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Institute leaves locals feeling shortchanged

Eben Harrell

At a recent panel discussion at The Aspen Institute, a panelist remarked that “democracy is always a risk; it doesn’t always give you the perfect results.””I can attest to that,” Institute panelist and former Vice President Al Gore joked.But if democracy is imperfect, the pretense of democracy is far more troubling and sinister. And alas even The Aspen Institute, that bastion for the promotion of democracy and equality, sometimes falls pray to this sort of deception.Yesterday, the Institute hosted one of its “Summer Speaker Series,” a collection of eight summer lectures at Paepcke Auditorium marketed as open to local residents. The panel, which discussed the Middle East peace process, included former Mideast diplomat Dennis Ross, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Senator Diane Feinstein. It was always going to be a hot ticket, especially after local radio stations advertised the event as “free and open to the public.”The reality turned out to be different. Of the 350 seats in the auditorium, it appeared only 34 were made available to the public. Approximately 200 were reserved for The Aspen Institute trustees or Society of Fellows (i.e. those who either patronize or participate in Institute events), according to Institute public relations director Jim Spiegelman. He did not elaborate on how many seats went to guests of the panel and other Institute dignitaries, so it remains unclear how many open seats were available.Whatever the number, it was not a pleasant sight – a line of locals, including a news correspondent from a local radio station, watched outside in frustration as the auditorium slowly filled to near capacity. The lucky ones were ushered to two “overflow” rooms where the event was broadcast on television (it will be shown on Grassroots TV anyway). Approximately 50 members of the public were turned away. The members of the public who did make it into the auditorium were not allowed in until after the event had begun. They were hastily seated in extra chairs lined up n see Institute on page A9– continued from page A1at one of the exits, something that would have elicited outrage from Aspen’s fire marshals (although as volunteers they probably wouldn’t have been let in).It’s apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Institute spokeswoman Cristal Logan confirmed that at all “Summer Speaker Series” events, trustees and fellows are given first seating, often leaving the public relegated to the overflow rooms.Institute public relations director Jim Spiegelman said the problem is unavoidable given the seating constraints of Paepke Auditorium.”Unfortunately our auditorium is not big enough. We will be building a new conference center in the next few years,” Spiegelman said.Like most Institute events, the panel discussion was lively and informative. By bringing together the world’s power brokers, the Institute lectures and panels provide primary source material on how the world is run, an intriguing opportunity to put down the newspapers and listen to the newsmakers. More than that, they might just provide the opportunity for networking and coalition building that a unified effort for global prosperity so drastically needs.In regard to the Middle East peace process, it was encouraging to hear how involved U.S. diplomats are, how tirelessly they work for peace. It was also disappointing to see how simpleminded pro-Israel American power brokers can be.Any talk about the Mideast peace process that begins with a U.S. diplomat telling a gemutlich Jewish joke from the Shtetl (as this one did) may offer some insight as to why the U.S.-led “pathway to peace” has reached an impasse in Palestine.”I think all of us are pro-Israel, but we also have to acknowledge the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” Albright wisely said.The audience, over 90 percent of whom were Institute members, predictably lapped up the discussion, offering a standing ovation at its end. For those 34 members of the public, however, it must have seemed sadly ironic how a panel, nay an institution, that preaches so fervently for the democratization of the globe can be so undemocratic here at home. Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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