Down and Out at Davos

Protesters weren’t the only ones frustrated at the World Economic Forum last weekend. While the Falun Gong seemed content to conduct mass breathing exercises on the corner of 47th and Park (stationed like sentinels in front of Starbucks), the corporate, media, and political heavyweights inside the Waldorf-Astoria were fighting to get into overbooked sessions.

Outside Friday morning’s colloquy “New Priorities in U.S. Foreign Policy,” with “special guest” Senator Joseph Biden, a line of the unregistered formed early. Jamie Rubin came out – in vain – to get his wife, Christiane Amanpour. “Forget me,” she said, amused by his consternation. “The foreign minister of Romania can’t get in.”

“I just saw the mayor of Chicago get turned away,” the Wall Street Journal’s man piped up. But William Daley called over his shoulder, “Not me, buddy!”

“Oh,” the reporter corrected himself, “he was the Commerce secretary; his brother is the mayor.”

“I’m the crown prince’s counselor, I’ve got to get in there,” a self-important Saudi said to no avail.

One of the charms of Davos, the Swiss ski resort where the conference was born, was that it forced everyone into the same cramped accommodations. (Though Klaus Schwab says he moved his forum to New York in solidarity, rumor has it that the notoriously strict Swiss security forces got fed up with the safety requirements of so many VIPs and sent the conference packing.) Coming to New York put the event under the New York Times’ approving eye – RICH AND POWERFUL GATHERING AT ELITE FORUM ON ECONOMY, read Thursday’s headline – but it also seems to have created the unanticipated problem of too much serious (and surely social) interest in the panels.

By Friday morning, the powerhouse quotient had gotten very high indeed. George Stephanopoulos, Walter Isaacson, Ken Auletta, and several other media types hung around the lobby like a clutch of high-school seniors while less-stellar folk scurried to kiosks looking for last-minute openings. Meanwhile, Enron-addled SEC chairman Harvey Pitt was taking an escalator up from Oscar’s. “I’ve gone over the House testimony,” he said to his companion before looking at his watch. “What time does this thing start?” he asked.

Even being a featured attraction didn’t help. On Thursday, Michael Dell tried to stop by “Business Strategy.” A photographer seeing Dell sheepishly wait his turn by the door offered to get the billionaire in on his pass.

“This is the most important man in the computer business,” the photographer exclaimed to a McKinsey employee on loan to the conference.

“I know who he is,” the employee replied with a patient smile. “I’m not ignorant. But rules are rules.” And with that, Dell retreated good-naturedly into an onslaught of hopeful bankers.

Other victims of this new egalitarianism were Arianna Huffington and Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender, who were turned away from Friday’s foreign-policy scrum, too. Their next stop: “Responding to Financial Market Volatility,” but there was no room at the inn there either.

Those left out of the most sought-after confabs had to make do with panels like “Drama in the Workplace (Learn to use techniques from theatre to make a difference in the way you lead and inspire others)” or “Café Philo (An informal but energetic gathering).”

Back at the foreign-policy colloquy, Claudia Gonzalez, senior press officer for the conference, tried valiantly to accommodate the irate VIPs by getting permission to open the doors. “We’ve got to do something here,” she pleaded into her cell phone. “There’s going to be a backlash.”

But the mandarins in charge of the conference, in their wisdom, let the rules stand.

Down and Out at Davos