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Reporter to talk on the power of the president

by: Submitted photo courtesy of NPR, Ari Shapiro

In some ways, Ari Shapiro hasn't changed much since graduating from Beaverton High School a decade ago.

He's still tall and lanky, still well-read, well-spoken and well-liked. And he still has, as one of his former teachers put it, 'a knack for drama.'

But these days, the 29-year-old is putting those talents to work for National Public Radio as the youngest person ever to be made a correspondent there.

In his current post as NPR's justice correspondent, Shapiro has formulated a talk entitled 'Presidential Power and the War on Terror,' which he will give at the University of Portland tonight (Thursday) at 7, in the Buckley Center Auditorium. The 400 free tickets available for the talk have already been reserved.

The speech will examine the powers the U.S. president wields and how that notion has shifted in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 world.

'It's my attempt to find the common thread through a lot of the debates that have raged in the country,' Shapiro said.

His stories on NPR have given him a front row seat to many of those debates, including the abuse at Abu Ghraib and the chaos after Hurricane Katrina. They have also earned him an American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award and the Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize for exceptional reporting.

Though public broadcasters aren't typically household names, in a region widely known for its support of NPR's local affiliate, Oregon Public Broadcasting, this makes Shapiro something of a celebrity for teachers and friends who can say they knew him when.

'Whenever he comes on (the radio), I always grin,' said Susan McKinney, one of Shapiro's former teachers who is now principal of McKinley Elementary School in Beaverton.

Elaine Coughlin, Shapiro's former high school speech and debate coach, laughingly admits that she still finds ways to 'casually mention' her connection with the broadcaster when NPR comes up in class.

'I heard Ari on the radio!' her students now say to her.

Shapiro, along with his two brothers, was a star on Coughlin's speech and debate team. He even placed at a national tournament with his ability to shift seamlessly between characters in Dramatic Interpretation and to quickly formulate and advocate an opinion in Impromptu speaking.

Coughlin said she takes no credit for Shapiro's success, but he names her as one of his greatest influences at BHS, along with English teacher Jack Huhtala, French teacher Jim Rainey and theater director Jim Erickson, who died in 2004.

'At Beaverton I got a fantastic education,' Shapiro said. 'I think I didn't really appreciate (it) at the time, but … it was kind of amazing what a great education I could get at a public school.'

Path to correspondent

Shapiro said he never planned to become a journalist, though he grew up listening to OPB 'every day of my life.'

'What I'm doing now just seemed like a complete fantasy,' he said.

Shapiro got his start at NPR as an intern in Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg's office in 2001. Looking back, he said, it seems a logical path from Totenberg's office to covering national justice system issues, but it wasn't that clear when he started.

After graduating from BHS in 1996, Shapiro went on to study English at Yale University. A few short years later Shapiro found himself working out of NPR's Miami bureau, covering the disastrous 2005 hurricane season and its aftermath on the Southeastern seaboard, among many other regional issues.

When his contract came up in 2005, Shapiro moved in to an open position covering the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., where he still resides between trips across the country, covering national legal issues.

Shapiro said Totenberg remains a good friend and mentor to him, but he has another person close to him who is also involved in legal affairs. Yale law graduate Michael Gottlieb is Shapiro's longtime partner. The two were married in San Francisco in 2004, though the license was later annulled by the California Supreme Court.

Shapiro said Gottlieb doesn't really help him in his reporting, except that it's nice to have someone at home who can relate to his stories.

But mostly, Shapiro said, 'it's really a coincidence that I ended up covering law now.'

Shapiro said his favorite story is always 'the one I just finished,' but this time, the one he just finished is particularly interesting.

U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey took him along on a 24-hour trip to Baghdad and gave him an exclusive interview on his first three months in office.

Shapiro said the trip to Iraq, his first, was 'an amazing experience' that will forever affect the way he views stories coming from the battlefield.

'Having actually been there, even just briefly, I feel like to some small extent I can actually know what the events are like,' he said.

But not all of Shapiro's stories are so satisfying.

'There are times that I have to call somebody and say, 'I'm doing this story about a person who thinks you should be fired,'' he said. 'I don't enjoy having to be the messenger, but as a reporter, I can't ignore that or sugarcoat it.'

One story in particular has stuck with him: the reaction to businessman Nick Berg's 2004 beheading in Iraq.

'I think the story does good,' he said, 'but it's a difficult story to do.'

The return home

Shapiro's speaking engagement at the University of Portland is also a homecoming of sorts. His parents still live in the Garden Home area and his mother, Elayne Shapiro, is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Portland, where she teaches public speaking, leadership, and communication courses. His father, Leonard Shapiro, teaches computer science at Portland State University.

Bruce Wietzel, who was the principal at BHS when Shapiro was in high school, is now an associate professor in the education department at the University of Portland and will be introducing the nationally acclaimed journalist at tonight's event.

Shapiro said it's a bit strange to think that these days Beaverton High School students might now be looking up to him. But, if they do, he said he would tell them to reach for the stars.

'People shouldn't stop aspiring to things just because they seem unattainable,' he said.

Shapiro's free lecture is presented by the University of Portland's Department of Communication Studies and open to the public, but advance tickets have been sold out. The Will Call table will open at 6 p.m. and remaining tickets will be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis.