DECATUR — The moment was as intense as some that occurred during the presidential debates.
When Sergio Diaz of Chicago, a senior at Millikin University, asked how to get today’s young adults to be as politically active as their counterparts were in the 1960s, the 22-year-old got answers from four people older than 70.
Former congressmen William Robert Roy and John “Jack” Buechner replied that young people protested the Vietnam War 45 and 50 years ago because they were being drafted to fight and, as Buechner put it, had “money in the game.”
Then Decatur residents Joe Rayhill and David Snoeyenbos pointed out that the burgeoning national debt, among other issues, means the younger generation is indeed invested. Turning to look at Diaz, Snoeyenbos said, “Your whole future is in the game.”
The five men were among about 70 people who took part Tuesday evening in Millikin’s 2012 Thomas W. Ewing Lecture, this time showcasing the Congress to Campus program of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.
Its purpose is to increase civic literacy and participation.
Each of the two featured speakers was a two-term congressman and an unlikely representative in his respective district. Roy was a Democrat who represented the Topeka, Kan., area from 1971 to 1975 and Buechner a Republican representing the St. Louis, Mo., area from 1987 to 1991.
Not surprisingly, the former congressmen had thoughtful but different answers when Decatur sophomore Sydney Davis, 19, asked how to get lawmakers to vote for what’s best for the country rather than what’s best for their political party.
Roy said open primary elections would help stop the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats from rising to the top. “That might keep us from getting the polarization we’re getting now,” he said.
Buechner said politicians, if they want to remain in office, must be very careful about what they say and do so it doesn’t come to be considered a weakness.
“Human beings are frail,” he said. “Offering to be amiable or compromise right out of the box scares a lot of people.
“If we had all the answers, my colleague would be in the (U.S. Senate), and I’d still be in Congress.”
Earlier Tuesday, Roy and Buechner spent much of their time meeting with classes and small groups of students. They will wrap up their visit today.
In assistant professor Bobbi Gentry’s model United Nations class, Buechner served up what he called “the red meat” of politics after Andrew Besalke, a junior from Springfield, remarked that all U.S. spending to protect civilians from land mines goes to Afghanistan.
“To be very parochial about it, the chance of Americans being injured by mines is much greater there,” Buechner said.
Asked about the changes they’ve seen since leaving Congress, Roy almost didn’t know where to begin, mentioning that the Vietnam War was still under way when he was elected and that he got his first fax machine right afterward.
Buechner said he finds the threat of cyberterrorism more frightening than nuclear weapons, in part, because it’s harder to understand.
Julia Hesse, a junior from Tinley Park, said she found the discussion interesting. “It highlighted globally how much has changed,” she said.