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At Georgetown, a Gen X Wave of Political Apathy

December 27, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — Bridget Siegel, 21, tutors inner-city children as a volunteer. She ran a college voter-registration drive that signed up hundreds of new voters. She wants to do something for her country after she graduates, maybe even work in a political campaign.

But the Georgetown University senior finds it hard to love the political process she sees on the evening news these days.

"I live with five other girls, and they want nothing to do with politics," said Siegel, an energetic model of undergraduate idealism. "I try to get them to vote. They say: 'On what issue? On the scandal? On the president's private life?' That doesn't give them anything to vote for."

On the handsome Georgetown campus, where the young Bill Clinton (class of '68) was enthralled by politics in the 1960s, his successors look at today's national scene and say: "Yuck!"

Like citizens in every age group, Georgetown students say they are turned off by scandal, don't see many reasons to vote and can't name any heroes among the nation's current leaders.

In the short run, the Clinton scandals have created turmoil on Capitol Hill, a backlash against Republicans in the polls and a general national frustration with politics.

But the reactions of Georgetown students may also be an early signal of potential long-term effects as well: increasing disaffection and declining confidence in political institutions, especially in the next generation of citizens.

Great events often echo in the life of a nation. World War II produced a generation of vigorous leaders. Vietnam spawned a long crisis of confidence. Watergate touched off a wave of legalistic reform, including now-tattered regulations on campaign finance and the increasingly unpopular independent counsel law.

The events that led to Clinton's impeachment this month aren't of that heroic scale, but some ripple effects are already being felt.

Last month's congressional election, held in mid-scandal, produced the lowest voter turnout since 1942: Only 36% of the eligible population came out to vote, down from almost 39% four years earlier. "Our idea of 'citizen' . . . is descending from participant to spectator," warned Michael J. Sandel, a scholar of political philosophy at Harvard University.

Public's Confidence Is Waning Again

Public opinion surveys are finding that Americans' confidence in the political system, which had been inching upward since 1994, is sliding again. "People want honesty and morality in their government, and they don't see much of it at the moment," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

As Congress has spun into a vicious cycle of sexual accusations, it is getting hard to persuade good citizens to run for office. "People just don't want to put up with it," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who is recruiting Democratic candidates around the nation for congressional races two years from now. "We're still getting good people to run, but every year there are good people who decide not to."

And at least one specific reform may result from Clinton's troubles: The independent counsel law, which has now stung Democrats and Republicans alike, appears headed for major changes if not outright extinction.

But over the long run, one of the deepest effects may be on young people, whose images of politics and leadership have been formed this year by an uninspiring parade of leaks, depositions and audiotapes, on the unsavory topics of sex and perjury.

"One of the best-established findings in recent political science research is that there is a very real generational effect: People's behavior in maturity reflects formative political experiences when they are young," said William A. Galston, a former White House aide who now teaches at the University of Maryland.

"This is a scandal that every 14-year-old boy can understand," he said. "I don't think it's convinced many young people that public service is a noble profession."

That disaffection is palpable even at Georgetown, a campus many young people choose precisely because of its location in the nation's capital and its record of training successful politicians like Bill Clinton.

"It's demoralizing," said Siegel, who came to Georgetown from Long Island to study international relations and who still hopes to work in Democratic politics.

"It's demoralizing to see how much kids in the D.C. schools need, and then come back and watch a roomful of congressmen talking about the president's private life," she said. "I mean, I don't condone anything, but why are we spending millions just to find that out when we could have bought books for kids instead?"

"A lot of people are turned off by the word 'politics,' " agreed John Glennon, 21, of Pembroke, Mass., the president of Georgetown's student association.

"One of the things that doesn't help is that aside from the Clinton scandals, there isn't anything like the civil rights movement to generate interest," he said. "There isn't any great cause out there."

'Not a Lot of Activism'

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