My piece appeared on June 4, 2017 in the Pasadena Star News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Donnell Junior High School in Findlay, Ohio, was an old, musty building where I spent three years trying to stay awake and survive gym class. There was one class I liked — civics.
It appealed to my OCD tendencies, as the teacher had us make lists of the different parts of government. The three equal branches stuck with me: executive, legislative and judicial. I got the idea that knowing how the government worked was important.
Findlay was an all-American town: quiet, mostly white and middle class. Being raised by a Republican father and Democratic mother was about as controversial as it got. When I was 6, Mom’s brother, whom I called Jimmy Dear, came from Wisconsin to visit. Dad put a sign on our front door that proclaimed: “I like Ike.”
When Jimmy Dear arrived he fell back in mock horror and refused to enter our house. Jimmy Dear liked Democrat Adlai Stevenson. The standoff ended when Dad brought out a bottle of beer and Jimmy Dear decided to enter. I got the idea that political differences could be managed with humor and that people who disagreed could get along.
It was during my eighth-grade world history class on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, that a teacher came to the door of my classroom and said that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Over that weekend, I saw the photograph of the swearing in of President Lyndon Johnson on the airplane with the widowed first lady by his side in her blood-spattered pink suit, and watched the subsequent funeral and burial of JFK. A presidential assassination is a deep national wound, but the Constitution provided a quick succession of power.
I started college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in the fall of 1969. On Dec. 1 of that year, the Selective Service announced the lottery numbers to determine who would be drafted and sent to the very unpopular Vietnam War. Most of the 500 girls living in the dorm were glued to their radios to hear what number their boyfriends would get. Mine got lucky 13.
On May 4, 1970, the war protests on the campus at OU were becoming violent, and the National Guard was called in. After Guardsmen at Kent State opened fire on students, killing four, the governor closed all college campuses in Ohio and I was given 24 hours to leave.
By then I knew that politics had a direct impact on my life. I gave birth to my daughter three years later while my husband was at Fork Polk, La., in basic training. President Richard Nixon’s so-called secret plan to end the war didn’t exist. I understood that the president could send my loved ones to war.
Then came the Watergate scandal in the summer of 1973. I watched the hearings on television, and then Nixon’s pitiful farewell speech at the White House. In spite of Nixon’s attempts to pervert it, the Constitution prevailed, but a cynicism took hold that never went away.
After college I moved to Southern California, and I have made my home here for 35 years. I love the small-town feel of Monrovia, as it is reminiscent of my childhood, but I enjoy the cultural diversity the greater metropolitan area has to offer. The political life here is on a much larger scale. I have always been pleased that our Golden State elected two dynamic female senators.
On the national level, things are not so good.
Last year, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings to consider President Barack Obama’s pick to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia, our country fell down a rabbit hole. Democrats protested, but it didn’t resonate with the American people.
The Republican mantra was: Let the American people decide who the next Supreme Court justice should be. That is not what the Constitution says. It says that the president nominates a potential justice, the Senate holds hearings, and then it votes. McConnell knew that, but I’m afraid most Americans citizens didn’t.
Americans are woefully ignorant of the way our government is supposed to work. We see the man-on-the-street interviews in which people can’t name the three branches of government. They don’t know what country we fought against in the Revolutionary War or on what date the Declaration of Independence was signed. They can get hammered and eat too much at their barbeque on July 4, while remaining totally unaware of what that date means.
The presidential election of 2016 made Americans painfully aware of the circus our elections have become. One party put up 16 candidates who got picked off by a reality TV host. He lost the popular election by 3 million votes but managed to win the Electoral College.
It is painfully obvious that he can’t do the job. But that doesn’t matter to millions of my fellow countrymen, a group of rightfully angry and frustrated people, as long as he makes them feel better. The president is not our football coach — he leads our government’s executive branch.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative, is trying to address the lack of understanding of how our government and our democracy work. His organization is a national civics movement dedicated to reviving, elevating and enhancing civics education. The Dreyfuss Initiative gives me hope because it works through grassroots programs and curriculum enhancement.
I don’t think Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has given a moment’s thought to civics education for our youth. So it will have to come from the American people. The Dreyfuss Initative teaches students the structure of our government and helps them understand how important their participation is, starting with voting.
May Dreyfuss’s efforts succeed, for the sake of our nation. Its web address is thedreyfussinitiative.org.
Kathleen Vallee Stein