The Institute of Prima Donnas

When regulars at the Institute of Politics (IOP) refer to the “living room,” they’re talking about the spacious holding area
By Kristi L. Jobson

When regulars at the Institute of Politics (IOP) refer to the “living room,” they’re talking about the spacious holding area for visiting speakers, full of plush couches, fresh cut flowers—and memories of the antics of political prima donnas. When speakers come to the IOP’s forums, they spend an hour or so preparing and meeting with students in the living room before their speech. Caterers arrange a fancy display of soda, snacks and Sam Adams to provide a varied selection for the guests to whet their whistles. But sometimes, the selections just don’t cut it.

According to Brian M. Goldsmith ’05, U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin refused to drink the ice water IOP volunteers put on her podium. Adverse to water that has any hint of chill, Marin would not speak until someone tracked down bottled, lukewarm water for her. Warren Beatty needed just the right microphone, according to Forum Director Bill White. And, White says, noted feminist activist Angela Davis barely stifled her anger until a bag of her favorite brand of tea was produced. In short, says IOP Forum Committee member Jonathan Chavez ’04, speakers sometimes “act like real asses.”

Chavez recalls Noam Chomsky’s recent speech at the Forum, when the IOP struggled to find someone willing to provide an introduction for the liberal’s liberal and MIT linguist. After former Secretary of Agriculture and IOP Director Dan Glickman finally complied, things quickly turned sour: the two men began to debate Vietnam-era policies and bicker about youth involvement in politics in the living room. According to Chavez, Glickman nearly refused to introduce Chomsky. Eventually, Glickman’s job description got the better of him and he welcomed Chomsky before the Forum. “You could tell he was furious,” says Chavez. “You knew he just wanted to strangle Chomsky.”

Bill Clinton didn’t have time to put his feet up and enjoy a nice cold one in the living room—the famously preoccupied former POTUS barely made it to his IOP speech. White says he had to meet Clinton on the JFK Street curb and brief him on the way to the microphone.

Proving that nothing is completely free—not even waiting-room Cheez-Its and Diet Coke—some of the IOP’s VIP’s find that the perks of speaking there come with a price tag of sorts. White and others have countless stories about protesters shouting at speakers only to be quickly escorted out by HUPD. Heather A. Woodruff ’03 turned the tables on Warren Beatty after he had waxed eloquent about the injustices of corporate executives making too much money, White says, accosting him with questions about the salaries of movie stars.

Naturally, these instances aren’t the norm. “In general, it’s a well-oiled machine,” says Julia E. Kobick ’05, IOP Forum Committee chair, about her own experiences with speakers. Still, the IOP does host a pretty influential and powerful clientele, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there are a few divas among their ranks. They’ve got to eat and drink, too.