Aspen Institute’s Isaacson says think tank’s mission more important than ever in era of Trump
January 30, 2017
The day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his staff that made it clear the organization would roll up its sleeves and get to work.
Isaacson didn't expose any biases or express any angst over the election results, even though Trump's election could pose challenges for his group.
The Institute enjoyed widespread access to Obama administration officials in its various programs in Aspen and Washington, D.C. But Trump is clearly going to do business his way, and his way only. Who knows if that means his team must eschew participation in programs by a nonpartisan organization that seeks bipartisan solutions to problems that don't necessarily concern Trump?
Isaacson has been president of the Institute for 14 years and is a former managing editor of Time Magazine and former chairman and chief executive of the CNN News Group. He made it clear he's up for new challenges.
"Let me just say that it makes our mission all the more important," Isaacson wrote to his staff Nov. 9. "We need to lay the ground for a new generation that understands enduring values, respects all people and seeks to find solutions and new ideas to make all of our lives better in a changing world."
The Aspen Times interviewed Isaacson by telephone in his Washington, D.C., office Thursday to discuss the future of the Aspen Institute in the era of Trump.
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The Aspen Times: In a general sense, how will the election of President Trump influence the programs of the Aspen Institute?
Walter Isaacson: I think we're going to have to look for common ground and civil discourse during a time in which most discussion has gotten overheated and over-partisan. That means reaching back to basic values that we share as a society and trying to build policies and proposals that reflect those values.
It's always been the mission of the Institute to have respectful dialog. That's endangered these days in the hyper-intense, hyper-partisan shout fest that's been happening over the last few years, not just with Trump, but in the media and politics. We should be a calming place where people can meet face to face and try to understand differences in policies but find solutions based on common values.
AT: The Institute is nonpartisan and has promoted bipartisan solutions to problems. Now we're seeing an administration that talks about "alternative facts." Is it still feasible to try to bridge the philosophical divide?
Isaacson: Yes. We're not only bipartisan, we're nonpartisan. And just today at our offices here in Washington, we had two programs, one on good corporate practices involving health care, and that's all the more important when the Affordable Care Act is going to be revised, and secondly we had one on the importance of emotional and social learning in schools. We also just had J.B. Pritzker and Jackie Bezos yesterday doing something on brain development and early childhood education.
These are issues that are nonpartisan and above the rancorous discourse. We're going to keep our eye on the ball on important topics such as this, rather than being like a cable TV shout show where people are trying to politicize everything.
AT: I have a specific example that I want to get into. With the Institute's energy/environment program, it's focused on renewables and climate change. But now we've got an administration that doesn't believe the science behind climate change and it's prohibited agencies from sending tweets about a warming planet. How do you that program evolving?
Isaacson: Well, our energy and environment program has been focused on many topics, including renewable energy but also the electricity grid upgrade and new forms of energy. These are things we're going to keep focusing on with people from industry and academia, from different sides of the political spectrum. They all believe that climate change is an issue that must be addressed. So they're going to keep pursuing ideas that deal with that. I don't think their mission is going to change even if there are some people in the current administration who question the importance of climate change.
AT: The Institute has been able to bring in various high-level administration officials for its programs over the years — such as FBI Director James Comey. Will you have access to Trump administration officials?
Isaacson: I hope so. … It's always harder in the first year of an administration to get people out than it is in the last few years when they're more willing to travel. So, I don't know, but we've definitely invited a lot of representatives of the Trump administration to come out not only for Ideas Festival but for various programs in the fall.
Even before the election, the honorees of our August dinner in Aspen (were designated as) Ted Olson and David Boies, a conservative Republican and a Democrat that argued Bush v. Gore against each other but came together on the Defense of Marriage Act issue. They are an example of us wanting to find people that can find common ground based on values, even though they're from different parts of the political spectrum.
AT: So invitations already have been out to Trump administration officials?
Isaacson: Yeah. It's only been a week since the inauguration. I don't think he's appointed half his cabinet or hasn't gotten them confirmed yet, but we have invitations out to various people who have become part of the administration.
AT: What about some of the so-called alt-right officials like Steve Bannon?
Isaacson: We are going to try to put together a couple of things, both at the Ideas Festival and maybe at our Communications and Society Program that involve the notion of news, so-called fake news, alternative facts and figure out how we address those things in the future. I don't know who is going to be invited yet to these things yet, so I don't exactly have a guest list for you.
AT: The Institute's Security Forum was created in the changing world after 9/11. Now we're seeing major changes such as the president calling for the building of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, the reevaluation of international treaties from climate change to trade and a reassessment of NATO. Do you see the creation of any new program designed specifically to examine these new developments?
Isaacson: There are two or three new programs we're just launching. One is a program on cybersecurity, led by John Carlin, who most recently was at the FBI then the Justice Department. That will be based on the model of our Homeland Security Group and our Aspen Strategy Group to try to look at all the issues surrounding cybersecurity and authentication.
Secondly, we've launched a major program on youth engagement to try to bring the type of work we do that hits people of my generation and bring it to people ages 18 to 24, whether that's Small Ideas Festivals or leadership seminars. That's a second major project led by Raj Vinnakato, who founded the SEED Academies.
Thirdly, we're in the beginning stages of forming an Economic Strategy Group and it would have Democrats and Republicans working together to look at the domestic economic implications of some of the new policies being proposed.
AT: For your core audience and the people you're trying to reach, do you think now is more exciting than ever or do you think organizations like the Aspen Institute are marginalized?
Isaacson: I think it makes what we do more important because there are more challenges. If everybody conducted totally civil, high-minded discussions on all issues based on shared values and there was no contention in this world, we could probably declare victory and close up shop, but it's sort of the opposite now seems the case.
AT: With your career in journalism, what would be your advice to reporters covering this administration?
Isaacson: Journalists should keep their eyes on covering as truthfully and as dispassionately as possible all of the turmoil that's now happening in government and not fearing or favoring any particular faction. The press unfortunately has become politicized in many realms, whether it's cable TV or talk radio. There's more value than ever now in journalism that is based on honest reporting and an attempt to get the facts right that would restore some of the credibility that both the press and a lot of national institutions have lost.
AT: Does that carry over to the Aspen Institute programming as well, looking at (issues) truthfully and dispassionately?
Isaacson: Yeah, I think we all have our views and even our biases, but we can all make an effort to figure out what the facts actually are of a given situation and how you balance competing values with respect. We're not always going to get it perfect, but you should wake up each morning saying that's going to be your goal and we're going to try hard to do that.
AT: With you personally, do you see yourself with the Institute for the long haul or the foreseeable future?
Isaacson: I've been here for quite awhile and I haven't given much thought yet to where it all goes. I just want to make sure that our work gets done and the Institute is very stable because it is the best job in America.
AT: It's kind of an exciting time for journalists and think tanks, is it not?
Isaacson: Right. I think it's also an important time to go back to the core mission of the Aspen Institute, which is based on the Aspen Seminar, which starts with Plato and takes you through Gandhi and Martin Luther King to look at the competing but valid values we balance in our society. That notion of leadership based on values is what sometimes seems imperiled these days. If I had one wish, it would be that everybody would not only come see a discussion on stage at the Institute but they would be involved in our Aspen Seminars and Socrates Seminars, which try to go deeper and try to look at the underlying values of our society.