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.
Now, it seems reasonable to ask why these people (many with personal aircraft ready to go anywhere at a moment’s notice) would sit still for panels of substantial tedium—the environment, the breakdown of trust in business, the U.N. and its relevance, etc. Most panels, at that, were restatements of views that, if you read the New York Times, you knew already.
But possibly, it was exactly this reassuring familiarity that was the point. This is the liberal-Establishment comfort zone.
My panel—with Kinsley and Alter and Pat Mitchell, who runs PBS, and Ann Moore, the CEO of Time Inc.—was, naturally, the media panel: “Have Journalists Sold Out?” It was supposed to be moderated by Walter, but he traded it for another panel because he was, he joked, trying to get away from media. And, indeed, here, media was not a glamour subject. Nor was it a subject invoking any sort of heatedness or bitterness. There was even the sense, for all its various problems—consolidation, Fox (everybody said Murdoch’s name with great scorn), the mess at AOL Time Warner—of the media’s being, well, safely and proudly fair-minded (despite the conservative noisiness).
Ann Moore, while she openly shuddered over the AOL merger, still thought Time Inc. did pretty fine work without corporate interference. And Michael Kinsley, who was there with his new wife, Patty Stonesifer, who runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said sanguinely, “I don’t see the problem, frankly,” and then offered a defense of big media and Bill Gates.
Indeed, nowhere at the conference, really, was there controversy. In some sense, the theme of the conference, even, was a rejection of controversy—much talk about the erosion of civic trust that came from partisanship.
The state of the world might be bad, but there was a sense here of the brainpower to make it better. Throughout the three days, as a sort of punctuation, there were individual essaylike speeches on solving specific world problems by people such as Larry Summers, president of Harvard, and Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright who plays the national-security adviser on The West Wing, and Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower, and Queen Noor.
And then there were the really big, “plenary” issues, like “The Future of the Middle East.” And while one person in this relatively international audience did point out that there were no Arabs here to discuss this topic, everybody seemed pretty satisfied with the views. Nobody suggested that what was being said was just the same old stuff.
As a special feature of the conference, David Kirkpatrick did a one-on-one interview with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who has managed his nation’s transformation from genocidal chaos to its current relative calm. (The room filled up with various Rwandans—staff and security people—which seemed just a little scary.) Kagame, who was presented as a kind of African overachiever, was prodded by Kirkpatrick to explore the experience of genocide, but he seemed relatively remote from or even uninterested in the subject.
The psychic heart of the conference was Bill Clinton.
He was interviewed on the second day by Isaacson, who began by telling a story about how when he was a Rhodes scholar he’d done a paper that his Oxford professor had said was not at all in the same league as a similar paper written by a certain Rhodes scholar from Arkansas a few years before. This was one of those overachievement-upon-overachievement stories that was bound to subdue anyone.
Clinton had lost weight and—with a great collection of just-out-of-the-wrapper pastel-colored polo shirts on view throughout the conference—seemed in fabulous form. He was in campaign mode but without the restraints of campaign mode. While there was clear bitterness on his part toward the successor who had rushed “to undo everything I’d done,” and the Republicans who “will run over you unless you beat their brains out,” there was a feisty humor too. Of the disputed Harken oil deal, Clinton said Bush had “sold the stock to buy the baseball team which got him the governorship which got him the presidency.”
Clinton kept referring to the media as (contrary to Kinsley’s view) the “supine” media, pointing out that when Bush insulted Helen Thomas (who, by asking a rough question in the infamous prewar press conference had, Clinton said, “committed the sin of journalism”), no “young journalists” stood up and walked out.
The media, the supine media, was going to have to “go to the meat locker and take out its brains and critical skills.”
Everybody seemed to love this. Clinton was not just the beloved former president, but he had become some sort of sassy oracle.
There was a party on the second day for Clinton at the Aspen version of Nobu, and then, later that evening, a discussion between Clinton and President Kagame, hosted by the William Morris Agency, at Whiskey Rocks Bar in the St. Regis Hotel (Michael Eisner, the Disney CEO, while not a conference attendee, slipped into the room).
This turned out to be the pivotal moment of the conference—even the primal one. When Clinton took questions, a young man from a technology company who identified himself as chairman of Bush-Cheney 2004 in California said he was offended by Clinton’s partisanship. To which Clinton, without hesitation, and with some kind of predatory gleam in his eye, said, “Good!” From there, Clinton went on, with emotion and anger, at a level seemingly foreign to most everyone here, to rip to shreds the motives, values, and legitimacy of the Republicans.
It was all anyone could talk about the next day. People seemed genuinely taken aback (some people kept offering that since it was late at night, in a bar, it didn’t quite count) that one of their own might have violated the accepted codes of lofty liberal behavior. There was a little current of fear at the sudden recognition that testosterone could fuel politics. It was a shock, apparently, that we might be this close to real feelings. That politics could actually be personal.
And that something more than overachieving might be required to take back the power—and for Walter to get his next job.