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A Civics Lesson That Stands the Test of Time

October 12, 2002|ULA PENDLETON

Convincing young soon-to-be-voters that civic involvement is important was tough during the Vietnam era, and it's still a problem. In the 2000 election, some votes didn't count and the new president failed to receive a popular majority, which encouraged apathy and cynicism. A low turnout is predicted in California on Nov. 5, with the two major-party candidates for governor generating no sparks. Counteracting a negative mind-set is not easy.

In 1969, my senior students received some civic first aid that still resonates. I had written to several legislators asking for words of wisdom about civic involvement for my apathetic seniors, who had been bombarded with Vietnam, the draft and the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations. A three-page letter from Sen. Alan Cranston helped turn the classroom tide toward concern and fragile optimism. Some of the words of the late senator are offered here in hopes they might encourage today's students, who face the possibility of war.

Oct. 14, 1969

Dear Mrs. Pendleton:

I share your concern about apathy in our young people and understand the underlying causes. Just this week, President Nixon said "under no circumstances" will he be affected by the Oct. 15 War Moratorium. I'm sure your students wonder how a movement including hundreds of thousands of people can fail to have any bearing on the president's decisions.

We should not give up, but fight all the harder to bring about change. It appears to be more than a coincidence that since the recent surge of public favor toward the moratorium, the president has retired [Selective Service Director] Gen. [Lewis B.] Hershey, announced the possibility of further troop withdrawals, and felt the necessity to explain our position in Vietnam on nationwide TV. Public opinion can and does have an effect on government officials.

The current wave of demonstrations has an effect on the policies of a number of officials. So too do letters from constituents. I encourage students to write to me, and to all their representatives, whenever they have an opinion they think an official should be made aware of. Although letters are not as dramatic a form of protest as demonstrations, they can have a profound effect.

My own office is an example. We receive a minimum of 500 letters a day and these are answered within two weeks. On important issues of the day: Vietnam, Santa Barbara oil spill, tax reform, the draft, I maintain a mail analysis.

This enables me to see how my constituents are thinking. These views are always considered when I make important decisions.

Most officials go into major issues with a predetermined position. But seldom does a person have such strong convictions that cannot be swayed in the face of rising common sense and opinion.

If your students feel a particular official is not representing their views, they should deluge that person with as many letters and petitions as they can turn out. Eventually, the senator, governor or whatever is going to realize there are certain stands that must be taken if the elected official is to truly represent his constituents.

I hope I have alleviated some qualms your students have about participating in the government of this country. There is obviously much that needs to be done to make this country live up to the ideals which the founding fathers set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If your students feel that this is true, then let them bring pressure upon their officials to convince them too.


Alan Cranston, U.S. Senate


Retired social studies teacher Ula Pendleton lives in Los Angeles.

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