Twenty-four years ago, I was the part-time executive director of a
non-profit, non-partisan foundation that had two main functions --- first,
holding periodic national conferences on timely public policy issues,
and second, hosting and escorting foreign public figures in the U.S.,
primarily those who were part of the United States Information Agency
(USIA), and later U.S. State Department, international visitor program.
I had co-founded the foundation in 1989 with my friend, the late Julius
Smith, a prominent attorney and local public figure.
Our first project was a national symposium on low-income housing in
1990 with the new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack
Kemp as the main speaker. I had gotten to know him in my full-time
job as a journalist who covered national and presidential politics, and
he graciously agreed to come to Minneapolis for our event. We also
invited prominent local and national Democrats, as well as non-partisan
low income housing activists and developers. The symposium was
about a then somewhat controversial subject, and running it was quite a
learning experience. We did not get much media notice outside
For the next five years, the foundation’s primary activities were with
international visitors. Over the years, we hosted locally or escorted
around the U.S. more than 500 foreign elected officers, public officials,
businesspersons, journalists and cultural figures from almost 100
nations. It was an eye-opening experience, but a story for another time.
Early in 1995, I felt it was time for another symposium. As an opinion
journalist and reporter about national politics, I had formed some views
about the importance of the so-called “political center” in
American public life. I sensed that a national symposium discussing
“Locating the new political center in America” might be useful and
timely. Once again, using contacts I had made as a journalist, I invited
some prominent centrist U.S. figures to participate, including members
of President Bill Clinton’s administration, leaders of major centrist
organizations, including the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a
centrist think tank from where Mr. Clinton had emerged earlier,
prominent Republicans including then Speaker of the U.S. House
Newt Gingrich, and well-known independent and third party figures.
Although my roster of invited speakers was perhaps initially ambitious,
some surprise events propelled the symposium into unexpected
national prominence as its mid-December date approached.
First, it was the third year of President Clinton’ first term, and it was a
problematic time for his administration. A year before, Newt Gingrich
had engineered an historic realigning mid-term election, and
Republicans took control of the U.S. house for the first time in four
decades. Gingrich’s policy initiatives (many of them centrist) had put
Clinton on the defensive, and there was talk of some challenging the
president’s upcoming 1996 renomination or running as a third party
Perhaps the most prominent of these potential revolts came from a
group known as the “Secret Seven” that included prominent centrist
Democrats former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, New Jersey
Senator Bill Bradley, former Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado,
former Congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota, and former Senator
(and 1984 presidential candidate) Gary Hart, as well as former 1980
independent presidential candidate John Anderson and independent
Maine Governor Angus King. Former Republican Connecticut
Governor Lowell Weicker was later listed in the group (causing it to
have a new media name, “the Gang of Eight”). Each of them were
self-described centrists unhappy with the leadership of both parties.
It was also rumored that Bradley and Weicker might run for president
When I asked Tim Penny to participate in the symposium, he quickly
realized that the event could be an ideal way to formally launch the
“Secret Seven” plan to push the major parties toward the political
center. I agreed to let members of his group headline the symposium
dinner, The luncheon keynote speaker was to be Speaker Gingrich
who I had gotten to know years before when he was a relatively
Although only three of the Secret Seven spoke at our symposium in
Minneapolis, it was major national news. Suddenly, our efforts to gain
a bit of publicity for the symposium exploded into front-page headlines
across the nation and in nightly network news stories. Some of our
invited guests who had been reluctant to commit to coming to frigid
Minnesota in December now virtually begged me to participate.
The second unexpected event, older readers will recall, was that our
symposium date ended up in the middle of a contentious government
shutdown pitting President Clinton against Speaker Gingrich. As the
the event approached, my staff and my friends all advised me we were
going to lose Gingrich as our keynoter. When I contacted him with
foreboding, I was pleased to learn that he fully expected to appear,
provided we could arrange for his live televised remarks by satellite
from a studio in Washington, DC to our event. We scrambled to do
so, and some of generous sponsors came up with the extra funds to
make it happen. Needless to say, Speaker Gingrich’s live remarks at
our symposium drew a standing-room-only crowd and national media.
Steve Scully of C-SPAN had grown up in Erie, PA, as had Tom Ridge
(then governor of Pennsylvania and a speaker at several of our
symposia), and as I did. I don’t think Steve and his colleagues needed
much persuading to televise our event. Usually, C-SPAN broadcasts a
program such as ours only once, but because of the government
shutdown, they lacked timely material --- so sessions of our
symposium were broadcast repeatedly for several weeks.
(I realized C-SPAN’s impact when I made my next visit to Washington,
DC a few months later, and I was actually stopped in the streets several
times by persons who had seen me speak at the symposium!)
Al From and Will Marshall, the leaders of the DLC came and spoke, as
did Elaine Kamarck representing the president and Vice President Al
Gore. My friend Mike McCurry, the presidential press secretary (whom
I had met in 1988 when he was press secretary to Bruce Babbitt, then
running for president), graciously arranged for representatives of
President Clinton, including former Governor George Sinner of North
Dakota, to hold a press conference responding for the White House to
Speaker Gingrich’s remarks at the symposium.. Ross Perot’s 1992
campaign manager Orson Swindle participated as did Michael Lewan,
former chief of staff for Senator Joe Lieberman (later Democratic vice
presidential nominee), policy guru Grover Norquist, former President
George H.W. Bush senior staffer Jim Pinkerton, Ross Perot’s pollster
Gordon Black, several other DLC staffers, and many national and local
figures. Over the next decade, we held a number of successful national
conferences, but thanks to our outstanding 1995 participants, an
excellent symposium staff, and a huge attendee turnout, this one was a
high point of the foundation’s symposium history.
National pundits, including David Broder, Michael Barone, Tony Snow,
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, weighed in, as did most of the nation’s
major newspapers, Also Time Magazine (which had broken the initial
“Secret Seven” story), U.S. News & World Report, The Weekly Standard
and so many others, I stopped counting. The TV networks --- ABC, CBS,
NBC, PBS, CNN, UPN, CONUS --- showed up in force,, as did many
national and local radio programs. Participant and presidential scholar
David Kozak wrote a long piece about the symposium in Presidential
Studies Quarterly. Virtually overnight we had become a big national story.
Why have I imposed on the reader with this little account of a
now-forgotten symposium that occurred twenty-four years ago?
We have just endured a government shutdown that matched a
controversial first-term president and a powerful speaker of the house.
Elements of both major parties are alleged too extreme, and after a
period of passivity, the political center and its issues appear to be
reasserting themselves. In 2019, many specific issues are different from
those in 1995, but many broader issues of taxes, spending, accountability,
transparency, and bureaucracy remain in the forefront.
After 1995, Bill Clinton moved decidedly to the center, and soon
compromised with and adopted several of Newt Gingrich’s policies.
Budgets were balanced. There is no “Secret Seven” today, but there
are major figures in both parties, and independents, who speak out to
refute extreme views, unsustainable policies, political correctness, and
just plain bad ideas.
In 1995, virtually the entire national media embraced the news story of
a potential political revolt from the center, and did it mostly fairly..
In 2019, a similar story is being treated by many (but, to be fair, not all)
in the media as almost a threat to national security
The political center is like the earth’s magnetic pole --- it keeps moving
according to forces in the core of public opinion --- just as the magnetic
pole is moved by forces from the earth's core.
Where is the U.S. political center today?
The answer might tell us more about 2020 than any poll numbers.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.