Leslie Graves is publisher of Ballotpedia, the Encyclopedia of American Politics. Before joining a Zócalo panel discussion titled “Is the Republican Party Dead?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo district, she spoke in the green room about wildflowers, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Lady Bird Johnson.
Do you play a musical instrument?
Flute, when I was in junior high. We had a wonderful music program in my school, and practically everybody joined, and you just randomly picked an instrument—perhaps not realizing that that would be your instrument through the rest of your time there. So I picked the flute.
Where was this?
In Spring Green, Wisconsin—the Frank Lloyd Wright area of Wisconsin. My grandparents moved from South Dakota in the 1920s. My grandfather became Wright’s farm manager.
Do you have a favorite type of formal garden or landscape design?
I have a strong predilection for those wildflower meadows that are chaotic and patchwork quilt-y, and don’t appear to have any formal design. I live in the house I grew up in, and we just put in some flowers here and some flowers there, and they do not match. But after doing it for many years they sort of have a harmony of their own.
What are you reading for pleasure?
I’m reading a fiction book, The Audacity of Goats, about Washington Island, which is a tiny little island off Door County, Wisconsin. A friend of mine is the author; it’s her second book in the series. It’s really excellent, so that’s been a great treat.
What’s most Wisconsin about you?
Probably the clothes that I wear. We buy our clothes at Target and Walmart.
Is there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
The public school I went to was the Shangri-La of what everybody thinks public schools can be. It was a rural district, and a lot of us were farm kids; there were no wealthy people that lived in our district at all. And the teachers were so earnest and talented and really absorbed in their work. And my 11th grade English teacher, Barbara Tessmer, really excited me, got me to thinking about things. She was single, and she was just earnest. She cared about it, but she wasn’t flamboyant. Some English teachers might choose to be theatrical in their style, and she really wasn’t. She was determined that we learned how beautiful this stuff was that we were studying.
What’s the most beautiful film you’ve ever seen?
I see movies all the time. I’ve seen thousands of movies. So I don’t have one that I would pick. But I am drawn into the visuality of movies really readily.
How did that develop? Because many people when they watch a movie are more drawn in by plot and non-visual elements.
We had an unusual upbringing. This was in the 1960s, when [First Lady] Lady Bird Johnson was doing her rural beautification program. And so they got her to come to Spring Green. And they also got other arts people to come to Spring Green. So for one summer the Milwaukee Ballet or Repertory Theater was there all summer, and they started the first outdoor art fair in Southern Wisconsin. So I was endlessly exposed to visual arts.
If you could sit down and have a beer with anybody, living or dead, who would be?
Well, this is such a strange answer, but right now aren’t we all just deeply, deeply curious about Melania Trump? I am. That would be great. She has this sphinxlike quality where you do wonder what she’s thinking.