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Gabfest grabs Grinnell’s attention

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, Grinnell College was hosted a live taping of the Slate Magazine’s “Political Gabfest” podcast, featuring Slate editor David Plotz, CBS Political director John Dickerson and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon.

From left: Emily Baselon, David Plotz and John Dickerson enjoy a Millstream while discussing politics at the Harris Center on Wednesday. Photograph by Roni Finkelstein.

Students, faculty, staff and visitors filled the Harris Center, with some travelers from as far as California and Alaska to hear the show. Executive Producer Andy Bowers introduced the members of the podcast by telling a bit about the foundation of the Political Gabfest podcast in 2005.

“In the beginning, it was me just reading news articles, which got rather dull,” Bowers explained. But he wanted to get away from the conventional talk show after realizing that “political talk shows are too constrained.” With this in mind, Bowers tried to simply recreate the conversations that he heard all around him, in the office and the bars after work.

“At Slate,” he continued, “you can hear really honest arguments in the hallways, whether on or off air.”

The three main topics of the discussion, held in the Harris Cinema Center included the approaching caucuses in Iowa, recent speeches by President Obama and a peculiar Supreme Court case involving former vice-president Cheney, a Secret Service arrest and a shopping mall.

“Newt, Newt, Newt” was a centerpiece of discussion in regards to the caucus campaigns, with his recent popularity rising far above the other key players fighting for the Republican nomination. The trio however, couldn’t see the appeal, with Plotz remarking that Newt has “written more books than he has had wives.” Dickerson also remarked, “if there is one consistent thing, it is that people do not like Romney.” But , they concluded, there is still a lot of campaigning left to be done, something that may benefit more moderate candiates like Romney.

Discussion then moved onto Obama, asking if there is anything that he can do to regain the widespread popularity he held with the youth during the ’08 election. Bazelon didn’t seem to think so, equating Obama’s popularity to a high-school crush.

“You can only have that first love once,” Bazelon said. However, she still stated that during a recent address of Obama’s, “I felt myself wanting to believe in it again.”
The main conversation finished with the case currently under consideration by the Supreme Court of a Colorado man suing several members of the Secret Service, claiming that his 2006 arrest following an interchange with then Vice President Dick Cheney violated his constitutional right to freedom of speech. Bazelon, the legal expert of the group, took the reins of the discussion, with Dickerson chiming in with his age-old wisdom, “Don’t touch the Cheney.” While the question of who will win is yet to be the decided, perhaps the most interesting component was the discussion of whether the secret service deserves absolute immunity. Absolute immunity is the inability for an individual to be sued for their actions related to their position, a status conferred on the president, amongst others.
The Gabfest concluded with a portion referred to as “Cocktail Chatter,” in which each member of the discussion brought up a topic to share from popular culture, beginning with an embarrassing email dealing with a romantic relationship gone awkwardly wrong that unfortunately found its way onto the gossip site,, which was introduced by Baselon. The panelists got the audience involved during this part of convesation first asking whether who prefers to turn down a second date by actually giving an response or by simply ignoring the unfortunate situation and sending no response. The audience was divided on the question, but was in unanimous agreemt on the second question, on whether it is better to recieve the rejection or recieve no news. Everyone, it seemed, preferred to recieve the rejection rather than be left in the dark, a fact the panelist noted as “eerie” in its universality.

After a brief discussion on the educational argument in favor of in-class doodling brought up by Dickerson, Plotz finished with an analysis of the symbolic significance of 19th century facial hair trends and college facial hair, which was partially prompted by an audience member dressed as Abraham Lincoln and the various hairstyles he encountered during his visit to campus.

The discussions elicited a lively response from the audience, who cheered, laughed, booed (a little bit) and lined up at the end of the discussion to pose questions to the panelists. Spectators especially responded to the candid, casual style of the conversation.
“They are very engaging with the audience, and it was cool to be in on the taping,” said Kathy Andersen ’13. “I really like the attitude they have of being able to talk freely about their views.”

As part of their visit to campus, Slate staff members participated in several other events around campus, beginning Tuesday with a career talk led by Erin Nichols ’02, a Software Engineer for Slate and the magazine’s most direct connection to campus.
At noon on Wednesday, Plotz and Bowers participated in a fairly informal conversation about careers in journalism, covering topics ranging from the increasingly multi-media nature of the field to the difficulties of making a living as a free-lance writer.
Despite the intense competition for a small number of well-paying positions and the sometimes grueling nature of the work, Plotz stressed the benefits of a career as a journalist.

“It’s a hard profession,” Plotz said. “But of course there’s a huge upside, which is that you work with interesting people, you do interesting things, and you can write about … things that you think matter.”

Plotz, Bazelon and Dickerson also led a pre-Gabfest discussion with a group of students from Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., who drove five and a half hours to see the event, as part of their AP Government class.

“They have been listening to the Gabfest since the semester started in August,” said Ann Carroll, the class’ teacher. “So, when we found out they were coming to Grinnell we emailed and [Director of the Rosenfield Program] Sarah Purcell … was gracious enough to have us come down.”

If you missed the live taping, Wednesday’s podcast will soon be available at Slate’s website,

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    Kramer J McLuckieDec 13, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    John Dickerson rockin’ the Millstream IPA!