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I'll Swap You Two Wydens for a Biden

Getting America’s youth to pay attention to politics doesn’t require a change in message, but a change in messenger -- baseball card style.

Riding the bus last week, I found a seat among a group of high school-age kids who looked so quintessentially “American” that I wondered if they were en route to a casting call for a political campaign commercial: The ubiquitous thin white iPod umbilicals dangling from their ears, baseball caps twisted in various personalized directions, two carrying weathered baseball gloves, another a laptop, another a guitar, all looking like they had learned how to dress in an Old Navy changing room. I settled into my stiff composite bus seat and turned an ear to their conversation, which centered on their shared lamentation that they and America's politicians had nothing in common.

Considering it was Portland, where extracurricular kibitzing from strangers is an excessively exercised right, I pointed at the gloves and mentioned that over the years, nearly a dozen professional baseball players had served in Congress. They looked at me without a word, apparently determining if I had let the prescription lapse on my mood-leveling medication. I then pointed to the guitar and reminded them that John Kerry plays guitar, and again I was treated to a collection of blank stares usually reserved for math teachers who ask for the square root of 14. After an awkward silence, one asked with thinly veiled disinterest, "Who's John Kerry?"

Who is John Kerry -- the man lost the presidential election just four years prior and he was already an obscure footnote? I decided to go with a politician with a more recent public profile, and reminded them that presidential candidate Governor Mike Huckabee was also a musician, a devotee of the bass. "He's the preacher, right?" one of the boys inquired, unconcerned that he was cavalierly reducing a man's lifetime of diverse public service to a single modifier. "Yes, and no," I replied, but the kids stopped paying attention at "yes". I was as out of touch with them as politicians were.

This encounter lingered on my mind. Don't get me wrong, I was no different at there age. Back then, politics was a milieu of the adult world, some mysterious network of strange names that instilled varying degrees of admiration and ire in my parents. To some degree, I never grew out of that, as I’m still stumped when 29-down in the crossword suggests, “Senator from Missouri”.

The fact is, studying the names of our elected leaders is something most of us stopped doing in Junior High civics class. There are 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, so keeping them all straight is like trying to know every player on every team in Major League Baseball.

But there's the crux: I know people who do know every player on every team in Major League Baseball, or would at least score a solid 'A' on a comprehensive MLB test. But these same people would fail a comprehensive congressional quiz with scores that would likely be lower than the runs in an average MLB game.

Mental compilation of baseball statistics is an enthusiasm that borders on religion for many (with that border thoroughly breached for others), yet we monitor our elected leaders like we do the kids in our graduating class who we never really knew -- we hear occasional updates through the grapevine over the years, but their accomplishments generally escape our notice.

I understand the allure of America's game, but all play and no work makes Jack an oblivious voter: Isn't there a way to make political awareness more essential in our lives, to raise kids with a genuine curiosity about the machinations of the legislature?

I think there is. But to understand the methodology, let's trace the fervor for baseball statistics to its roots. Before Sportscenter became must-see TV for adult males, before the Sports page muscled out the Comics for most coveted section of the newspaper, the statistician seed is planted in the form of baseball cards. Baseball cards have been in circulation since the end of the 19th century, and over the years they have become treasure troves of occupational data about our baseball heroes, packing an impressive amount of information onto a 4”x3” flash card: height, weight, birthplace, team, position, signature and factoids, plus several season's worth of batting averages, hits, RBIs, at bats, doubles, triples, home runs and more.

For most kids who collect baseball cards, statistics are studied with the fervor that archeologists focused on the Rosetta Stone. Statistics are currency used to purchase respect, with ever-competitive kids memorizing the details so that they can casually mention that Barry Bonds best batting average (.370) came in 2002, a year after his home run record breaking season. While every young sports fan would love to grow up to be a sports celebrity, most would be equally happy to be the next Bob Costas, sports commentator extraordinaire whose encyclopedic command of sports trivia defies traditional theories of knowledge retention.

The trouble is, kids become masters of baseball statistics at an early age and then become possessive of that sports literacy: It's a lifetime of learning (often literally), and when confronted with the daunting task of maintaining that main-frame-sized database and using some of the cranial server space to store new information about politics or how to do laundry, most don't want to tamper with the circuitry. It's not that men don't want to grow up, it's simply that many have defined their reputation in their circle of friends and in their schools by mastery of sports statistics, and to abandon that is to abandon their very identity. Politics doesn't take a backseat because it's boring, it takes a backseat because it's new, and new means unfamiliar, and unfamiliar means starting at the bottom of the learning curve, again.

That’s why politics needs to take a page from MLB’s template and capture the target audience’s attention early in the consumption cycle: Make facts a coveted commodity, make knowledge something to be hoarded. The solution to American youth's disinterest in politics is simple: Congressional trading cards.

Congress CardsTM, a bi-annually released set of 550 trading cards featuring each of America's 100 Senators, 435 Representatives, and 15 specialty cards featuring that session's Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House, the Capital building, cards for each political party and landmark legislation that passed that year.

Imagine the possibilities: Walking by an elementary school playground and hearing a cluster of kids settle an argument about who chairs the House Ways and Means committee by producing the 2008 Charles B. Rangel card; at home, kids reconstructing the entire assembly by pinning the cards to a poster of the senate chambers on their bedroom walls, exclaiming, “If I can get Gordon Smith and Blanche Lincoln, I'll have the whole committee on Energy and natural resources. Jimmy has Gordon Smith, but he won't trade it for anything except Hillary Clinton, and there's no way I'm trading that one.”

The cards could be packaged just like baseball cards, complete with the rectangular wafer of dehydrated gum. Every card will feature a photograph of the politician with a flip side that chronicles their service to the nation, including facts about the person and about the state they represent. (A surreptitious means of adding geography to the knowledge base.) The gum could even be flavored to match a chief export of one of the 50 states, including honey flavored gum from the Beehive State (Utah), and hazelnut gum from Oregon to celebrate its dominance in that industry.

The cards would be produced by the U.S. Mint, with a portion of the proceeds going to the state whose legislators are included in the pack. Residents of each state would vote on how to spend their own trading card revenue: Oregon might vote for investment in alternative energy solutions, perhaps, while Washington earmarks those funds for upgrading its public transit systems. By having each state decide on its own financial distribution, purchasing the card packs would be an act of patriotism, an investment in both the nation and in their local communities.

This is a prime opportunity to educate our children – and supplement state revenue. The information learned from Congress CardsTM will help them grow up to understand the inner workings of the US Congress, and to know whose hands are on the levers that stop and start the machinery.

Kids will still have baseball cards, and Mariano Rivera's career stats will surely continue to be the subject of studious memorization -- but when talk turns to who are the greatest closers, Mariano won't be the only name offered: “With due respect to Rivera,” some child will boldly opine, “Olympia Snowe's record as an integral voice on many crucial bipartisan Senate compromises wins her my vote for best closer.”

Of course, all the kids will have studied the Olympia Snowe card, so everyone except the Yankee fans will agree. (Though the lobster-flavored gum that came with in the packs with the Snowe cards is destined to get a unanimous thumbs-down.)

Alas, apologies to Mike Huckabee: Until Congress CardsTM prove successful and the United States Governors card set appears, those kids on the bus are still going to think of you as the preacher.

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