New JJML Series Kicks Off with Discussion about Democracy’s Vibrancy

John Avlon, left, and Sally Susman will lead the first of the Wagner Dialogues at JJML. Courtesy photos

The atmosphere of the political spectrum — from blue to red and everything in between — may seem a bit clouded these days, possibly leading to questions about the state of American democracy.

Sally Susman and John Avlon will host a discussion that will probe the question “What keeps a democracy vibrant?” on Saturday, October 13, at Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Memorial Library in a new event series, the Wagner Dialogues. The series is established in honor of the late educator and activist Paul A. Wagner.

“He was a very gentle, curious, civic minded man who loved conversations that gave someone a new perspective or illuminated a perspective in a new way,” said Ms. Susman, a part-time Sag Harbor resident who is a writer, business executive, political strategist and civic leader. She was also a presidential appointee in the administration of former President Bill Clinton and served on the National Finance Committee under former President Barack Obama, and currently serves as Pfizer, Inc.’s executive vice president for corporate affairs.

She and Mr. Avlon happen to be neighbors on the same Sag Harbor street, and she called it “a dream come true” to partner up with Mr. Avlon for the first of the Wagner Dialogues.

“I intend to pose some very provocative questions to John. He’s very agile in answering questions, very engaging, smart, fun,” Ms. Susman said. “We want to encourage questions from the audience. We don’t come to it with any particular preconceived conclusion. We want to hear the spirit of the community and stimulate thinking and discussion.”

Mr. Avlon is an editor, a senior political analyst at CNN and former editor of The Daily Beast. He is also the author of several books, including “Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations.”

“I tend to write about polarization and hyper-partisanship and courageous folks who have tried to bridge those divides throughout our history,” said Mr. Avlon, who is working on a book now about Abraham Lincoln’s plan for national reconciliation. “I’ll probably be writing some of it in the library,” he said, calling JJML “such a treasure. It’s always been the heart of the community, a temple of contemplation and learning.”

He called the first session of the Wagner Dialogues “a nonpartisan discussion about the state of our democracy with a sense of history.” He and Ms. Susman described the topic as appropriate to the approaching midterm elections this year.

“I’ll hit the pitches that Sally throws,” Mr. Avlon said. “I think it’s useful to have a conversation about current events. Ideally, what that helps do is provide a degree of comfort and courage.”

Library director Catherine Creedon acknowledged Mr. Wagner and his wife, Jeanette Sarkisian Wagner, as key contributors to the library community. They underwrote the children’s room and the Scholar’s Study in the newly renovated building, provided support for the teen writing program, and have brought other donors into the fold.

“I cannot overstate in any way the importance of Paul and Jeanette to the John Jermain Memorial Library, and by extension, to the people of Sag Harbor,” Ms. Creedon said. “Although historically their support has been for teens and youth, she wanted to do something to honor his history as an educator. … The dialogue format seemed to have a lot of possibilities.”

The Wagner Dialogues won’t be a monthly event, but it will span other topics such as the environment or the arts. Ms. Creedon said while most people think the library’s main focus is on promoting literacy and thought through books, it’s actually written into the library’s charter that the library offers “lectures, exhibitions, instruction or amusement in connection with said institution,” she said.

“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the library to support its community in a new way,” Ms. Creedon said.

The first installment of the Wagner Dialogues will be Saturday, October 13, at 6 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library. Call (631) 725-0049 for more information.