DUBLIN — Back in 1972, my life as an eighth-grader at Lincoln Junior High in Medford was a lesson in survival. It was a turbulent time in South Medford and the nearby Winter Hill section of Somerville, and the school reflected that. If you had any interest in the academic subjects offered, you kept it to yourself. At the Lincoln, street smarts are what got you through the day.
As if I didn’t have enough to deal with, a few weeks after we returned to school in that election year, I was chosen by our geography teacher to portray Richard Nixon in a mock presidential debate against a blond, blue-eyed classmate with a fondness for miniskirts who didn’t resemble George McGovern in any way that I could see.
What I was able to grasp — clueless as I was back then — was that I’d gotten the short straw here. Even though this was almost two years before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon from office, Tricky Dick already carried considerable baggage, making him a hard man to impersonate in a sympathetic manner.
Luckily, I had a good friend, Mark Storella — an avowed adolescent Republican at the time; today US ambassador to Zambia — who believed Nixon was an exceptional president, mainly due to his subtle understanding of foreign policy. Mark and I had met in the sixth grade at Medford’s Dame Elementary, but after only a year of junior high, he left behind the Lincoln’s aspiring goodfellas for the serener pastures of private school. Still, when I needed his invaluable instruction in Nixon’s policy positions, as well as some basic debating tips, he was at the other end of the phone for me.
Despite Mark’s advice and encouragement, however, I bombed. I didn’t believe what I was saying in response to my classmates’ relentless questioning, and neither did they. Of course, when your audience consists of a bunch of hormonal 13-year-olds, being female — no matter whose candidacy you’re promoting — trumps frizzy-haired and mealy-mouthed every time.
As two presidential contenders compete for votes this fall, I recall a conversation I had with Mark that reflects our changing attitudes toward the nation’s highest elective office. We were musing on politics generally when the presidency in particular came up. Using the average age of the previous few presidents as a guide and then doing some simple math, we reckoned we’d be ready for a run at the White House by 2012.
Funny how time catches up with you like that.
If I recall the gist of our chat, Mark and I regarded the office of president as the best possible vehicle for improving the world, which, when you’re 13, means imposing your blinkered outlook on the rest of humanity.
The Obamas may have transformed the trappings of the office — remember how they made being president seem such a hip and glamorous calling in the euphoric afterglow of the 2008 election — but I’m not sure kids today share the high opinion of the presidency Mark and I had in 1972.
If you’re an idealistic, articulate, and socially aware teenager these days, there are so many more immediate and constructive ways to improve the world than venturing into politics, even if you do have the long-term goal of running for president in 40 years.
A positive outcome from an Internet initiative on voter registration or an online campaign to eradicate child labor occurs so much more quickly in our wired age. As a result, slogging through traditional political channels must seem pointless to today’s youthful activists.
Of course, traditional political skills never go out of style. If I’d only realized that back in ’72, you might be voting for me on Nov. 6.