ST. PETERSBURG — It was symbolic of the best and worst of our times.
Inside an auditorium at the University of South Florida, Kevin Phillips, a former Republican strategist and author, discussed his latest book and the world's economic crisis.
Outside on a stage in the middle of a grassy field where audiences nibbled or corn dogs and popcorn, the folksy Earthlings Electric Washboard Band sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game. The lead singer begged for tickets to catch a World Series game, to no avail.
Phillips and the Earthlings were part of the 16th Annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading Saturday that drew hundreds of book lovers to downtown St. Petersburg.
In addition to Phillips, the festival featured dozens of authors that included such novelists as Dennis Lehane, whose bestselling books will yield his third big-screen film release in October 2009.
Authors peppered details of their writings with humorous one-liners about those who served as inspiration for their books.
"Never in American history has someone with so little to offer been in office for so long," Phillips said about President George W. Bush, prompting widespread laughter and applause.
Phillips, also a former White House strategist, wrote Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.
All told, the crowd taking in his speech wasn't just interested in what he wrote, but also his view of the economic crisis.
"Would you please give us your blame list," one audience member asked Phillips.
"You have to start with George W.," Phillips said. He added former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, current Chairman Ben Bernanke, former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (whom he dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Citigroup), among others politicos.
Phillips said there's plenty of blame to put on the Republicans and Democrats.
The hundreds gathered for Phillips' speech matched that of Lehane, who took the same stage in the USF St. Petersburg Activities Center to talk about his latest book The Given Day. The book is a historical novel set in Lehane's hometown, Boston, just after World War I.
Thoughts of Boston invoked some of Lehane's fondest childhood memories. "My father would take me to the bar every Saturday morning," he told an audience that began chuckling.
Rick Smith, 45, of St. Petersburg flashed a grin as he waited for Lehane to sign a copy of the book he just bought.
"I started reading his books, and I'm hooked. He conveys the dark side of life without wallowing in it."
Anna Andrade, a 15-year-old Largo resident and student at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, left a bit overwhelmed by Lehane's presentation.
"It was kind of cool to see him, a big writer and all," Anna said.