The Hart, Dirksen and Russell senate office buildings witnessed a small army of teenagers wearing blue polos scurrying through halls, up and down stairwells, and into senators’ offices on July 24. The 98 American Legion Boys Nation senators descended upon a center of political power on Capitol Hill, eager to meet their counterparts serving in the U.S. Senate.
Many of the Boys Nation senators shared thoughts about their visits with those who shoulder a large part of constitutional responsibility and authority for governing America.
Matthew Heery of Colorado said, “Sen. Mark Udall was very personable, and he wanted to know what we’re doing at Boys Nation and what we’ve learned so far. I feel that (the U.S. senators) are more concerned about our nation than what we actually give them credit for.”
Heery said in the past he’s thought of the Senate as inefficient, often agreeing with the public opinion “that Congress isn’t doing enough, but I still do believe that they’re keeping our nation a safe place. We’re not a country like Syria, we’re not Egypt, we’re not an anarchy. We have to give them at least some credit for that – keeping the nation stable.”
Udall has a lot of respect for the Boys Nation program, said Travis Gudenrath of Colorado. “He loves it whenever we come in because we come in polite and with (U.S.) flags.” After meeting with Udall, Gudenrath sees “the much more personable side of Congress. We often see them as this large, legislative body – kind of like this germ-like amoeba mass – that just produces bills and that we get frustrated with, and we forget that they’re individual people, too."
When Gudenrath first got involved with Colorado's Boys State program, he didn’t think there was going to be much to it, “but it is a multi-tiered, deep program," he said. "There’s so much more than just the surface of politics. It encourages patriotism, Americanism, it encourages brotherhood and camaraderie, it encourages mutual respect and understanding, how to become an adult, how to become a true American – a solid, dependable man of God.”
Jefferson Manning and Hayden Kingfisher of Louisiana said their meeting with Sen. David Vitter was brief but “he gave me some insight of what I need to do to get to the next level of politics if I wished to do so," Manning said. "He said to keep trying and, no matter what, just don’t give up. You won’t win every time, but if you keep trying, hopefully you’ll win more than you lose, and that’s how you get to where you need to be.
“What (U.S. senators) are debating is real-life stuff and it’s real taxpayer dollars on the line and real citizens’ affairs.”
During his visit with Vitter, Kingfisher took away “the infrastructure of his office, there’s just so much going on," he said. His desire to go into law and politics was reinforced by his meeting with Vitter.
The legislative process at Boys Nation is important, Kingfisher said, but the bills passed “are never going to affect you personally. When you come in here, you find bills that are going to affect your life directly – they really are steering your life.”
Manning said he couldn’t thank The American Legion enough for the Boys Nation program. Not only does it teach students how government operates, “it also teaches you character, how to be a real gentleman, and what you need in and outside of the office," he said. "That’s something that not every organization can give you.”
The visit paid by the Boys Nation Class of 1963 made a real impression on Kingfisher. “Looking at that picture of Bill Clinton shaking John F. Kennedy’s hand was amazing because you think, ‘I’m here, that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s the same exact thing that President Clinton had the opportunity to do,'" he said. “I’m extremely thankful to The American Legion for giving us that opportunity to be here and sharing that experience.”
Isaac Nelson and Dyllan Almeida of Massachusetts weren’t able to speak with Sen. Ed Markey, but his staff assistant, Grace Ogilby, was available. “She gave us advice on how to handle bills we’ve put forth in the Boys Nation senate,” Almeida said.
Before coming to the nation’s capital, Nelson thought Congress didn’t get much done, “but after going through the senate sessions of Boys Nation, experiencing the debates and seeing some bills fail because compromises were not made,” and hearing Ogilby explain the U.S. Senate’s legislative process, he has a higher opinion of the country’s lawmakers. “The senators want to pass more laws, but they just can’t get through as much as they’d like to," Nelson said.
“They’re very helpful and they do mean good,” Almeida said. “I know a lot of people think the (House) and the Senate don’t really function, but everyone means good. They try to do what their supporters want them to do, and they’re doing a very good job of it.”
Ryan Paulekas of Connecticut and Andrew Lake of Idaho sat in on a hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and speak to staff in the committee’s office.
Lake said the committee was discussing the situation in Iraq and terrorists who have taken control of some territory. “You could tell the (senators) were a little annoyed because they didn’t get too much information” from the Department of Defense and State Department representatives.
Not surprisingly, Paulekas said, some of the hearing “was heated in a lot of ways.” One witness ended up “getting railed by the committee” because one member said “he had read an article in the (New York) Times that gave more information than she had.” Her response was that the senator should not “gauge his information from a news article.”
One committee staffer explained to them that, even though a lot of information was not forthcoming from the day’s hearing, all U.S. senators have top-secret clearances and they often get much more information from sessions closed to the public.
After seeing the committee in action, Lake said, “I’ve never been more determined to become a (U.S.) senator. I’ve always wanted to be a governor, then a senator and maybe president some day. But after this, I definitely want to be a senator.” The hearing didn’t seem “as scripted as Congress seems sometimes, and it wasn’t so much partisan as it was honestly trying to figure out what’s going on in the situation and how best to handle it.”
Paulekas said the Boys Nation program “has given me faith in the political process. I used to think that these guys aren’t getting anything done because they all hate each other. It’s not necessarily so, and I felt that maybe the entire Congress itself, when it's in session, that’s where the deadlock begins. But in this committee, it appeared they were getting a lot done.
“Even though we think that they don’t know what they’re doing, they probably have a pretty good grasp on how the country is and where they think they can take it.” Paulekas said the first thing he will do when he gets back home is join the Sons of The American Legion; several of his family members are U.S. Army veterans.
“I never really understood how much it really meant to serve until I talked to members of The American Legion – these men who actually served in combat zones and fought,” Paulekas said. “To really see what being a member of the service means to them, and what service to their country means to them, meant so much to me that I just want to go home and be a part of it.”
“There are so many veterans who have served in the military,” Lake said, “and there are so many out there that people are hoping will come back. The American Legion gives a lot of people hope."
Michael Chizek of Iowa got to meet both senators from his state: Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley. After a photo opportunity, Chizek said that Grassley answered questions about his biggest challenges, such as “finding ways to work with everybody in Congress," Chizek said. "There’s a lot of different personalities and a lot of different ways people operate. But he’s very happy with the career he’s had.”
Grassley also encouraged Chizek to consider a future internship in his office. The visit with Harkin was more brief “because he had to get back for a roll-count vote," Chizek said. "But he met us on the steps of the Senate, and he told us that one of his greatest accomplishments was helping to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act – he’s super-proud of that.” As he spoke with Harkin, Chizek saw Vice President Joe Biden drive by in a motorcade.
“(Boys Nation has) been an incredible ride," Chizek said. "I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here, but you can have a conversation with somebody from anywhere in the country and get to know them, get to know their views.” Having never been to Washington before, “this was really eye-opening to see our nation’s monuments and our nation’s leaders.”