I'd imagined liveblogging the National Centrist Meeting 2006 (convened yesterday at Teddy Roosevelt's birthplace on East 20th Street by the Centrist Coalition), but when it turned out to be twelve people in shirtsleeves sitting elbow to elbow around one conference table in an otherwise empty little auditorium, it would have been awkward to be clicking away, especially since Rick Heller was recording the meeting for a podcast. When I walked in a few minutes late (I couldn't resist walking up from the Village), it looked like an early read-through of an existentialist play about the Last Supper. (UPDATE: Michael Reynolds has blurry photos, and lots more.)
It was only my third experience of meeting blogfriends in the flesh: Coalition cofounder Rick Heller, with whom I've communicated not only about centrist politics but about consciousness, the brain, and Intelligent Design; Jeremy Dibbell, indispensable go-to guy on the redistricting issue at Charging RINO; Michael Reynolds, whose mighty Mighty Middle has graced this blog with periodic flurries of mutual admiration. There are always surprises; writers in particular will surprise you, since they (we) often project a persona made of words that is significantly different from our corporeal presence. Michael is a big guy but physically stiller, more reserved and soft-spoken than his writing persona would lead you to expect -- an incendiary bomb wrapped in chamois cloth. (It's his cellphone that sounds like his writing persona; several of us jumped halfway across the room when it went off.) John Avlon, author of Independent Nation, surprises in the other direction, by being much more extroverted and personable -- and younger -- than writing can convey. Now relinquishing his column at The New York Sun to go back to work for Rudy Giuliani, for whom he was speechwriter at the time of 9/11, he's so direct and easily eloquent in person that it's hard not to imagine him going into politics himself.
Alan Stewart Carl surprised me by being just like I'd imagined him. He looks so much like he sounds that I think I could've picked him out of a lineup: so fresh, open, and eager he's almost radiant. Well, I've got to stop this before I embarrass everybody and set a dangerous precedent ("My God, she's so much older than she sounds!").
Only two of us were women. The other was Gabrielle Lichterman, a freelance writer for women's magazines by trade (as I was for many years) with a remarkable political pedigree: her grandmother was Eleanor Roosevelt's speechwriter!
All right, from ad hominem/feminam to substance:
There's a howling hunger in the country for an urgent, ethical, accountable, post-partisan politics. And there's a huge vacuum of organizations and institutions in that center. The entrenched wings remain powerful for the same reason they're corrupted and played out: inertial momentum. Dead men walking, propelled forward in their deep-dug ruts by the pendulous sway of cash in their pockets.
You have to throw a strand across a void before you can start building a bridge. The Centrist Coalition has the advantage of being a strand that already exists. A 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, it's the creation of two information-age Renaissance men, Rick Heller and Bill Swann (to the best of my knowledge: if I have left someone out please let me know), and has nurtured centrist thinking, discussion and research through the dark ages of partisanship on its homepage and its blog, Centerfield. It's been humming along, an organization in waiting for its moment, and that moment is now.
The purpose of the meeting (my interpretation) was to activate the Centrist Coalition as a significant force in the coming realignment. We pledged to define and advocate strong centrist principles; to identify and support (with both words and money) authentic centrist officeholders and candidates of both or neither party; to identify and defeat the most partisan and corrupt incumbents and wannabes; to find ingenious, potent ways to reach out to the huge numbers of fed-up voters and get them involved and to the polls. I'm bursting to spill some of the bright ideas that were raised at the meeting, but that won't be the most effective way to roll them out. We'll surprise you.
A highlight of the meeting was a conversation John Avlon had arranged over Blackberry speakerphone (!) with Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's political strategist and White House chief of staff. Jordan was very supportive of what we're doing. He's as critical of the Democrats as of the Republicans, and expressed a sense of alarm and urgency about the state of the country -- he said at this rate within a short generation we'll be a second-rate power, not only politically and economically but scientifically: we're losing our edge in research and innovation (Jordan, a three-time cancer survivor, serves on the boards of biotech companies and is an advocate and philanthropist for cancer patients). He noted that in a new poll an unprecedented plurality of respondents, 43 percent, said they could support an independent candidate for President.
Look for other angles on yesterday's meeting at the blogs linked above. Here's Michael. Here's Jeremy. And here's a ringing challenge from Alan Carl, the Coalition's new executive director: "Those of us in the middle need to realize that our silent acquiescence has disenfranchised us. That we need to stand up. That we in fact have the power to stand up and make a difference because we have numbers on our side."
Expect to hear a lot more from the Centrist Coalition.
cross-posted at Donklephant