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.
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.