Tuesday, March 30, 2010

VaBook10: A Conversation from Left and Right

Those who have been following my other blog (Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, not Where Are the Copy Editors?) know that I was guest blogging for the 2010 Virginia Festival of the Book.  Over the five days of the festival, I posted several "short takes" -- video interviews with various authors about their books.  As I did last November at the National Press Club's annual book fair and authors' night, and again in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I asked authors to (1) state their names, (2) say the titles of their books, and (3) explain why I -- or any viewer -- would want to read the book, all in 45 to 60 seconds.

Needless to say, the Virginia Festival of the Book offered an abundance of smart, witty, and -- on occasion -- loquacious authors who were generous with their time and eager to tell people about their books.

In consideration of the layout and format of my book review blog, I decided that I will post the long-form video (recordings of complete panel discussions) here rather than there, because it seems to fit better.

The first long video I have -- in 13 segments covering nearly 90 minutes of intelligent discussion -- comes from a panel at the book festival sponsored by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.  Titled "A Conversation from Left and Right: With Hendrik Hertzberg and Richard Brookhiser," the event was moderated by the Institute's executive director, Bob Gibson, and introduced by Coy Barefoot, who works at the Institute by day and hosts a drive-time radio talk show on WINA-AM in Charlottesville.

As indicated in the event title, the featured discussants were authors Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review whose most recent book is a memoir called Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, and Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor at The New Yorker, whose most recent book is ¡OBÁMANOS!: The Birth of a New Political Era.

In keeping with the philosophy of the Sorensen Institute, Brookhiser and Hertzberg engaged in a civil discussion about the Founding Fathers, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, civility and incivility in politics from the 18th century to today, election law reform, health care, Tea Parties, and various current issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and -- prodded by a question from Coy Barefoot -- the Texas state school board's decision to remove references to Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum.

Hertzberg has written about his Charlottesville experience in an entry on his New Yorker politics blog called "Reconciliation Philadelphia Style."  For those who prefer audio to video, the Sorensen Institute has posted a podcast of the conversation, noting that there were over 200 people in the audience at the Culbreth Theatre on March 20.

In the first segment, Coy introduces the Sorensen Institute, noting that it was "founded in 1993 to identify, train, and inspire emerging leaders" from around Virginia, and then the panelists.  Then the moderator, Bob Gibson, thanks the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and various financial contributors who made the event possible.  His first question posed to Hertzberg and Brookhiser is "something foundational," because both panelists have written about the nation's founding.  He asks:  "What would our nation's Founders do if they had to do it all over again under today's conditions?  And, would, for example, today's partisan gridlock alarm them, and what would please them?"

Brookhiser takes the first shot at the question; Hertzberg responds in the second segment.
Part II:
The dialogue about Gibson's first question continues in Part III, followed by a new question, addressing whether we are in a downward spiral of political incivility today and whether there is a "prescription" for getting out of it. Hertzberg answers first in this case, saying that he "deplores" Fox News and Glenn Beck, and that political fundraising is "soul killing" for Senators and congressmen.
In Part IV, Gibson gives what he calls the "last initial question" before he begins taking questions from the audience. He asks: "Do you think each of your publications [meaning The New Yorker and National Review] have remained faithful to their origins?"
Part V begins with a question from the audience, pointing out with regard to electoral districts, gerrymandering requires candidates to run to the left or the right in order to win nominations in districts that are more or less ideologically homogeneous. Hertzberg takes the opportunity to talk about proportional representation and, later, preference voting, wondering "why no state has experimented" with this type of democracy.
In Part VI, Bob Gibson interjects another question: "In the globalization of the economies that we share today, America and China are joined at the bank. Is it troubling to you that our democracy is tied to their form of government through the financing system?" Brookhiser pauses before answering that "this question may look very different in five or ten years." Hertzberg notes that even though the Communist Party is still in charge in China, "Communism is dead."
Part VII begins with a question from former University of Connecticut professor David RePass, who suggests that the Founding Fathers would wonder, "What have you done" to the Constitution? He refers to the 2000 election and the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore and to the Senate's requirement for 60 votes in order to do business. He also suggests that the Bill of Rights does not apply to corporations, and plugs an op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times in March 2009 about the filibuster.

The first response to RePass's several points comes from Hendrik Hertzberg, who says he agrees "with all that." Brookhiser says the filibuster is a "complicated question," and that the House of Representatives is actually less democratic than the Senate is. He repeats an anecdote about Newt Gingrich found in Right Time, Right Place, in which Gingrich predicted in 1994 that his speakership would be based not on that of Joseph Cannon but rather on "Czar" Thomas Reed, who ran the house with an iron fist (or iron gavel?).
Part VIII is very short and is transitional, as Brookhiser finishes up his comments from the previous segment with a reflection on the election of 1872, when Republicans lost about 100 seats in Congress and which marked the beginning of Jim Crow.
The truncated question at the beginning of Part IX is about "fixing the language of the Second Amendment." Brookhiser answers first, with a discourse on the origins of the Bill of Rights.
In Part X, an audience member asks about "the nature of the American people." He points out people "not in this room" are susceptible to demagoguery. "Are we getting the democracy we deserve?," he asks.

Brookhiser answers that he is "sure people in this room are susceptible to demagoguery. I'm sure we all are." He also refers to the famous essay by Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hertzberg then turns the question to ask why we don't have national health care, as they do in Europe, saying that our institutions don't transmit the will of the people. (This discussion took place one day before the House of Representatives voted on the massive health care bill.)
Part XI begins with Gibson asking Hertzberg what he thinks about President Obama's standing today. Hertberg predicts that, no matter what happens with the health care vote, Democrats will lose a great many seats in November.
In Part XII, a "lapsed journalist" asks about "government by ballot initiative," which he suggests has caused many problems in California. He wonders why ballot initiatives, "which appeal to extremes," have not caught on elsewhere. Hertzberg points out that initiative began in the Progressive era, when states were so corrupt that citizens needed a way to get around the legislature.
In the concluding segment (Part XIII), Rick Hertzberg answers a question about the Texas Board of Education, pointing out that the United States was founded by people who do not share the religious leanings of that board's members, mentioning that Washington, Jefferson, and others were deists.

The last questioner from the audience recalls that when he was growing up, parties were bigger tents. He names liberal Republicans like Jacob Javits and notes there were conservative Democrats, too. Hertzberg asserts that the Democratic party is now a "center-left coalition" while Republicans are like a "disciplined, European party of the Right."
In this segment, Brookhiser looks back in history and remembers earlier times when there was a "frenzy" about politics, "if not polarization." The conversation more or less ends with that thought, and applause from the audience.

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