LOS ANGELES, Oct. 12, 2015 – The first annual Politicon got off to a rousing start at the LA Convention Center this weekend as political heavyweights from across the spectrum gathered for forums on everything from veterans’ issues with Newt Gingrch, to Ann Coulter and Cenk Uygur squaring off in a room packed with Bernie Sanders supporters, to traitor Edward Snowden’s dropping in from oblivion in Moscow via Skype for a special ghost appearance.
Over 9,000 tickets were sold for the two-day Politicon event, a cross between C-Pac and Comic-con, and it was apparently successful enough, smoothly run enough and well attended enough to make it an all but certain annual event.
Panels and panel guests varied from the senior editors of Breitbart News, Alexander Marlow, Ben Shapiro and the iconoclastic Milo Viannopoulas to senior members of President Obama’s campaign and White House team, David Axelrod, Dan Pfeiffer, Bill Burton and speechwriter Jon Favreau.
Campaign stalwarts Paul Begala, James Carville and Alex Castelanos were on several panels, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a dominant figure in a discussion of the 2016 race and a crowd favorite.
Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke on a panel on woman’s issues and at a discussion of the history of presidential campaigns, and she impressed mightily with her breadth of knowledge and passionate presence.
Michele Bachman was charming but embarrassed herself (again) by confessing that she became a Republican after reading Gore Vidal’s classic political satire “Burr” and becoming enraged at how George Washington was depicted.
NPR’s legendary Ken Rudin was an energetic voice of reason on a panel discussing celebrity influence in politics with Clay Aiken, Newt Gingrich presidential campaign manager Patrick Millsaps, who was extremely impressive, and “The Daily Show’s” Jordan Klepper.
The audience was fairly evenly mixed politically on Friday, when crowds were thinner. On Saturdays packed schedule the event really came alive, and thousands crowded the major event panels.
Roughly 70 percent of the crowd, judging from the whistling, clapping and catcalls at the crowded panel sessions, were hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters, and Republicans and conservatives in the crowd were in fair attendance but a decided minority.
There was, however, a considerable and high profile conservative panel presence, including Hugh Hewitt doing his radio show live. To their credit, organizers brought in figures like film producer Jonathan Flora (“Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good”) to bring in a range of well-known conservative figures to make the event more viable, and they succeeded beautifully.
Excitement and enthusiasm among the crowd was palpable, and the partisan divide, though clearly present, was energized by unfettered and passionate debate among the panelists.
Nothing brought the day into better relief than Ann Coulter’s incendiary appearance with Cenk Uygur in front of a clearly hostile crowd, which of course, only made for grand theater but was a bit shocking in terms of the venomous nature of the crowd reaction.
Coulter railed against child rape in peasant immigrant cultures, immigrant crime, the “browning” of America and the seeming acceptance of honor killings and clitorectomies in the name of diversity.
Cenk Uygur read unpleasant quotations from her writings, to the cheers of the crowd, and misparaphrased her remarks at the end of each answer with a “What she’s really saying” rhetorical device.
Coulter was undeterred and passionate, asking the angry crowd why they were for cliterectomies and honor killings and why they condoned child rape.
One woman challenged her comments on peasant cultures by citing her own father and mothers Ph.D.s in political science and how he was murdered after returning to Afghanistan to help his people.
Coulter replied, “Well, that sounds like a peasant culture to me. I don’t see Americans going around killing people because they have Ph.D.s in political science.”
You have to admire Coulter for her fearlessness in such a situation, and Uygur was exceptionally snarky and condescending in his part of the schtick.
While she will sell a lot of books, and it was great theater, I couldn’t help thinking that she would have to be accompanied by armed security around this crowd.
A last-minute and widely popular “special appearance” via Skype of the traitor Edward Snowden in an interview with “The Yes Men’ radio team was a pathetic regurgitation of excuses in a slick presentation seeking to justify the incalculable damage he did to our national security. It was, however, a big get for Politicon and a success for the event.
A panel on the power of celebrity influence in politics was a lighthearted but serious discussion made even more so by the erudite NPR veteran Ken Rudin, who now hosts Ken Rudin”s “Political Junkie” program on radio, and producer Patrick Millsaps, who ran Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign and showed remarkable political insight and common sense pragmatism during the panel.
Clay Aiken was affable and open in discussing how his celebrity cut both ways, in Hollywood and with his public, by alienating half his audience with his party choice, in his case, running as a Democrat in his home state, in a heavily Republican district.
A wonderful panel on veterans’ affairs with Newt Gingrich, author Joe Klein (whose new book focuses on veterans), film producer and 82nd Airborne veteran Jonathan Flora, “American Sniper” author Jim Delifice, actual sniper Sgt. Jason Hale and Rep Ted Lieu, whose district includes the Veterans hospital in Westwood, was passionate in the need for recognizing the leadership and organizing skills of this generation of veterans as they return.
The VA on the other hand, was excorciated for being a black hole of miasma for veterans and showing little improvement.
Gingrich called the VA “a total disaster, an absurdity. If you can’t fire anyone you can’t reform the VA. The System refuses to reform. I can get $200 from any ATM around the world in 11 seconds, but it takes 177 days for the Pentagon to transfer medical records to the VA. It’s total incompetence”.
Speaker Gingrich was also a major presence at Saturday’s most popular forum on the upcoming presidential race, “Deconstructing ’16,” along with David Axelrod, Alex Castellanos and James Carville, moderated by author John Avlon.
The crowd, like at the Coulter forum, was very pro-Bernie Sanders , consistently breaking into hoots and applause at every mention of income inequality and other chunks of red meat thrown their way by Axelrod and especially Carville. Castellanos was irritatingly benevolent and wishy-washy, and reminiscent of David Gergan he sometimes made you wonder whether he was a Democratic or Republican consultant.
Newt Gingrich consistently showed the fire and passion that made him a major political figure, addressing the Trump phenomenon as a manifestation of anger and frustration with incompetence and the desire for authenticity that can get things done.
Moderator Avlon stepped out of the moderator role a few too many times to confront Gingrich, to the crowd’s delight, about taxes, economic growth and income inequality.
Gingrich was nonplussed, making the case that the only way out of our problems was sustained economic growth brought by realigning the tax code and freeing up the economy to grow.
It was the correct answer, but only 20 percent of the room was actually listening. Axelrod made a crude George Bush comparison with the failed economy in 2008, neglecting the role Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac played in actively destroying the banking system with bad mortgage paper, and the crowd cheered.
Carville responded by continually asking for one metric that was worse under Democrats than under George Bush. Cries from the embattled 20 percent in the crowd of “the national debt” went unheard and unanswered. Still, it was an exhilarating forum.
The weekend ended with a stand-up comic performance by “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah. Throughout the event an art display of political artworks by famous artists provided a fabulous subversive undercurrent to the subject matter.
Indeed, the artwork was as good as seen in numerous modern art museums, with agent provacateur sensibility that was as outrageous as it was fabulous.
Politicon proved itself to be a viable event for political figures and the public, and the substantive nature of the panels and subjects addressed was impressive, even as it was clearly a fan-oriented event very much like a political junkie Comic-con.
It was as satisfying for its abundant political theater as it was for its stellar list of participants, smooth operation and consistent substance, and that bodes well for Politcon II.
Rick Johnson reports on national, political, and international news.