Isaacson era winds down at Aspen Ideas
Walter Isaacson might be the outgoing president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, but he has two reasons to return to future Ideas Festivals.
On Saturday afternoon in the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Meadows campus, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, presented Isaacson with two lifetime passes to the Ideas Festival — the first of their kind — as the annual summer event drew to a close. The other pass goes to his wife, Cathy, a regular attendee.
Isaacson winds down his 14-year run as the Institute’s leader — he’ll be a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans in July — during tumultuous times in both the United States and abroad.
The biographer isn’t leaving because he has run out of ideas, he said, but the Institute needs a fresh, new leader for the future. He considered stepping down after his seventh, eighth and ninth years at the helm, he said. He kept coming back, however.
“And finally, it got to be after 14 years, it’s probably good to see what the next act is,” Isaacson said, calling his role at the Institute “the best job in America.”
A new Institute president and CEO has yet to be named; a search for that person is ongoing.
“There’s got to be somebody out there who says ‘here’s a new set of ideas’ — we need an Aspen (Institute) in every town in America,” Isaacson said. “It wasn’t about me; it’s about the institution.”
Isaacson founded the Aspen Ideas Festival, a multi-day program featuring seminars and discussions with some of the world’s heaviest of hitters, in 2005. Its purpose has been to have a gathering where people collaborate, discuss, debate and create ideas — from politics to science — and their place in society and the world. Most effective, however, is when the ideas are implemented in real life, Isaacson has said.
The next leader of the Institute, Isaacson opined, could spread the thinktank’s wings even wider. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which started in 1950 in Aspen, also has a campus in Maryland and partner Institutes in Europe and Asia.
But the Aspen campus, for some reason, has inspired ideas that might not have been hatched elsewhere, Isaacson suggested.
“Aspen (Institute) has a secret sauce, which is Aspen,” Isaacson said. “You get people in this mountain (town) and they are elevated in their thinking … it’s not like going to something in Davos or in New York. We’ve not yet cracked the code of how you would replicate Aspen in Akron (Ohio) or Columbus (Ohio). … I would like to see a way of taking Aspen (Institute) and making it part of American society, making it part of the world.”
A common knock against the Ideas Festival is the elite crowd it attracts, one that’s detached from the real world. At the same time, there’s been a groundswell of resentment toward elites, something Goldberg and Isaacson both acknowledged.
“There’s a great resentment of elites, and let’s not kid ourselves, this group is elite. Aspen is considered an elite place,” Goldberg said.
The current tension in America, Isaacson theorized, can be partly attributed to advantaged people leaving their communities, while the disadvantaged stay home where jobs are hard to come by, and they are not desirous of engaging in the information world.
“I think the divide between people who left their community and the people who stay should narrow,” Isaacson said, calling for a reconnection of communities on the local level “if we’re going to cure ourselves.”
He later added, “I would love Aspen (Institute) to heal this divide that’s happened globally, and I don’t have an answer for how to do that, which is why it is time for me to leave.”
Next up on the Institute’s docket in Aspen is the Security Forum, set July 19 to 22.
Among the highlighted speakers are Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who kicks off the forum with Pete Williams, a justice correspondent for NBC News, at 5 p.m. July 19 at the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Meadows campus.
Other panelists include Thomas Bossert, the assistant to President Donald Trump for Homeland Security and Terrorism; Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs; Dina Kawar, ambassador of Jordan to the United States; Fareed Yasseen, ambassador of Iraq to the U.S.; Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security; Michael Hayden, former director of both the National Security Agency and CIA; Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; Aizaz Chaudhry, ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S.; Hamdullah Mobib, ambassador of Afghanistan to the U.S.; Raymond “Tony” Thomas, commander of U.S. Special Operations; U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security; Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; former National Intelligence director James Clapper; former CIA director John Brennan; and Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, among others.