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Conference on World Affairs beckons with political bent 

It’s an election year, and that usually makes for an especially interesting Conference on World Affairs, Boulder’s favorite week-long think jam.

There is a palpable political theme running through the set list for the 64th annual CWA, which will be held primarily on the University of Colorado campus April 9-13.

Alice Rivlin, whose various high-ranking economic and public policy positions include founding director of the congressional budget office, will deliver Monday’s keynote, “Can the Center Hold: Democracy and Governance in a Polarized America.”

On Wednesday, Republican political strategist Mark McKinnon, co-founder of No Labels, will speak on “The Architecture of a Successful Message.” And on Monday, New York Times columnist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, will deliver the Howard Higman Memorial Plenary, “How Politics Lost the American People.”

“There’s a really nice spectrum of people,” says CWA Director Jim Palmer.

But, as usual, it won’t just be about politics. Appropriately, the theme of this year’s conference is “Everything conceivable.” That really narrows it down.

Palmer tells Boulder Weekly the diversity of the conference is reflected in the opening morning lineup, which includes panels on Latin music, soldiers peeing on corpses, environmental issues, the rise of India and China, death and Mitt Romney.

“We really are trying to highlight the hot-button issues,” Palmer says, citing a timely panel called “The 2012 Supreme Court and the Hot-button Docket.” (See full schedule, page 31.)

And, as usual, the panel topics are almost as fun as the conversations themselves. This year’s cleverly coined turns of phrase include “No Future for Millennials: Even Your Parents Think You’re Screwed,” “Reproductive Rights: Sluts Vote,” “Are Corporations People: Would Texas Execute One?” and “Read My Lipstick: Women in Elective Office.”

Palmer, who is in his 14th year as director, has upheld his commitment to make sure that at least 40 percent of the 100-or-so participants are new to the CWA each year. In addition to Rivlin, McKinnon and Westen, notable newcomers include Carrie Hessler- Radelet, deputy director of the Peace Corps; Andie Grace, communications manager for Burning Man; and Diana Ryall, former managing director of Apple Australia.

Wednesday’s highlights include Bill Reinert, national manager of advanced technology for Toyota Motor Sales, discussing “Peak Oil” at a Wednesday plenary, and Chicago Sun-Times tech columnist Andy Ihnatko speaking on “Steve Jobs and Apple.” Other prominent participants include Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, and Comeback America Initiative founder and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, who will speak alongside Rivlin at Tuesday’s Molly Ivins Freedom-Fightin’ Memorial Plenary, “America 2030: Why We Must Act Now.”

The popular film dissection now known as Ebert Interruptus in honor of Roger Ebert, who led it for years before hand-picking film critic Jim Emerson as his successor, will feature Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Sometimes, the conference even pushes its own broad limits. One panel is titled, “My Best Sexual Experience Ever and How to Do It.”

“The conference has a reputation for both candid and intimate conversations, even in front of 400 people,” Palmer says. “Roger Ebert talked about his cancer and his alcoholism. I can’t explain it, but there’s something about the conference that makes people be more open and intimate than they would otherwise. And it’s all to our advantage. I’ve sometimes been startled by what people are willing to say and share. There’s a lot of trust among the participants and between the audience and the participants.”

Four panels will be held at Boulder High School, including “Modern Media and the Teenage Mind.” In addition, local radio station KGNU (88.5 FM) will broadcast CWA events every day at 8:30 a.m.

Palmer adds that storytelling has become a key element of the conference, and this year storytellers from Ireland and Israel are on tap. In a similar vein, a Thursday panel is titled “Shakespeare Read vs. Shakespeare Said.” And the musical element is alive and well at the CWA. In addition to the popular Tuesday night jazz concert, on Friday, Grammy-winning brothers Dave and Don Grusin will take to the Macky stage.

“They’ll play a little, they’ll talk a little, and they’ll spar a little,” Palmer says with a laugh. “You’ve gotta have a little sibling rivalry.”

In the Friday plenary “Secretariat (Reprise),” longtime Sports Illustrated writer William Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, will be introduced by Penny Chenery, the real-life breeder and racer of the famous Triple Crown winner. Chenery, who now lives in Boulder, was played in the film version by Diane Lane. During the plenary, Nack will show the three races.

Planning for the CWA begins in earnest every August, when eight subject committees begin mulling possible panels and participants. The participants who are invited are asked to submit a list of topics they are interested and well-versed in.

“Some send eight, some send 56,” Palmer says.

CWA planners then lock themselves up for a long weekend with sub sandwiches and pizza to organize the whole thing, although final panel names aren’t finalized until later, at an afternoon titling session.

“We have to be careful who we invite, because most people we invite come,” Palmer says of the participants. “We need to have the right dynamic, the right mix.”

As for this year’s CWA, he says “the talent, topics and timing are aligned for an excellent conference.”


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