Friday, July 31, 2009

New Job for Former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales

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Statement from Board Chair, Dr. Carmen Sigler

At the start of the year, I think we all had a strong sense that this would be a major year of transition and challenge. Well, the first six months of the year have certainly been. All nonprofits, including foundations, have been challenged to learn how to do more with less, work smarter and more effectively. During times like this, it is equally true that organizations need strong leadership and solid governance.We are fortunate to have both because this has also been a time of transition for the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley (HFSV).

Three years ago, the HFSV hired its first executive director, Teresa Alvarado. Since that time, the HFSV has evolved as an organization and philanthropic partner to individuals, institutions and our region's nonprofit organizations. In March, Teresa notified the board of directors that she would be leaving the HFSV to pursue a new path. We thank her for her dedication to and exemplary leadership of the HFSV and wish her the best in her endeavors.The HFSV board of directors has been fully engaged in leading an effective transition process. I want to thank each and every one of them for their commitment to identifying and recruiting a talented and proven leader who will continue our work of inspiring community philanthropy and engaging people to invest in the health, educational achievement, and leadership development of a thriving Hispanic community in Silicon Valley.We have found such a leader. On behalf of the HFSV board of directors, I am proud to introduce our new President & CEO, Ron Gonzales.

Gonzales brings more than 35 years of private and public sector management experience to the position. In addition to being an executive at the Hewlett- Packard Company, he served on the Sunnyvale City Council (1979-87) and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors (1989-97), and he was Mayor of San José from1999 to 2006. After completing two terms as Mayor, Gonzales founded two entrepreneurial companies, Presencia, LLC, and Presencia Technology, LLC."The Board and I are extremely pleased with our selection of Ron. We picked Ron because he brings the experience, skill, and passion we need to expand the foundation's efforts to strengthen our Hispanic community of Silicon Valley," said Carmen Sigler, president of the HFSV board of directors. "I'm very excited about this opportunity with the Hispanic Foundation to continue my lifelong commitment to public service," said Gonzales. "The board has a clear vision and it has already developed a comprehensive strategy to expand the foundation's scope and effectiveness over the coming years that will help our entire community."

Carmen Sigler,
Board Chair
Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley

Cash for Clunkers: P.J. O'Rourke Told You So

“You are going to be amazed at the number of clunkers in this country if you’re getting cash for clunkers," prophesied P. J. O’Rourke when he spoke at The Commonwealth Club on June 11. "You think there are a lot of clunkers now? I mean, I mow my lawn and I can find three. They’re going to be coming out of the woodwork, from under every deck, from behind every barn.”

And yesterday, less than a week after the Cash for Clunkers program began, there were talks in Congress of suspending the program because it had become too popular, using up its allocated $1 billion much more quickly than expected. But the program is still going strong after the U.S. House of Representatives voted today to give an emergency $2 billion to the program.

The program offers people up to $4,500 in rebates if they trade in their gas-guzzler for a more efficient vehicle. However, the real goal behind this legislation was not to help the environment, but rather to boost the struggling auto industry. Whether the program’s allocated budget is used up in 6 days or 6 months, the goal is still reached. So it seems the focus should be less on suspending a flawed program than figuring out how to fund a successful one.

Maybe Congress could invite O’Rourke to join the discussion, since he seems to enjoy talking about the number of clunkers out there. “I’ll bet people will be smuggling clunkers across the Mexican border,” O’Rourke told The Club, “and I know they have a lot of clunkers in Mexico.”

--By Camille Koué

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Balancing Carbon Reduction and Economic Growth

The poorest people of the world will undoubtedly be affected the most by climate change and the current global economic crisis, according to Kathy Sierra, the vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. Ironically, climate change will have a disproportionate impact on the poor in developing countries, who even though they have done the least to cause it, are the least prepared to deal with it and will suffer the soonest and perhaps the most from it, she told The Commonwealth Club’s Climate One audience this past Tuesday.

In conversation with The Club’s Climate One Director Greg Dalton and Awais Khan, the director of KPMG’s Clean Tech Venture Capital Practice, Sierra outlined the new dual mandate of the World Bank: help the world’s poor and simultaneously confront global climate change issues. In short, she said, successful global carbon reduction and economic growth, inextricably linked, will require “finance, technology, partnerships and a new way of thinking about development.”
When Dalton asked how the current financial crisis is affecting the work of the World Bank, Sierra responded, “It is harder now, because there is less capital out there.”

Sierra responded to queries about the bank’s mission and it major accomplishments by explaining how the bank seeks to get “knowledge out there, bring together different financial flows, and create partnerships.” She said the World Bank is strongly urging developing nations -- including India, China, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa -- to consider the changes that need to be made to reduce their carbon footprint and create better energy efficiency. She cited Mexico as an example of where climate change is being tackled aggressively. With a loan from the World Bank, Mexico is transforming urban transport, working on its rapid-bus mass transport system to get cars off the road and implement a lower emissions bus system. She noted that if they are successful there, other Latin American countries will surely take their lead and consider that those solutions might work for them as well.

Sierra lauded the efforts of Turkey as a leader in sustainable energy development. She said that Turkey is very interested in meeting European standards and that the World Bank is working closely with it to introduce smart grids and other energy-saving advancements.

Khan added that the private sector supplements World Bank efforts by looking at attractive technologies and commercializing them. He described some of the most promising energy-saving technologies currently being funded by Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists: the electric car in China, waste management technologies, and plastics recycling. “However,” he added, “the World Bank is more active than we think in Silicon Valley.” He emphasized how closely the bank must work with the governments of countries to implement change of any kind. When asked what corporations can do to help lower negative environmental emissions, Khan responded, “they can do a lot.” He used Nike as an example of a company that has pulled back from regions of the world where energy standards are lower.

With its new climate-change agenda, Sierra said the World Bank is taking more risks. She said that many developing countries, as well, are now more likely to take risks because they want diversified energy portfolios.

Knowledge, partnerships and financial packages are crucial to orchestrating the critical changes the World Bank believes need to take place. “Part of our collective job is to get the cleanest technologies in place,” Sierra said. “Our mission at the World Bank is not just to help countries do no harm, but to help them get on the right path and move toward cleaner energy solutions. It’s already happening in wind and geothermal. ... The big challenge now is how to scale it up. It’s very expensive, time-consuming -- and complicated -- but do-able. ... Carbon credits and microfinancing, this is where the world is going.”

With 1.6 billion people in developing countries living without access to electricity, Sierra said that those countries’ leaders are more motivated than ever to provide their citizens with electricity. Moving to cleaner energy will be attractive to them, especially if there is financing and technology available. Helping these countries to get on this low-carbon growth path is key to sustainable development and poverty reduction and, therefore, key to the mission of the World Bank.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

The Great Bicycle Challenge

Is it possible to shift America’s car-centered culture toward alternate means of transportation? A June panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley explored the many facets of improving the use of bicycling and public transportation and highlighted recent achievements.

“[T]…there exists considerable room for the bicycle to realize its environmental, its health and congestion benefits when it’s increasingly integrated with transit services,” said panelist Kevin Krizek, associate professor of planning and design at of the University of Colorado.

Last year’s passage of the California Complete Streets Act reiterated the notion that streets aren’t just for cars anymore. Cities and counties are now required to include policies establishing that roadways are designed to safely accommodate all users, including bicyclists and transit riders. In the Bay Area, Bike to Work Day has seen a 36-percent increase in participation in the last year, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition have both enjoyed steadily increasing membership. Even the Department of Motor Vehicles is in the process of updating its handbook to include more information about bicyclists and pedestrians.

As bicycling continues to appeal to a growing population that is concerned with climate change, soaring gas prices and other car-related expenses, figuring out how it can be improved upon in conjunction with public transit has become a major point of discussion and research among transportation agencies, engineers, and bicycle-advocacy groups.

As European cities like such as Holland and Paris have inspired U.S. cities to bike, the hope is for national standouts like the Bay Area and Boulder, Colorado, to set the tone for the rest of the country.

“One question I have for us in this room is: Can we make a difference?” the Federal Transit Administration’s Alex Smith asked the Commonwealth Club crowd. “Is this just a bunch of bureaucratic-speak or does this actually translate into results?”

So far, it does. In San Francisco, nearly six percent of daily trips are made by bicycle, according to a 2008 Municipal Transit Agency (MTA) report. And the SFBC celebrated a long-awaited victory last month when the SF Board of Supervisors agreed to support the resolution urging city departments to prioritize completion of the City Bike Plan, which has been stalled by a court injunction for the past three years. The resolution identifies bicycling as a “key component” of San Francisco’s Transit First policy, as well as the City’s Climate Change Action Plan.

Accordingly, mass transit agencies such as Caltrain, BART, and the MTA are experiencing an increase in ridership. Caltrain even reported that bicyclists are their fastest-growing rider segment, and 80 percent of them bring their bikes on board. Limited budgets make finding funds to accommodate the need for bike-friendly buses and trains difficult, but Caltrain has made major improvements since adopting SFBC’s Bikes on Board policy in 2007, which added bikes-only cars to most of its trains and removing seats in others. According to a presentation by Bikes on Board founder and former Bicycle Commuter of the Year Shirley Johnson, a 48-percent increase in bicycle boardings was seen following the change.

The city of San Jose has done considerable work in getting people to bike and take transit, by adding bike lanes, offering subsidies to employees who take public transit, and providing bicycle storage facilities at many work places. Even smog-filled, car-dependent Los Angeles was able to get more people to turn to public transportation when the city implemented a major overhaul of its rapid transit system in 2005.

But biking advocates say that there is still a long way to go. Beyond all the red tape and funding shortfalls, many people are still reluctant to get on a bike for simple reasons: Time, space, and safety.

Storage security and capacity constraints compound the issue of transporting bikes onboard transit all of the time, making people hesitant to rely on the existing system. Poorly marked bike lanes, unaware drivers and quick-moving traffic also top the list of reasons not to get on the bike. Moreover, latent demand and perception come into play: Many people simply don’t know what’s available and how they can use it.

While it’s clear that an increasing number of city and state agencies and advocacy groups are making cleaner, more efficient means of transportation a priority, the methods that should be used are up for debate. Options being discussed include taxing gasoline to allocate funds specifically for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, more comprehensive research, increased education, and creating new – albeit more expensive – infrastructure are all options.

Advocates say that for the small, vocal, roughly two-percent of people already bicycling and taking transit, things can only get better. For those still relying on cars, things must get better or they will never change. The Federal Transit Administration reports that more than half of U.S. residents live within two miles of a transit station; maybe getting these people out of their cars, on to a bike and to a station shouldn’t be so difficult, but it comes slowly to a nation that has relied on the increased mobility allowed by motor vehicles for the past century.

Though America may never mirror the bicycle haven of Amsterdam, one day it could certainly look a little more like the Bay Area.

Listen to streaming audio of the Commonwealth Club's bicycle summit.

--Heather Mack

Patty Duke Tells All

(Photos by Beth Byrne)

On July 27, Oscar winning actress and mental-health advocate Patty Duke packed the house at The Commonwealth Club. In conversation with KCBS entertainment reporter Jan Wahl, Duke spoke candidly about her troubled childhood and shared some of her most personal moments with the audience.

She began by discussing her upbringing in New York City, and how at age seven she was sent to live with Doug and Ethel Ross, the couple who are in part responsible for her fame -- and also her misfortune. The Rosses changed her name from Anna Marie to Patty, and at age 16 she was cast to play Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Duke spoke fondly of Anne Bancroft, with whom she worked with on the film. “Mostly what she did was that she allowed me to know she loved me unconditionally,” Duke said.

Though she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Keller, Duke’s life was beginning to fall apart. During filming of “The Miracle Worker,” the Rosses introduced Duke to alcohol, and she says she began drinking alongside them. Around the same time, she says she became a victim of sexual abuse at the hand of the Ross’. Though it wasn’t easy, in order to move forward with her life, Duke said she had to come to terms with that: “For my own health, I had to forgive them completely.”

On a lighter note, Duke discussed her experiences in Hollywood -- a place she said is very different today than it was during her time. She recalled her adoration for Gregory Peck, noting, “It was like God talking to me” when he spoke. She also offered her opinions on fellow childhood stars, like Michael Jackson, and said she felt a common bond with many others who started out as children. “Michael never understood what he was worth,” she observed.

Duke also spoke of her mental health, which she has openly discussed with the public for quite some time. At age 35, she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, a diagnosis that was “the beginning of being able to really sort things out,” according to the actress. The purpose of the subsequent books she has authored on the subject was to “shed some light on one person’s experience with mental illness who has had a very positive recovery.”

Though she has enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood, Duke said her happiest moment was meeting her husband of almost 24 years, calling him “her ultimate blessing.” When asked by Wahl what she hoped people would take away from the discussion, Duke again emphasized the importance of mental-health issues. She wants the issue “to be part of the march against mental illness, because mental health is what our lives are mostly about now.” When Wahl asked how she made it through it all, Duke replied, “Due to the kindness of the universe, and the kindness of many, many people along the way”.

A star from stage to screen, her credits run the gamut -- ranging from her first Academy Award winning role in “The Miracle Worker” (1962) to her character as “Madam Morrible” in the current San Francisco touring production of the blockbuster smash Broadway hit "Wicked." Duke, the second woman to be elected president of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild, is perhaps best known and beloved for starring as herself in the 1960’s popular TV comedy series "The Patty Duke Show."

At age 16, Patty Duke was the youngest actor to win an Academy Award in 1962 for her portrayal of the blind and deaf Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” She has appeared in numerous movies and television series since then, including “My Sweet Charlie,” “Valley of the Dolls,” and more recently, “Judging Amy” and “Touched by an Angel.” During the 1960’s Duke also had a successful singing career, with several of her songs landing on the Top 40 charts.

In 2007 Patty Duke was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the University of North Florida for her efforts to advance awareness of mental-health issues. She has since become a role model for many individuals suffering from depression and openly discusses her struggles through her activism. It was in her first bestseller, Call Me Anna, in 1988 that Patty Duke revealed her long-kept secret – that she, in fact, suffered from a serious-but-treatable-mental illness called manic depression. In her second book, A Brilliant Madness, which she co-wrote in 1997 with medical reporter Gloria Hochman, she shed light on this destructive illness, sharing what it's like to live with the disorder and the latest findings concerning its most effective treatments.

The actress and mother has also become an ardent spokesperson and political advocate for various issues including the Equal Rights Amendment, AIDS, and nuclear disarmament. She currently lives in Idaho with her husband Michael Pearce.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Oakland Sees $ in Medical Marijuana

It’s hard to believe that Oakland beat notoriously liberal Berkeley on taxing marijuana, but it’s true. Yesterday, Oakland became the first city in the country to approve a medical marijuana tax, with the support of 80 percent of voters. This new development makes the July 30 Club event on the pros and cons of legalized marijuana even more interesting.

Some critics strongly believe that medical marijuana is a farce, simple providing a legal way for pot smokers to obtain their drug of choice. Others passionately name studies that show the important medicinal purposes of marijuana and back them up with personal experiences. But no matter what side you take on the medical marijuana debate, there is no debating the City of Oakland’s need for money. Oakland will now be receiving $18 for every $1,000 of medical marijuana sold, with the total annual tax revenue estimated between $300,000 to $1 million. Since the city’s deficit is around $50 million, some Oaklanders might think it wouldn’t be so bad if doctors wrote more marijuana prescriptions.

--Camille Koué

Should “New Media” Mean New Rules?

We all know that media is changing. Many journalists see that technology is a double-edged sword, streaming important news to us faster than ever before, while also cutting away at trustworthy, ethically obtained news stories.

technology continues to affect the dependability of our information, media ethics will be at the forefront of the conversation. Since the process of gathering, writing and publishing information now takes only minutes, and as the competition to get the story out seconds before your competitors intensifies, is it necessary to relax accepted journalistic standards?The South Carolina newspaper The State recently published e-mails, which it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, between a number of different media outlets and the office of Gov. Mark Sanford. The e-mails contain what is best described as “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” negotiating.

Washington Times Radio staffer Joseph Deoudes wrote Gov. Sanford’s communications director Joel Sawyer promising Gov. Sanford would “be on friendly ground” if he chose to speak on Washington Times Radio. WACH morning anchor Tim Miller promised not to “bash” Gov. Sanford like other media organizations might be apt to do. And ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper sent e-mails to Sawyer saying negative things about NBC’s coverage of Gov. Sanford’s affair, implying that ABC would not project such a disapproving point of view on the subject.

Many journalists and citizens alike have objected to these actions, because they inhibit the public’s access to unbiased information. But many media organizations have argued that these days it’s not so much about getting the news right, but getting the news first.

At a recent Commonwealth Club event on the terrible status of newspapers, Phil Bronstein, Executive Vice President and Editor at Large of the San Francisco Chronicle, talked about how sources have now become citizen journalists. “ You cannot ignore, nor should you ignore, the ubiquity of the public, the access to information that the public has that professional journalists often don’t have,” said Bronstein.

Some news organizations today point out the fact that the same technology that increases the pressure to publish stories first -- and leads to more relaxed vetting of information -- is also increasing the ability of citizens to fact check the information of news stories themselves. People on all sides of the news, from journalists to readers, are having time cut in half: Journalists have half the time they used to, to check the facts. Readers only need half the time they used to, to point out errors.

So maybe our next step is to have journalist print a story as fast as possible and leave it up to the public to check the facts. But then what really is the point of journalism? Perhaps people could just pass around information themselves by writing their own news stories on their own blogs, allowing stories to be as subjective as they want, leaving it up to others to find out what is truth, what is exaggeration and what are simply lies. But there still is one major advantage that real media organizations have over all us bloggers: their legitimacy. As Bronstein pointed out, holding people and organizations accountable is simply not something that bloggers can do with the expediency of legitimate news organizations.

On August 19, The Club will host an event called Predicting the Future of Media. Panelists -- including representatives from YouTube, the Associated Press and the Center for Investigative Reporting -- will discuss what traditional media will have to do to stay in the game while new media keeps changing the rules.

The once most trusted man in America famously said about journalists, “Our job is only to hold up the mirror -- to tell and show the public what has happened.” Many would argue against a change to Walter Cronkite’s standard of journalism without a long hard look at what it will mean for our proud history of freedom of press.

Consider this: A Time Magazine online poll published today shows Jon Stewart as the new most trusted newscaster in America, winning with 44 percent. In second place was Brian Williams with 29 percent, third place went to Charlie Gibson with 19 percent and in fourth place was Katie Couric with 7 percent. This poll is quite telling, because out of all these newscasters, Stewart is the only one whose show, “The Daily Show,” is broadcast on Comedy Central.

A comedian as the new Walter Cronkite? In a way, it makes sense that people would trust a man whose job it is to make fun of people. Unlike the press who embarrassed themselves over the Sanford affair, he is probably less likely to promise any corporation or political party or person “friendly ground” for an interview or agree to allow only positive framing of an issue. Friendly ground and positive framing don’t make for lots of laughter, after all – as Jim Cramer found out when he got a very unfriendly grilling by Stewart earlier this year. And when we are faced with the behavior of the media in Sanford affair, which many have publicly denounced, people might well conclude that it seems smarter to trust a guy who appears to not owe anything to anyone.

--Camille Koué

Thinking Ahead - Two Commendable CA Budget Outcomes

The details of California's budget compromise are just coming to light, and I have heard good news on two fronts. Both demonstrate some laudable long term thinking by our State legislators. I thought I would share the details of these two compromises, as I have been informed about them.

First, a college on whose board I serve reports that Cal Grants, which provide scholarship money for college students who need some financial help, will not be cut (or even eliminated) as had been anticipated in this year's budget. This is of course a relief to colleges that would have either had to spend some of their already diminished endowment money to make up the difference, or cut back on accepting qualified but less financially capable students.

Since education is at the core of California's ability to innovate and solve its problems, cutting back education is cannibalizing the State's future capacity for a vibrant economy, and is truly short-sighted. The cuts that are taking place in the state university and college system are bad enough without eliminating the assistance that supports capable students across both private and public educational institutions.

Just as important, especially for Northern California, the planned high-speed rail system connecting the Bay Area with Southern California will proceed on schedule. A back-door effort to derail the system's planned route down the peninsula south of San Francisco through San Jose, by sending the State's High Speed Rail Authority back to re-study other possible routes, was foiled in the final budget compromise.

The story of this imbroglio has been to some degree reported in the press, but here is perhaps a slightly more detailed version. After extensive study, the northern California route for the system was approved last year, and our region was allocated a first traunch of the $10 billion in state bond money provided through last November's Prop 1A High Speed Rail ballot initiative, AND at least $1.3 billion in federal stimulus money to match and augment the state funds. All of this would go to design, engineering, technology and construction jobs in the Bay Area, and the spillover economic activity that provides throughout the community - which we very much need right now.

But a few residents of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto decided that they didn't want this system running down the CalTrain corridor near their homes. Never mind that their cities had endorsed it last fall, or that part of the project would improve CalTrain including converting it from diesel to electric and putting its grade crossings under ground, making the system quieter and less polluting. This is the same kind of thinking that ensured, back in the 1970s, that BART did not serve the peninsula and South Bay as it does the East Bay.

So just before the 4th of July, someone slipped the directive to restudy the routes in Northern CA into the budget bill, in the closed-door conference committee in Sacramento. No state legislators or their staffs acknowledge being the source of this provision. Had this stayed in the budget bill, the State would have had to go back to restudy the route, delaying the project for at least a year, and in the process losing Northern California's place as first in line to receive bond funds and stimulus money - probably putting the section of the High Speed Rail system from Anaheim to LA in Southern California ahead of us in line to receive the funding. And of course, the jobs and economic benefits would move south right along with the project.

It took an incredible amount of effort rallying HSR supporters and a letter signed by every member of the Bay Area state legislative delegation to get this killer provision out of the budget bill, and it worked. Now it's High Speed Rail (and economic stimulus) for Northern California - full speed ahead!

Of late, one of the elements most lacking in our political process is the ability of our leaders to take actions that will produce desired results in the long-term. If we undercut our own capacities by not building infrastructure and not adequately educating our population, then we are definitely shooting ourselves in the foot, inhibiting our own progress.

I see both of these outcomes as good for the public interest. I commend both our state legislators, and Governor Schwarzenegger, who when he is allowed to do so, provides excellent leadership for the state, for these outcomes.

--Gloria Duffy

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Frank McCourt, 1930-2009


It's been a very rough summer, in terms of the toll of sad obituaries. While much of the country was taken up in the death and funeral of pop singer Michael Jackson, we've seen a number of other deaths recently, including Ed McMahon, Karl Malden, Walter Cronkite, and others. Now, we pass along the sad news that Frank McCourt, the Ireland-born novelist, has passed away at the age of 78.

When McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, spoke to The Commonwealth Club in November 2007, he was full of great stories about his family, meeting the pope, teaching in New York City, and much more. Though his writings went far beyond the popular Angela's Ashes, he will likely always be remembered for that funny and sad tale of growing up desperately poor in Ireland, and his final escape to the New World of New York City, where he would become a teacher.

His childhood was one of incredible deprivation and loss, but his characteristically sardonic humor persisted to the end, as he urged the attendees of his Club speech to "enjoy your misery."

(Photo by Beth Byrne)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite: 1916-2009

When Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy asked retired CBS newsman Walter Cronkite what was his "all-time favorite news story or event" that he'd covered in his legendary career, he replied impishly, "Well, I think actually the victory of the University of Texas in their last major football game ..."

More than two decades removed from his last broadcast as head of the "CBS Evening News," Cronkite at that February 23, 2007, event was full of stories and, as noted above, more than a little tease. After all, this is the man through whom millions of Americans got their news of World War II, the Kennedy assassination and funeral, the moon landings, Watergate, and so much more.

He was the giant in a field of giants, but also a media personality from a time before hundreds of cable channels were available in nearly every home, and before TV news personalities were expected to yell at the camera. "CBS Evening News" was at the pinnacle of the network newscasts, a position it has not held since, but when he spoke to Duffy, he was most concerned about the integrity of news, expressing some worry over whether amateur news reporters (i.e., bloggers) could report news effectively. "There are all these various little news blogs, and they are without supervision," he said. "It's a rather dangerous way for our news to be disseminated."

When he appeared at The Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley in 2007, his advanced years were apparent. Still full of good spirits, a sharp mind taxed by waning hearing, Cronkite told stories of his career, emphatically endorsed journalistic ethics and courage, and discussed whether he could have had an effect on a modern president similar to the effect he had on President Johnson when he urged a pullout from Vietnam.

Asked by Duffy to repeat his famed signoff line from the news, Cronkite first joked about his memory, then complied:

Cronkite: What's the date again? You'd be surprised at how many times I forgot the date before I got on the air. Finally, one of the writers on our evening news program every day was assigned to write the date down and see that it was on my desk before we went on the air.

Duffy: February 23, 2007.

Cronkite: And that's the way it is, February 23, 2007. Good night.

Rest in peace, Walter.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Iran Archive: Shirin Ebadi in 2006

(photo by Paul Eric Felder)

"Iran is a country of contradictions, but you need to be close to the land and live there to understand the contradictions," Shirin Ebadi told The Commonwealth Club of California on May 10, 2006. An Iranian human rights lawyer and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, Ebadi explained that her country has many laws that discriminate against women, yet "over 65 percent of students in universities in Iran are female." She added a note of hope by saying that "laws can change for the better."

In light of the ongoing demonstrations and anti-government protests in Iran that have led to a sharp government crackdown and a persistent split even among the country's religious establishment, Ebadi wouldn't likely be surprised by the heavy presence of women among the protesters. The government has paid attention, most recently arresting a prominent women's rights activist as she headed to the official Friday prayers today.

Ebadi's words still reflect the reality in Iran, though it remains to be seen how that reality will be changed by the events of the past few weeks. "In Iran, democracy is incomplete," she said. "The first step toward democracy is to allow people to elect whoever they want. We lack that freedom."

To get there, she called for greater political pressure -- but not economic or military pressure -- on Iran. In a visit to broadcaster Deutsche Welle's headquarters in Bonn, Germany, she said, "Diplomatic ties must not be severed; instead, the embassies could be downgraded to consulates. This would not harm the Iranian people, but it would illustrate the government's isolation."

To learn more about her thoughts on Iran and its relationship with the rest of the world, listen to the audio of Shirin Ebadi's 2006 Club speech, and audience Q&A, here.

Stimulating Transportation

California has about $1 trillion in infrastructure maintenance needs. So what good can just under $1 billion in federal transportation stimulus funding do for the state?

A lot, according to speakers at a special Commonwealth Club program today on "Transportation and the Stimulus." Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake, with the multiplier effect from their salaries spreading out throughout the state, according to the panel.

The panel discussion, underwritten by AAA of Northern California, Nevada and Utah, and moderated by San Francisco Chronicle transportation reporter Michael Cabanatuan, featured speakers Randell "Randy" Iwasaki, the incoming director of the California Department of Transportation; Joseph Cruz, director of transportation policy and government affairs at The California Alliance for Jobs; and Sean Randolph, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute.

"The Recovery Act couldn't come at a better time for California," said Iwasaki, noting that the roughly $910 million will help the state leverage funds already dedicated to transportation infrastructure on projects large and small. "When the contractor gets the money, ... that's when the rubber meets the road" in terms of job creation by the stimulus, he said.

Randolph noted that the stimulus effect is likely to be muted in 2009, due to the time it takes to choose worthy projects and get them going. "Most of the spending will be in 2010, trailing off into 2011," he said.

"There are very few projects that are 'shovel-ready,'" said Iwasaki, referring to the desired status of projects that would be able to bring the stimulus effect online as soon as possible. He said there's a complex process involved with choosing the project, including where it is located, how many jobs will it create, and what the criteria are from other funding sources.

But even if that stimulus doesn't really get felt until next year, the impact could affect many California families. Cruz estimated that this spending could support 40,000 jobs in the state, and he argued that projects should be chosen that use California-made and -sited project (as opposed to, for example, buying city buses that are manufactured in Detroit).

On a more somber note, Cruz noted that the state will have to be careful how it manages projects that use a combination of federal funds and state taxpayer-approved bond financing. "Our bond rating was downgraded to just above junk status," he noted. That means that the timing of the spend could be crucial, because when California has to go back to the bond markets to sell its next round of transportation bonds, it will be paying a much higher interest rate.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Surprising Truths of Syria: A Filmmakers Perspective

“We are terrorists; we kill visitors with caffeine” – so joke Syrians in the new film “Tea on the Axis of Evil.” The American-born and -bred director and producer of the film, Jean Marie Offenbacher, screened her documentary in its San Francisco premiere to a packed house at The Commonwealth Club July 13.

Following the film, she shared her insider’s look into the life of this complex, post-modern culture, addressing many of the deep-seated myths and stereotypes so many Westerners hold about Syria. In her film, citizens from a wide range of social and religious backgrounds discuss family values, education, politics, and religion. “Syria should be the model for change in the Middle East, but it becomes progressively less progressive as it is left in a diplomatic vacuum. The moderate voices are far more numerous and speak to the great possibility of peace in the region starting with Syria,” observes Offenbacher. “My film provides an intimate passage through Syria that gives voice to moderates as it seeks to build a bridge to greater understanding between our worlds.”

In comments following the screening, she observed, “There is a great deal of religious harmony in Syria. They are a people with strong family values who are very proud of their history. They have a real desire to hold on to their Arabness and their exoticism, which is a true part of their identity.” She said that surprisingly, not only is it extremely safe there, even in the big cities, but strangers are in fact hospitable and helpful, going out of their way to assist a lost or misguided visitor to the area. She also observed that Syrians themselves – even the conservatives – are terrified of Islamic extremists. Despite the vast economic disparities between the very wealthy and the very poor, they are a well-educated people, who export great numbers of doctors and engineers globally.

Offenbacher remarked that Syrians are angry about the stereotypes so many Westerners harbor of them hating Israel blindly. “What they do hate are certain policies of the Israeli government,” she added. When asked about their feelings toward Israel and America, Offenbacher said they responded, “We love America. We are much closer to the Jewish culture than most people.”
When Syria was admitted to President George W. Bush’s expanded “Axis of Evil,” Offenbacher moved there alone, to make her documentary to stimulate curiosity and counter the negative images that dominated the media. “Noting the high level of intolerance post 9/11, I began reflecting on the need for gentle, non-political exchange with members of communities in marginalized zones, to promote recognition of common grounds and understanding of cultural differences,” she said. “I chose Syria, since it was possibly the next target for a U.S.-led invasion.” Over the three years of filming, the government became more repressive and the fear of radical Islam grew.

Offenbacher is currently shooting a documentary in Algeria that explores the relationship between imposed identity and violence. Her other documentary work includes post-production on Ken Burns; “Thomas Hart Benton.” She also worked on several feature films including “Reversal of Fortune” starring Glenn Close, “American Heart” with Jeff Bridges and “The Rapture” featuring David Duchovny. Political artwork she created for WAC toured museums throughout Germany. She has also coordinated production in New York for BBC and Prisma Films. Offenbacher graduated from NYU with honors in Philosophy and Film.

More information is available at

(For an official view of Syria’s politics and place in the world, watch video of Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha, who spoke to The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on November 7, 2007.)

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ideology and Ethnicity: The Supreme Court Debate

As the United States Senate undertakes its examination of President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, issues of ethnicity and ideology on the Court are coming to the fore.

In her opening remarks yesterday to the Senate Judiciary committee considering her nomination to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said, "In the past month, many senators have asked me about my judicial philosophy. It is simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law, it is to apply the law. And it is clear, I believe, that my record ... reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms, interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress's intent and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and by my Circuit Court. In each case I have heard, I have applied the law to the facts at hand."

Sotomayor said the "process of judging is enhanced when the arguments and concerns of the parties to the litigation are understood and acknowledged."

That, she noted, "is why I generally structure my opinions by setting out what the law requires and then explaining why a contrary position, sympathetic or not, is accepted or rejected. That is how I seek to strengthen both the rule of law and faith in the impartiality of our judicial system.”
Sotomayor argued that her "personal and professional experiences help [her] listen and understand, with the law always commanding the result in every case."

However, those who oppose her nomination have said Sotomayor has often allowed her rulings to be influenced by such factors as ethnicity and race. If confirmed, Sotomayor, a federal appellate judge, would be the first Hispanic and the third woman justice to sit on the nation's highest court.

Just recently the American Bar Association released a “well qualified rating” when reviewing Sotomayor’s record. In his July 9 talk to The Commonwealth Club, the ABA's head, H. Thomas Wells, weighed in on her nomination. He was asked to comment on whether a person’s ethnicity should matter in a candidacy for a judgeship. “Obviously that’s going to be an issue as is the whole question of empathy – the so-called empathy debate. The ABA does not rate candidates on empathy or ethnicity. We rate candidates only on professional competence, integrity and judicial temperament.”

In that same talk, when questioned about whether a candidate’s ideology should be a factor in his/her confirmation, Wells responded, “That’s been a debate, and it’s one of the tensions of the branches of government. It’s not that long ago that the senate judiciary committee didn’t hold hearings on judicial nominees. They simply went in and voted, and usually with no controversy. So it’s a relatively modern phenomenon for the hearings to take on unfortunately the level of spectacle that sometimes we have seen with our recent confirmation issues.”

When asked to evaluate the diversity of the upper rankings of the legal profession – especially lawyers who are partners and judges, Wells replied, “Number one, there has been progress, but not nearly enough progress. We have a long way to go.” He continued, “The legal profession, unfortunately, does not look like the society we are called upon on to serve. We don’t do as well as other professions in terms of promoting diversity. Where we have done the best at least in terms of numbers is with women -- at least half of the lawyers graduating from law schools now are female. … But those women are facing other challenges in terms of rising in the ranks. .. and we are not doing a good enough job in racial and ethnic diversity. It’s more difficult in dealing with lawyers with disabiltiies, sexual orientation and gender identity issues, because of the reluctance of these individuals to self identify -- particularly if the disability happens to be a mental disability. We’ve got a long way to go.”

However, Wells noted that the ABA held a national summit just last month on the next steps for diversity. The conclusions of this meeting are slated to be published in a national report some time early August.

To view the complete Wells program, see the embedded video below. The Wells event was part of The Commonwealth Club’s Charles Geschke Family Series on the U.S. Constitution in the 21st Century.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department

Monday, July 13, 2009

China Gets Tough on North Korea

North Korea's best friend -- if the hermetic, authoritarian, communist state can be said to have any friends -- is giving it the cold shoulder. Bloomberg reports that China will, for the first time, agree to punish North Korean leaders in retaliation for Pyongyang's refusal to accept United Nations resolutions on nuclear tests and missile launches.

China has long defended North Korea, perhaps less out of ideological comradeship than out of what is believed to be a desire to keep a unified and likely pro-Western Korea off its borders. But that loyalty has cost the leadership in Beijing. "The failure to develop a consensus in the Chinese capital to use its leverage over North Korea has permitted [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il to repeatedly defy Beijing and the embarrass it," Gordon G. Chang told The Commonwealth Club on May 25, 2007. [Listen to audio of Chang's speech.]

Chang, author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World and columnist for, urged the West to make nuclear proliferation "a litmus test of our relations" with China. "The West has been patiently engaging the Chinese for decades, and now it's time for them to act responsibly."

So what has changed in Beijing? Some observers say that North Korea's recent nuclear detonations and missile tests, reportedly designed to bolster at-home support for Kim Jong Il's youngest son and chosen successor, embarrassed China so much it had to take action. But Leif-Eric Easley writes in the Christian Science Monitor that China's rapid development has led it to diverge from North Korea, its economic model taking it closer to Japan, the United States, and South Korea than to North Korea.

Whatever the reason, China's most recent move to help punish its client state is likely to have significant impact in Pyongyang.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What Will Dambisa Moyo Think: G-8 Promises More Aid to Poor Countries

When Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo spoke at The Commonwealth Club in June, she made clear her contention that rich Western countries should evolve their African development programs away from open-ended commitments of money and toward investment in poor countries in ways that create jobs and strengthen institutions there. [Listen to audio.]
She argued that governments on that continent had grown content and corrupt from the flow of aid dollars, often with few strings attached, and they had no desire or need to actually provide the services their citizens need to create businesses and jobs and civic institutions. Moyo's views have been very controversial, especially among the international aid community, but they have made her an important voice in the debate over how to charge up Africa's development process.

One wonders her reaction to today's news that the G-8 leading economic powers (well, China's the third largest economy and it's not a part of the G-8, so we're going to have to think of another way of referring to that group) has pledged $20 billion over three years to poor countries in an attempt to create "food security." Critics are complaining that much of the aid pledged is recycled from previous commitments, but it might also mark a move toward Moyo's view that investment and not handouts will do more for Africans.

Reuters India reports:

... Obama, travelling to Ghana on his first trip to Africa as president, [used] the L'Aquila summit to push for a shift towards agricultural investment from food aid. Washington will make $3.5 billion available to the 3-year programme.

"There is no reason Africa should not be self-sufficient when it comes to food," said Obama, recalling that his relatives in Kenya live "in villages where hunger is real", though they themselves are not going hungry.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Commonwealth Club's on Twitter!

The Commonwealth Club of California has launched its Twitter service, connecting with our members and other people who like to be informed about the latest in politics, science, art and literature, business, and so much more.

So start following The Club on Twitter and let us know what you think!

The Commonwealth Club's on Facebook!

If you haven't found our Facebook page yet, go to and search for "Commonwealth Club of California" and become a fan!

Get information about upcoming events, join dialogues on interesting topics, and make friends with others who are interested in important topics regarding culture, politics, government, economics, freedom, science, and more.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dambisa Moyo: Replace Victims with Partners

Economist Dambisa Moyo has become a controversial figure in the multi-billion dollar industry of foreign (mostly Western) aid to Africa. She proposes evolving the system from open-ended dumping of dollars on African governments to a system of investment that stimulates African businesses and helps them build trading relationships with other countries, in particular, China.

Moyo discussed her thesis in a June 5, 2009, program at The Commonwealth Club of California. In it, she noted that she has drawn a lot of harsh criticism from people accusing her of favoring dire consequences for the continent. Moyo, who is Zambian, framed her solution in terms of forcing African countries to live up to their responsibilities to provide basic services and opportunities to their peoples, and to seeing Africans as something more than victims unable to provide for their own future.

You can read a long excerpt from Moyo's presentation in the cover story of the September issue of The Commonwealth magazine, which is mailed free to members of The Commonwealth Club. Or you can listen to the entire program from our audio archives.

Just this past weekend, Moyo was a guest on Fareed Zakaria GPS, CNN's world-affairs program, where she traded opinions with another guest on the most effective plans for African development. See the embedded video below: