Culture / Newsy

Houston Speaker Series Returns With a High-Profile Former Presidential Candidate

Why John Kerry is Swooping Into Houston on a Mission

BY // 08.23.18

In an exclusive for PaperCity, Randall Morton, the founder of the state’s most illustrious speaker series for progressives — one that has brought headliners such as Gloria Steinem, Al Gore, Robert Redford, Alice Waters, and Jane Goodall to Texas — shares via email the story of his return to the stage. As well as how and why he snagged a former Presidential candidate as this season’s opening act for The Progressive Forum.

Take us back to the how and why you began the Progressive Forum in 2005.
With two small children, I felt a deeper stake in our future; politics, and public affairs become even more important. I was dismayed President Bush was reelected, feeling he was taking us in a dangerous direction, that we were on our way to losing our Republic.

Why did Progressive Forum go on hiatus?
I closed The Progressive Forum to focus on writing a book, a memoir. We closed with Bill McKibben on the climate crisis April 21, 2014.

On your return.
Our relaunching event was November 6, 2017 with Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, who addressed issues we feel in Houston such as abuse of immigrants, voting rights, LGBT rights. We followed with top climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe in the spring of 2018 who could bring climate science to bear on what a healthy recovery from Hurricane Harvey looked like.

Take us into your thoughts about re-launching Progressive Forum in 2017, then bringing it back with your iconic speakers this year, beginning with this high-profile statesman — John Kerry.
I realized I needed The Progressive Forum personally. And that I could write my memoir at the same time.

I missed the engagement with the Houston community, the interactions with local leaders I got to meet, people doing interesting things. I missed the intense learning experiences with the great minds we were presenting, reading their books, studying the issues, and preparing the promotion, podium introduction, and Q&A.

John Kerry was an exciting prospect, one of the leading diplomatic figures of our time, a participant in some of the great historic events of our time, a leading anti-Vietnam War veteran, five-term Senator, Secretary of State under Obama, and a Presidential candidate.

How is 2018 parallel to 2005, when you began the Progressive Forum? How is it different?
I feel deeply our democracy was threatened in both passages, 2005 and 2018.  But today, I believe President Trump is far more of a danger to our democracy — we need a Progressive Forum more than ever. We have a President who seeks dictatorial powers, is doing great harm, separating migrant children from parents, attacking the press as the “Enemy of the People,” and running up a trillion dollar annual deficit when tax revenue should be healthy during a healthy economy.

What’s also the same: donors and audiences were quick to respond, which was heartening after a three-and-a-half year hiatus, to see how deep and meaningful our past events had been for audiences. What’s different, besides a more dangerous presidency, is my enthusiasm is deeper, I’m appreciating these special experiences much more this second time around.

Have you ever met John Kerry? How did you come to think of asking him?
Our bookstore partner, Blue Willow Bookshop, let me know John Kerry would be releasing a memoir, Every Day Is Extra. They put me in touch with his publisher, Simon & Schuster. I provided a proposal with his event day activities, our background, and selling points, offering dates he could appear in Houston, dates provided by our venue, Congregation Emanu El. We offered to bundle a free book with each ticket.

While we compete with other cities for Kerry’s book tour appearances, we could offer something special as America’s fourth largest city — the nation’s only progressive lecture series, a venue capacity of 2,000, and a record of successful events with other government related stars such as Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi while she was House Speaker, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Did you call or email Kerry’s rep? Or talk to Kerry in person?
I don’t usually talk to the speakers ahead; I work through their publisher or agent. I will talk with Mr. Kerry when I pick him up at the airport in our town car. It’s been a thrill to establish relationships with many of our interesting speakers — we essentially spend the day together where I continue to learn, listening for something that might be ripe for the Q&A.

We waited about five weeks for an answer which is about par. Sometimes it’s as soon as two weeks. With other speakers, I’ve pursued them for years with repeat invitations until the timing is right.

Looking back on all Progressive Forum programs to date, can you share three favorite personal anecdotes with speakers.
Alice Waters was probably the most mission-driven speaker; she came with a team who could put up posters around town. And while our other speakers depart the next morning, she stayed for a few days in Houston visiting with restaurateurs, christening a downtown city garden with then-Mayor Annise Parker planting in the dirt together, and visiting a Montessori School, Wilson Elementary, whose eighth graders ran a farmers market.

Famed foodie Alice Waters came to town for The Progressive Forum February 27, 2012. (Courtesy Alice Waters)

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put me at ease. I was nervous discussing the law and he had requested a seated interview with me, not a lecture. Backstage, he asked to see the questions ahead of time which I thought was worthwhile, all the better for quality answers.

When he emerged from his dressing room, I asked, “Sir, are there any questions I shouldn’t ask?” He replied, “No, don’t worry, I’ll just change the question!”

I loved Molly Ivins who was driven from Austin, one of our speakers the first year. She really caught the spirit of our endeavor which gave me a tremendous boost. She didn’t introduce herself as you would expect: “Hello, I’m Molly, nice to meet you.” She walked into the lobby of The Lancaster Hotel where I was waiting, put out her hand, and said, “Well you just up and did it!”

She had cancer and knew her days were limited, so she didn’t expend her energy with a mic check. She did a standup comedy presentation while sitting down. This was her last public appearance, April 17, 2006. The video of her hilarious and important commentary is on our website, as our other speakers are.

Finally, you dedicated the Ken Burns talk to your late Dad?
Thanks for asking that. I put my father’s picture in the program in his Army Air Corps uniform since Ken was speaking about his documentary on World War II, as we celebrated Veterans Day. I am proud of his service, Randall R. Morton Sr. They wouldn’t let him in the army because of a boyhood injury.

So he went to Washington, D.C. and lobbied his way in, taking law courses at Georgetown University while waiting for a decision.  He served in the Ferry Command, flying a C-47, shipping supplies between Egypt and Italy. On event night, I wore an airman’s leather jacket my father would have worn, loaned by the H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum in Huntsville.

As to your audiences — just curious, has George Bush 41 ever been to one of the Progressive Forum’s evenings?
We invited George Bush 41 to Ken Burns’ event, he accepted then had to decline. We do see thoughtful conservatives in our audience, many for T. Boone Pickens who spoke about making money with renewable energy. And for our scientists such as Jane Goodall and theoretical physicist Brian Greene.

Robert Redford attracted the entire spectrum as he introduced his movie, Fighting Goliath, about 32 Texas cities banding together to fight new coal plants, an environmental danger to localities which drew many conservatives into that fight. I was excited The New York Times covered that event and the success of the Texas fight, a new opposition model.

John Kerry’s Houston Night

When: Saturday, September 29, 6:15 pm VIP reception, 7:30 pm program
Where: Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Blvd.
Note: The Progressive Forum’s Randall Morton interviews former U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate John Kerry on his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra (all attendees receive a free book); book signing after program
Tariff: $40 students/seniors, $70 general admission, $150 VIP reception with Kerry and reserved seat; sponsorship from $5,000 includes dinner with John Kerry, a moment at the podium receiving a thank-you gift, and credit in the program
Tickets here.

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