When Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (WICA) executives and board members sat down in the spring to conjure up ideas for the 2016 schedule, not many would have expected a discussion series with renown reporters and Washington insiders.
But when WICA board member Robert Merry laid bare his wealth of reporting experience and his connections to the capitol, the arts center’s staff knew they had something special.
“We were amazed with the speakers he still had contact with,” WICA Programming Director Deana Duncan said. “Since all the speakers were good friends with Robert, they were willing to come out to this small, rural island. We knew when we put the series together we had something unique.”
Merry, 70, is leading a series of talks with acclaimed reporters and editors at WICA called “Conversations on the State of American Politics.” Last night was his first discussion of the three-part series, as he welcomed Washington political columnist Mark Shields, who has been an analyst for PBS NewsHour since 1988. Having been friends and colleagues with Shields and many other Washington insiders, Merry is also bringing long time Fox News political commentator Mort Kondracke to Whidbey Island in January. For the last discussion of the series, WICA is welcoming co-anchor of PBS NewsHour Judy Woodruff and her husband Albert R. Hunt, a former Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and Washington D.C. editor for Bloomberg News.
In past events, Merry has sat down with associate editor of The Washington Post David Ignatius in 2014 and Robby Robinson in 2015. Robinson was the head of The Boston Globe’s spotlight investigative team and was played by Michael Keaton in the Oscar-winning movie.
“Through my course of getting to understand what WICA does, it occurred to me that through WICA, I could bring interesting people for some interesting conversations to the people of Langley,” Merry said.
The Langley resident himself spent 30 years in Washington D.C. as a journalist covering primarily politics, the economy and foreign policy for a plethora of publications including Dow Jones, National Observer and The Wall Street Journal. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Merry says he has always gotten his excitement from the capital and his serenity from Puget Sound. After being a Washington insider for so long, he and his wife decided to opt for serenity three years ago.
But he hasn’t stopped writing.
Merry continues to contribute to bi-monthly international affairs magazine The National Interest and has penned four books on American history and politics with a fifth coming soon. He’s used his wealth of experience and connections to bring these conversations to the South End and give South Whidbey resident an opportunity to talk face-to-face with big shots in the journalism world.
“I want it to be human,” Merry said. “I want our neighbors and our community to get to know these people, where they came from, how they ended up doing what they did, their passions, what drove them and how they see the changes in the way Washington [D.C.] operates.”
Duncan says WICA is striving to fulfill two of the center’s goals with the talks: to bring the arts, in this case literary arts, to the community and to keep locals informed and start a dialogue on important issues. She added literary arts have been a bit difficult to bring to the stage in the past, but she hopes this is a series that can return next season. And with someone of Merry’s experience and enthusiasm, WICA is hopeful of continuing the series.
“This is a man who absolutely loves the democratic process in America,” Duncan said. “He gets bright-eyed about politics — it’s his passion. His experience and desire to do this is a bonus for the community.”
Merry hopes to mix entertainment and education with the talks. Although he will lead the discussion with his guests, there will be an opportunity to turn it over to the audience for questions and conversation. He says he wants to enlighten participants about how the government works and about the climate of Washington while being entertained by guests who are all too familiar with taking center stage.
Although Merry has retired to the island, he still has his Washington contacts and continues to wear his journalist hat.
“I can’t give it up, I can’t stop,” Merry said. “I’ve just been obsessed with American politics, American government and the state of our country for so many years that I keep doing it. I do it from afar now, and I’d like to think that gives me a bit of a perspective.”
Merry’s discussion with Mort Kondracke is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, while his talk with Judy Moodruff and Albert R. Hunt is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5. Tickets cost $25.