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An old timer's attempt to persuade a younger man to give voting a try

August 26, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

When I asked readers last week to tell young Michael Myers why he ought to vote, I knew I'd have to take a crack at it myself.

The thing that makes it difficult is that he's college-educated, intelligent and not the sort of gloom-and-doom person who says "Politicians are all crooks" and really believes it.

Truth is, I feel his frustrations. I've seen the bright-eyed young reformers take office and get ground down by the system. After six months in office they're making speeches defending the same institutions they promised to shake up.

That happens because it's that rare person who resists the urge to go along, to be a part of the gang. And, when you're on the inside, it can seem like everybody on the outside is against you, or couldn't possibly understand what you do. And, they say to themselves, the fact that they voted for me must mean I really have something on the ball.

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But I have also seen those rare people who persist and who make a difference. People like the late Lem Kirk, a Washington County Commissioner who realized, at a time when a lot of people were calling it communism, that this county needed land-use planning and zoning.

Kirk also met with then-Hagerstown Mayor Pat Paddack to end the city-county feud on sewering the Fountain Head area, a feud that had added millions to the cost of the project.

Those kinds of leaders are rare because they are willing to do what's unpopular because they believe it's right. If nobody's paying attention, or voting for them, then the people who have a vested interest in the wrong thing - like the defeat of planning and zoning - will prevail.

But that might not persuade Myers. Issues like land-use planning are complicated and difficult to follow. And, most elected officials - at least those in this county - don't see it as their duty to educate citizens about why they should care.

Let me appeal to Myers on a more personal basis. He spoke fondly to me about his grandparents, saying that he didn't begrudge the Social Security deduction taken from his paycheck because it made them more comfortable.

Michael, you are where you are in life because your grandparents made sacrifices.

Instead of spending their time and money on the pleasures of life, they took care of their family, teaching their own children lessons about parenting that made you the successful person that you are. Certainly you honor them for that sacrifice.

In the same way, another group of people sacrificed their lives and their health to set up a government where everyone is free to say what they feel, or even, as in your case, to believe that nothing you say matters.

I was reminded of some of these sacrifices recently when I read David McCullough's Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of John Adams, the nation's second president and signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Life was hard in the 1700s. When the Nation's Capital was in Philadelphia, office-holders traveled there knowing that at certain times of the year they might be exposed to Yellow Fever, a mosquito-borne illness that could be fatal.

All the time Adams spent away from home on the public's business meant that much less time he could spend making a living on his farm. When he returned home after leaving office, there was no pension, no presidential library, no speaking fees. He brought back only his memories, which were not of much use when facing the harsh New England winters without the modern equipment farmers have today.

Just as your grandparents may have given you some furniture or a bit of money when you got your first apartment, Adams and the others also gave us an inheritance of sorts - a system of government.

Like some of the things that have been given to me - heirlooms I've been told must stay in the family - you may not have much interest in this system. That's your right.

But your children might, and if you don't preserve it for them, they might not have the same rights we enjoy today. And as it happens, there is now an important debate going on about how much freedom we need to yield to be safe from terrorism.

So-called activists in New York City have been subject to unannounced visits by FBI agents, who apparently want to make sure there's no trouble at the Republican convention.

The scary thing is most agents probably have the best of intentions. There will always be officials who sincerely believe that people suspected of crimes wouldn't be suspects if they hadn't done something wrong. If we yield the right to protest that kind of thinking, we may defeat the Taliban, but at the price of installing something very similar here.

I also want to address Myers' question: If I vote, what's in it for me?

A better crop of elected officials would make the point, as the late John F. Kennedy did, that it's not just about what's good for us personally, but what's good for the country and the world. We have some obligation to help those who didn't have our advantages.

I have written previously about my disappointment that President Bush has asked for so little sacrifice from Americans. If, for example, the president had asked every American to contribute $1 toward a fund to rebuild Afghanistan, what would that have said to the people there, and to the Middle East in general? It might have told them that maybe the Great Satan isn't really the embodiment of evil.

Will this persuade Myers to do the hard work associated with voting? It's tough to tell. It usually takes some issue that outrages people to motivate them to act. Whether Myers will be moved by a tax bill that's too high or the loss of some freedom will be interesting to see.

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