Thursday, May 25, 2000

No holds barred at Mercantile Library

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        Heavyweight wrestling, the flyer promised. At the Mercantile Library. This would be the equivalent of couch dancing at the Queen City Club. But when I read the fine print, I find out it is really just a debate.

        Oh geez. Bait and switch.

        If I want to be bored out of my gourd I can just wait until fall when Al Gore and George W. Bush will outdo each other trying not to say anything interesting that might cost them votes.

        “No, no, this is different,” says Mercantile librarian Albert Pyle. The plan is to “see debate raised to a blood sport, a cross between the bareknuckled ear biting of nineteenth century America and the questioning in Britain's House of Commons.”

Anybody can join
        C'mon, Albert. This is just a sneaky way to get me to come over and return all my overdue books, right?

        “You can be one of the judges,” he says. Oh goody, I'd like to do that about as much as I'd like to watch my hair fall out.

        But it turned out to be a pretty good brawl.

        One of the city's oldest institutions, the Mercantile has always been a cultural bargain, offering up such distinguished lecturers as W.M. Thackery and Herman Melville. During more recent times the library has hosted John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Winters. Anybody with $45 can join.

        It is the most egalitarian private club in town. Consequently, membership is a mishmash of lawyers, politicians, social workers, clerics, CEOs, doctors and reporters. As well as some normal people.

        The Great Debates take place in the newly renovated lecture hall. The carefully authentic room surely must be the only one in a downtown high-rise with windows that actually open.

        “You can hear the sounds of the city,” Mr. Pyle says.

Odd couples
        Mayor Charlie Luken was teamed with The Enquirer's editorial page editor Peter Bronson, who complained bitterly that “we lost because Albert is too cheap to give me my own pen and legal pad.” Steven Stuhlbarg, who has litigated for the ACLU, huddled with conservative Republican Bill Seitz. Maybe some of the sounds were barriers breaking.

        Ad exec Jerry Galvin, publisher Eric Kearney, theologians Hal Porter and Art Dewey, lawyer Penny Friedman and civic leader Nancy Minson, Holmes High School students Tiffany Donnelly and Stephanie Dziczek, UC professors Christo Lassiter and Andy LaBarbera (who lists among his accomplishments that he went to school with Dr. Laura) are among contestants.

        The first round was noisy. Some bombast, hisses and applause from the audience. Hamilton County Common PleasCourt Judge Thomas Crush, the moderator, thumped a gavel the size of a lobster mallet.

        Debaters chewed on merit selection of judges and Constitutional rights. They shamelessly quoted and misquoted Seinfeld and Huckleberry Finn and Confucius and Jesus. To quote Bette Midler, “some mud was flung.”

        Tonight's debate: “Cincinnati's western side is not only more cosmopolitan, urbane and sophisticated than the eastern side, but is also more solidly grounded in reality and, frankly, morally superior.”

        The Great Debates, which begin at 7 p.m., cost $5 and reservations can be made at 621-0717. Semi-finals are May 31 and the black-tie final is June 9.

        Even if the windows are closed, I promise you will hear the sounds of your city.

        E-mail Laura at or call (513) 768-8393.


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