Bob Graham’s blueprint on how to beat City Hall

Pssst! Hey you, citizen: Want to know how to:

Understand and influence government?

Achieve a positive experience with government?

Convince your school, college or university to shift civics teaching from a lecture-based approach that focuses on governmental structure to a dynamic experience that emphasizes personal engagement?

Deal with government at the level where you are most likely to experience it?

Develop the personal skills necessary to influence democracy?

Overcome the cynicism that says you can’t afford government action and replace it with the confidence that says citizen participation is the lifeblood of democracy?

Well, you can learn how to do all those things and more by plunking down only $16.95 for a copy of former Sen. Bob Graham’s dandy little book, AMERICA, the Owner’s Manual: Making Government Work for You (CQ Press, 258 pp.)

Few people are better equipped to show ordinary Americans how to “transform civics from a spectator sport into a participatory sport” than Graham, the Florida Democrat who served 12 years as a state legislator, eight years as governor and 18 years as a U.S. senator before stepping down in 2005 after failing to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Graham’s book, co-authored with Chris Hand, his former Senate aide and a Jacksonville attorney, delivers the goods, even if it’s not as gripping as the book Graham wrote in 2004 as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure of America’s War on Terror (Random House, 277 pp.).

Graham, who spent 2005 as a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and now chairs the board of oversight at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at his alma mater, the University of Florida, draws on his experience of 38 years in public service and that of civic leaders, academics and journalists in offering 11 case studies “that powerfully illustrate democracy in action.”

But be forewarned: This is not a book for those who aren’t serious about democracy in action. Nor, despite its sometimes pedantic tone, is it a book that offers any easy answers about making change happen without getting your hands dirty. “Active citizenship is flesh and blood, drama and comedy, triumph and tragedy, pleasure and pain,” he writes. “But what those highs and lows ultimately produce is the sublime fulfillment of democracy’s promise.”

The case studies Graham cites come complete with multiple Web links to help readers access resources and real-life examples, along with exercises to help readers use resource tools, get the attention of decisionmakers and get coverage in the news media.

“The worst mistake I could make,” Graham writes in his introduction, “would be to provide the ‘how to’ of active democratic engagement — a lecture on paper — without showing you how citizens have succeeded in making government respond.”

For example, Graham reaches all the way back to 1974, when he chaired the Florida Senate Education Committee as it held one of a series of statewide hearings at a high school in Jacksonville, and heard students complain about bad food in the cafeteria. The students had gotten no help from the local mayor or country sheriff, and Graham told them the Florida Legislature didn’t control school menus either.

But when he later told a group of high school civics teachers in Miami that he was appalled by the students’ ignorance about the roles and responsibilities of government, they challenged him to practice what he preached by teaching civics in their classrooms. He did just that for an entire semester, an experience that inspired his later campaign trademark of working a full day at various jobs ranging from construction worker to garbage collector.

As Graham explained in an interview last week, the point of his book is that the quality of civic education in America’s schools, from the elementary to college level, has dramatically declined in the last 40 years.

The erosion in civics education “began with the Vietnam War, when the far left thought civics education was being used to militarize young people” and continued in the ’90s with the No Child Left Behind legislation, which does not cover civics teaching, he said. A second problem is that what little civics was taught emphasized “what I call ‘spectator civics,’ which does not provide you with the skills to be a player.”

The first case study Graham cites in his book is one in which two Georgetown University students, James Fogarty and Rebecca Sinderbrand, are elected to one of Washington’s 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and successfully challenge an effort to deny seating them because they aren’t old enough to vote.

“Whether one agreed or disagreed with the movement to elect Fogarty and Sinderbrand, the effort was an indisputably powerful example of effective citizen participation in the democratic process,” Graham writes.

In the interview, Graham said he has a “positive impression” of reform-minded D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee, partly because Don Graham, CEO of the Washington Post Co. and son of his late brother Philip Graham, supports her.

But he said it’s a “scandal” that the D.C. school system has not taken advantage of the “opportunities to tap into the federal government agencies. When I was governor, we had every state agency partner with the public schools in Florida.”

Graham’s book is not exactly a page-turner, but it’s what’s needed to help dispel the notion that the average citizen can’t make his or her voice heard in the civic arena.