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A Feast of Ideas : L.A.'s World Affairs Council Serves Up Food for Thought

Times Staff Writer

Tensions were running high that summer day five years ago, as could be expected when leading voices for the Arab and Jewish worlds shared the same speaker’s platform against a background of Middle East conflict.

Clovis Maksoud, League of Arab States ambassador to the United Nations, had just finished an address and tough public interrogation.

Attempting to break the tension, moderator Edmonde A. Haddad announced that Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, a powerful voice in the Jewish community who was sharing the platform that day, had recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

“And to what do you attribute your longevity?” Haddad asked, turning to Magnin, who died last July.

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“To Allah,” Magnin replied.

The audience roared.

“It blew them out,” recalled Haddad, president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, which hosted the Maksoud luncheon.

Not all of the council’s sessions are this provocative.

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Some Induce Drowsiness

“Some speakers are very boring and don’t say anything,” said Haddad, 53, a former broadcast executive who for the last dozen years has largely hand-selected the council’s speakers, ranging from heads of state to the Apollo astronauts.

Indeed, a recent speaker put to sleep one member seated at a front-row table and left another shaking his head with frustration when he could not get a specific answer to a knotty question.

Since 1953, when the council held one of its first meetings in a private home with the late Henry Cabot Lodge, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as its guest, the council has attempted to foster greater understanding of global issues by attracting world leaders to its luncheons. To that end, it has presented a glittering array of public speakers to Los Angeles, including 70 heads of state--China President Li Xiannian is scheduled for next month--and a host of politicians and news makers.

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The council also publishes World Affairs Journal, a collection of addresses made to the group. It also organizes international tours, which meet with diplomats and international leaders. One such group met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi five days before she was assassinated on Oct. 31, 1984. This year, for the first time, the council sponsored an international conference.

The conference, held last spring at Great Britain’s Wilton Park, a 16th-Century manor house near Brighton that houses the country’s foreign and commonwealth offices, explored emerging U.S.-British-Chinese relations. The council picked up the tab for its eight delegates and for Leonard Woodcock, the nation’s first ambassador to China after 1949.

With nine delegates from China and 15 British representatives, the conference apparently impressed the Chinese, who said they want a similar gathering next year in their country, Haddad said. Operating on what he sees as a shoestring budget of about $500,000 a year, which helps underwrite a staff of 11, Haddad observed that he is scrambling to schedule more than 60 speakers a year for the almost weekly meetings, doubling the pace of a decade ago.

Underwriting this budget are 200 local corporations, each contributing from $250 to $5,000 a year, and 9,200 individual members, men and women from assorted backgrounds and occupations, who pay annual dues of $35. “We want a non-elitist organization,” Haddad said.

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Overhead Costs

Overhead costs, Haddad added, do not include the speakers, who receive no fees and usually pay their own way to Los Angeles, or hotel dining rooms, which are donated.

Haddad believes that the financial support is hardly enough for programs that have showcased the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, Henry A. Kissinger, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Walt Disney. (Kissinger’s 1975 speech at the Century Plaza drew the council’s biggest crowd, about 2,200, with about 4,000 turned away.)

“I would like a $3-million endowment,” Haddad said in an interview in the council’s Los Angeles Hilton offices. Properly invested, he said, the money could erase $100,000 a year in red ink and provide an operating fund.

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Whether this is in the cards remains to be seen. There is a sharp difference of opinion among council officers and directors over whether to seek an endowment or radically increase dues, Haddad said. No decision would be made until after new council officers take their seats in a few weeks.

Attracting more outside cash to underwrite ambitious future plans would be no piece of cake, said Jorge Sever, the council’s vice president.

“This is a tough town in which to solicit a buck,” he said.

World affairs councils, such as the one in Los Angeles, go back to World War I, when the first such groups were formed in Chicago and Cleveland. It was not until after World War II that the concept took off with independent councils organized in many other major cities across the nation.

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Haddad left no doubt that he wants to keep the Los Angeles council among the most active nationally and most accessible for the rank-and-file citizen.

In terms of its political orientation, a sensitive issue, the tone is set by a statement in a council anniversary publication that declares that “the founders insisted that the council be independent, with no ties to other organizations that might have preconceptions of their own.”

Haddad and Sever insisted that they have stuck to that principle.

“We’re a nonprofit, totally independent group,” Sever said.

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That there is a range of views among the council’s five officers and 51 directors is reflected in the fact that its officers have been associated with lawmakers and views covering the political spectrum.

The council’s chairman, Allen E. Puckett, chief executive of Hughes Aircraft Co., is a director of former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s think tank, the National Commission on Industrial Innovation.

Another officer, Marion Jorgensen, is the wife of a Los Angeles-based steel executive who was a member of President Reagan’s so-called “kitchen cabinet.” Another board member is Charles T. Manatt, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Others reflect a mini who’s who of Los Angeles corporate and civic life.

That is not to say that the council over the years has not been accused of political leanings.

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“Someone recently wrote that there were too many Reagan Administration appointees speaking to the council,” Haddad said. “But someone also recently told me there’s too much of a liberal bias to the council.”

Haddad, a second generation Lebanese Christian, said: “I try to be a fair person. If I have an Arab speaker, I try to have an Israeli.”

‘I Read Papers’

How does Haddad undertake to select about five dozen speakers a year? “I read papers and follow issues, and I try to sense what people will be interested in,” he said. “I know this sounds so autocratic, but I try to determine what (issues) people ought to know more about.”

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Unlike some councils in other cities, he said, the Los Angeles organization will not shy away from controversy. For example, he said, “if we could get a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (to address the council), we would get one.”

Haddad said that for every 150 speaking invitations the council sends out, about 60 are accepted.

Nailing down a VIP “is deceptively simple,” Haddad said. Aside from working with such agencies as the State Department, the process, in effect, comes down to name-dropping.

“I write him (or her) a letter and tell them who else has spoken here,” he said.

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