With the political climate what it is these days, Bakersfield Congressman and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is the first to admit that when he asks for a favor in Washington, he doesn't always get a yes.
Except, that is, when he's leaning on his high-profile friends, colleagues -- even the occasional across-the-aisle frenemy -- to sign on for a project that, as a Driller himself, is close to his heart: The Earl Warren Cup at Bakersfield High School, which is to brainy students what the Valley championship is to prep football players.
McCarthy's objective, as prescribed by Earl Warren Cup creator and BHS government teacher Jeremy Adams: Use that mighty Rolodex to persuade the most powerful people in the country to ask, via videotape, questions about the U.S. Constitution, civil liberties and current events. And if they can throw in a "go Drillers" reference, so much the better.
"As majority whip, I may represent one side," said the House's No. 3 Republican leader during a recent interview. "But I go and get bipartisan questions by people who are happy to do it."
True to his word, McCarthy, over the seven years of the competition, has convinced several of his colleagues to take five from their leading-the-free-world schedules to tape segments in honor of Warren, the former governor of California, chief justice of the United States and Bakersfield High's most accomplished graduate.
The roster has included Capitol Hill pals like Speaker John Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John Thune.
He's also landed then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former first lady Laura Bush, newspaper columnist and television pundit George Will, and television newswomen Diane Sawyer and Greta Van Susteren.
McCarthy's marching orders this year: Get a Supreme Court justice.
He got two.
Which ones? Therein lies the rub for Adams, who is eager to fill the Harvey Auditorium, but not so eager as to give away the identities of this year's celebrity inquisitors. It seems the students prefer to be surprised when, throughout the night, a face more famous than the last pops up on screen to ask about the Federalist Papers or 24th Amendment.
But Adams has thought this thing through and believes he's arrived at a compromise that will preserve the students' curiosity while tantalizing potential audience members:
"I've had this vision of what the article is going to look like. Just say an Oscar winner, two members of the Supreme Court, a Wall Street legend, a former vice presidential nominee.
"That's the teaser."
One confirmed video guest who can be revealed -- thanks to a super -excited parent who let his enthusiasm get away from him -- is California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Surprised or not, Adams said, students nonetheless are thrilled that the man who leads the most populous state in the nation took time away from that whole high-speed rail thing to participate.
But there will be another governor of another huge state represented as well. A sort of bookend to Brown, at least philosophically.
And Adams promises to keep that one a secret.
Out of nowhere
Like all students in Adams' advanced placement government classes, Darien Key knew about the cup well before he was eligible to enter during his senior year. The competition is a big deal at BHS; perhaps not Driller football big , but big. Key recalled a classmate who spent 72 hours over the Thanksgiving break cramming for the quiz. And she still didn't win.
"I remember the buzz leading up to it. It was really, really competitive and there was a lot of excitement -- like a big football game, I would imagine," said Key, a 2011 BHS grad who is majoring in history at San Diego State, the first stop in a meticulously crafted life plan that includes law school and, eventually -- if future voters concur -- a career in politics.
Never having seen one of the competitions, Key entered the 2010 Earl Warren Cup entirely unprepared for the gut-churning, sweat-pouring cerebral slugfest. But after shuffling through the first couple of rounds in a daze, Key perked up when a squinty Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- doing his most menacing Terminator monotone -- challenged the student caught in the cross-hairs to answer why he, a native Austrian, can't be president.
"I kind of expected what it was going to be like," said Key, 20. "But the real scenario was much more than I anticipated."
Not favored to win -- he was seeded 12th among 32 competitors -- Key survived to the final round, squaring off against the young woman who would eventually be named class valedictorian.
And to the astonishment of no one more than himself, he won.
"I was the first person to win who wasn't in the top five seeds. I came out of nowhere and everyone was like, 'Who's this?'"
Pulse of patriotism
It's that element of nail-biting suspense that makes watching so engrossing, said Adams, not to mention the pressure he puts on himself to pump up the spectacle at each successive cup. One year, he inveigled BHS Principal David Reese to drop in -- from the rafters, dangling from a harness.
"It's kind of a cross between a quiz show and Las Vegas razzmatazz," said Adams, 37, a BHS grad himself. "It raises the pulse of our patriotism."
Making civics accessible to his class -- while celebrating the brainiacs on campus -- was the impetus for the Earl Warren Cup and the general philosophy that guides Adams, a published author, award-winning educator and the kind of "Dead Poets Society"-style teacher who goes around quoting inspirational figures from history to light a fire under his students. Take this words-to-live-by sentiment Adams fired off in the middle of an interview:
"It's like Martin Luther King said: 'The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' But we do the work to bend it toward justice. We only do that work if we're inspired to do it. That's where I hope the Earl Warren Cup can be a vehicle for that kind of inspiration."
McCarthy, for one, is a believer in Adams' brand of education.
"I just think Jeremy deserves a lot of credit," McCarthy said. "He's changing lives."
Among the young people Adams has influenced is McCarthy's own son, Connor, a second-generation Driller who made a vow after seeing his first Earl Warren Cup competition as a freshman:
"He said, 'Dad, I'm going to win this thing when I'm a senior," the congressman recalled.
Though Connor came up just short of his goal during the 2011 competition -- the winner that year was Amelia Egland -- the experience has stayed with him at Georgetown University, McCarthy said. In fact, when father and son attended the 2013 presidential inauguration together, both were in scouting mode.
The two struck up a conversation with a pair of Supreme Court justices, scoring an invite back to their chambers for lunch. After getting chummy with the black-robed duo, McCarthy and his son went in for the kill, getting a commitment that both would ask questions. And, in a true Warren Cup coup, one of the justices agreed to recite the Preamble to the Constitution and share some personal Warren stories.
"Every year all the kids get so excited," McCarthy said. "Every high school in Kern County should do this, and then they could do a Kern County championship."
Adams is all for other schools holding their own Earl Warren competitions. But he does offer a word of warning: The commitment that goes into running the event is considerable, especially the time involved in compiling the 500-odd questions. Every PowerPoint, every assignment, every aside uttered during a lecture -- it's all fair game.
"God, yes, it's hard," said Adams, who relies on contest assistant and fellow BHS teacher Kevin Reynier for help.
"Without Kevin, this event absolutely could not happen. Not only his presence on the stage keeping score, but all of the coordination with Rep. McCarthy's office getting the questions, a willingness to do anything, and most of all, his love for the event.
"A lot of the questions have to be recycled. There's only so many things I can teach. I will ask questions different ways. There's a lot of tweaking -- not twerking -- that's a Miley Cyrus thing."
The competition is so taxing that Adams took last year off so that he could promote his book and the students could focus on the presidential election. With two jobs -- he's been at BHS for 15 years and has taught classes at Cal State Bakersfield for seven years -- he's not sure how long he'll have the stamina to continue the competition. But then he hears accounts of how the Earl Warren Cup has affected his former students, and it renews his commitment. Take the testimonial of 2011 winner Key:
"This competition made me realize that I was one of the kids with the ability to do things, so why don't I do them?"
And there are plenty more like Key taking the stage Wednesday, Adams said.
"I think if people want to feel good about their community and feel good about young people, if you want to change that narrative even for one night, you will leave the Earl Warren Cup feeling better about young people and the community than when you came. I think if you want a field day for optimism, the Earl Warren Cup is it."
Adams already has a start on his wish list for next year:
"The number one person we'd ever like to have ... is Stephen Colbert."
McCarthy had better start working the phones.