As a junior in high school I attended Colorado Boys’ State, a weeklong citizenship program run by the American Legion. The Legion selects hundreds of boys from across the state and brings them together to build a mock government complete with elections for various offices. The idea is to instruct the participants about the structure of government and the glory of American democracy. Boys’ State operates in 49 states and claims numerous well-know politicians as graduates, including former President Bill Clinton, former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, New York Governor George Pataki, Alan Keyes of Maryland and Illinois, and ex-Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
I found it to be a pretty odd experience, but I did learn from it. I appreciate those who volunteer their time, money, and efforts to put it together each year. The first thing it did was expose me to the American Legion, a veteran’s organization that was more overtly patriotic and conservative than what I had known growing up in Boulder, Colorado. In the selection interview, a group of old men quizzed me fairly gently about our county, and I did fine with that. Then, I guess because there was something about it on my application, they asked me a few skeptical questions about computers. I remember distinctly that one of the men made the statement (possibly a joke) that these newfangled computers might lead one day lead to men marrying robots. I responded awkwardly that at least I would be able to program those robots.
When I showed up in Pueblo for the first day I did not feel at home in the least. The single-sex environment felt strange. I was also uncomfortable being supervised by veterans who seemed culturally foreign and surrounded by boys from rural parts of the state who were just as unfamiliar. It was there that for the first time in my life I heard “jew” used as a verb, though the boy who used it was mortified when I questioned him about it. I remember some tension between the strict ideals of the supervisors and the tendency of young men to test limits. In our group, there was major fallout when a few of the boys ran a gigantic pair of pants owned by our supervisor up a flagpole. We got an intense speech about the meaning of the flag that ended with our supervisor crying.
I felt fortunate that there were several other attendees from my high school that I knew, including someone with whom I shared a room. All of the boys were assigned to “counties”—I was from Routt—and randomly into two political parties. We ran for local offices from our regions and then conducted “state-wide” elections for two Senators, a Governor and a Lieutenant Governor of the whole group. I ran for and won one of the dime-a-dozen local offices (state senator). I still have the certificate from that—the only office I have ever sought.
The biggest lesson for me came when another guy from my high school decided to seek the Lieutenant Governor’s office. I was on his campaign team. We had a night meeting to try to establish his positions on various issues and several of us debated inconclusively on that matter. After listening for a while, the candidate gave up on us and said he was going to bed. The next day he gave a pleasant-sounding and well-delivered speech that ignored the issues we were debating -- and won handily.
That Lieutenant Governor’s candidacy provided important political lessons to me. One, the details are not the most important part of campaigning, and two, it is often better to just drive ahead than spin your wheels and get nowhere.