are considering careers in public service. They scrutinize their elders and leaders. Too often they’re uninspired—if not repulsed—by what they see.
I couldn’t let the moment pass without doing something to temper the mood of discouragement. So I told a personal story that I thought might offer some hopeful perspective.
As a 16 year old in the summer of 1974, I was riveted by the televised congressional hearings on the Watergate scandal, which ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon. The revelations of corruption and political skullduggery contradicted the sunny depictions of American democracy I had encountered in civics class. The hearings appeared headed toward a constitutional crisis. My disillusionment felt overpowering.
I sat down and wrote a letter to Lou Frey, the Republican congressman who then represented my hometown of Orlando, Florida. I expressed my dismay to Congressman Frey and asked whether it was possible to put faith in our elected leaders if politics was so dirty?
A couple of weeks later, I was sitting at home at the dinner table snacking on a sandwich when the phone rang. My mom answered, listened a moment, then handed me the phone. “Lou Frey wants to speak with you,” she said. Frey thanked me for my letter and encouraged me not to give up on democracy or public service. His pep talk made an impression. Rather than reject politics, I devoted myself to studying how the system works, in all of its inglorious imperfection.
Frey, who died last year at 85, agonized over taking a stand on Nixon’s fate. Ultimately, he publicly called for Nixon’s impeachment or resignation. Frey served 10 years in Congress. After leaving office, Frey worked tirelessly on behalf of civility and bipartisanship in politics. He and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat, co-sponsored a project to strengthen civics education in the state’s high schools. He also co-hosted a radio show with former Democratic state lawmaker Dick Batchelor that avoided partisan bickering and name-calling, but instead explored ways to find common ground.
I offered Frey’s story as an example to students that a life of public service and political engagement doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your integrity. But what about the system? After my brief conversation with Frey, Nixon’s resignation under bipartisan pressure offered some confirmation that American democracy was self-correcting. I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter, who brought ethics back into the center of American political life and has continued to serve as an exemplar of public service well into his 90s.
But today? As troubling as Watergate was in the ’70s, the modern challenges to democracy are far more serious. Our institutions strain under the weight of a norm-breaking president, historic levels of polarization, deep inequality, systemic racism and paralyzing gridlock. Sentimental memories from my own youth offer cold comfort. Calls for civility and bipartisanship ring hollow in the face of present realities.
Now I must draw my hope from my young students and their peers. They’re the energetic idealists taking to the streets. Organizing in defense of democracy. Striving to preserve what decency remains in the public square. It feels reassuring to be so inspired by my students similar to how, when I was their age, I looked up to Frey and Carter.
I only hope my students find that the malfunctioning system my generation bequeathed to them isn’t broken beyond repair.
David Skidmore, Professor of Political Science, Drake University, Des Moines Iowa
Reprinted from the Des Moines Register, October 5, 2020.