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Nation Magazine Holds Annual Bash, Gives $100,000 Puffin Awards to Outstanding U.S. Progressive Activists

At a gathering that features most of the East Coast progressive elite, attendees have a blast and take care of some serious political business.

Just before the holidays, the Nation Institute held its annual bash in NYC, a typically sold-out event where Gladys and Perry Rosenstein of the Puffin Foundation present the Puffin Prize to an outstanding veteran progressive stalwart, along with a fat check of $100,000.

The Nation event always attracts a wide array of progressive and union leaders, funders, a sprinkling of other notables, and of course, a gaggle of journalists and editors. It is one of the very few gatherings where you will find most of the East Coast progressive elite in one place at one time. No doubt some serious political business gets taken care of, as many of the attendees schmooze away during cocktails, table-hopping, and again for dessert.

But the event also packs political seriousness, and this year was no exception. In attendance were Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon, Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, and Rob Reiner, who added a little Hollywood pizazz and some wisdom and humor to the proceedings, along with some laughs -- though perhaps not exactly in ways that had been planned. But more about that in a moment.

Each Nation Institute event seems to mark the end of a political year, and this one seemed to reflect changing political sentiments. For example, last year both Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Van Jones gave spirited defenses of President Barack Obama. This time around, very little was said about Obama, in the wake of the November shellacking and major disappointments in a number of political and issue areas. As Lynn Paramore, who edits the creative economics blog New Deal 2.0 observed, there was a buzz of unhappiness among some number of the audience: "Obama was a very unpopular guy that night; many progressives in the room were fuming because they had allowed their blind faith to get in the way in judging the president, but now the faith was gone and they felt betrayed. Obama did not lie to them as much as they deceived themselves. Roger Hodge calls it ‘the mendacity of hope.’ And he is correct," said Paramore. 

Passing the Baton 

The 2010 event also marked a landmark, as longtime Nation Institute honcho Hamilton Fish stepped down from the helm earlier this year. The leadership baton was passed to Andy Breslau, who has been a longtime player in the New York progressive scene. Fish was a fundraiser extraordinaire who built the Institute into the foremost incubator of progressive writing and investigative talent, helping create a number of progressive stars along the way, particularly through Nation Books including recent bestselling authors like Max Blumenthal and Jeremy Scahill, who were at the dinner. Breslau most recently was executive director of City Futures, the parent of both the Center for an Urban Future and City Limits. He worked at CNN for eight years as a senior manager and a producer. Earlier he served as the director of public affairs for Manhattan Borough president Ruth Messinger. (Disclosure: Andy was an intern and later a staffer at Mother Jones, when I was publisher in the mid-late 1980s.)

Despite the top-flight speakers, the Puffin awards are a key highlight of the evening. While there are seemingly a bunch of awards and dough given by a range of groups and foundations to upstanding individuals -- including the infamous MacArthur genius grants -- the Puffin seems to be the only award that always goes to a progressive, and it also comes with a significant chunk of cash, so it is important. 

In somewhat of a surprise, in light of the discouraging political times, the Rosensteins decided to give two awards for 2010, to Cecile Richards, the charismatic head of Planned Parenthood, and the environmental superstar Bill McKibben.

Gladys Rosenstein, in presenting Cecile Richards her award, said: "You have led the movement to make women's safety and health issues a priority for our country and seen to it that the boy's club in Washington, DC is aware that women's health issues are not a minor issue, but one that affects 50 percent of our population."

Husband Perry Rosenstein thanked Bill McKibben, "for warning us that our planet is under attack...not by Martians but by our own doing, and as early as 1989, in your book The End of Nature. You are an extraordinary activist. For example, your organization 350.org brought together this year under one roof more than 7,300 events in 188 countries where people showed how our planet can thrive as a green planet."  

In helping to put together the program, Breslau demonstrated his own clout, as he and his partner Michelle DiMilly got their pal Rob Reiner, a voice from the "left coast," to jet in from Hollywood to add a different perspective to the proceedings. Reiner and his wife Michele Singer were acknowledged by the Nation for their leadership in the fight against Prop 8 in the courts and the cause of full civil rights for gay men and women.

Not surprisingly, Reiner was an entertaining storyteller. Most notable in Reiner's schtick was his professed love for the popular and talented Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, especially for her appearances on television talk shows. But Reiner's jokes that veered into the issue of "hot" progressive women may have made the progressive audience a little uncomfortable. Clearly, for Reiner, vanden Heuvel is the sine qua non of hot progressive women. Reiner's obvious point, but one that rarely gets mentioned, was that conservative women such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Christine O'Donnell get all the media attention as the sex symbols in politics -- and that makes people angry. And it's time, at least for Rob Reiner, to point out progressive women who qualify as "our" sex symbols. 

Senator Merkley's visit to the dinner was timely in that he is a very visible proponent of ditching the filibuster in the Senate, a tactic used effectively by the Republican minority to prevent major reforms during the first two years of the Obama administration. Ben Jealous of the NAACP gave a well-received speech touching on stories from the field when he was a younger organizer and how he learned some valuable lessons to not underestimate people. 

The Nation Institute's Work 

Sometimes overlooked in the festivities is the important work of the Nation Institute, which as Breslau explained, includes "Nation Books, our fellows program, the Investigative Fund, our intern program, TomDispatch, Mondoweiss and our work on the Puffin or Ridenhour Prizes. In each case, we aspire to represent brave thinking, brave speech, and penetrating analysis necessary to push the critical boundaries of public discourse."

Perhaps most important for the future of journalism is the Nation's Investigative Fund. Under the leadership of Esther Kaplan and Joe Conason, the Fund operates somewhat below the radar as the broker of many vital investigative pieces, not only in the Nation, but also in dozens of other publications both print and online. This year the Institute funded 80 investigative projects with some powerful results. For example, a federal grand jury convicted three current and former New Orleans police officers for their involvement in the murder of Henry Glover, an African American man killed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and its coverup, including an attempt to destroy his remains. This was the result of publication of a two-part investigation -- "Katrina's Hidden Race War" and "Body of Evidence" -- by reporter A.C. Thompson in the Nation. This story was recently featured in "Law & Disorder," a PBS/Frontline documentary exploring the legacy of Hurricane Katrina at its five-year anniversary, as well as in an HBO documentary by Spike Lee.

Another Investigative Fund story, "Bound for America" by John Bowe and published in Mother Jones, triggered the largest human trafficking indictment in U.S. history, announced on September 2. An investigation by Aram Roston ("How the U.S. Funds the Taliban") into how Pentagon contracts are making their way into Taliban hands -- as protection money for U.S. supply caravans -- sparked a Congressional investigation, and an Army criminal inquiry, still underway.

AlterNet also partnered with the Nation Institute on a series of articles about the Tea Party, exposing the funding -- especially by the Koch brothers -- and the old line conservatives who were pulling the strings behind the scenes as the Tea Party attempted to garner voter support. AlterNet's Washington bureau chief Adele Stan was both an author and editor on this series, which also included work by Dan Bischoff and Dave Neiwert.

Of course it's fun to mention a few of the movers and shakers who were enjoying the party -- including activists and funders Craig Kaplan and Anne Hess, Working Family's Party head Dan Cantor, who was celebrating the Party's 150,000 votes on their line in this year's New York gubernatorial race, the most in their history; radical super lawyer Michael Ratner and his super developer brother Bruce Ratner, and Bruce's daughter Lizzy; famed and revered architect Jim Polshek, who was at the Victor Navasky elder statesmen table; firebrand union organizer Jane McAlevey, whose work has been appearing in the Nation pages lately; rock music manager and producer Danny Goldberg; and of course hundreds more. And special thanks goes to Taya Kitman, who year in and year out organizes a top-flight event, where progressives actually have a really good time. 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.