Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What was Alec Baldwin doing at the Kennedy School?

I put my name in a lottery to win a free ticket to a "Conversation with Alec Baldwin" at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. A total of 1500 student names went into the hat, and 750 won the draw. I was among them.
So I made my way to the Institute of Politics event tonight to see Hollywood and US politics interact. I squeezed into a  seat on a back bench on the second floor. I realised the view of the distant stage (picture above right) would be better from the TV screen in front of me (picture left).  As we waited for the show to start, speculation was rife about Baldwin’s motivation to talk to Kennedy school students: was the actor trying to boost his reputation and profile to enter politics a la some of his acting fellows who sit on the other side of the political fence in the two-party American  system?
Wearing a black suit, black shoes and black tie and a faintly striped white shirt, Baldwin – who still hasn’t fully shed that boep that he showed off in his recent film, It’s Complicated - was dressed for the part when he walked on to the stage  at the multi-layered John F Kennedy Jr Forum, the political hub of the school.
Adding a light touch to formal surroundings, he glanced wide-eyed and curiously around the brightly-lit, high-tech, multi-layered, weirdly shaped forum venue:
“Do they teach a class in here,” he asked incredulously.
He took his seat next to moderator Rick Berke, national editor of the New York Times, also dressed formally for the occasion.
Getting down to serious business, Berke – who had stayed up till 1am watching It’s Complicated - kicked off by  revealing that Harvard had put up Baldwin in the dorm room that President John F Kennedy stayed in and which had been recently renovated.
Baldwin talked about his passion for politics and the influence that the Kennedy family had on him. He has been involved in Democratic campaigns since being introduced to the royal family of US politics after attending a Democratic Convention in Atlanta in 1988.
Baldwin said he was grateful that he had been able to “plug into politics” from time to time.
Baldwin, who drew a lot of laughs from the audience during his talk,  has always flirted with politics. He studied politics at George Washington University and planned a career in law, but he landed up auditioning for the New York University Undergraduate Drama progamme - and so his career in acting began.
It became clear during the conversation that after more than 30 years, Baldwin was rather tired of acting, and was looking for change.
“At the best of time, in acting you get to do something really beautiful and thoughtful.  The downside is that you do some jobs just to make a living.”
Switching to the politics of his state, New York, since Hillary Clinton's departure from the Senate to take up the position of Secretary of State, Berke asked if Baldwin had political aspirations. “Your body language reveals that you would love to be the Senator for New York”, said Berke.
Baldwin replied: “Exactly.”
Berke said if the New York Senate seat was not an option, would he settle for a House seat, Baldwin quipped: “You make the House seat sound so sexy.”
A few snippets from the conversation:
On whether he would date a Republican ("I know this is not a New York Times question," said Berke). Baldwin's response: “I have dated a libertarian, but not a Republican.”
On sexual scandals among politicians: “Americans are pretty uptight  about sex in that arena.”
“If you betray someone, you lose the public’s trust. People think – if you lie to your partner, how can I be expected to trust you.”
On US presidents: “All presidents need something to take the edge off. Finding people to do this job is tough. All presidents bring something ... Obama ... he smokes."
On Obama: “He has been successful and prevailed and won with health care reform. I also deeply admire his cool and disposition. He doesn’t take the bait from the seething hissing animals who are …. throwing tomatoes at him. We have never lived in a time that more inelegant … full of maniacs.”
On the priorities for the US: “I am glad that Obama won on health care reform, but I believe that energy policy ... oil ... is far more important. It is the lynch pin.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

2010 fever - better late than never

BOSTON - In South Africa, it's one word - "2010". In the United States it's a mouthful -  "the Fifa World Cup Soccer tournament", and even then, you are likely to get a few blank stares.
2010 fever has taken a while to penetrate in this football-basketball-baseball-ice hockey crazed country, but I got a taste of the hype a few days ago during a posh fund-raising awards function at the Moakley US Courthouse in the city. The function was organised by South Africa Partners, a Boston group which "aims to forge deeper and more meaingful relationships between the US and South Africa".
I made a rare crossing over the Charles River from our  Cambridge student bubble for the evening to find out more about the links between South Africa and Boston.
Here I learnt that an initiative called World Cup Boston 2010 had launched back in September. I also learnt that it had the support of Boston mayor Thomas Menino (see picture above), who was present at the function to receive the Desmond Tutu Award for his commitment to social justice. World Cup Boston 2010 has been calling for volunteers to assist with public programmes in soccer, culture, community and education for Boston youth and families. It also aims to bring the Beautiful Game to fields in various communities, culminating in the Mini World Cup Youth Soccer Tournament between June 26 and 27. Viewing parties during World Cup Games will also be unrolled during the event. (see
I met many Bostonians with links to SA. I also met a few South Africans, some of whom who were just visiting Boston and others who had not returned home after leaving SA during apartheid. One particularly impressive young South African who is set to return home later this year after
completing one year at a local High School was volunteer Tumi Ramafoko (pictured top left). At 18, Tumi has the gift of the gab, has a face and voice for television, and is set to go places in any career that she chooses (you heard it hear first!). I also met Bostonians with a passion for South Africa, including Jacqueline Maloney (pictured left), a church and community activist from Dorchester in Boston who told me she has visited South Africa 10 times.
The overall mood was upbeat, celebratory and measured.  None of the speakers mentioned either of the two rogues back home in South Africa who had dominated SA headlines all week - the old white supremacist who has just departed or the young troublemaker who is an extremist in the making. But that didn't silence the guests. Tales of Eugene Terreblanche and Julius Malema dominated dinner table talk, with the hot-off-the-press Terreblanche sex scandal stealing the thunder.
It's 2010, and South Africa is back in the news in more ways than one.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Habib spotted at Harvard

Political analyst and academic Professor Adam Habib (pictured) has made a safe landing in the United States, after previously being barred from the country and accused of having ties to terrorism.

I had a brief chat to him and his wife Fatima on campus at Harvard University this week, where he had a victorious grin on his face.

He said the welcome he had received this time around on arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia was an extremely inviting one compared with his previous attempt to visit the US in October 2006 when he was put on an plane at JFK International Airport and sent home.

This time around, Habib was among a delegation from the University of Johannesburg, of which he is a deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and advancement.

It took secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal intervention to secure his entry to the US. The way was paved in January this year after Clinton signed orders enabling his re-entry and also that of another scholar professor Tariq Ramadan of Oxford Univeristy in England.

Not surprisingly, Habib’s topic of debate at a talk he delivered to law students at Harvard one evening this week was: ideological exclusion.

A few days earlier, he told a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education at Virginia Tech that the Obama administration needed to do more than simply grant visas, on a case-by-case basis, to scholars who previously were barred because of their political views or associations.

The Obama administration should put an end to Bush administration police which kept scholars out in the first place, he was quoted as saying.

Habib has been a vocal critic of the Iraq war and some US anti-terrorism policies. The American Association of University Professors described his exclusion at the time as “reminiscent of the Cold War, when the US government regularly barred from the country visitors whose views it rejected.”

The Johannesburg University delegation, headed by vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg, is on a tour of US institutions. They were at Harvard to discuss synergies between the two campuses, particularly around the theme of educational leadership.

The delegation was also due to visit Boston University during their stay in the city.

Also in attendance were Professor Angina Parekh, deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs), and her partner, former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad.

Rensburg , whom amazingly I had not seen face-to-face since my days as an education reporter at The Star in the 1980s when he was a key member of the National Education Crisis Committee, was hosted at a lunch time meeting by Vice-Provost Jorge I Dominguez.

Habib lived in the US for two years while studying for a doctoral degree in political science from the City University of New York.