We were aware Washington had a fresh media maverick to track when Michael Caruso arrived with much fanfare this summer as the new editor of Smithsonian Magazine. What we didn’t learn until Wednesday night is that he’s also on the path to be a social player and an event impresario, which he proved with his first major dinner: the Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards. Everybody with power in Washington wants to find their social niche, whether loud or low-key. Caruso, somewhere in between, has planted his flag in the territory of smarts and innovation. He said he created the event because he’s a “very frustrated inventor.” The evening had a lot of what we expect from the Smithsonian—brain wattage, seriousness of purpose—but the Ingenuity Awards gave the organization something else: zest and sex appeal. Not quite the Golden Globes of intellect, though maybe on the way to being that.
Was it perfect? No. But for a first-time awards dinner, it had the basics well in hand. Clever cocktails (including a rum, crème de pêche, apple brandy, and bitters concoction reported to be a favorite of Steve Jobs), a good guest list (curators, scientists, writers, tech wizards, thinkers), conceptualized food (themed to match the awards), and an impressive location: the Kogod Auditorium in the National Portrait Gallery, the former headquarters of the US Patent Office, which Caruso pointed out was where President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball. The party went on until guests went home at 4 AM, leaving the place a sloppy, dirty mess.
Maybe the speechifying could be amended a little in the future, but given the honorees and the subject at hand—brilliance—these were speeches worth a listen, especially that of 15-year-old prodigy Jack Andraka, who invented a test for early detection of pancreatic cancer; indie rock musician and computational geneticist (yes, she is both) Pardis Sabeti, honored for research in viruses and human evolution; Benh Zeitlin, who directed and composed the soundtrack for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild; and Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, honored for her talents in the performing arts and who closed the evening with her reliably amazing jazz artistry. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google Labs, was honored for creating the online university Udacity; Elon Musk of SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City, and a real rocket man (his company has launched two into space) won the Technology honor.
Given all the speeches, mine was one of the best seats in the house, because my dinner partners were themselves speechwriters. Warren Bass, a fellow with the Rand Corporation, is both speechwriter and adviser to UN ambassador Susan Rice, who has been, to say the least, at the center of the week’s news; and John Yahner, who is speechwriter to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough. While they didn’t exactly fist bump upon meeting, there was an obvious mutual appreciation and some shared quiet conversation. In fact, right after Yahner learned that Bass worked with Rice, when the waiter came around with the white wine and asked if Bass would like a pour, Yahner said, “Pour this man a lot of wine.” Speechwriters have each others’ backs.
Noting that the week had been a rough one so far for his boss, and that President Obama was scheduled to have lunch Thursday with his former election rival, Mitt Romney, Bass sounded relieved. “It will own the news cycle,” he said of the lunch. “I never thought I’d be grateful to Mitt Romney.” But since this was a Washington dinner, soon after the salad course and the fish course, Bass became fixated on his phone. Folding his napkin, he suddenly rose and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” Was it work? “Yes,” he said, and with that was gone before the beef short ribs arrived.
Clough praised Caruso, calling the evening an “ingenious idea”—not a bad compliment from the boss. Caruso himself talked about invention, saying it is “also a revolution,” and gave a small tutorial on presidential invention. “George Washington was the only president to trademark his name so he could market G. Washington Flour,” he said. “Lincoln was the only president to hold a patent. He came up with an invention to lift boats off sandbars.” The model for that device is in the Smithsonian collection. He also talked about the future of his own livelihood, magazines. “Print has had a marvelous run for 500 years, but now we’re exploring new forms of storytelling on the Web. This is an exciting time.” According to the magazine, Web traffic has risen from 500,000 unique visitors to 2.4 million in the past year.
The award presenters included jazz musician Herbie Hancock, historian Michael Beschloss, General Jack Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, ABC News reporter Claire Shipman, and Representative John Lewis. Lewis introduced lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who has received national acclaim for efforts on behalf of juveniles in the criminal justice system and was there to receive the Social Progress award. When Hancock called Spalding to the stage, he rattled off a list of superlatives to describe her: “soulful,” “playful,” “spontaneous,” “witty,” “utterly adorable” and “amazing.” Then he added that she’s a “visionary woman with a sweet-sounding, mellifluous name and an epic future.” A fan? You think.
While Caruso is focused principally on giving a gentle jolt to Smithsonian Magazine—a new design, new contributors—he appeared to enjoy having a foot on the turf of a splashy but meaningful Washington dinner and the synergy it can provide. This reminded us of Tina Brown, a renowned editor/event host, and for good reason: Caruso worked with her at the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Caruso may have masterminded the event, but he didn’t singularly decide on the honorees. For that he drew on the resources of the different departments of the Smithsonian that comprised the nominating committee, with a mandate to look hard at now and the future. The spirit of the evening may have been best expressed by the teen prodigy Andraka, who was among the last to give an acceptance speech. Looking out at the audience of 240, many of them the same age as his parents, he said, “Instead of taking pictures of your food and posting them on Instagram, why not use the Internet to change the world?”