VERO BEACH – At the start of its fifth season, the Emerson Center’s Celebrated Speakers Series fittingly adds a fifth speaker, thanks to the generosity of sponsor Wilmington Trust.
Volunteer organizer Don Croteau has already begun thinking of questions to pose to journalist and humorist P.J. O’Rourke, whose Jan. 15 talks will be followed by questions submitted by the audience and culled by Croteau, according to the interests expressed by the speaker in the hour or so Croteau gets to spend with him prior to his talks.
Not that much would be off limits with O’Rourke. Once a raging hippie in the vein of Hunter Thompson and the Gonzo school of journalism, O’Rourke’s political leanings now arc to the right on economic issues, while describing himself as a libertarian.
For a time, he gave the conservative commentary on 60 Minutes’ Point-Counterpoint segment.
His 14 books, banged out on an IBM Selectric, include the latest: “Don’t Vote: It Only Encourages the Bastards,” released in September.
Other best-sellers include “A Parliament of Whores,” “Give War a Chance” and “Peace Kills.”
He is also known for his wry one-liners, so many that he claims more than any other living writer in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.
O’Rourke, whose magazine writing regularly appeared in Playboy, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, now writes mostly for “The Weekly Standard” and “World Affairs,” parlayed a master’s degree in English from Johns Hopkins to become managing editor of the National Lampoon in the 1970s. It was during his tenure there that his politics began to arc increasingly to the right.
“At least I was never a liberal,” he jokes on his website. “I went from Republican to Communist and right back to Republican.”
He now follows a libertarian bent in a conservative philosophy that extends to opposing government funding for stem cell research.
It is precisely that jig, while not all as frenetic as O’Rourke’s, on either side of the center line of politics that Croteau seeks in choosing speakers for the Emerson Center series.
This year, he and his committee have selected O’Rourke, Republican speechwriter and pundit Peggy Noonan, PBS television journalist and political analyst Gwen Ifill, Nobel prizewinning liberal economist Paul Krugman, and the mostly hawkish foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski.
“We like diversity of opinion,” says Croteau. “They can lean to the left, or lean to the right, but we don’t want anybody leaning on the extreme side.”
Helping with those selections are the 120 patrons of the series, who along with their donation are invited to submit suggestions for future speakers.
They also receive the best seats in the house, and are invited to attend the VIP reception in between the speakers’ 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. talks.
There, while being served wine and hors d’oeuvres, they can chat with the guest speaker, have books autographed, or pose for photographs.
Each year, the patrons make their favorites known from a list of two dozen or so prospective candidates that fit within the series budget – around $50,000 per speaker.
“We look at their results and we try to pick the ones whom the most patrons show the most interest in,” says Croteau, who retired from a long career in New York State government dating from the tenure of Nelson Rockefeller. “If they submit names they’d like to see on a future list, we add those to the people we will be looking at.”
Key to their selection, along with more or less centrist viewpoints, is a representation of broad segments of the culture.
“We try to balance the series with people who represent different aspects of the world. We always try to have a good author, like P.J. O’Rourke, and we like to have people cognizant of the political scene. And we always like to include at least one woman.”
Aware of economic constraints on many prospective followers of the series, this year, the Emerson Center offered season subscribers an option to attend either the first four or the last four of the five speakers.
So far, most have opted to buy tickets to all five. But subscriptions are nevertheless running behind expectations.
“We’re at 850, and our goal was 1,000,” Croteau says.
In all, for both four- and five-speaker subscriptions, the center hopes to sell 1,300; they save attendees $10 per speaker, and can be bought both at O’Rourke’s appearance, as well as Peggy Noonan’s speech in February.
O’Rourke will appear on Jan. 15 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. for an hour-long talk followed by a brief question-and- answer session. Tickets to either appearance cost $65. Tickets to the 5:15 p.m. reception are an extra $50.
The Emerson Center is located at 1590 27th Ave. Call the box office at (772) 778-5249, or go on line to www.theemersoncenter.org.