The City Club and the Dialogue of Democracy

09/15/2010 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No one need listen to us who does not want to. We whisper in a corner of the world which is full of other noises, and louder ones. --E.M. Forster

Thirty-five years ago The City Club of San Diego held its inaugural program. It was a luncheon in the Versailles Ballroom of the Westgate Hotel. The speaker that day was Charles E. Goodell, the chairman of the United State Clemency Commission and former U.S. senator from New York.

In its history The City Club has presented more than 1,000 programs in the public interest, including three national conferences - on "Immigration: The National Question"; "The State of Our Language: The War over Grammar", and "The Press, Libel & American Freedom."

Speakers before The City Club have been as varied in their philosophies and politics as Gloria Steinem and Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, Ted Kennedy and Pat Buchanan, Colin Powell and Oliver North, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.

During the 1996 Republican National Convention The City Club presented five luncheon programs in five days, featuring Capital Gang, The McLaughlin Group, Washington Week in Review, George Will, and Mark Russell. This could have been done before at national conventions, but The City Club did it first - and no one has done it since.

Another measure of The City Club's national standing is how many times men and women of achievement have crossed the United States to speak here - Richard Reeves, the former chief political correspondent of the New York Times and presidential biographer, 24 times; Vice President Joseph Biden, who as U.S. senator, spoke 15 times; the late George Plimpton, 15 times; Alan Simpson, U.S. senator from Wyoming, 14 times; the late U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Eugene McCarthy, 12 times, and any number of people who have spoken numerous times, including Mike Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate; former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, former Colorado U.S. senator and co-chair of the United States Commission on National Security, Gary Hart; feminist leader Gloria Steinem, and the late journalists Bob Novak and David Halberstam.

President Jimmy Carter spoke twice (once while building houses in San Diego and Tijuana for Habitat for Humanity); Walter Mondale, as vice-president, spoke. Cabinet members, like Robert Reich of Labor, came. The director of the FBI, Robert Mueller III was here; so too General Barry McCaffrey, the White House Drug Czar.

Governor George Deukmejian of California spoke five times during his eight years in office; Jerry Brown as governor and mayor of Oakland, four times. Two of the state's greatest Assembly speakers, Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown, appeared before The City Club - as did any number of lieutenant governors, State treasurers, controllers, and insurance commissioners. Every U.S. senator from California since 1975 has spoken to The City Club, and a long list of House members. (When Jerry Brown was governor he spoke to 800 people at a City Club luncheon; that night Eugene McCarthy addressed 300 people at dinner. Two major events in one day is something few public forums would attempt - or successfully accomplish.)

On the diplomatic front the ambassadors of Great Britain, France, and Israel, have collectively spoken 12 times to The City Club. Two British cabinet members have also appeared - Lord Young, Margaret Thatcher's labor minister, and Geoff Hoon, Tony Blair's defense minister.

In addition, top business leaders have spoken - Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm, John Hoffmeister of Shell, and two chairmen and CEOs of Eli Lilly and Company, as well as presidents of the American Petroleum Institute and the American Medical Association (and the president of UPS speaks in November).

Leading national clergy have addressed The City Club - Jim Wallis of Sojourners, John Chane, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, DC; Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church (and author of more than 50 books); Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City (the nation's largest Main Line Protestant congregation), as have two presidents of the National Council of Churches - and, as noted above, the late Jerry Falwell.

The magnitude of what's been accomplished, so many programs of quality, so many exceptional speakers, is more fully measured knowing no speaker at The City Club has been paid - and many are paid handsomely for public speaking (Tom Wolfe's speaking fee West of St. Louis was $60,000). And, when you come to San Diego from Washington or New York or Boston, you are essentially giving up three days of your life. It's no small thing to ask.

In 1992, at the height of the civil unrest that arose out of the infamous Simi Valley jury verdict, when Los Angeles was again burning and black violence was raging, The City Club and the Catfish Club, San Diego's most important African-American organization, made a compact to hold joint meetings. In the ensuing 18-years there have been more than 150 such meetings. In a town where diversity too seldom happens, The City Club and the Catfish Club have caused it to happen.

In 1999 The City Club created The Great American Writers Series and invited the San Diego Public Library to join as co-sponsors. This truly unique series featured some of the finest writers in our land - including Jane Smiley, Paul Theroux, George Plimpton, James Fallows, Peter Matthiessen, and the great historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The series presented 55 programs in community libraries across our city, from the Main Library downtown to Rancho Bernardo's - all but 10 of these events were free to the public. (How many organizations do free public events?)

One of the hallmarks of The City Club is inviting other organizations to join in sponsorship of events. Those that have participated include - San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Downtown San Diego Partnership, World Affairs Council, Lincoln Club, University of San Diego, University of California San Diego, and Point Loma Nazarene University (notably, the Writers' Symposium By the Sea).

Several years back Best Practices ranked The City Club of as America's third best public forum. No other public forum west of the Mississippi made the list. Other companies that rate public forums have consistently placed The City Club among the nation's top 10.

Howard Baker, as Republican leader of the United States Senate, said, "The City Club of San Diego is one of America's great public forums."

You could say that.

Oh, I am the president and founder of The City Club.

That, and $4.15 will get you a Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino at Starbucks.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.