BAR HARBOR, Maine — Richard Dreyfuss the Oscar-winning actor did not make an appearance Friday at the Maine State Bar Association’s summer meeting. Richard Dreyfuss the activist, historian and civics teacher did.
“We are bound together only by the ideas that were born in the Enlightenment and actualized in the Constitution, the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address,” he said. “If those ideas are not taught and taught and re-taught, we are not bound [to them].”
Dreyfuss, who comes from a family of lawyers, said that he has retired from acting to focus on creating a K-12 civics curriculum and implementing it in all public schools in the nation. He said it would teach reason, logic and critical analysis as well as how the “democratic experiment” that became the United States of America was designed to work.
“If you want to build a Ford or a Porsche, you must first learn about the working of the internal combustion engine,” he said. “I believe the mechanics of how democracy works can be taught just as the workings of the internal combustion engine can.”
At 61, Dreyfuss looks more like the music teacher he played in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” than he does Matt Hooper, the shark expert that shot him to fame in “Jaws.” It was Stephen Spielberg’s first hit and not the many films in which Dreyfuss has played lawyers and politicians from which the summer meeting borrowed its catchy moniker — Summer Stars: Jaws to Laws.
More than 300 attorneys from around the state and their family members gathered at the Harborside Hotel in downtown Bar Harbor for the association’s semi-annual meeting. Topics included the recently passed law that allows for mediation in foreclosures, renewable energy, the graying of the bar and social networking for law-yers.
Dreyfuss, however, drew the biggest crowd. Judges and attorneys grabbed the best seats 30 minutes before the actor was scheduled to speak. Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and Attorney General Janet Mills sat in the front.
Dreyfuss admitted that like the Jimmy Stewart character in the Frank Capra film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” he might be fighting for a lost cause. He quoted Stewart’s character: “They’re the only ones worth fighting for even if you know you’re going to lose.”
“The lost cause I refer to is this — we control this country,” Dreyfuss said. “We actually are the sovereign power here. How much money, time, effort and creativity goes into distracting us from that.”
In his 90-minute presentation, Dreyfuss said television, computers and the age of instant gratification have all but destroyed civic and civil debate.
“Civility is about more than just manners,” Dreyfuss said. “It is the oxygen that Democracy requires or else it dies.”
Saufley, who said she was a big fan of Dreyfuss’ films, said she agreed with his basic message that “we need to think deeply about how we engage in civic debate” and “to model it for our children.”
The chief justice added that the courts and the legal professionals around the state are where she often sees the kind of civil discourse Dreyfuss said was missing from discussions on a national level, particularly those on television news shows.
“I believe the legal practitioners here are the most generous and civil in the country,” she said.
Bangor attorney M. Ray Bradford Jr. called Dreyfuss’ remarks “captivating,” but said the actor should have issued a more direct call for action from the bar association and its members.
“If you say the word ‘civics’ to people under the age of 25,” Bradford said, “most of them are going to think Honda. A car brand is more popular than the word itself. Maybe we need to find better ways to bring [Dreyfuss’] message home. He should have asked all lawyers to make the civics process work.”