Future kings of the Hill

High school junior Conor Kelly lays out his path to the White House as matter-of-factly as a typical teenager plots weekend plans: A quick run for legislature in his home state of New Hampshire after college, jump to the US House of Representatives at 26, complete two terms in the US Senate and one as governor before grabbing the presidency in 2024.

With that tight schedule, there's no time to waste. So, wearing a GOP elephant lapel pin and an American-flag bow tie, Conor got a head start on his career this summer at a government- studies program at Georgetown University here.

For three weeks, he and 240 fellow teens immerse themselves in a political-junkie's fantasy. They've come to a high school program run by the nonprofit Junior Statesmen Foundation since its inception in 1980. Their grueling schedule is most teenagers' summer nightmare: 46 hours of class time, a 20-page term paper, and five days listening to speakers from the French ambassador to Pentagon brass. Most nights, they "unwind" with a three-hour formal debate.

That lineup attracts so many wannabe cabinet members and Supreme Court justices that Conor could easily fill his entire administration two decades in advance.

I was no less ambitious when I arrived at the program 12 years ago. Quizzing the likes of Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota left me with a serious case of Potomac fever.

I returned from my first summer away from home with a crate full of think- tank reports as souvenirs, convinced that I'd be secretary of Defense one day.

I've strayed a bit from that goal in the years since, typical for a kid whose generation finds a career in government about as appealing as a prison term.

So this summer I went back to see what attracted a younger cohort of high school students, kids whose political memories don't extend much further back than former President Bill Clinton's trysts with Monica Lewinsky.

The program, for which each teen pays $3,325, is designed to help students develop a lifelong interest in politics and learn the skills to participate in public life, says Richard Prosser, executive director of the Junior Statesmen Foundation.

This crowd has clearly started early.

One high-schooler says she was drawn to government at age 7, when her father had her read the Wall Street Journal aloud on the way to grade school. Conor, the freckled future presidential candidate, has her topped: He got hooked the first time he voted for George H.W. Bush in a 1992 mock election. He was in kindergarten.

Back home, Conor channels his civic energies into extracurricular activities. He's an Eagle Scout and a member of his Catholic high school's recycling club, French club, and National Honor Society. Here, he's an aspiring president hobnobbing with US Senators.

On his second full day in town, Conor meets privately with his senator, Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire. He walks away with a handshake and a photo after a few minutes of small talk. The rest of the group is on Capitol Hill listening to lectures by a half-dozen members of Congress in a hearing room where senators usually grill witnesses.

This day, students turn the tables. They quiz a Texas congressman about redistricting, energy policy, trade with Cuba, the Iraqi occupation, child tax credits, and campaign finance.

All the talk about money in politics leaves Conor unsettled. "By the time I'm run, it's going to be major-league expensive," he sighs.

Conor also realizes he's far from the only aspiring commander in chief in the bunch. On his dorm floor alone there are a handful of presidential hopefuls, including Daniel Aikin, who has decorated his room with 15 American flags embroidered on everything from his blanket to a beach chair.

Daniel already tilts his head slightly like a seasoned politician, speaking in sound-bite bursts as if he's on the stump. During a break on Capitol Hill, he leads a small group of classmates to a House Appropriations Committee markup; he's watched many hearings on C-SPAN but looks forward to seeing one in person.

Despite the potential competition, Conor says it's a welcome change to be surrounded by so many who share his passion for politics.

That's a reaction many students have, says Jeff Harris, who directs the Georgetown program, one of five campuses where the Junior Statesmen Foundation runs similar programs each summer. "Students feel like geeks if they talk about these issues" outside of class, Mr. Harris says. "What attracts them to our program is that it's OK here."

For three weeks, no one snickers when questions are raised about the nuances of the War Powers Act or Woodrow Wilson's moral idealism - the sorts of queries that fill their professor, Marty Sheffer, with glee. "I love teaching this program," says Mr. Sheffer, who retired after 30 years of teaching at several public universities.

It's perfectly normal here to argue over statehood for the District of Columbia or gay marriages while riding a bus, walking across campus, or participating in formal evening debates in Georgetown classrooms.

During his debate, Conor wears a cross attached to his hemp necklace. He argues in his six-minute speech for keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance. His best support, he says, came from an unlikely source: a Buddhist student who said she didn't take offense at the wording at all.

Other debate topics sound familiar to me: the death penalty, affirmative action, missile defense, and drug legalization.

The issues haven't changed much in the years since I sat in Conor's chair. Washington isn't all that different, either. As in 1991, a President Bush lives in the White House, and has a recession to tackle before facing reelection next year.

Come to think of it, the students haven't changed much either. Take away their instant messaging and cellphones, hip-hugging jeans and Starbucks lattes, and the students look and sound very much the same as when I was here.

Truth is, though, I can't relate to Conor's ambitions. I was always more policy wonk than political animal, so I saw more of myself in another student: Felicia Smith. That is, except for her pink eyebrow ring. Felicia comes to Georgetown from Brooklyn, N.Y., intent on eventually becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.

Before arriving here, the only court Felicia had ever entered was on a trip with her mother seeking child-support payments. Now she is visiting the Supreme Court to hear Justice Antonin Scalia - an event, she thought, that would be the highlight of her time in Washington. Not that Felicia agrees with Scalia - he's just the kind of justice she hopes to replace.

As it turned out, Felicia found Scalia "boring." The best event of the three weeks proved to be a surprise visit from Secretary of State Colin Powell in the State Department auditorium. Seated in the third row, Felicia started shrieking as if a rock star had appeared.

"He has the effect that [singer] Justin Timberlake has on normal teenagers," explains Felicia's classmate, Angela Chang.

By the program's end, Felicia is convinced more than ever that she wants to be a lawyer. She learned how to outline legal cases and contrast court rulings. For fun, she flips through her textbook, a collection of Supreme Court cases, and reads the recent sodomy ruling. Still, she can't wait to get back home to her friends and marching band practice (she plays seven instruments).

Conor, on the other hand, doesn't want to leave. During the second week, he finally visited the White House. He's disappointed that Chief of Staff Andrew Card canceled his appearance during their visit, but decides he could see himself "taking up residence in a couple years."

During his three weeks he learned to cross party lines, falling for student Kara Boulahanis of Vero Beach, Fla. - a liberal, no less. And where else, he wonders, would a roomful of students laugh so loudly at a rap he performed with two other conservative students to the beat of a Beastie Boys' song they retitled "Fight to the right as a party"?

Most of all, Conor says, he learned about presidential power, what he describes as "the power to change and do good things and fix what is wrong. But it's scary to think about all that power in one spot."

Conor saw tangible evidence of a president's burdens at the program's last evening event. It was a twilight tour of Washington monuments.

Holding hands, Conor and Kara viewed the Jefferson and FDR memorials before checking out the Vietnam memorial, stopping every few panels to stare at the names.

"How can you be for war in Iraq?" Kara asks him. "How can you send kids to die?"

For once, the usually eloquent teenager has no response. But he admits to realizing that the job of president comes with unimaginably heavy responsibilities. Perhaps that's why he decides to compromise with Daniel, the candidate across the hall, on their presidential bids.

Conor suggests they run together, he as presidential nominee and Daniel as the vice presidential nominee. He generously offers to serve only one term as president and let Daniel take the White House in 2028. Why does he get to run for president first?

That's simple, he explains: "I can carry the New Hampshire primary."

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