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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.

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