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NPR’s Political Junkie Road Show 2013, Inauguration Edition

January 19, 2013

Any event that starts with a joke about Washington D.C.’s William Henry Harrison weather has to be a good time, right? Thus opened National Public Radio’s Political Junkie Road Show 2013, Inauguration Edition at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in my favorite city in the world. For me, the evening was a great chance to visit somewhere new, see famous people and have a few laughs.

Neal Conan (host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation) and Ken Rudin (NPR’s political editor) hosted the evening, which included about a dozen guests over two-and-a-half hours. The pace was just right for my attention span, and the setting seemed to have a great view from any location. Panels included NPR political correspondents, newspaper columnists, presidential speechwriters, a Supreme Court watcher (Nina Totenberg!), current and former members of Congress, and television personalities including Ted Koppel who opened with a very funny imitation of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Koppel subsequently ignored questions from the Political Junkie Road Show hosts, which was also very funny in its way. I guess it’s hard to answer questions when you’re accustomed to asking them. Still, it was pretty cool to be in the same room with the guy my Dad was devoted to watching every night during the 80s. I sent Dad a grainy iPhone picture of Koppel from the synagogue’s upper balcony.

Speechwriters for Presidents Clinton and Bush 43 offered opposite perspectives on their Inauguration speechwriting efforts. Paul Glastris (Clinton) was asked how he felt when Clinton spoke a line that Glastris had written but spoke it with the wrong emphasis. Glastris said he was thrilled whenever Clinton actually read a line written down for him. That got a big laugh. Glastris claimed the speechwriting team was always working to make Clinton’s speech sound lofty, and Clinton “would drag it back down to the ground.” Michael Gerson, President Bush’s speechwriter, said that the process leading up to the Inauguration speech was very orderly, and it became hard to edit the document the closer the team was to the event.

I especially enjoyed listening to a panel of three former and current members of Congress. This surprised me. I usually can’t stand hearing politicians regurgitating their stump speeches, but the three members had some interesting perspectives.

Robert Walker, a former Republican member of Congress from Pennsylvania, said he ran one of Richard Nixon’s Inauguration balls and was responsible for turning the area around the Natural History Museum’s elephant in the center of the lobby into a really long bar. This wasn’t Walker’s greatest Congressional achievement, of course, but it got a big laugh from the audience. Moving on, Walker said that the Republican Party doesn’t have a strategy. He acknowledged Newt Gingrich’s contention that confrontation wins elections, but Walker said Congress can’t be run that way. Walker, a lobbyist now, said that Congress needs to get back to regular order that starts with consensus in committees and subcommittees to bring bills to the floor.

Rick Nolan (D-MN), is a former (1975-1981) and re-elected-for-2013 member of Congress from Minnesota. He was described as the Rip Van Winkle of politics for returning after thirty years to a changed Congressional world. During Nolan’s first terms in the 70s, Congress was scheduled to work 48 of 52 weeks with the work weeks lasting 4-5 days. Nolan said that the current Congress is scheduled to work for 34 of 52 weeks, and the work weeks will each be about 2 ½ days. The need to fundraise back in one’s district was noted as the main reason for the less-meaty Congressional schedule. Nolan also noted, “I always had a Republican partner in getting legislation enacted.” Changed times, indeed.

Kyrsten Sinema, a newly-elected Democrat from Arizona, was also onstage. She was the antithesis of what I expect a member of Congress to look and act like. She was young, attractive, engaging, and not afraid to make jokes. She was also wearing super-funky glasses that I imagine will get her stopped the first few times she tries to enter the member area of the House chamber. The first openly bisexual non-theist elected to Congress, Sinema has a fascinating story besides all that. She said that Congress is being charged by the voters with compromising, but no reward exists for doing so. She also said that the role of social media makes it difficult to achieve the deliberation and time to “hash it out” that Nolan enjoyed in the 70s and Walker was calling for. Sinema said, “It’s on twitter before you know how you just voted.”

Earlier in the night, Eric Deggans, a media critic for The Tampa Bay Times, said “People don’t just want fact-checking. They want truth-checking.” In a way, social media encourages that. In another way, it is the bane of rational existence. It sure is fun, though. I managed not to tweet during the Political Junkie Road Show but only because I was having such a good time.

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