The former strip club on a boisterous stretch of Broadway in North Beach thumps with house music. A disco ball sparkles light on the crowd. At the bar, a suspiciously blond and tan woman almost overflows her low-cut top as she chats with friends. Across the room a stunning, lithe young woman with a stud in her chin sips wine and talks with a companion whose bicep is encircled by a tattoo. Single men prowl the room like coyotes.
Welcome to the Commonwealth Club: “The nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum,” the organization’s Web site says. “One of the city’s most treasured institutions,” the San Francisco Chronicle added on the centennial of the club’s founding in February. A good pickup place, San Francisco magazine noted.
Is this the same Commonwealth Club where presidents and Nobel laureates come to discourse on the great problems of civilization? Sort of.
This night’s event is actually a meeting of Inforum, the club’s new young adult division, open to people under 35 (who pay $65 a year to become members instead of $110). More than 1,500 people have joined Inforum since it was created a year ago, which has helped lower the club’s average age to 50 from 55.
“The Commonwealth Club has become less conservative,” says Gloria Duffy, a former arms control negotiator in the Clinton-era Pentagon, who became the chief executive of the organization in 1997. “It’s a 100-year-old model. What intrigued me was bringing it up to date and making it as living and as active as possible and bringing a younger generation of citizens into the club. You can pursue debate in many ways.”
Such as at the nightclub wine tasting, which was scheduled between an Inforum debate of the arts scene in San Francisco and a panel discussion about at-risk youth.
“We’re trying to harness the energy of the young group,” explains Nicole Grant, 24, who runs Inforum. “We didn’t see anything like this that was a connector in the community. Young people are looking for a sense of community. After the boom there was all this energy left over and people were looking for somewhere to direct it. People really value coming face to face with high-level experts.”
That’s why UC Berkeley student Tera Hanes says she’s thinking of joining the club. Hanes came to the Inforum wine tasting to catch up with a friend she hadn’t seen in a while but sounded excited about the club’s more wonkish events. “I’m really into the arts and politics,” she enthused. “Part of being a mature adult is being willing to listen and explore ideas.”
She’s in luck. Most of the club’s events -- which usually take place at the group’s staid headquarters on Market Street, where even the new photos of board members look as sepia-toned as if they had been there from the beginning -- still hew to the 10-decade-old formula: a banging gavel opens a meeting. Someone speaks. People ask questions.
“In some ways, clubs like this seem to be a throwback to another age,” admits Duffy.
Well, the club was started in 1903, when the automobile was the latest technology and women couldn’t vote. Its founders were progressive reformers. “We only propose to find truth and let it loose in the world,” wrote one of them, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward F. Adams.
Since then the club has been a forum for competing versions of the truth. Theodore Roosevelt spoke in 1911 (“I wish to save the very wealthy men of this country and their advocates and upholders from the ruin that they would bring upon themselves if they were permitted to have their way”). He was the first in a long line of presidents or former presidents declaiming on important issues.
Franklin Roosevelt, running for the White House in 1932, offered the first outline of his New Deal there; Vice President Dan Quayle stirred up a national controversy with a speech there denouncing TV’s “Murphy Brown” for celebrating motherhood without marriage. Last year, President George W. Bush spoke of compassionate conservatism.
From Charles Schwab to yoga
Occasionally, more than words fly. In 1970 protesters threw balloons filled with chicken blood at the club’s audience when South Vietnam’s Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky spoke and the police riot squad was called out. More recently, a protester threw a pie in the face of former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey Skilling.
“Within the realm of legitimate debate, we try to be as broad as possible,” Duffy says. “The range is pretty wide. Causes not in the mainstream are something we promote. There are some limits: white supremacists, fascists.”
While famous politicians are still the biggest draw, the club offers a host of other activities as well. There are yoga classes, seminars on investing, artisanal cheeses and raising children in multilingual homes. Recent speakers have included TV chef Martin Yan and broker Charles Schwab. The club has 18 different discussion groups -- Asia-Pacific affairs, gourmet, personal growth, to name a few -- that organize programming.
“We’re hyperactive,” Duffy says. “We do 400 programs a year. We’re clearly the most active group of our sort. We really probably do too much. Someone calls with a good idea and we’re inclined to say, ‘Great.’ ”
Like everything else in the Bay area, the club grew with the tech boom. The group opened an office in San Jose to give it a presence in Silicon Valley. Membership jumped by 3,000 to 17,000 in 2000 but fell with the bust, although it has recently picked up again and is now around 15,000. Members contribute about a third of the club’s $3-million budget, with foundations making up the rest. Events are open to nonmembers, and many talks are broadcast nationally on National Public Radio and commercial stations.
“Individual citizens have to take responsibility for informing themselves, and we provide a forum,” Duffy says. “The more debate goes on, the better. I deeply believe that public education and debate is a crucial element of democracy, whether it’s arts funding or national defense that needs to be discussed.”
The club is celebrating its centennial this year with a series of speeches by people who have helped shape the era: Norman Mailer, Ted Turner, Jane Goodall -- each invited to discuss what he or she sees as the most significant challenge for humanity.
Mailer, for example, devoted his speech to an analysis of President Bush’s foreign policy, which the writer said would lead to the creation of an American empire. “The only solution may be to strive for world empire,” Mailer said, “to take over the entire world.... The underlying motive is George W. Bush’s dream of empire.”
After the speech, Duffy presented Mailer with a medal, honoring him for his contributions to American letters.
The writer looked over the sold-out crowd filling a hotel ballroom and returned the Commonwealth Club’s homage.
“It’s hard,” Mailer said, “for someone who’s 80 years old not to feel in awe of an institution that’s 20 years older than himself.”