It’s been more than 50 years since George Nethercutt was a student at North Central High School.
But there he was Tuesday, suit-and-tied, cafeteria lunch in hand, asking to sit with a table full of teenage boys not too far from the condiments and sporks.
“Hi,” he said, in the genial manner of someone who greets a lot of people. “George Nethercutt. Good to meet you.”
He wasn’t there for the turkey bagelwich and soup. The former congressman spent the day at his alma mater trying to build enthusiasm for a project promoting history and civics education. Through his foundation, Nethercutt is creating a Citizenship Tournament that will award the winner a $10,000 scholarship and trip to Washington, D.C., to meet lawmakers and others involved in government. The project – which includes competitions for fourth- and eighth-graders, as well – arose from Nethercutt’s concerns that Americans don’t know much about history and civics.
“What I’m trying to do,” Nethercutt told a classroom of seniors before lunch, “is offer you incentives to be good citizens.”
Students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade in Eastern Washington can apply for the tournament online, and are also required to complete five of 15 “citizenship tasks” Nethercutt has outlined, from interviewing a veteran to attending a City Council meeting. Rounds of competition will follow to winnow the field, and in April, the top students will compete in a game show-style tournament in Spokane. The venue hasn’t been finalized; Nethercutt said he hopes the event will be televised. The top prizes, besides the scholarship, include trips to Washington, D.C., and Olympia.
“Even if you don’t win, you’re going to win,” he said.
Nethercutt spoke to several classes Tuesday. Right before lunch, he spent an hour or so with the students in Gabe Medrano’s current world affairs class. He talked about how little Americans know about the history of their country and its system of government.
He noted the frequently low turnouts for elections. He cited a civics test given several years ago to college freshmen at universities around the country.
“Everybody flunked it except Harvard students,” he said. “And they got a D-plus.”
Adults fared no better, he said. “Everybody flunked it.”
Nethercutt also talked about his own career and reflected on the current state of politics. A Spokane native – his father and sister are also NC grads – Nethercutt worked as an attorney here for years before he decided to challenge Tom Foley for his seat in Congress in 1994. At the time, Foley was a titanic figure, having served for three decades and become speaker of the House. Foley died recently.
Nethercutt said his own knowledge of politics and history became crucial at that point. A virtual unknown, he debated Foley nine times.
“It was like fighting Mike Tyson,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get knocked out.’ ”
He didn’t, of course, going on to serve 10 years in the House. Nethercutt told the students repeatedly that Foley was “a fine man,” and that he regrets the bitterly divided nature of modern politics.
“The attitude today is, ‘I won. You lost. I get 100 percent. You get zero.’ In my mind, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
Nethercutt said he hopes to expand his Citizenship Tournament to other places – and to apply his idea of testing people on civics to those beyond students. He said he has developed a civics test he’d like to ask candidates for office to take; he wouldn’t publicize the results, he said, but he might publicize a refusal to take the test.
At lunch, he sat down with his soup and sandwich at a table with five young men: senior Romello Hanbrick, sophomore Raymond Abbott, junior Tarren Vincent, sophomore Jade Jones and junior Anthony Scofield. He engaged them easily in conversation, chatting about sports, college and future plans.
I asked them if they usually had their burgers with former members of Congress. “All the time!” Abbott said, and the others laughed.
“He’s a pimp,” Scofield said.
Um. A pimp?
“He’s awesome,” Scofield said.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.