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Published: Thursday, 10/5/2000

Political talk puts crimp in civics lesson

If civics lessons for children sometimes require chicanery, a renegotiated bedtime usually does the trick.

“Hey there,” I said, opening treaty talks with my house's resident 10-year-old, “how about we let you stay up half an hour later tonight?”

The eyes widened.

“Are the Olympics still on?” she wondered.

“Well, something like that. Actually, the first presidential debate is tonight.”

The eyes narrowed.

“BOR-ing!” she declared.

“You can stay up till 9:30 to watch,” I countered, my voice sing-song with woo.

She thought it over.

“OK. Why not?”

I read that one of the difficulties faced by G.W. lay in preparing his mind to joust at an hour when he more typically turns in. Same in our house; mother and daughter were already in pajamas as we hunkered down in the parental bed before the tube.

The two men had barely finished shaking hands when The Question surfaced: “Mom, who's winning?”

The 10-year-old mind demands a winner and a loser. Real life demands less, although this is a concept not easily explained to someone convinced that no match-up can end uncertainly.

“No one's winning,” I said. “To tell you the truth, there'll be disagreement about who `won.' Both sides will say they did, and the commentators will argue about it, and voters will make up their own minds. A debate is more about fleshing out candidates' opinions than about winning.”

“But what's the point of debating if no one wins?”

I began to take another stab at it, but was shushed during a squabble over a domestic issue.

“This is hilarious!” she laughed. “They're dissing each other! This is so interesting!”

I smiled. “Honey, just wait until the end of the month.”

We watched the TV, taking in the full range of tics, smirks, and rapid eye blinks, until the Red Tie Guys started swatting around defense spending.

My daughter's brow furrowed, and she said: “Wouldn't they rather just have peace?”

“Well, some people think the best way to do that is with a big military.”

“Kind of like being a bully, you mean?”

“Not exactly. More like being the biggest and strongest kid on the playground.”

She considered this.

“Wellll, maybe,” she said, with slow reluctance. “But that still doesn't seem smart. Anyway, who's winning now?”

The Question again. I began to answer, hoping this time that I might come up with a clearer response, but my questioner interrupted me.

“Did you hear that? Gore sighed really big, Mom, just like you do when you're annoyed!”

Having both been busted, Al and I said nothing as Dubya droned on, only to be yanked back into consciousness by my newly ardent civics student.

“Hey, how come Gore says stuff about Bush's plans, but Bush never really answers him? And Gore does the same thing back. Why don't they answer each other? How do you know who's telling the truth?”

I didn't miss a beat - “Oops, look at the clock! Bedtime!” - because some questions just have no answers.

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Readers may contact her at 724-6086, or e-mail roberta@theblade.com.



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