First Tuesday speaker series pulls back the curtain on politics

Pollster Peter Hart, a speaker at a First Tuesday event, explained that polls do not predict elections, but reflect the mood of the moment. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Steven Pearlstein believes the main reason that many people, particularly students, are skeptical about politics is because of their information—or lack thereof.

“Because of what they’ve read or heard, they have a misconception about what campaigns and politics are about,” he said, “about why campaigns behave the way they do, about why voters vote the way they do.”

The Robinson Professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University is trying to change that with his First Tuesday speaker series, so named because the series leads to Election Day, which is Nov. 6, the first Tuesday of the month.

Held in conjunction with Pearlstein’s Honors College seminar (HNRS 131 Contemporary Society in Multiple Perspectives), the Tuesday series in Fenwick Library’s Main Reading Room on the Fairfax Campus features speakers immersed in contemporary politics. Those include former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, now a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government; Mason alumnus Danny Diaz, who was Jeb Bush’s campaign manager; and Washington Post political columnist Karen Tumulty.

“When they actually see a real human being talk, it humanizes [political experts] in a way and makes you a lot less cynical,” said Pearlstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post. “You can also pick up a lot of information about what’s important in campaigns, how people who are involved think about it. But you need to see that. I can tell [students], but it wouldn’t mean anything. They have to see it.”

Experiences are the driver of Pearlstein’s class, which operates without a textbook—though, in a real sense, Pearlstein said, “The textbook is being written in real time every week by The Washington Post and The New York Times and Politico and CNN and Fox News. [The students] have to go read this stuff.”

In one exercise, students are matched with individuals in the community who have differing political views. Once a week, students speak with their partners. Those conversations are then explored in the classroom.

The First Tuesday speaker series, which is also open to faculty, staff and the community (coffee and donuts are served, by the way), enhances the course work.

Mason Visiting Professor Anne Holton, former secretary of education for Virginia and wife of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., spoke about the emotional rollercoaster a family goes through during a political campaign. Peter Hart, one of the nation’s top analysts of public opinion, explained how political polls reflect the mood of the moment and should not be thought of as election predictors.

“These talks are very cool,” said Nick Steinmetz, a sophomore majoring in government and international politics. “It’s [about] understanding politics and understanding campaigns in a much more fleshed-out, nuanced way. It opens up views I didn’t think about.”

“It’s just a great series to be doing in a community that is politically engaged, as is this one,” Holton said. “I was thrilled to be part of it.”

First Tuesday speaker series schedule

9-10:30 a.m., Fenwick Library, Main Reading Room

Sept. 25: Danny Diaz, GOP media consultant and former campaign manager for Jeb Bush.

Oct. 2: Tom Davis, George Mason University rector and former GOP congressman from Virginia.

Oct. 16: Terry McAuliffe, Mason Distinguished Visiting Professor and former governor of Virginia.

Oct. 23: Karen Tumulty, Washington Post political columnist.

Oct. 30: Robby Mook, former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton.

Nov. 13: Norm Ornstein, co-author of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Mason Visiting Professor Anne Holton, former Virginia secretary of education and wife of Sen. Tim Kaine, spoke with Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein about how political campaigns impact the family of a candidate. Photo by Damian Cristodero.