The subjects of conversation ranged from Afghanistan to the Gulf of Mexico and from the 1800 presidential election to the 2011 Chicago mayoral campaign, but participants in the first day of the joint Atlantic Media-Aspen Institute-Newseum Washington Ideas Forum frequently returned to the nature of the nation's capitol.
Some of those nods were jocular. The Atlantic's owner, David Bradley, kicked off the afternoon with a story of letting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cut ahead of him to board a much-delayed Continental flight, a favor he said earned him a tip from the justice that Continental would be in trouble if the company found itself before the high court. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, teasing Fox's Chris Wallace, joked that "I'd trade our press corps for yours any day." Wallace warned him to "be careful what you wish for," though he did not press Bloomberg, in a frank and sometimes jocular mood, particularly hard in their interview.
But multiple speakers returned to Washington on a more serious note, questioning what the results of the recent Democratic mayoral primary in the city meant for education reform.
"Adrian Fenty will be fine," Bloomberg said, in reference to the current mayor's loss to City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, and the prevailing wisdom that Gray will fire Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, perhaps ending the city's experiments with school reforms. "He'll get a good job and he'll make a lot of money. Same with Michelle. That's not true for the kids of Washington, DC. Adrian didn't lose. The children lost."
And NBC anchor Andrea Mitchell pushed White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes on why "the White House was silent" during the mayoral race, even though the Obama administration has been broadly supportive of efforts like Rhee's to increase student achievement. Barnes demurred, saying she does not work in the White House's political shop, but insisted that the American public is demanding education reform, and that efforts to reform public schools will continue even as city administrations turn over.
And Education Secretary Arne Duncan speculated that despite Fenty's loss “you may see the rate of change actually accelerate because they built such a strong base” for improving the District's public schools.
Other meditations on the region were more personal. Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein, before launching a discussion of the global economy, reminisced about growing up in a Jewish enclave in Baltimore.
"I was 13 before I realized that everyone in the world wasn't Jewish," he joked.
His road to private equity included a stint in the Carter administration where he said he learned, after Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 that "“if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." Of his time in private practice, Rubenstein said "“It took me a while to realize I wasn’t [late lawyer and Redskins and Orioles owner] Edward Bennett Williams, because when I told my clients I was leaving, none of them said ‘Don’t leave!’”