There was lots of humor, only some of it wonky (e.g., Colin Powell on Canadian textile trade disputes). The best jokes, apparently not by prearrangement, concerned one’s own well-known scandal. When Summers, during his stage appearance with Chris Matthews, referred approvingly to the flood of women into the labor force, he preemptively interjected, “Spare me the wisecrack, Chris.” During another discussion, when one panelist used the phrase “let the chips fall,” Bill Bennett cracked, “Don’t say ‘chips’ around me.” And when the week’s surprise guest and ultimate BMOC, Bill Clinton, showed up on Friday for a one-on-one with Walter, he paused halfway through a story about a Pentecostal-minister friend’s “confessing” his vote for Bush last fall. “The world’s most famous sinner,” Clinton said, “and I got a preacher confessing to me.”
The great triangulator’s point was that Democrats can’t win the presidency if they don’t campaign earnestly among churchgoing Christians—he noted that he got 75 percent more Evangelical votes in 1996 than John Kerry did in 2004. He suggested that Roe v. Wade was the unfortunate beginning of the end of civility between left and right. He said the Democrats are wrong to deny that malpractice suits don’t drive up medical costs. And about the current war he said, “This is not Vietnam. I wouldn’t set a deadline [for the withdrawal of troops]. I agree with the president.” If anyone but him had said the same thing about Iraq, there would have been boos and hisses, as there had been the night Evan Thomas said he thought the administration had sincerely believed Saddam had WMD stockpiles.
Clinton’s sensible centrism was refreshing. Arthur Schlesinger, at 87 painfully slow at getting his thoughts out, was the one very-old-school lefty; at every mention of Iraq he brought up Abu Ghraib, and on a panel with Bezos denounced the Internet because it spread the attacks that sank John Kerry’s presidential candidacy. Conversely, Bill Owens, Colorado’s local-anchormanly Republican governor, was a predictable, weaselly purveyor of GOP talking points. The audiences were overwhelmingly lefty (at one large session, two thirds of the audience identified themselves as liberals), but most of the invited speakers tended not to default to easy black-and-white positions.
Feldman denounced the administration’s bungled prosecution of the counterinsurgency in Iraq—but said it would be practically and morally disastrous to bug out now. Robert Hormats, the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, said the Republicans are fiscally reckless to increase domestic spending, cut taxes, and wage war all at the same time—but pointed out that Iraq is not, in fact, an important driver of the deficit. And when the last Democratic administration was chastised by a liberal for having supported the pharmaceutical industry’s lawsuits against cheap generic aids drugs in the nineties, Larry Summers, who had been Clinton’s Treasury secretary, instantly copped—“We were wrong, the Clinton administration was wrong, they wanted to help the drug companies.”
The nominal conservatives said surprisingly “liberal” things as well. When asked why, according to surveys, the public loathes the (liberal) press, David Brooks replied that it was “because people are idiots. The press is more honest and less salacious now than ever before.” Brooks also said that “the Bush administration is even boring off the record.” Colin Powell volunteered that America addresses the world “too loudly, too sharply, with too much arrogance [and] hubris,” that “we ought to double and double and double [foreign aid] again,” and that “political leaders”—he did not have to name names—“run into trouble when they are so sure of themselves and then put an Evangelical cast on top of that.”
During a panel with Bill Bennett about “the war of ideas,” when the liberal Harvard government professor Michael Sandel said that “casting [abortion] as ‘choice’ has been a mistake for liberals,” it wasn’t the first time he and Bennett agreed. “Bill,” he said, “if we’re not careful, we’ll walk out of here arm in arm, and that won’t be good for either of us.” “I’m looking for something to do at seven,” Bennett retorted, which was a joke about sexuality and hating Bill Clinton, who was the star attraction that evening.
I neither loved nor hated Clinton when he was in office, but I have to say, watching him onstage in Aspen, I was, like the rest of the audience, staggered by his display of the virtues his successor so manifestly lacks—detailed knowledge, lucidity, intellectual agility, easy humor, comfort in his own skin.
Is it corny or pointless to wish we had a president like that? Or like Colin Powell? They are wise men. Their equally nonideological raps were of a piece with the event’s prevailing spirit of nuance, candor, dignity, and sober-sided uncertainty. One could imagine, in the clear, dry air of Aspen, that informative, even constructive discussion and debate is not an impossible artifact of a bygone age.