By JOHN GORALSKI
Early Republican debates were so crowded with Presidential hopefuls that they had to be divided into two groups. Democrats are deadlocked in a primary that could lead to the nation’s first woman or first Jewish President.
Everywhere you turn—no matter what party affiliation—you can find someone excited to talk about the race, and that gave Susan Smayda, the Executive Director of the Southington Public Library, a great idea.
How cool would it be to combine a book discussion group with a discussion about Presidential campaigns?
“I thought that this would be a really interesting thing to do,” said Smayda, who fashions herself a political junkie. “As crazy and nutty as we think this political season is, there have been lots of elections that have been real doozies.”
That simple idea blossomed into a four-part book discussion series at the Southington Public Library this spring. From March through May, a series of four book discussions will focus on four celebrated books covering four of the most interesting elections in our country’s history.
“This is a meaty book discussion, and I think it’s going to be very, very interesting,” said Smayda.
The series will follow four pivotal and highly-contested Presidential races, from an early election that pitted John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to the 2008 election that resulted in the nation’s first African-American President.
The discussions will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the library on Mondays, March 14, April 11, May 9, and May 23. Funded, in part, by a grant from Connecticut Humanities, the group will be led by Dr. Paul Petterson, Chair of the Political Science Department at Central Connecticut State University.
Smayda said that choosing the right moderator was a crucial component for this unique series. Most library book groups are led by literary professors and authors since they focus on fiction or biographies. As a college professor, Petterson will bring this same enthusiasm to this political-themed discussion.
“He’s going to be terrific at this,” said Smayda. “He knows how to stimulate conversation, but at the same time he knows how to listen. That’s what you want from someone that facilitates these sorts of things.”
The first discussion, on March 14, will center on the book, “A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign” by Edward Larson.
The book focuses on a highly-contested race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which was eventually won by Jefferson. The race required 35 Congressional ballots before Jefferson was finally named as the victor.
“It was a crazy election,” said Smayda. “It was hot-tempered, and it was the first two-party election.”
On April 11, the discussion will focus on the book, “1920: The Year of the Six Presidents” by David Pietrusza. This discussion will center on the first election where women were allowed to vote.
The election featured a field that included six former and future Presidents. Warren G. Harding was the winner, but Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt were all in the mix.
This installment will be a bit different than the rest. The book’s author reached out to Smayda after hearing about the discussion through a Connecticut Humanities press release. The other three groups will be limited to 25 registrants, but this one will accommodate up to 60 since the author will join the discussion.
“How awesome is that?” Smayda said. “Now, we have the author of the book coming to be part of the discussion. This couldn’t get any better.”
May will feature two discussions. The first, on May 9, will focus on the book, “The Making of the President 1960” by Theodore H. White.
This book focuses on the battle that pitted Senator John F. Kennedy against then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon. It was the first election that was influenced by television, and the book includes the history-making televised debates.
The final discussion will center on the book, “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which focuses on Barack Obama’s first Presidential campaign, which led to the election of America’s first African-American President.
“I wanted to span a long period of time with all four of them, and they are all really interesting elections to read about,” said Smayda.
Copies of the books will be available at the library’s reference department in partnership with the interlibrary loan system. Pre-registration is required for each discussion. The series is made possible through a grant from Connecticut Humanities.
To register, visit southingtonlibrary.org and click on the calendar select the date of the program or call the Reference Department at (860) 628-0947, ext. 6552.