Sunday, April 19, 2009

Citizens' Summits

If you'd like to visit the White House these days, you don't need an invitation. You can take a free tour, which is a pretty cool thing given it's the place where the most powerful man in the world lives. All you need to do is have a request submitted by your Member of Congress, usually a member of the House of Representatives, but if you know a senator, that will work, too.

There's a whole paragraph of things you can't bring along when you take the tour. Most of the prohibited items are easily imagined: guns, ammunition, martial arts weapons, knives. A few things are more surprising: hair brushes, combs, lip or skin lotion. (For a complete list, visit: If you're carrying anything on the no-no list, they turn you away.

My wife and I took the tour back in the days of the Reagan Administration. The academic and historic details of the Red Room, the Green Room, and rooms the other colors of the rainbow are a blur. Interesting at the time, but forgettable after a while. What I remember clearly, though, was where we got to depart from the usual path. A couple weeks before we visited Washington, my wife was injured in a T-bone car crash. A fractured pelvis. So she was hobbling along on crutches when we entered the Executive Mansion.

Crutching the White House didn't meet with Secret Service approval; my wife was put into a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs, and their significant others, get to use an elevator that isn't available to the ambulatory crowd. You also, at least back then, got to cut through the White House kitchen. Of course, all this off-road trucking occurs in the presence of your own Secret Service escort. No opportunity to swipe one of the president's brownies as you pass through the kitchen.

Still, it felt pretty cool to get the behind-the-scenes glimpse of the place. I wouldn't have had more to say than, "Good morning," to Ronald Reagan if he'd been down in the kitchen restocking his jelly bean jar…but recently I got to thinking it would be interesting to spend an hour discussing current events with Barack Obama in the White House.

A citizen summit of sorts.

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has met with over ninety world leaders, or so NBC news told me tonight. So why shouldn't he have some everyday Americans over to the house to see what they (we) have to say?

Here's what I'm thinking. When you put in your request to visit the White House, you should have the option of asking for an Issues Quiz. You could choose your issue: the economy; the war in Iraq; the war in Afghanistan; health care; energy independence. Any of the biggies. Each quiz would have ten basic questions on its topic. Answer all ten questions correctly, and you win a prize…potentially.

Because once a month or so the president and the party leaders of each House of Congress would gather at the White House to sit down with six quiz winners taken at random from the White House tour line. The pols would get to make their pitches to interested citizens; regular American (who had displayed their interest and knowledge by taking the quiz) would get to respond directly, ask their own questions, maybe even make their own suggestions.

There would be no TV cameras allowed into these citizen summits, so nobody would be playing for tube-time, but there would be audio recordings and transcripts made, and both the people and the pols, if they chose, would be able to give video interviews afterward.

None of the everyday people taking part in the summits would be asked their political affiliations in advance, but in the interests of fairness and diversity, they would be asked their political leanings—liberal, moderate, conservative—and two of each group would be chosen for the citizen panels.

This idea would be easy and cheap to implement. It would give voters a chance to look at, listen to, and question the nation's political leaders up close, and it would allow the pols to hear what a random cross-section of the populace really thinks of their ideas.

Yeah, I know. It makes too much sense to ever happen.

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