ASPEN, Colo. — For two full days, George W. Bush was bashed. He was taken to task on his handling of stem cell research, population control, the Iraq war and, especially, Hurricane Katrina. The critics were no left-wing bloggers. They were rich, mainly Republican and presumably Bush voters in the last two presidential elections.
The Bush-bashing occurred last weekend at the annual Aspen conference sponsored by the New York investment firm Forstmann Little & Co. Over 200 invited guests, mostly prestigious, arrived Thursday night (many by private aircraft) and stayed until Sunday morning for more than golf, hikes and gourmet meals. They faithfully attended the discussions presided over by PBS’s Charlie Rose on such serious subjects as "global poverty and human rights" and "the ‘new’ world economy." The connecting link was hostility to President Bush.
"All discussions are off the record," admonished the conference’s printed schedule. Consequently, I will refrain from specifically quoting panelists and audience members. But the admonition says nothing about personal conversations outside the sessions. Nor do I feel inhibited in quoting myself. Even if I am violating the spirit of secrecy rules, revealing criticism of Bush by this elite group, and the paucity of defense for him, is valuable in reflecting the president’s parlous political condition.
The Forstmann Little Aspen Weekend is made possible by the generosity of Theodore J. Forstmann, a doughty supporter of supply-side economics and longtime contributor to the Republican Party. Invited guests are drawn from government, diplomacy, politics, the arts, entertainment and journalism.
I was surprised that the program indicated the first panel, on stem cell research, consisted solely of scientists hostile to the Bush administration’s position. In the absence of any disagreement, I took the floor to suggest there are scientists and bioethicists with dissenting views and that it was not productive to demean opposing views as based on "religious dogma." The response was peeved criticism of my intervention and certainly no support.
I do not see myself as a defender of the Bush presidency, and I am sure the White House does not regard me as such. But as a member of the second panel consisting of journalists, I felt constrained to argue against implications that Hurricane Katrina should cause the president to rediscover race and poverty. My comments again generated more criticism from the audience and obvious exasperation by Charlie Rose. Indeed, after the closing dinner Saturday night, the moderator made clear he was displeased by my conduct.
After the first two panels, I feared I was the odd man out in accepting Teddy Forstmann’s invitation. But during a break, one of the president’s closest friends — who had remained silent — thanked me profusely for my comments. That set a pattern. Throughout the next two days, men and women who were mute publicly thanked me privately for speaking up. When I said nothing during one panel discussion, some people asked me why I was silent.
Longtime participants in Forstmann Little conferences (this was my first and, after this column, probably my last) told me they had not experienced such hostility against a Republican president at previous events. Yet, they were sure a majority of the guests had voted for Bush.
This analysis was reported to me over lunch by a financier who regularly attends these events. When he thanked me for my comments and said he shared my sentiments, I asked why he did not express them publicly at a session. He replied that he did not feel able to articulate what he felt. Critics of the president who are vocal and supporters who are reticent comprise a massive communications failure.
U.S. News & World Report disclosed this week, with apparent disdain, that presidential adviser Karl Rove took time off from the Katrina relief effort to be at Aspen. He was needed as a counterweight. I settled in for serious fireworks, expecting Bush-bashers to assault his alter ego at the conference’s final session. However, direct confrontation with a senior aide must have been more difficult than a remote attack on the president. It would be a shame if Rove returned to Washington without informing George W. Bush how erstwhile friends have turned against him.