About once a month, 20 Washingtonians, all with dizzying schedules, put aside their BlackBerries, turn off their cell phones, and for 90 minutes talk about books.
It’s not a book club. This is a nonpartisan lunchtime literary salon sponsored by the BMW Group in downtown DC, without any mention of fast cars or slick motorcycles.
“This is really Craig’s idea for creating an interesting venue based on a vision of everybody in DC putting down the partisan hammer for a while to have fascinating salon conversations,” says James Pinkerton, a former Republican White House aide turned pundit who helps organize the event.
Craig is Craig R. Helsing, a vice president with BMW who started the Washington Salon Series in 1995 and has hosted 150 authors. BMW buys the sandwiches and places 20 copies of a chosen book on a conference table where a variety of guests gather for a discussion.
“I thought it would be a neat idea if we got people together to talk about something other than current politics,” says Helsing, who by day represents BMW Group to the administration and diplomats.
Among the invited authors have been Joe Klein, John Ashcroft, Marvin Kalb, Neal Gabler, Arianna Huffington, Juan Williams, Sidney Blumenthal, Michael Barone, former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, and Lawrence Bender, who coproduced An Inconvenient Truth.
“The lunch made me go beyond the book,” says NPR’s Williams, author of Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do About It. “The people in attendance asked different, smart questions that forced me down new alleys of thought about race and class.”
Guests have included Mark Shields, Ken Duberstein, Kathy Kemper, Gahl Burt, Cal Thomas, former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, and Hill staff. Helsing usually invites a professor and student from Georgetown University’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. One regular guest—though invitations seem to be random—is former FBI director William Sessions. With a slew of luncheon invitations, he prefers Helsing’s events because, he explains, “there are few luncheons where the subject matter is as intriguing and of lasting importance as Craig’s.”