Barbara Ehrenreich sits at a table on the theater stage, hair drawn in a simple bun, a small figure against a towering black velvet curtain.With zero fanfare, the unpretentious social commentator, Time essayist, and 1963 Reed graduate launches her lecture on "The End of Caring: Rewriting the Social Contract." It is a sardonic indictment of President Clinton's welfare reform.

Ehrenreich, in Eugene as the occupant of the University of Oregon's Wayne Morse Chair of Law and Politics, is oblivious to the hubbub she has created outside the 500-seat Soreng Theater.

In a flat, wry voice, she raises the specter of Hillary's famous tete-a-unseen-tetes with Eleanor Roosevelt: "I can imagine Hillary saying piously, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' and Eleanor Roosevelt responding, 'It only takes a village idiot to see the damage Clinton is about to do.' "

The audience laughs; the former Guggenheim fellow is off and ruminating on how Americans have come to so distrust government.

Meanwhile, Hult Center ushers frantically search for the scattered spare seat, like flight attendants facing an oversold plane. Outside the theater entrance, a line--two and three abreast--presses down the carpeted steps, through the lobby, out the front doors, and down to the neighboring Hilton Hotel.

More than 400 people are turned away from Ehrenreich's free appearance--in an annual lecture featuring various guest speakers--that normally draws an audience of 300.

Throughout her 12-day stay in Eugene and Portland last April, 56-year-old Barbara Ehrenreich attracted throngs. Nearly a thousand crammed into the 850-seat sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Portland to hear her shred welfare reform. On the UO campus, 300 jammed an elegant lounge that seats half as many to watch her pick apart the media's penchant for sensationalism. At luncheons, news conferences, and speeches, she wore non-power knits, hair pulled in that scientist's bun, and always appearing as prepared as a Reedie for senior thesis orals.

At home in Sugarloaf Key, Florida, she reads the New York Times, skims the Miami Herald, pays attention to The Nation and the New Republic, and samples "a zillion" other magazines to learn what both liberals and conservatives are thinking.

She listens to National Public Radio to find out what is going on and watches network news to watch what is being presented as news. She researches on line, considers the internet fine for clear-cut data but otherwise "a wind tunnel for gossip," and, when she's formed a hypothesis, hits experts by phone. "I make lots of calls," she says. "I push till my hypothesis falls apart."

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