Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kennedy Political Union: a force on campus for 40 years and counting

When Bill DeBaun lacks inspiration, it’s nothing that a quick glance at the ornamented walls of his Mary Graydon office can’t solve. The American University senior and 2008-2009 Kennedy Political Union or KPU director swivels from one autographed poster to the next, rattling off an impressive list of speakers the bureau has brought to AU in its 40 years on campus.

“Desmond Tutu, Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Benazir Bhutto,” DeBaun said as he pointed to the corresponding KPU event posters in his office. “These are people who have changed world history.” Although short, that list is but a sample of the hundreds of speakers that have taken the podium under KPU’s banner in the past four decades.

The 2008-2009 school year marks the 40th anniversary of KPU, American’s most prestigious student organization. AU students, the most politically active in the country according to Princeton Review, engage in conversation with a wide range of speakers about an even wider range of topics on anything from presidential elections to GLBTA rights.

KPU is “one of the premier student-run lecture series in the United States,” according to the organization’s Web site. This year’s staff includes DeBaun and six officers. DeBaun joined KPU last year as the logistics coordinator. He was appointed director by the Student Government Executive Board.

“The KPU is a really great part of the [Student Government],” said Kristen Pionati, KPU’s outreach coordinator. “It is non partisan, student run, and provides amazing opportunities for everyone to see impressive and entertaining speakers that are only possible because we’re in Washington, D.C.”

Frances Townsend, an AU alumna and former Homeland Security adviser to President Bush, held a KPU lecture on Wednesday, April 15. “My memory of KPU was larger than life.” Townsend said. “You’re in the center of a city where people love to talk,” she added in a post-lecture interview.

AU’s unique setting happens to be the main catalyst for the creation of KPU. In 1968, the students thought AU was not taking advantage of all Washington had to offer. “Too often our location in Washington is played up to prospective students, and then when they arrive, they get the same lecture they could pay half as much for…at any other university,” Student Activities President Luiz Simmons said in a September 1968 issue of the Eagle.

On Sept. 16, 1968, former Kennedy presidential aide Ted Sorenson delivered the first address of the series, then simply called the “Political Union.” The “Kennedy” would be added later to honor the Kennedy family’s contribution to politics, DeBaun said. In the beginning, he added, KPU mostly hosted Capitol Hill staffers. “We moved away from that because quite frankly, it’s not that interesting.”

Fast forward 40 years Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass, AU alumnus and one-time director of KPU would honor his former organization’s anniversary on the floor of the House of Representatives.

“That was very special for our organization,” said DeBaun, who was specifically recognized in McGovern’s speech to Congress.

The Massachusetts congressman said that meeting speakers was a highlight of his time at AU. During his term almost 30 years ago, McGovern was responsible for bringing former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and former Israeli diplomat Abba Eban to AU’s campus.

Since its inception, KPU has built a reputation that is celebrated across Washington D.C., the nation and oftentimes, the world. The organization has attracted media personalities, politicians, activists and foreign leaders to speak in front of a generally enthusiastic audience.

“I love KPU. It’s one of my favorite things on campus,” College of Arts and Sciences freshman Scott Berman said at a recent KPU event. “This totally beats homework.”

DeBaun said he tries to bring “the finest speakers available” to AU’s campus but noted that each director brings a different flavor to the program. Some directors are more internationally based, he added, while others are more issue based. This year, DeBaun managed to bring Newt Gingrich, Norah O’Donnell and Sen. Chuck Hagel as well as Judy Shepard, gay rights activist and mother of Matthew Shepard.

“Sen. Hagel’s speech…was the most memorable KPU event because he was a great bipartisan leader in the Senate and has brought the nation together on many crucial issues,” said Aaron Goldstein, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs and KPU volunteer. Goldstein added that “KPU has fortified my views on many issues.”

DeBaun’s KPU legacy may be remembered by the end-of-the-year event on Sunday, April 26. He organized a five-person panel to discuss this year’s hot-button issue, the Obama administration. The panel, Views on the Obama Administration’s First 100 Days, included MSNBC News’s Mika Brzezinski, Tucker Carlson and Michelle Bernard as well as Obama for America campaign manager, David Plouffe. Luke Russert of NBC News moderated the event.
“The end-of-the-year event has posed some challenges for us,” DeBaun said. He also added that it was most difficult to schedule panel events because multiple busy schedules had to be satisfied.

Will Hubbard, a sophomore in the School of International Service, called the event and the 2008-2009 anniversary year a success. “By the end of the year, the whole staff was operating really effectively,” he said. “It went pretty flawlessly.” Hubbard was this year’s logistics coordinator. He recently found out that he will be taking over the directorship for DeBaun.

At the end-of-the-year panel, DeBaun thanked his staff, the students and the university for another successful year of the KPU series. DeBaun had some advice for Hubbard in his final address to Sunday night’s audience. “Take the helm and chart a course for a fantastic 41st lecture series as director next year.” Hubbard hopes to do just that to ensure KPU runs for another successful 40 years.

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