Jewish World Review March 12, 2004/ 19 Adar 5764
On Planet California, children know best
Forget Ralph Nader. In a perfect world Sen. John Vasconcellos - the California assemblyman who created a task force on self-esteem and now wants children to vote - would be president for life.
And children, brimming with self-esteem would vote just like adults because they would be fully engaged, enlightened and invested in the future of the planet. And there would be no cynicism.
And I would be unemployed.
Which would be just fine with many, many people, but not John Vasconcellos because he is a friend and finds it in his enormously generous heart to forgive me my sins, past and present. So he told me when I called to ask about his latest effort, a bill to permit children as young as 14 to vote in state elections.
A little history. I met Vasconcellos 20 years ago when I was a food writer in California. I was writing a story in preparation for the 1984 Democratic convention, which was held in San Francisco that year, on various Democrats' favorite foods.
The premise: If you are what you eat, shouldn't we know what the possible future president ingests? I interviewed all the presidential candidates or their wives, as well as some of the state's leading Democrats, including Vasconcellos (asparagus and chocolate cake).
I don't know whether we'd have become friends on the basis of a single interview, but as it happened we both wound up hospitalized before the story hit print - he of a heart attack and I of a fragile pregnancy. Thus isolated and insitutionalized, we became phonemates, speaking several times daily for weeks.
That bond has lasted even though we haven't spoken much in the intervening years, and he has found curious my drift toward conservatism. It happens, I explained, often immediately following childbirth. While Vasconcellos was rehabilitating his heart, I was raising kids in a deliberately non-democratic household, I explained.
"John, you don't have any children," I began our recent conversation. "If you lived with a 14-year-old, you would not want to give him the vote."
Not so, he said, surprising no one. Vasconcellos, 71, has no biological children of his own, but adopted a family 20 years ago - a young man, whom Vasconcellos mentored, the young man's wife, their children. "We are committed for life."
His granddaughter Megan is 13, wise, respectful and dignified. She recently gave a speech before 400 people when Vasconcellos received the Rollo May Award for Humanistic Service. Megan's self-awareness, self-esteem and appreciation of our world makes her far more qualified to vote than many adults, Vasconcellos said, whereupon one's mind wandered to Palm Beach County.
To talk to Vasconcellos is to remember how we once were. Before we were grown up, saddled with mortgages, humbled by offspring, organized by deadlines, sobered by telephones ringing too late into the night. Having steered clear of much of what drains the rest of us of idealism, Vasconcellos is America's perpetual Peter Pan, the eternal optimist, the visionary who only sees glasses half-full.
A left-wing, liberal nut by some accounts, Vasconcellos says he is a "radical."
It is radical to propose, for instance, that the state should study and promote self-esteem, as Vasconcellos did in 1983. It is radical to suggest that children who haven't worked, paid taxes, or experienced life outside the home should help determine how adult life is conducted.
Under the proposed bill, the vote of a 14 or 15-year-old would be counted as a quarter of a vote; a vote by a 16 or 17-year-old would be counted as half a vote. Not surprisingly, people are making fun.
But Vasconcellos argues that there's nothing magical about age 18, no guarantee either of knowledge or interest in civic life. He says that by beginning to participate in the political process as apprentices, children will be knowledgeable and invested in their world by the time they earn full voting rights.
"Experience is the best teacher," he says. "In my experience, the more I trust people and give them access, the more they respond constructively . . . and live up to the responsibility."
He has a point. I think. That's the trouble with people like Vasconcellos. They make so much sense while you're talking to them. Then you hang up and think: Did I just dream that?Children should vote? Am I having a flashback?
I glance back at my notes where I asked Vasconcellos, who retires this Fall, what he considers his greatest achievement: "That I haven't grown cynical," he said.
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