Like everyone interested in world affairs, Ray Hennessy has been eagerly tracking the winds of change sweeping the globe.
Until recently, his only barometers on events in the Middle East, Europe, and the Soviet Union have been newspapers, magazines and nightly news programs.
Now, the 38-year-old graphic designer has the World Affairs Council of Ventura County, which has attracted 250 members since its founding in June. The organization, one of 65 independent councils nationwide, sponsors addresses by government leaders and experts on foreign and domestic affairs.
For Hennessy and other members, the programs provide a chance to pose their personal observations and theories to recognized authorities.
“You can wade through an incredible amount of information in Time or Newsweek or on TV, but you can’t pose a question to what you read or hear,” Hennessy said after hearing a former CIA analyst speak to the council about the Gulf crisis. “It’s a biased viewpoint because it’s one individual’s view, but you get to challenge the speaker.”
Speakers also provide deeper, more personal commentaries.
“I’ve gotten some good insights here into the Arab people, their ideologies and their fears,” Hennessy said.
The establishment of the council also reflects Ventura County’s population growth and intellectual climate, organizers and other observers said.
“Since the county is growing so rapidly, they should be able to bring in some exciting speakers,” said Frances Brohan, spokeswoman for the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles. “It will lend stature to the area if they can sustain a good lineup of speakers and a supportive membership.”
The speakers invited to Ventura County have varied backgrounds.
On Thursday, Sir Eldon Griffiths, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, will speak on the global impact of German reunification. Two days later, the council will have an informal cocktail reception for Sergio Ramirez, former vice president in Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and now minority leader in the National Assembly.
On Sept. 17, Baerbel Jacob, the European Community’s West Coast representative, will speak on the economic unification of the Common Market in 1992.
“It’s a whole new world we’re looking at,” said Anthony Taormina, the Port of Hueneme’s executive director and a member of the council’s board of directors. “Everything is no longer divided into good guy/bad guy, and we need to understand not only the current situation, but how we got here.”
The catalyst behind the council’s formation was Cynthia B. Cooke, daughter of a former New York congressman and, until recently, a member of the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles.
Cooke, the Ventura council’s executive director, said logistics were a major factor.
“Given the traffic problems, most of us living in Ventura County were not able to get to the meetings” of the Los Angeles council, said Cooke, who lives in Ventura. “This county has the population to support its own council.”
As with other world affairs councils, the Ventura council professes strict nonpartisanship. But just as its guest speakers represent political extremes, the council’s membership is of decidedly mixed persuasions, a makeup that enlivens discussions, Cooke said.
For instance, the program on Kuwait attracted both Albert Wuelfing of Camarillo, who belongs to a group called New Thinking Beyond War, and employees of the military facilities at Point Mugu.
Members pay a $35 annual fee, along with a per-event fee of $5 to $25. The events, some conducted over dinner, are held at members’ homes, community centers, hotel banquet halls or in the meeting rooms of corporate sponsors.
To help underwrite the estimated $100,000 first-year budget, Cooke turned to corporations.
For $5,000, corporations can buy “ambassador memberships” that include invitations to VIP receptions and small-group business forums led by the guest speakers. Such contributors include First Interstate Bancard Inc. N.A., GTE California Inc., Waste Management of Ventura County and Amgen Inc., a bio-technology company.
Before soliciting members, Cooke flew east in April to enlist speakers. She said the trip netted commitments from Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party.
Getting firm dates has been difficult. For example, Nunn, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been stuck in Washington. “He promised he’d get here once the Gulf crisis is over,” Cooke said.
So far, the Ventura council has not drawn the big names that have appeared before the Los Angeles group, such as then-President Ronald Reagan and the presidents or prime ministers of Canada, China, Israel, Italy and South Korea. Although someone such as Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher might address the Los Angeles council, the Ventura council in November will hear Mosbacher’s chief counsel, Wayne Berman.
But sometimes a second-in-command speaks with greater candor, members said. And as operatives rather than figureheads, they generally are far better versed, said Mark Brand, a member of the council’s executive board and former press secretary to Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.).
Council meetings bring together people who often have trouble finding someone to talk to about world events, said Iraj Broomand, a member of the council’s board of directors. After the programs, the socializing and theorizing frequently continue amid food and drinks.
Unlike many other councils, whose members are predominantly couples of pre-retirement and retirement age, the Ventura council’s members tend to be 30 to 50 years old. The group’s leaders hope to interest members in imported-wine tastings and outings to ethnic areas in Los Angeles.
Opening eyes and minds to foreign countries and cultures will remain the council’s main objective, said Broomand, an educator who was in charge of gifted-student programs in Iran before the shah’s fall.
“Maybe if we develop familiarity with different points of view,” he said, “we’ll develop a tolerance for others and the ability to get along.”