| | By Mary Eisenhart
Both venerable and forward-looking, San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club has, over its 110-year history, become the go-to place for hearing speeches and conversations with some of the world’s most powerful and accomplished people in politics, sports, media, literature, and the arts, who often comment on how delighted they are to follow a century’s worth of distinguished speakers at the club’s podium.
Recently, locals have been lucky enough to hear former President Jimmy Carter on the current challenges facing America, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on her life’s journey from a Bronx housing project to the nation’s highest court. These are just two figures of international renown to speak to packed houses this year at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.
Among the club’s landmark presentations: Theodore Roosevelt in 1911, laying out his concept of conserving public lands, which he’d begun as president in 1901; and Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiling the New Deal in 1932. At the height of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his nemesis, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, were both featured speakers. And it was at the Commonwealth Club that Vice President Dan Quayle first cast public aspersions on Murphy Brown.
The free—and civil—exchange of ideas has been essential to the club since the day in 1903 when San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer Edward F. Adams decided the city needed a nonpartisan forum to shed light and perspective on the issues of the day. He launched the club with the help of Chronicle managing editor John P. Young, U.C. president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, Frederick Burk, president of the future San Francisco State University, and future state Supreme Court Justice William P. A. Lawlor. Inspired by one of Adams’s many statements, “We only propose to find truth and turn it loose in the world,” the club attracted many local movers and shakers. Founding members include future President Herbert Hoover, Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini, financier Isaias Hellman, retailer Joseph Magnin, winemaker Carlo Rossi, and San Francisco’s perennial mayor (1912-1931) and later California governor (1931-1934) “Sunny Jim” Rolph.
Today the club defines itself as “the leading national forum open to all for the impartial discussion of public issues important to the membership, community and nation.” Presentations include formal talks by individual speakers, as well as moderator-led interviews, panel discussions and formal debates—all with the opportunity for the audience to put questions to the speaker. It makes a point of offering a platform for opposing viewpoints rather than advocating a particular position. Just this year, in addition to Carter and Sotomayor, club audiences heard from onetime U.S. Senate candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom on new possibilities for technology in government, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey on “Conscious Capitalism.”
Driven by its members’ interests, the club delves into a broad range of issues, including arts, technology, environment, and recreation. Recent talks featured San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy on the team’s triumphs and challenges, author Po Bronson on “The Science of Winning and Losing,” education advocate Michelle Rhee on “Putting Children First,” and “Check, Please!” host Leslie Sbracco dishing about wine with experts Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy.
With more than 470 presentations in the last year—mostly in San Francisco, but also in Silicon Valley and at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center—there’s something for just about every interest, offering a chance to hear leaders in the field.
“We don’t take positions on issues. We try to stay truly in the middle of the public service road,” says president and CEO Gloria Duffy, a Lafayette native and expert on international security who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. She follows such notables as former movie icon and U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black and State Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin in the club presidency. “If we garner respect, I think it’s because we try to behave with neutrality and integrity so all points of view are represented.”
Over time, Duffy explains, the culture has changed but the club’s mission remains the same. “In the early 1900s,” she says, “there were very few sources of information here about what was going on in the world, and we became established as a respected venue. Today there are many sources of information, but we’re still offering direct, person-to-person contact with the actual people who are making and influencing public policy.”
When it was first founded, the club was open by invitation only; prospective members had to be nominated by current ones. These days, the club is open to anyone who wants to join and counts a membership of 18,000. Realizing its presentations can be of interest to the general public, the club has also been quick to use technology to make them available to people who can’t attend. If you missed a talk you really want to hear, chances are it’s available as a CD, a downloadable podcast, streaming audio, or streaming video, innovations that occurred in the tenure of Duffy, who took office in 1996. But, she points out, this is just the latest chapter in the club’s history of being on the technological cutting edge. “Marconi’s first radio broadcast was in 1920,” she says. “Ours was in 1924.” Carried on more than 200 stations nationwide, the club’s long-running weekly broadcast brings current presentations to audiences around the country.
With a long-established presence in San Francisco and, more recently, Silicon Valley, the club expanded its programs to the East Bay as it joined forces with other organizations, including Chabot Space and Science Center and California Shakespeare Theater, to create the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium at the Lafayette Library. “The idea,” says Duffy of this effort in her hometown, “was to create a unique concept for libraries as a learning organization that would be a living part of the community.” The club presents multiple offerings each month, and has brought speakers including Jim Lehrer and Meg Whitman.
One big change in the club’s future is that for the first time in its history, it’s about to have its own building. For the past century, the club has rented both office and event space in various locations.
It recently closed escrow on 110 Embarcadero, a 1920s structure with its own historical significance. The building that housed the club on 113 Steuart St. served as the hiring hall of the International Longshoreman’s Association from 1933 to 1935; during the general strike of 1934, the bodies of workers killed in clashes with police lay in state there. Now in renovation, the club’s new headquarters will include a 300-seat auditorium, smaller meeting rooms, and a much-improved production studio; large events will continue at off-site venues.
Duffy says the club was able to seize the moment of falling commercial real estate prices to acquire the building. It looks forward to having most of its San Francisco events under one roof as it continues to connect people and keep them informed in its second century.
For info on the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco: (415) 597-6700 or commonwealthclub.org.’
Mary Eisenhart is a writer, editor, and online community manager who lives in Oakland and appreciates varied perspectives.
Stage presence: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Commonwealth Club in October, 2010. Photo by Ed Ritger, courtesy the Commonwealth Club.