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Open to Ideas

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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High-powered thinkers, philosophers, journalists and activists in the religious, social and political realms will descend upon Aspen for the second annual Aspen Ideas Festival, July 3-9.But this year, the list of speakers has increased by more than 50 percent, according to event co-presenter the Aspen Institute. Likewise, the number of people attending the various talks, seminars and round-table discussions has grown. And the roster of locally oriented events has also multiplied.

But to what end? The goal of the Aspen Ideas Festival is to tackle some of the thornier issues facing the world today and, if possible, to come up with answers to those problems.As at the first Ideas Festival, the Aspen Institute has leaned on its reputation as a world-class think tank to draw some fairly heavy-hitters to the table. This year’s roster includes: Karl Rove, President George Bush’s chief political advisor; Bruce Babbitt, former governor of Arizona and former U.S. secretary of the interior; columnist and author Arianna Huffington; former Fed chair Alan Greenspan; Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of British secret intelligence, MI-6; television anchorwoman Katie Couric; and a host of others.In fact, roughly 190 presenters, speakers and moderators were listed on the Institute’s website as of last week.Former President Bill Clinton was rumored to be coming – he showed up unexpectedly last year, when his wife, U.S. Sen. Hilary Clinton, was on the schedule – though his participation could not be confirmed as of press time.And there are plenty of important points to be covered that are not on the festival’s agenda or in the blizzard of promotional materials. Those unexplored topics include such questions as:• What happens to all the ideas that are discussed, dissected and disputed at the Aspen Ideas Festival? Does it really mean anything?• Has the Aspen Institute fulfilled its quest to make itself more relevant to the local community? Do people here truly care what goes on over at that rather quiet, occasionally mysterious campus on the western edge of town.The answer to the latter questions, according to Institute President Walter Isaacson, is a resounding: “YES!”

Caught between tasks recently, Isaacson enthused, “It’s gone far beyond what we expected” in terms of reuniting the Institute with Aspen locals, a link he admitted had been suffering.He pointed out that, even as he spoke, new events were being added to the Aspen Ideas Festival specifically with the local audience in mind. And that, he said, was on top of the plethora of events already scheduled, including a special taping of the “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill” show for the PBS network (District Theater, July 7, free, but tickets are required).



“We’ll probably be adding stuff until July 9,” added Kitty Boone, director of public programs for the Institute and the festival’s main organizer. (Changes to the schedule will be posted on the Web, broadcast on e-mail list-serves, and published in the local media.) “It’s exponentially different” than the first festival, she continued, describing a recent e-mail she received from a woman in Florida who was disappointed passes were no longer available. (The festival’s 800 passes were sold out by March; individual tickets to certain events were still available as of last week.)”You must know that we hunger for access to thoughtful conversation,” the e-mail informed Boone.Isaacson added he was “stunned and pleased at the eagerness for events like these,” and believes “the eagerness comes from the fact that people are interested in ideas, and in finding common-sense solutions when commentators are shouting at each other on cable TV.”And he realizes such interest isn’t limited to out-of-towners or high-powered politicians and businesspeople.”We want to make sure the Aspen Institute is, to the extent possible, open to people who want to be involved,” said Isaacson, adding with a slightly awed tone, “I didn’t realize how many people wanted to be involved.”

In fact, Isaacson is having to turn away people that he really would like to have at the festival – including some personal friends who had counted on him for tickets.”I feel kind of guilty,” he said. Of course, “it’s the kind of problem that you really want to have” when putting on an event of this nature, he added.”I think it shows how important it was to open up the Institute to a larger audience. The fact that [in the recent past] the Institute stayed closed, stayed small … didn’t make sense in this day and age.”According to Boone, the “larger audience” is become a reality both figuratively and physically. She said there is room on the Institute campus for roughly 500 attendees each day. Factor in the various venues around town (Belly Up, Little Nell, Hotel Jerome, Benedict Music Tent, District Theater, as well as the Pine Creek Cookhouse and Maroon Bells Amphitheater), and attendance “could swell to 3,000.”




The event’s increasing notoriety also answers the first question raised about the Aspen Ideas Festival: Is it helping to solve the pressing problems facing our world? Isaacson maintains that the festival’s impact is measurable by the desire of people to learn about world issues, talk about them with knowledgeable experts and get some idea of what they can do to help.”It’s not the celebrity speakers that’s doing it,” he said of the festival’s rising popularity.For example, Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI-6, is unknown to almost anyone not already linked to the world of international espionage. But his talk on terrorism is a hot item, because “people want to hear what he has to say. We find that people are eager to go to all of the tutorials and seminars. They just want people who are smart and have ideas,” said Isaacson.Plus, festival organizers have asked presenters to end their sessions with the question: “What can we do?” as a way of leaving attendees with more than just ideas and questions.”Thought leading to action,” is the theme, Isaacson said.

“We’re asking them not to talk about high abstractions, but to talk about what can we take back to New York, to Kansas, or to Carbondale,” said Aspen Institute Director of Public Affairs Jim Spiegelman. “People often leave white-hot with excitement. How do we capture some of that excitement, some of that passion? The Institute provides a very rich menu of education and inspiration.”Plus, the Institute makes use of the festival in its programming throughout the year.”The ideas that some out of the Ideas Festival feed into our public policy programs,” Isaacson explained, adding that public policy programs often end up as round-table discussions by world leaders.John Colson’s e-mail is jcolson@aspentimes.com


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