Tonight I was invited to cover a reception for Generation Engage, a new organization, founded 10 months ago, that aims to involve non-college 18 to 24 year olds--the "forgotten half"--in the political process.
Now, having attended Yale, I developed a tolerance--even a sympathy--for the children of the rich and illustrious. They have an uphill battle to convince anyone that they ought to be taken seriously. But when you are two sons of one macher (in this case Adrian and Devin Talbott, sons of Strobe Talbott), is it such a good idea to recruit Justin Rockefeller (son of Sen. Jay) and Cate Edwards (daughter of former Sen. John) as your co-leaders?
And then, when you hold your big fundraising reception in the Ralph Lauren store, full of beautiful preppy clothing and beautiful preppy cater-waiters? Where the overheard conversation sounds like this: "blah blah blah St. Albans. blah blah blah Shah of Iran"? Where not a single invited guest appears to be, themselves, a non-college young person? And have David Lauren (son of Ralph) welcome everyone? Where your keynote speaker, President Bill Clinton opens, "I have known Devin and Adrian since they were infants, so I would have been here no matter what"? Well, it becomes really hard to take you seriously.
I repeat, I think the basic idea of what they are doing, and the people they are targeting, are great, although I find the staunchly nonpartisan, civic engagement model a bit wan and tepid next to bolder partisan efforts on the left and right. Even Rock the Vote , nominally nonpartisan, has not been afraid to get out there on the issues that actually affect young people.
Still, Gengage says they are in this for the long haul, not just one election cycle, and that will give them time to refine their approach and see what works. Maybe they will find the right issues to draw in young people. Above all, they have the money and connections to bring attention to the issue, at least the kind of fleeting, polite attention that money and connections can buy.
And I have to confess, I don't normally cover parties, or the type of politics that is conducted via handshakes and small talk. It might just be me who is naively expecting some congruence between the venue and atmosphere of a $300-per-person event and the cause it is ostensibly furthering. I think the off-key feeling for me could be summed up in this exchange with a young member of Generation Engage. I said I heard about the group when I got an email from Justin Rockefeller, "who had seen this article I wrote for the Washington Post." "Oh," he said, smiling. "Did you go to school with Justin?"