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Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL278.PRB - The Politics and Games of Adulthood
A little-covered issue this year to extend the age of persons under juvenile court jurisdiction related to a long history for which I suspect few lawmakers realize.
It's an issue that goes back decades when there was a proposal to establish a uniform legal age for Missouri adulthood.
It was a sweeping idea.
Under the laws of Missouri and other states, there were different ages for when one can sign a legal contract, register to vote, be charged as an adult for a criminal offense or purchase an alcoholic drink.
It became a national debate during the Vietnam War when the question was raised that if a teenager could be drafted or recruited to put his or her life at risk, why couldn't that soldier vote or purchase a can of beer.
In Missouri, one response came from one of the most committed civil libertarians I've covered -- Sen. A. Clifford Jones, R-St. Louis County.
He sponsored a bill that would set the uniform legal definition of being an adult at 18 years of age.
His proposal won easy legislative approval, but for one complication -- what about booze?
The Senate approved Jones' uniform-legal-age bill, but the House exempted alcohol, keeping the minimum age at 21.
On the last night of that year's legislative session, Jones accepted defeat and agreed to make the motion for final approval of the House version that exempted alcohol from the adult rights to be extended to those at least 18 years of age.
But when the bill came to the Senate for the final vote, there was a problem.
Jones appeared to have consumed too much alcohol during the late-night session and seemed unable to make what should have been a routine motion to pass the bill in the closing hours.
Senate leaders instructed staff to bring cups of coffee to Jones, but he waived them off.
Since that bill's failure, there's been no subsequent serious legislative effort to establish a uniform legal definition of adulthood.
There's an irony in Jones' failure. He had a statehouse reputation for being a heavy drinker whose his legislative performances while appearing to be under the influence became classic stories.
I've since wondered if Jones' performance that night actually was a deliberate act to send an iconic and pointed message to his colleagues that problems with booze were not limited young people.
That is not as absurd as you might think. Jones often used misdirection to make a point.
He was one of the smartest and unpredictable legislators I've covered. He often engaged in outrageous behavior to make a point -- including even launching into Greek language during a Senate filibuster.
So in hindsight, I've wondered if he was just pretending to be too drunk to make a final-passage motion to demonstrate his opposition to the leadership pressure to exempt alcohol from the standard adulthood definition.
I confess, I hesitated writing this column.
Cliffy, as his friends called him, was a mentor for me when I first started covering the statehouse. I learned so much from him about process, politics and policy.
But there is something else about Cliffy, who passed years ago, that comforts me in writing his column. He was brutal in demanding honesty and disclosure -- including about himself.
One of my journalism students discovered that candor from an assignment to interview Cliffy for a profile on the closing days of his last year in Missouri's legislature.
My student was uncomfortable when I advised she had to ask about the decades of truly entertaining stories about his drinking.
Cliffy's answer was illustrative of what made him so special for reporters.
"Of course you have to ask that question. I'm not proud of it, but it is part of my legacy," was how I remember the student telling me of Cliffy's response to her near apology for asking the question.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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