Barrick Lecture lets people disagree without being disagreeable

Marjorie Barrick would have been pleased with the lecture Thursday named in honor of her and her husband Edward, because it was a good turnout and a good program.

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas estimated a turnout of about 1,200 people, so the Artemus Ham Hall was crowded and energetic. The program was a lively discussion of economics and foreign affairs by former Rep. J.C. Watts, representing the philosophical right, and left-leaning journalists Gloria Borger and E.J. Dionne Jr.

Barrick started the lectures in 1980, funding national and international speakers two or three times a year. She left UNLV about $10 million to keep the lectures going. Until Thursday, without her alive to prod UNLV officials, there hadn’t been a Barrick Lecture since her death in April 2007 at 89.

One of my favorite stories about her was how, in later years, she began giving her jewelry away to waitresses as tips. She figured the waitress needed it more than the IRS did. The act was practical and pointed, right in line with her personal philosophy of targeted generosity.

The program put together by Fine Arts Dean Jeffrey Koep was a discussion rather than a lecture, and still a worthwhile way to spend a rainy evening as the threesome made predictions about President Barack Obama’s first 100 days.

It’s always fun to see three smart people debate in a smart and amusing way, and it’s always interesting to see which of their comments draws applause from a mature Las Vegas audience of disparate political persuasions.

Dionne, 56, a columnist for the Washington Post and professor at Georgetown University, thanked moderator Jon Ralston for his introduction, saying it was an improvement from the moderator who introduced him saying, “And now for the latest dope from Washington.”

These were people on stage (and off) who appreciate the subtlety and precision of words as they debated which party bore most of the responsibility for the foreclosure crisis. Watts insisted it was “collective neglect on the part of Republicans and Democrats both,” and Borger argued it’s not a 50/50 split because the Republicans bore more of the responsibility for the lack of regulation.

They discussed which party will give Obama the most grief, the Republicans or the Democrats. Borger reminded the crowd about Sen. Harry Reid’s recent comment, “I don’t work for Barack Obama,” an indication he won’t be this president’s cheerleader, even if they both are Democrats.

Watts, 51, who represented Oklahoma in Congress for eight years before retiring in 2003 and who pens a column for the Review-Journal, received strong applause when he said he hoped Obama is successful. “Republicans need to make sure they’re not throwing tomatoes when they should be applauding.”

There was strong agreement with that statement; and while there was no way to identify whether the applause came from Democrats, Republicans or both, it was vastly different from the dogmatic pre-election rhetoric.

Dionne offered specific predictions, saying Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East would be more like that of the first President George Bush, rather than the second. He also predicted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military will slowly disappear under Obama.

Both journalists welcomed Obama’s memo this week saying that Freedom of Information Act requests should err on the side of openness. But Borger doesn’t think Obama is going to spend much time looking back at the Bush administration.

“He’s going to look to the future, not the past,” she predicted.

Still, Dionne said he wants hearings on the banking crisis and the politicizing of the Department of Justice, because “we need some accountability.” (Las Vegans clapped their approval of Dionne’s cry for accountability.)

One of the joys of the free lecture series (This one cost about $100,000.) is that the speakers routinely take questions disguised as mini-speeches. One person wanted to lower the capital gains tax.

“Who has any capital gains?” asked Borger, 56.

The political analyst for CNN and columnist for U.S. News and World Report also wondered, “How can we do a whole forum without mentioning Sarah Palin?”

A smart evening, with smart people who disagree civilly.

When’s the last time you were in an environment like that? Never, you say? Then you haven’t attended a Barrick Lecture.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at

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