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When I came to Harvard a month ago, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Not because of the blueberry squares in Annenberg or the monstrous size of my Hollis room, but because of the Institute of Politics, and most immediately, H.Y.P.E. '96. I have been interested in politics for as long as I can remember, "voting" with my parents for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis and finally, successfully, for Clinton. Two weeks ago, I volunteered at H.Y.P.E. for almost six hours, listening to speeches by Robert Reich, George Stephanopoulos, Teresa Heinz and Barney Frank '56 and attending a spirited debate between Haley Barbour and Chris Dodd. On Saturday, September 28, with 200 other Harvard students, I went to the John Kerry for U.S. Senate fund-raiser at the Fleet Center. I entered, but sadly lost, the lottery to see Hillary Rodham Clinton. And it's only October 7. For a political junkie like myself, Harvard's ability to draw speakers and the university's seeming enthusiasm for politics in general are inspiring.
Thus, when I heard some friends of mine saying that they didn't feel like registering to vote or going to H.Y.P.E., I was dismayed. Their comments and those made in some campus publications have prompted me to consider more seriously Harvard's level of political involvement (or lack thereof) in this, the last presidential election year of the century. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of opportunities for political rallies and discussions here, but it is also true that many students feel apathetic about or even antagonistic toward politics. Clinton may have the presidential race all sewn up (as many of us would like to believe), but it is still important to follow the race for the issues, foremost among which for students is education. Questions about student loan repayment plans and tuition tax deductions will affect our lives directly, so it's worth finding out all you can and supporting the candidate whose views you share.
But if the presidential race just doesn't interest you, remember that in the words of the late House Speaker and Bostonian Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr., "all politics is local." If you don't have the energy or desire to get an absentee ballot for your home state, we have one of the hottest Senate races in the country right here in Massachusetts. Junior Senator John Kerry is having a tough time with challenger and Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld '66. To this point, the campaigns have been marked by heavy advertising on Weld's side with only recent rebuttals from the Kerry camp, and by what may seem to be an endless series of debates between the candidates. They might not be constantly scintillating, but a recent exchange about Weld's education record drew sparks from both sides, and Kerry is at long last displaying his ability to fight back. For non-Massachusetts residents who might not mind whether we lose one of the foremost champions of environmentalist and health care issues, Kerry's seat is also crucial to the Democrats' crusade to take back Congress (or crucial to the Republicans' crusade to retain it, depending on your perspective). For those committed enough to their home state politics to get an absentee ballot, there are several interesting races, including the "David vs. Goliath" contest between Victor Morales and Phil Gramm in Texas and the perhaps lesser known, but still significant, re-election campaign of Max Baucus in Montana.
Political campaigns, rallies and debates, have, for me, an infectious quality. Whether you are passionate about an issue, a candidate or the make-up of the Congress, or only mildly interested in voting for the first time, you can find reason to follow politics. At the "Rock the Vote" orientation meeting at H.Y.P.E. '96, we learned the dreadful statistic that fewer citizens under the age of 21 vote than do those over the age of 80. We college students will be entering a "real world" shaped by the politicians we elect this year. As an 18-year-old, I will have the privilege to vote for the first time on November 5. I couldn't be more pumped. And at Harvard, we all have unique and significant opportunities to get involved in politics. Last June I left a small school where politics, while occasionally discussed, were never a major theme. This September, I discovered a political community filled with enthusiasm and knowledge of the issues at hand. The day-long party and rally that was H.Y.P.E. '96 epitomized what I think political life at Harvard will be like in the months before the election. For those of you who missed it, either because you didn't have time to go or because you weren't interested, get involved. Watch a debate, presidential or senatorial. Go to the I.O.P. Hold a sign. Catch the fever.
Susannah B. Tobin '00 is the actual author of Primary Colors.
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