Commonwealth Club of California

Commonwealth Club of California

The Commonwealth Club of California is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization based in Northern California. Founded in 1903, it is the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the United States. Membership is open to everyone.



The Commonwealth Club has 15,000 members who sponsor over 400 events each year on topics ranging across politics, culture, society, and the economy. Around 50,000 people attend these events in person annually. It is currently headed by an expert on international security and arms negotiations and former Pentagon official, Dr. Gloria Duffy. Club events are broadcast on many public and commercial radio stations in the longest-lasting continuous radio program in the nation.

The Club has broadcast its forums since 1924, and current broadcasts are carried weekly by about 230 public and commercial radio stations across the nation. Local residents in the Bay Area can view televised programs from The Club on KGO TV, and video of nearly 500 Club programs is carried on the web site. The Club also issues podcasts each week that are accessible through and on the Club's website (, and a bi-monthly magazine, The Commonwealth, which is available to Club members.

In addition to hosting speeches and panels, The Club has initiated several recent public policy projects. These have included Voices of Reform, a nonpartisan effort to bring together California's policy makers and opinion leaders to improve state governance. Voices of Reform became the independent organization California Forward ( Similarly, the Club's California Media Project merged into California Watch (, part of The Center for Investigative Reporting. The Club also offers travel programs, with educational trips abroad each year to destinations such as Turkey, Southeast Asia and Iran.

The Commonwealth Club occasionally comes under criticism from people who think it represents one or another political philosophy, and they often center upon criticism of specific speakers with whom the critics disagree. But the Club's more than 400 events a year feature speakers from a wide range of viewpoints—conservative and liberal and moderate and radical, religious and secular, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. And its membership is split about 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.[citation needed]

California Book Awards

The Commonwealth Club sponsors the California Book Awards, which were initiated in 1931 to honor "exceptional literary merit of California writers and publishers".[1] Medals (gold and silver) are now awarded in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, First Work of Fiction, Californiana, Young Adult Literature (up to age 10), Juvenile Literature (age 11-16) and Notable Contribution to Publishing. The winning books are selected by an independent jury.


The Commonwealth Club was founded in 1903. Its motto is "find the truth, and turn it loose in the world," and its mission is the non-partisan study of public affairs. The idea for the Club came from Edward F. Adams, an editorial writer at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. Four prominent California leaders - University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, San Francisco Chronicle Managing Editor John P. Young, San Francisco Normal School (later San Francisco State University) President Frederick Burk, and William P. Lawler, a judge who later became a California Supreme Court Justice - co-founded the organization with Adams.

Other initial Club members included Bank of America Founder A.P. Giannini, architect Bernard Maybeck, U.S. President Herbert Hoover, Bechtel Corporation founder W. A. Bechtel, members of the Haas family who headed Levi Strauss, Inc., U.S. Senator James Phelan, San Francisco Mayor and California Governor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph, Matson Navigation founder William P. Roth, Stanford University President Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, M.D. and U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Bank of California/Union Bank Founder William Chapman Ralston, Crown Zellerbach founder J. C. Zellerbach, department store founder Joseph Magnin, California Governor J. N. Gillette, Italian Swiss Colony winery founder Carlo Rossi and Isaias Hellman, prominent West Coast financier and first president of Wells Fargo Bank. Their goal was cooperation on civic betterment in spite of political and ideological differences. Speakers were invited to address Club members to inform them about different perspectives on important issues, after which in its early days the Club membership often issued reports, statements or recommendations on public policy issues.

Leadership of the Club over the years has continued to engage the most prominent and civic-minded Northern Californians. Presidents of the Club in the second half of the 20th Century included actress and Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin and UCSF Chancellor Dr. Julius Krevans. Club members include prominent national leaders like former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Defense Secretary William Perry, as well as the best informed and most thoughtful citizens from professions such as business, law, medicine, teaching, the arts and journalism.

The Club has hosted numerous world-class speakers including many U.S. Presidents and other major political leaders in the USA and abroad, business leaders and influential social activists. Speakers receive no honoraria.

The Club has offices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Though the majority of its programs are in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Lafayette (in the East Bay area northeast of San Francisco), it also hosts occasional events in Sacramento and Southern California.


The list of notable speakers and speeches numbers in the thousands and includes domestic and foreign political and military leaders, Nobel prize-winning scientists, authors, activists, and artists. A book of important Club speeches, Each a Mighty Voice, was published in 2004 by Heyday Books.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his New Deal speech at the Club. While in office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke at the Club, as did Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. During his term as Vice President, Dan Quayle delivered his famous Murphy Brown speech to the group. One recent live "Address to the Club" was a wide-ranging discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of her 2010 trip to the Balkans. Other major recent speakers include California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, James Baker and Madeleine Albright; California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; authors Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Greg Mortenson; microcredit entrepreneur and Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus; historian Victor Davis Hanson; airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger; CIA Director Leon Panetta; former U.S. Comptroller General and Peter Peterson Foundation President David Walker, and business leaders Richard Kovacevich and David O'Reilly.

Growing out of Study Sections that were formed in the Club's early days, today the Club has fifteen on-going Member-Led Forums, each of which meets frequently to host speakers and engage in discussion on topics including the Arts, Bay Gourmet (food and wine), Asia-Pacific Affairs, Business and Leadership, Environment and Natural Resources, Grownups (second half of life issues), Health and Medicine, Humanities, International Relations, LGBT issues, the Middle East, Personal Growth, Psychology and Science and Technology.

An intensive look at a single subject is sponsored each August through the Club's Platforum, where events are held daily throughout the month on the topic, examined from the perspective of many different fields. Annual Platforum topics have included China Rising (2006), Cool Clear Water (2007), How We Eat (2008), For Richer, for Poorer: Surviving and Thriving in the Great Recession (2009), and The Ascent of Woman (2010). The Platforum series include not just lectures and discussions, but often meals, travel and experiential learning such as kayaking on San Francisco Bay (Cool Clear Water).


Over the years a number of issues have been studied in-depth by Club leaders, member committees, or scholars commissioned by The Commonwealth Club. Among the topics studied have been direct democracy (the initiative process), air pollution, a statewide water plan, restrictions on child labor, automobile and industrial accident compensation, and legislative procedures. The long-standing mandate of many such studies has been "to investigate and discuss problems affecting the welfare of the Commonwealth and to aid in their solution." Many policy innovations in California - such as public defenders' offices and a printed voter explanation booklet to go with ballots - originated in studies and discussions at the Commonwealth Club.

One of the most extensive of these studies was commissioned in 1953 and lasted until 1956. It resulted in the book California Social Welfare: Legislation, Financing, Services, Statistics published by Prentice-Hall. Vaughn Davis Bornet, a recent Ph.D. recipient from Stanford University, authored the book.

One current initiative is Climate One, which convenes leaders from business, government and civil society to discuss a low-carbon, global economy. Climate One holds private leadership roundtables as well as public discussions. Recent Climate One guests include California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt, Chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC Rajendra Pachauri, and General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner.

Another current project is the Club's Social Entrepreneurship series, interviews with American social entrepreneurs that form the basis of a book to be published by Stanford University Press.

Because the Club is strictly non-partisan and does not take positions on issues, when a project matures to the point that policy prescriptions are being considered, as in the case of Voices of Reform, the Club assists the project to become a separate entity from the Club itself.


External links

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