Past and present take center stage at Aspen Ideas

Aspen Ideas Festival 2019 runs from June 23 to 29.
Ian Wagreich/Aspen Institute

Aspen Ideas Fest Available Tickets for Monday, June 24

The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty
  • $55, includes lunch
  • Interviewer: Eric Motley
  • Hotel Jerome Ballroom: Noon to 12:50 p.m.
Why Women Now
  • $55, includes lunch
  • Lola Adedokun, Myla Calhoun, Alicia Garza and Cecile Richards in discussion moderated by Peggy Clark and Anne Mosle
  • St. Regis Hotel Ballroom: Noon to 12:50 p.m.
A Thousand Small Sanities
  • $30
  • Book signing with Adam Gopnik
  • Hotel Jerome Ballroom: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Tackling Glass Ceilings: Football's Female Phenoms
  • $30
  • Moderated by Cari Champion
  • Wheeler Opera House Bar: 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

One only needs to see the differing public reactions to President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision Thursday to not strike Iran as an indicator of how quickly Americans are to make up their minds, Walter Isaacson told a near full house at Paepcke Auditorium on Sunday.

“In this age of Trump, we automatically go to our corners when something happens,” he said. “I’ll give an example that won’t maybe be popular, but Trump a few days ago decides not to strike in Iran. … Instantly, though, every Democrat is saying that Trump is this (inaudible) and I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute, I actually think he’s actually right here. But we instantly go to our corner and say ‘that was horrible, what he just did,’ or ‘that was wonderful, what he just did,’ as opposed to thinking it through and saying ‘let me judge it as if we’re having a good argument and not just a bitter argument.’”

That was one instance of many that Isaacson and Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield batted around during their sit-down about the erosion of trust and faith in such American institutions as the government, media and higher education, or, more globally, the Catholic Church. The talk was a kickoff to the Aspen Ideas Festival, which runs through Sunday and will have programming at the Aspen Meadows campus as well as in-town establishments.

Porterfield, who just entered his second year as the Institute’s leader, has a background in higher education, most recently as president of Franklin & Marshall College for seven years. Porterfield was heralded for his work on the Next Generation Initiative that made the Pennsylvania school more inclusive toward low-income and minority students.

Isaacson, before heading the Institute from 2003 to 2018, was editor of Time magazine and chairman and CEO of CNN. He also is a biographer and currently a history professor at Tulane University, as well as a Distinguished Fellow with the Aspen Institute.

The two had plenty of talk about concerning their respective institutions as well as others, which, they said, are showing vulnerabilities.

“Great institutions carry on traditions, great institutions provide a structure through which we can do our best work,” Porterfield said. “Some institutions feel as if they’re cracking.”

The Catholic Church, for example, did it to itself, he said.

“I’m sorry to say it, but they’ve lost the standing that gave them so much authority as an institution.”

The Catholic Church, like the mainstream media, Isaacson said, needs to “be more honest. We have to be more transparent.”

The promise of social media also has fallen short, he said. “We thought it was going to connect the world, but it hasn’t done it in a way to find common ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the shouting on the airwaves and the online rhetoric continue, the Institute has embarked on Weave: The Social Fabric Project, led by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

In a nutshell, the program is aimed at connecting communities through inclusion rather than exclusion, and finding common ground.

“I think it’s part of the weaving and Weavers’ mission of our Institute, to say we can disagree but don’t we don’t have to be disagreeable,” Isaacson said.

America has had its bouts of incivility, he noted, citing the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th century, the Civil War, the McCarthy period and the Civil Rights movement. Tensions were high as well as violent at times, but those were pivotal moments in the nation’s history, Isaacson said.

The current rhetorical warfare, he theorized, is more due to the media’s quest for attention through cable-news arguments or click-bait articles. Also fueling the fire are those people emboldened by the ability to comment anonymously online, he said.

“We have often demonized people we disagree with, so I don’t think it helps to necessarily sugarcoat it, but we have to figure out why in this day and age … why are we demonizing each other,” he said.