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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Candidate Hopes Convention Inspires Youths

August 14, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

Every convention is a universe in itself, with its own strange centers of gravity, its own fresh heroes and fools, its own new resolution of pressures and forces, its own irrecapturable mood of stage and place.

--Theodore H. White, "The Making of the President 1960"

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Irrecapturable mood. Or, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again." Jane Harman knows this. But she's trying to recapture as much of the mood--the spirit, the inspiration--as she can for 21 South Bay high school students.

She looks at them and sees some of herself.

Harman got hooked on politics 40 years ago at L.A.'s first Democratic convention. She was a Westside teenager with a boyfriend who had connections and a car. They cruised down to the new Sports Arena and talked their way onto the convention floor. She landed a job as an usher at John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech in the Coliseum.

"It was my personal epiphany," Harman recalls. "I was very excited then, and I have been excited ever since."

Ultimately, the centrist Democrat was elected three times to Congress from the South Bay, surrendering her seat two years ago to run unsuccessfully for governor.

Now, she has recruited these local kids--their principals actually chose them--to serve as convention volunteers. Pulling strings, she got them "priority status"--jobs inside the Staples Center, sometimes on the convention floor.

"It's a great opportunity to incite and educate students about the political system," she notes. "I see the future of our party in these kids."

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While she's giving back, of course, Harman will be helping herself.

She's currently running to recapture her old congressional seat from Rep. Steve Kuykendall, a Republican moderate. It's one of the nation's hottest races as Democrats try to pick up seven seats to regain control of the House.

Harman has been asked to address the convention Tuesday--not in prime time, but in sight of C-SPAN junkies.

Surrounding herself with high school kids will give her a warm and fuzzy glow. And she's getting local ink.

But so what? The kids will benefit from this a lot more than the candidate. And she could be spending this time on politically more productive things--like extracting big bucks from special interests--that would not benefit the kids one dab.

Harman held a pizza lunch/pep talk for the students last week in her Torrance headquarters.

She read from a long, skinny notebook (price 25 cents) that she'd used 40 years ago to record her experiences. It read like a who's who of mid-century Democratic politics: Met Eleanor Roosevelt. Chatted with Gov. Pat Brown ("was nice"). Shook hands with Averell Harriman. "Looked for Sam Rayburn. Texas delegation said he had left. It was a lie."

"It was a very exciting process, very different than the present situation," she told the kids. "This has all been decided ahead of time and it's a matter of staging. Conventions have become Academy Award exercises. . . . Maybe we don't need them anymore."

But back to the message: "Make the most of it. Take time to talk to delegates. . . . A future Congress person from this district may be sitting right here."

Harman gave each student a notebook and a cheap camera. "Is everybody going to have fun at the convention?"

*

The students weren't exuberant, but they did seem enthused.

"Come on, why wouldn't you be?" said Ashley Koger, 17, of San Pedro High School. "This is a convention in L.A., and like it's the year 2000."

The kids were asked whether they had any political heroes. None could think of one, a far cry from the youths of Harman's generation.

"I don't think any of us are going to be running up and asking for autographs," said Eddie Martin, 17, also from San Pedro High.

Koger blamed the news media, accusing it of "making just a big deal" of politicians' bad sides, especially President Clinton's. That didn't happen in the Kennedy era, she noted.

What'd they think of Vice President Al Gore? Long pause. "Not very entertaining," Martin finally said, "but his points are excellent."

Later, Justin Sperling, 15, of Chatwick School--whose father was a Harman classmate--characterized Gore's influence in the White House as "just like a wooden block."

One student was born in China, another in India. Several were the children of immigrants.

Maybe these kids can figure out something the reigning generation has not: how to once again make conventions less scripted and more suspenseful. So there appear to be--to borrow from Teddy White--more heroes and fewer fools.

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