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One old tradition we need to renew

June 24, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

In 1964, psychiatrist Eric Berne released his most famous book, "Games People Play."

Most people know the title more from the 1968 recording by Joe South, or from one of its many "covers" by artists as diverse as Barbara Mandrell and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But more than 40 years after the book's arrival, I found myself thinking about it last Sunday, on Father's Day.

The book's premise is that much of what we do is learned behavior, something passed down from generation to generation.

One of the "games" Berne describes is "Why Don't You - Yes But." If you've ever dealt with someone who finds repeated reasons not to move forward, you've played this game, though you probably didn't know it at the time.

More appropriate for journalists is "Gee, You're Wonderful, Professor." In this game, you treat the person whose favor or information you want as someone all-wise and all-wonderful, even though you know that he or she is neither.

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The point of this ramble down Memory Lane is partly personal, but also to make a larger point about raising children.

Growing up in our house, news was important. In the morning came The Washington Post, at night, The Evening Star. And when my father came home from work, he brought The Washington Daily News.

As a child I wondered what was so interesting. I began with the comics, then moved on to columnists and finally to news. I was hooked and I became a voracious reader, so much so that my parents got tired of taking me to the library because I asked to go so often.

Writers begin as readers, absorbing styles and words and believing, sometimes erroneously, that they can put together their own stories.

Looking back, I realized that mine was a reading family in part because it was the most economical entertainment there was. And a child absorbed in a book was not asking his or her parents to go anyplace that might cost money.

Friends who didn't like to read were a puzzle to me, but looking back, I remember that in their homes there were few books, except for prayer books and Bibles, read on Sunday and sometimes on Friday if the family said the Rosary together.

Just as those religious activities were a bond for families, so too was the shared love of news and writing that brought me close to my father, dead now for almost 20 years.

We talked about issues, watched televised political speeches together and I listened as my father talked back to the person on the screen. John F. Kennedy made him happy, Richard M. Nixon not so much.

In the eighth grade, during the 1960 president campaign, I wore a Nixon campaign button and when people asked me why, I said, "because Kennedy doesn't have enough foreign-policy experience."

Though it turned out that Nixon's experience wasn't always beneficial to the nation, the point was that at a young age, I was thinking about what qualified someone to be president.

Not enough young people are doing that today - and that's not just my opinion.

In 2005, former CNN assignment editor David Mindich released his book, "Tuned Out - Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow The News."

He began by looking at the "American Idol" phenomenon, noting that while 40 million tuned in to watch the 2003 "Idol" finale, only 37 million watched the second Bush-Gore debate.

Now neither of those two is what I would call an inspiring speaker, but while 70 percent of older Americans read a daily newspaper, only 20 percent of younger people do.

The danger Mindich sees is that an uninformed citizenry will be hoodwinked by special-interest lobbyists and the politicians for whom they raise money. How many stories do we have to read about the billions that FEMA wasted in the aftermath of the clean-up of Hurricane Katrina? Much of that happened because the people in charge were more connected than they were competent.

What's the solution to get those young people connected? In part, doing what The Herald-Mail is doing, by providing multiple ways to get the news - in the traditional newspaper, on our Web site and through new tools such as podcasts.

But the most effective tool for getting young people paying attention to news and involved in civic concerns might be something we have no control over.

Just as my father and mother made news available to me and emphasized its importance by paying attention to it in my presence, parents today need to demonstrate that it's more important than ever to stay informed.

That's because today's elected officials are slicker than those of my childhood. Caught in the act - cheating on one's wife or stealing from the public treasury - the old-timers often hung their heads and begged forgiveness.

Not so today. It was all a mistake, they say, and besides, they had a deprived childhood or some other excuse for not doing what they were elected to do.

In short, the bad apples - and that isn't every elected official - have gotten trickier and more brazen. It will take as many of us as possible - including our children - to keep a close eye on what they're doing.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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