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This Isn't War

(Yet.) The liberal power elite I hobnobbed with in Aspen seems terminally short on passion—with one tough-talking, very angry exception: Bill Clinton.


My interest in the Fortune magazine and Aspen Institute conference, just held at the institute’s Bauhaus-style retreat at Aspen Meadows, had not a little to do with my continuing and over-the-top interest in Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson, you may recall, ran CNN and, before that, Time magazine, and then, this past spring, became the director of the international-problem-solving think tank, as—in my blue-sky view—a prelude to becoming secretary of State under the next Democratic president.

What’s more, he’d just published a biography of Benjamin Franklin in an orchestration of promotion and cross-marketing (including, in one of the great corporate going-away presents, the cover of Time) rivaled only by Hillary Clinton’s book.

It was not just the aggressive marketing that merits note but the fact that the book was, unlike Hillary’s, elegant and nuanced, once again prompting the question Where did Walter find the time and energy to accomplish all that he accomplished?—and forcing those of us with Walter envy to confront what hopeless failures we are.

As it happened, this conference that he was co-hosting, which during its three days he sprinkled with Ben Franklin bromides and aphorisms, was in many ways a gathering of people as dedicated to overachieving as Walter himself (Franklin, too, was among the great overachievers).

Among the guests: significant CEOs, select foreign heads of state, various U.S. governors and members of Congress, at least one prospective presidential candidate (Wesley Clark), one former president (Bill Clinton), and a queen (Noor). Even the assorted journalists here—Slate’s Michael Kinsley, CNN’s Judy Woodruff, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, Time’s Joe Klein—were of the type who had left the sidelines and become ever so comfortable with, and indeed a part of, the power elite.

My own efforts to overachieve and to pass from hoi polloi into this higher company were called into serious question when, on the plane to Aspen, I chatted with my seatmate, a lawyer in stained khakis named Breyer, also on his way to the conference, who, I did not realize until I reached the hotel and checked the list of attendees, was a member of the Supreme Court.

Now, I go to conferences often. But this conference wasn’t, as conferences invariably are, a venue for contacts and business deals. Nobody here needed contacts, or deals, or a leg up. What they wanted now was something greater. As a class, these wealthy, cosmopolitan, internationalist, highly educated, deeply cultured, unfailingly polite, liberal people—all at the absolute pinnacles of their professions—were out of power. You could feel their yearning to be, as a group, back in that place.

Called Brainstorm, the conference had been launched three years ago by Fortune magazine and its influential technology writer David Kirkpatrick (separate from the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick, who covers AOL, which owns Fortune) as an effort to be part of the then-lucrative technology-conference business. But then the bust came. Brainstorm quickly repositioned itself to include, in addition to technology wealth, all sober and serious people of high position and great net worth with liberal leanings (the conference, by invitation and with no costs to its guests, supports itself on corporate sponsorships).

While this was, homogeneously, a liberal crowd, it was not an ironic crowd, or a contentious one, or showbizzy in any sense. These were not social liberals, or cause-y liberals, or polymorphous liberals. There was not even a hint of gayness. These were just overachieving liberals. (They were not just achievers but the arbiters of achievement.)

The opening panel at the first evening’s dinner featured several estimables, including Madeleine Albright, a Singaporean diplomat, and a token (and not too bright) member of the Bush administration, but everybody on the panel was irrelevant except for Wesley Clark. The vibe was as powerful in the room as if you had a panel of B-listers and then, say, J.Lo. The intensity was of one mind. Clark was the romantic figure here. He held the collective crush.

It was, for this audience, such incredible good Fortune to have not just a real general (the victor of Kosovo) who would be willing to run as a Democrat but a real general who is a genuine brainiac (he was precise and clear and overarching as a panelist, whereas Albright was huffing and puffing, and the Bush official was nearly incoherent). This was what the liberal Establishment was waiting for.

Of course, the brainiac thing represented a certain order of coolness, which might play less well with the nation’s not-so-cool people. The warrior-intellectual, thrilling to these people, might have a limited wide appeal.

But the love here was real and powerful.

You know it when overachievers sense one of their own.

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