In 1970, Stephen A. Janger had a bright idea: bring ordinary high school students to Washington for a closer look at the workings of the federal government. Janger, who was 33 and running a student-exchange program, believed democracy was the glue that kept the nation, then divided over the war in Vietnam, from coming apart. For a U.S. citizen, he concluded, nothing could be more important than understanding how democracy works.
So he started the Close Up Foundation -- which has grown into the nation's largest nonpartisan civics education program.
Janger, now 68, retired last week as president and chief executive of the Alexandria-based organization. As was the case 35 years ago, the nation is at war, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorism has replaced communism in the minds of many as the gravest threat to the American way of life. But the Close Up Foundation has consistently battled three other threats that pose even greater dangers: ignorance, cynicism and apathy.
"What has buoyed me for 35 years is seeing all kinds of kids discard the views they just happen to have picked up from their environment . . . and start thinking for themselves," Janger said during a recent interview. "They become confident and excited by the political process. They don't leave knowing everything about how the government works, but they do understand that it's not so big they can't participate in it."
Hundreds of students have gone on to serve in government as a result of the Close Up experience. The two U.S. senators from Louisiana, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, are Close Up alumni, and they spoke at Janger's retirement celebration. Timothy S. Davis, the foundation's new chief executive, was a student participant in the first Close Up program, in 1971.
Inspiring students to become leaders, however, is just part of the foundation's mission. Getting more people to become informed voters -- that's the main focus.
"Virtually all the programs bringing students to D.C. in the late 1960s were leadership programs for the top kids," Janger said. "I thought, 'Those are fine.' But I felt that if we were going to create the kind of understanding of the democratic process that leads to greater participation, then we had to deal with all kinds of kids.
"We wanted not just the A students but the C students; we wanted kids who were from well-to-do backgrounds as well as the disadvantaged. We wanted kids who were about to drop out, flunk out, because all of them go into the making of American democracy."
So far, about 650,000 students and teachers from throughout the United States have participated in programs sponsored by the Close Up Foundation. Come September, another annual crop of about 20,000 high school students is scheduled to begin a series of week-long visits to the nation's capital.
And what a time it will be: hearings on a Supreme Court nominee; intense debates about the war in Iraq and about the possibility of journalists going to jail in a society where the First Amendment supposedly guarantees freedom of the press.
During what amounts to a 70-hour workweek, they will engage in discussions with movers and shakers -- members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, journalists and lobbyists. And they will do so in a city that has undergone dramatic changes in recent years.
"I came to Washington in 1963, and I remember when I could drive right up to the Capitol, park and tell the guard, 'I'll be right back,' " said Janger, an Oklahoma City native.
But 9/11 changed all of that -- and more. "There is," Janger said, "a sense of tragedy that I am able to cope with only because I believe it's better to have some restrictions and be relatively safe than to be open and vulnerable."
Of course, that means many of today's young visitors only know the nation's capital as a place that is always on high alert.
At the same time, Janger says, "the students we bring here get to see the inner workings of a country that has survived everything that has been thrown at it -- from world wars to Watergate to 9/11. For all the concerns one may have about the United States, it is still the greatest country in the world, and democracy gives us the tools to make it even better."