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Aspen Ideas Festival: A Guide to Who Said What at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival

Brandon Wenerd's picture
Festival Attendees in Anderson Park - Photo by Dan BayerFestival Attendees in Anderson Park - Photo by Dan BayerThe 5th annual Aspen Ideas Festival redefines what it means to "Go Big" in Aspen by hosting large personalities, powerful world leaders, thoughtful discussions, and - most of all - big ideas. Presented by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine, the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival was a gathering of great thinkers with innovative ideas for a seemingly-nonstop series of lectures, presentations, debates, interviews, and panel discussions. Here at, we accumulated a collection of newspapers articles, blog posts, podcasts, and social media video to provide an annotated day-by-day summary and an in-depth chronological guide to who said what over one of Aspen's biggest weeks.

Festival Attendees Line Up Outside the Doerr-Hosier Center  - Photo by Dan BayerFestival Attendees Line Up Outside the Doerr-Hosier Center - Photo by Dan BayerIn the context of ski town slang, “Go big” is the type of gnarly, half-baked euphemism usually reserved for adrenaline-fueled physical prowess on the slopes or throwing back one more shot-and-a-beer before last call. Yet the Aspen Institute’s annual Ideas Fest elevates the IQ of this cliche snow-shredding colloquialism. Every July, a sundry assumable of corporate bigwigs, accomplished cultural icons, foreign diplomats, professors, scholars, experts-in-the-field, and media savvy opinion-makers gather in Aspen to discuss big ideas during a week of cerebral stimulation. On the surface, the overall purpose of this event appears to have ambiguous auspices: a dialogue-driven presentation of original ideas celebrating multiple points of view, often without a common aesthetic thread, in an idyllic alpine setting. Nonetheless, Ideas Fest brings inside-the-Beltway discussions to a town known for absurd affluence and endless recreation. Many audience members willingly dole out big bucks for the opportunity to witness the lively discussions, heated debates, and forums on ambitious umbrella topics dominating national policy discussions like education, clean energy, Darwin, and the future of Middle East policy. These conversations are shepherded by prestigious social, environmental, economic, political, and media power players, with audience members getting an opportunity to mingle and participate by asking questions. Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, speaking in the Greenwald Pavilion - photo by Dan BayerSalam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, speaking in the Greenwald Pavilion - photo by Dan Bayer Though we weren’t able to snag a highly coveted press pass to the 5th Annual Aspen Ideas Fest or shell out the couple grand for an all access admission price, we were able to utilize social media to track the forums, panels, and discussions occurring around Aspen last week. It's been an eventful week and we’ve done our best to aggregate a rich smorgasbord of viral media highlights, tweets, videos, blog posts, newspaper articles, and official dispatches into a chronological guide helpful for residents, festival attendees, and future visitors. Our reason for doing this is rather simple is to distill and make sense of the cacophony of big ideas discussed in Aspen. The Greenwald Pavilion in Aspen during the 2009 Ideas Festival - Photo by Dan BayerThe Greenwald Pavilion in Aspen during the 2009 Ideas Festival - Photo by Dan Bayer Let’s get started with a little perspective on what the Aspen Idea’s Fest is and is not. In an interview on Plum TV, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson provided a brief overview of the festival, the festival's raison d'État, and suggested how dialogue thrives in a neutral and majestic setting like Aspen. Early in the week, Kitty Boone, the director of the Aspen Ideas Fest and VP of Public Programs for the Aspen Institute, elaborated on the many events to take place. Via Plum TV:

Monday, June 29th:

The Aspen Ideas Fest opening gala, aptly-titled "What's the Big Idea?," was attended by almost 2,000 at the Greenwald Pavilion. Walter Isaacson and David Bradley, publisher of The Atlantic and The National Journal, kicked off the festival: Next up: retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, childrens' rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, extraterrestrial exploration advocate and molecular biologist Sean Carroll, Russian crises center founder Madrina Pisklakova, human rights activist Elissa Massamino, Republican Congressional representative Paul Ryan, Princeton professor and carbon mitigation expert Robert Socolow, and executive producer David Fanning of PBS Frontline. O'Conner's opening hook drew a memorable smirk from the crowd of Aspenites and media elite: "I'm just an unemployed cowgirl." Audio via Minnesota Public Radio: Selected Quotes from Day One via The Aspen Institute:

“The challenge is fitting on the Earth. ... Let's talk about individuals, not countries. It’s called cosmopolitan justice. It's called planetary identity. I hope it's an idea that can work.”--Robert Socolow

"Let's all come back next year better educated.”--Sandra Day O'Connor

Tuesday, June 30th:

President Obama's first six months were assessed by David Brooks, Margaret Carlson, Charles Ogletree, Linda Wertheimer, Fred Wertheimer, and Ron Brownstein. The Aspen Daily News provides a summary. A discussion took place on the increasing population of women behind bars in American prisons: The Obama administration's business-friendliness was debated and assessed: Google CEO Eric Schmidt discussed a rebounding economy with NPR's Kai Ryssdal. Jeff Jarvis and the Aspen Times summarize the discussion. Long-time Internet fixture and The Atlantic's blogging wunderkind Andrew Sullivan philosophized about why he blogs, even when having difficulty acclimating to Aspen's thin alpine air. The conversation took place between Sullivan and fellow Atlantic blogger Ta'Nehisi Coates: James Fallows, correspondent for The Atlantic, provides an excellent summary of Day Two of the Aspen Ideas Fest. Selected Quotes from Day Two via The Aspen Institute:

“For every program in the government, there is a group that will watch them and keep them honest. And that’s one of the great things about governance in the Internet age.” - Google CEO Eric Schmidt

“Without pornography, we wouldn’t have the Internet.” - The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan

Wednesday, July 1st:

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked with Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's Face the Nation. The Huffington Post summarizes. Arne Duncan further elaborated with WNYC's Brian Lehrer. Earlier in the morning, Lehrer conducted a discussion on the economy and the economic recovery: The United States Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Susan Rice conversed with The Atlantic's James Bennet about international issues and reacts to political unrest around the world. The Aspen Daily News summarizes. Audio via Minnesota Public Radio: Obama White House Economic Adviser Austan Goolsbee discussed the controversial economic recovery plan with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. An provocative question and answer session ensued. On his final day of broadcasting from Aspen, Brian Lehrer interviewed Tim Pawlenty, the Republican Governor of Minnesota. Topics include Senator Al Franken and the possibility of a presidential bid in 2012. A panel on Race and Humor at the Hotel Jerome brought out laughs with a presentation by Daily Show Correspondent Larry Wilmore and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates. Stewart Oksenhorn of the Aspen Times noted the situational irony with the racial make-up audience. Selected Quotes from Day Three via The Aspen Institute:

“There are not good coups and bad coups. There are coups. One of our problems has been to blur that distinction in the past." - Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations via Aspen Daily News

Thursday, July 2nd:

Comedian Lewis Black and Bob Schieffer exchanged humorous jabs at the 24-hour news cycle and religion. Black also sat down to talk with Plum TV: Later in the day, Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, discussed security in Israel and the current socio-political situation in the Middle East. He was interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The Jerusalem Post summarizes. During an event titled "An Afternoon of Conversation," former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and James Baker discussed international affairs with current deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and talk show host Charlie Rose. Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth articulated the need for discovering new and evolving revenue streams to fund metropolitan newspapers during a panel dubbed "What's Next for the News Business." Incidentally, a national news story broke shortly afterwards, revealing the Washington Post was planning to host private, off-the-record dinner parties between politicians, journalists, and corporate sponsors willing to dish out $25,000. The chatter about the salon-style parties sparked an uproar and serious discussion on journalistic ethics. Select Quotes from Day Four via The Aspen Institute:

“We want to create a situation where we never have to take anyone—an Arab or a Jew—out of their home again. And that is a monumental task.”—Israeli Ambassador to the United Sates Michael B. Oren

"(Newspapers were) fat in the happy years that I tragically missed."- Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth

“I think you need to talk to your enemies, not your friends. You’re not trying to make peace with your friends.” - Former Secretary of State James Baker

Friday, July 3rd:

After Sarah Palin suddenly announced her resignation as Governor of Alaska, a festival of twittering political journalists, op-ed columnists, politicians, and bewildered Washington insiders reacted with a collective head scratch. Via The Aspen Daily News Shortly after the announcement, Tim Pawlenty discussed the new direction of the Republican Party and the possibility of being Presidential material.

Audio via Minnesota Public Radio:

World-famous architect Frank Gehry was interviewed by Thomas Pritzker. Read a summary of the discussion here. Select Quotes from Day Five via The Aspen Institute:

“The Republican Party needs to be more optimistic, positive, and hopeful. Nobody wants to follow cranks.” - Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty

“When you watch cable news shows, you don’t need the voice and the message of the Republican Party to come from some ticked off guy.” —Tim Pawlenty

“I was fascinated with raw buildings, fascinated with Rauschenberg, Judd, Andre, with people who were making art—high art—with junk. … I called it ‘Cheapskate Architecture.’”- architect Frank Gehry

Saturday, July 4th:

Alan Greenspan was interviewed by Walter Isaacson about the housing bubble and resulting economic recession. The former Chairman of the Federal Reserve traced the blame back to the fall of the Soviet Union along with other unsustainable economic factors. Though his apperance at the festival was a hushed secert until the day of his arrival, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad earned cheerful applause after insisting Jews and Israelis would enjoy freedom in a future Palestinian state. The statement was directed in response to a question asked by former CIA director James Woosley, who was in the audience for the event. New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman interviewed Fayyad. The story attracted the attention of international newspapers as a potential precursor for peaceful cooperation between a future Palestinian state and Israeli. The Aspen Daily News ran the original story, which was quickly picked up by the Jerusalem Post. The Daily Kos elaborates. Before the fireworks on Aspen Mountain, Kurt Anderson from NPR's Studio 360 taped a live show with the band "They Might Be Giants" at the Belly Up in downtown Aspen. Link to come. Select Quotes from Day Six:

“Jews to the extent they choose to stay and live in the state of Palestine will enjoy those rights and certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel.” - Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad via The Aspen Daily News

Other Aspen Ideas Festival 2009 Round-ups: Because of the nature of the Aspen Ideas Fest, it's almost impossible to completely round up the going-ons last week. As more videos of panels are release, feel free to share. Go Big by leaving your individual ideas, links, photos, observations, personal highlights, and hardline opinions on this year's event in the comments. Anything else we missed? Message us at