The line of cars, stretching back half a mile along tony Davenport Avenue in New Rochelle, waiting to turn into the Greentree Country Club on a recent evening in May, was an indicator, as if any were needed, of the level of support for the New Rochelle Public Library, as guests arrived for a gala dinner, celebrating the library’s 125th anniversary.
But what drew the crowd was not philanthropy and love of literature alone. The gala was organized by the New Rochelle Public Library Foundation (NRPLF) to mark its own 25th anniversary and, with it, the launch of its new Guardian Award.
The award recognizes individuals whose careers and accomplishments exemplify the mission of public libraries — to provide free and open access to information and a broad variety of ideas. Its first recipients were journalists Fareed Zakaria and Tom Goldstone, host and executive producer respectively of “Fareed Zakaria GPS” (for Global Public Square), CNN’s flagship world affairs program.
“Just as ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ focuses attention on crucial issues in our world, libraries across our nation serve as public forums for creating dialogue on key issues in our communities and in our nation,” said Chris Selin, president of the NRPL Foundation. “Libraries
really are the new public squares, where the community comes together to find support and explore possibilities. Along with the press, libraries serve as a vital component of American democracy, providing unfettered access to information and enabling that access free of charge.”
With a long-running foreign affairs column in The Washington Post as well, Zakaria has also published four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers. But the subject matter of his 2015 volume — “In Defense of A Liberal Education,” delving into literacy, art and literature — is perhaps what connects him most to the Guardian Award, the latest in a slew of academic and media honors that also include India’s Padma Bhushan award.
In accepting the Guardian — a handsome, engraved glass sculpture in the shape of a flame and inscribed with the words “for championing knowledge and unfettered access to information” — Goldstone gave a stirring speech about the importance of libraries as a vital component of American democracy. Zakaria, who could not be present in person, spoke spiritedly by video.
A TV news regular since 2002, with nearly a million followers on Twitter, Zakaria has an impeccable presence — he wears well-cut suits, favoring handmade pink or blue shirts — that is at once venerable and boyish. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, so perhaps is Zakaria himself.
He was born in Mumbai to a Konkani Muslim family in which his mother, a journalist who was at one point the editor of the influential Sunday Times of India, had as prominent a career as his politician-father, who was also an Islamic theologian. Politics, journalism, literature and religion (Zakaria describes himself as a secular, nonpracticing Muslim) have always been in the blood.
Politically, he is center shading right, a supporter of President Barack Obama who acknowledges President Donald J. Trump’s election and strong economy — though he once repeatedly called him a “bulls—-er” when being interviewed himself by CNN colleague Don Lemon.
Zakaria nonetheless laments the socio-economic divide, advocating the reintroduction of national service (betraying his conservative roots) as a remedy for social and cultural inequality — though he’s hardly issuing a gung-ho call to arms.
If he sometimes appears to sit on the fence, then it is fair to say he has occasionally fallen off. He was dropped briefly by CNN back in 2012, for plagiarism, before being reinstated.
Back in the fold, Zakaria is now becoming something of an elder statesman, the thinking man’s thinking man, if you will. The witty, urbane New Yorker comes across as eminently reasonable, fair to his TV interviewees without ever kowtowing. He has said his job is “not to pick sides,” but to explain what he thinks is happening on the ground. He does this with aplomb.
In addition to Zakaria and Goldstone receiving the Guardian Award, nine others were also honoured at the gala — Bill Handelman, Lynn Green and Leslie Demus, founding members of the foundation; and the three couples who founded the Partnership for the Huguenot Children’s Library, Tom and Theresa Leghorn, Dave and Evelyn McCabe and Dan and Kate Ronan. For more, visit nrplfoundation.org.