Graham Pushes Value Of Civic Responsibility

Posted June 8, 2009 at 5:41pm

Former Sen. Bob Graham thinks today’s young people lack political and civic responsibility. That belief has inspired him to write “America, the Owner’s Manual: Making the Government Work for You.—

Hoping to educate and encourage students and adults alike, Graham, Florida’s Democratic Senator from 1987 to 2005 and governor from 1979 to 1987, has compiled a step-by-step guide to being an “active citizen— in today’s society.

“There has been a decline in almost every indicator in civic health over the past few years,— Graham says. “I hope that this book will contribute to a reversal of this decline.—

After 38 years of public service in the Florida Legislature, as governor of Florida and in the Senate, Graham got the idea for writing “America— while leading a group of Harvard undergraduates in the Kennedy School of Government in the fall of 2005.

Graham had previously taught civics to a group of high school seniors at Miami Carol City High School — during his “workdays— campaign when he took on the jobs of some of his constituents for a day — and says when teaching the Harvard students, “I found that they were about as lacking in understanding of how you make democracy work as those high school students back in Miami, so that was an inspiration.—

Graham has several insights into how active citizenship has disappeared over the past few decades. He says that much of the decline of civics education took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this time, Graham says, “the right felt the schools were being used to frame young people to go into the school and protest; the left thought the schools were being used to train young people for war. Both sides agreed to eliminate the teaching of civics.—

Since that time, Graham feels a number of factors have contributed to the continuous decline of civic participation. For example, he says, standardized tests devalue the teaching of history and other social sciences. “I don’t think American democracy was ever intended to be a spectator sport; this book will give the audience the chance to participate.—

“America— contains basic information about how the federal, state, local and most university governments function. It focuses primarily on small-scale cases, although Graham does demonstrate the potential national impact of these seemingly trivial issues with the example of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This organization was started by one woman in California and has become a nationally recognized movement.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is one of the many case studies Graham uses at the beginning of each chapter to give the reader an example of citizens actively engaging in their local or community government organizations. He has also added exercises at the end of each chapter to help students apply the techniques and methods in that chapter. For instance, following Chapter 3, in which he discusses how to identify who in the government can address your problem, Graham adds the following exercise:

“Local Coverage of Local News: Most government decisions that affect our everyday lives are made at the local or state level, but media outlets increasingly focus on Washington. Over the next week, read your local newspaper each morning and watch at least one local television news show each evening. Carefully note the percentage of newspaper stories devoted to state and local issues, and calculate how many minutes the television station spent covering state and local news during each half-hour broadcast. Compare and contrast the two types of media coverage for their accuracy and comprehensiveness in reporting state and local stories.—

Graham writes in simple language, clearly explaining many aspects of the federal government on all levels and making it clear that his intended audience is the younger generation. Graham hopes his book will be a useful tool in both high school and college classrooms.

Steps in Graham’s process of engaging the government begin with “Defining Your Problem— and continue through a progression of “Winning Friends and Influencing People,— concluding in “You’ve Won! You’ve Lost, Preserving Victory and Learning From Defeat.— The text is sprinkled with catchy phrases and plays on words that make the book appealing to students but may leave some adult readers rolling their eyes. For example, in explaining the importance of having a simple and direct message, Graham writes, “Variety may be the spice of life, but in the realm of public messaging, it is the kiss of death.—

Graham said his former speechwriter, Chris Hand, was an active participant in the writing process.

While Graham was writing the book, he was also involved in other projects such as planning the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Continuing to demonstrate Graham’s belief that political participation and responsibility begins with the educational system, the center, dedicated in March 2008, currently offers a certificate of public leadership. In the future, the center hopes to offer a BA in public policy and an MA in public policy and administration.

Graham’s experience and political savvy shine through the tag lines and witty chapter titles, reading like a “Miss Manners— for political participation. Whether it is a student fighting for housing and parking rights, or an artist fighting for the preservation of South Miami Beach’s Art Deco district, “America— proves a useful tool for any striving active citizen.