Three students in a high school civics class in Montclair, New Jersey, decided to learn from the real world when they mounted a campaign to seek a female moderator for one of the three, 2012 presidential debates. The last time a woman served as a moderator was 1992, so Emma Axelrod, Elena Tsemberis, and Sammi Siegel put a petition on Change.org seeking some balance in the moderator selection process conducted by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Armed with electronic signatures from over 116,000 people in support, the students went to Washington, DC during the last week in July to present their proposal to the Commission. They contacted the Commission ahead of time to say they were coming.
In the words of Emma Axelrod, when interviewed on NPR on the same day the trio was in the nation's capital, here is what happened: "Actually, we were not received. We had let them know on Friday that we were planning on coming to deliver the petitions, but they never got back to us. So when we went to deliver our boxes full of the flash drives that have all the signatures on them, we were turned away and we were not allowed to leave our packages there either, in case they contained dangerous material."
Realizing that the presidential candidates themselves have some influence on the selection of moderators, the students had mounted another petition addressed to the Obama and Romney campaigns, and more than 53,000 people had signed that one. When asked about the response the students received from the candidates' campaigns, here is what Axelrod told NPR: "We haven't heard anything yet."
The Internet has, of course, been full of commentary on this course of events. Some have supported the three girls. Others have suggested what female reporters should be considered for the role. Still others have cynically noted that the Commission and the candidates don't want unpredictability in a moderator, alluding to the potential that a woman either might not play along with lobbing questions the candidates expect or might indeed ask about tough topics (remember Katie Couric's interview with Sarah Palin?). Others have hinted at the fact that the Commission has only three women among its fifteen members, so what else would you expect?
Here's one thing these three young women did have a right to expect: when they took the initiative to make a serious proposal, as part of their own civics education, they had a right to expect a respectful reception. This does not mean the Commission owed them agreement with their proposal nor any accolades for mounting the effort. It does not even mean that the young women were owed a formal or even informal substantive reply.
Yet, they got not only silence but disrespect. Not only did the Commission's Executive Director, Janet Brown, not see them, but they were treated as potential security threats, despite their advanced notification that they were coming and why. Assuming that three young people who had called in advance and whose box of flash drives could easily be inspected might in fact be trying to leave terrorist material is not only irrational but insulting and irresponsible. Nor has the Commission yet made any formal acknowledgement of the effort of these young people or offered an apology for the treatment meted out to them. The Romney and Obama campaigns have been equally silent, and thus equally dismissive.
Given its role, of course, the Commission and its staff owed these young people nothing. Nor do the president or his Republican opponent. But people in roles would do well to remember that they are role models as well. Even if they are going to fail in substance, they should at least succeed in style. In this capacity, they failed the young people of our country -- and not only these three young women. Politics is a nasty business, and young people who engage with it see candidates and their surrogates acting uncivilly on a frequent basis. There was no reason for such incivility from the Obama and Romney campaigns. Nor does the Commission get a pass, since its sole purpose is to bring civility into the political process through structured, respectful debates.
Adults are educators. No matter what their role -- parent, priest, business leader, coach, classroom teacher, candidate or Commission Executive Director -- they teach lessons that can either strengthen or destroy the values essential to a civil society. It's too glib to say that these girls were taught a hard lesson about politics in the real world -- that just having a decent idea and some signatures behind it is not enough to make things happen. They no doubt could have learned that even if they had been treated with respect. But since they were not, they may also have learned that people that they have been taught to respect are not respectful themselves. Young people learn not just from their textbooks but from the way adults treat them. They learn not only from flowery words but from factual deeds.
Politics without good role models is like a home without good parents. The former leaves the next generation at a loss to see how to behave in public life just as the latter leaves them floundering on how to behave in family life. In recent years, decent role models have seemed lacking in many arenas of our lives. The Commission on President Debates, and the presidential hopefuls themselves, have missed an opportunity to model the behavior we so desperately seek to instill in our young people. Even should there be a female moderator in this year's debates, these three students -- and many others -- will have learned a lesson that will take some time to overcome.