A hand squeezed my arm from behind. I turned to find a tall, tan, extremely fit woman, a fortysomething Amazon who looked like Julie Newmar in her Catwoman days. “You don’t remember me, do you?” she said. But an instant later I did: Pam Alexander was a public-relations dynamo I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the century, back during the last days of the digital bubble. “Actually,” I said, “I had sort of been thinking about you, because I haven’t been to anything like this since, since—”
“Since back when I was ubiquitous,” she said.
We were in a crowd at the Aspen Meadows Resort, during the opening reception of the Aspen Institute’s first annual weeklong Ideas Festival, organized by the Institute and co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly. It felt familiar. During the late nineties and early aughts, groups of several hundred quasi-intellectual entrepreneurs and quasi-entrepreneurial intellectuals were constantly gathering in Sun Belt resort hotels for a few days to rub each other for good luck—at TEDs in Monterey, Industry Standard events in Southern California, and so on.
Back then, such convocations usually had no-nonsense names, Digital Conferences or Technology Summits, thus compensating for the rapturous, gold-rush-Utopian moods. In Aspen the week after Independence Day, by contrast, we attended a festival of ideas, the name suggesting a kind of blithe intellectual gambol at the foot of Mt. Olympus, thus compensating for the fact that the topics and themes of the roundtables and speeches here tended toward the tough-minded and even grisly—Islamic terrorism, Iraqi civil war, biotechnological hubris, global warming, the impotence of liberals.
But that doesn’t mean the thing was a bummer. Quite the contrary. The sun shone, the nights were cool, and the VIP-room juice was at full strength. There were intelligent and funny conservatives (David Brooks, Ted Olson), eminent presidential counselors (Arthur Schlesinger, Dave Gergen), coulda-shoulda-wannabe presidents (Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, Wesley Clark), charismatic bad-boy curmudgeons (Larry Summers, Bill Bennett), African-American royalty (Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter), technology zillionaires (Jeff Bezos, Steve Case, John Doerr), and a quorum of A-list Washington journalists (Peter Beinart, Jim Lehrer, Chris Matthews, Steve and Cokie Roberts). Even some of the ordinary audience members—Ed Bradley, Michael Kinsley—were media celebrities.
And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. As it happened, the news that week was breaking along the very contours of the Ideas Festival agenda, and in Aspen, where attendees were outside workaday bunkers and freed from all cable-news sound-bite obligations, civilized discourse actually seemed possible. Sandra Day O’Connor had just resigned, giving the onstage conversations about the future of the Supreme Court between David Boies and Olson and Matthews real urgency. (They agreed Attorney General Gonzales would be a sure-thing confirmation.) As Karl Rove was finally fingered as the Plame leaker and Judy Miller spent her first night in jail, Brooks of the Times, James Fallows of the Atlantic, Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, Evan Thomas of Newsweek, and Juan Williams of NPR and Fox News were on a panel about “the News Media in Crisis.” (Brooks went off the record when asked if he would have gone to jail in Miller’s situation, but later said, a little shockingly, “If I thought my source was putting a CIA agent’s life at risk, I’d burn him.”) One day at breakfast, Dana Gioia, Bush’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, prepared to sit down at a table of national-security experts—Graham Allison of Harvard, James Steinberg of the Brookings Institution—but he was warned that the table conversation was “all about Malignant and Malevolent Threats,” the name of their morning seminar. Next morning, the bombers attacked London.
If life is like high school with money, the Ideas Festival was the MENSA-and- Model-Congress-at-summer-camp extension of that trope. All such shindigs are partly about mutual self-flattery. They are filled with middle-aged people in jeans and chinos and shirtsleeves who—appearances to the contrary—are or were or believe they ought to be masters of the universe. I was there because my friend Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the institute, had asked me to be one of the 120 interlocutors and pontificators (in return for airfare, room and board, and an all-access pass).
And just like at school or camp, there was buzz about the hotties and fresh faces. The week’s “It” boy was Noah Feldman, a good-looking, silver-tongued, terrifyingly self-confident 35-year-old NYU law professor with an Oxford degree in Islamic studies, a timely new book (Divided by God), and a recent posting in Baghdad advising the Iraqis on their constitution. He seemed more like a character on The West Wing than a real person. When a president of Harvard (Summers) and a former CIA director (James Woolsey) both stood to ask him respectful questions about Islamic fanatics, you could practically feel the envious admiration in the room. After Feldman mentioned that a key part of the Saudis’ geopolitical strategy is “buying off potential enemies,” I looked for Walter, intending to tease him about his institute’s new Prince Bandar restaurant, underwritten by the Saudi ambassador.