New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman was one of the headliners at a star-studded annual “Opinions Award” dinner sponsored by The Week in partnership with the Aspen Institute on Tuesday night.
On stage, Friedman made a tongue-in-cheek proposal in response to a question from George Stephanopoulos who asked: “Are we just treading water for the next 22 months until the Bush administration leaves office?”
Tom Friedman responded:
We need a new constitutional amendment called “Can I Go Now?” Something less than impeachment but more than resignation.
President Bush just needs a “Can I Go Now?” clause in the constitution.
Friedman got a lot of applause.
Others at the dinner included magazine diva Tina Brown, George Stephanopoulos, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, Tucker Carlson, Ben Bradlee, Sir Harold Evans, Margaret Carlson (who was the real power mistress of the night and invited most of the guests — including me), Representative Jane Harman, cartoonist extraordinaire Tom Toles, Kathryn Kross, Claire Shipman, Bruce and Hattie Babbitt, Mickey Kaus, Matt Cooper, Terry McAuliffe, Michael Kinsley, Chris Matthews, Jon Fox Sullivan, Elizabeth Kieffer, and lots of other political glitterati.
Wonkette editor and my table mate Alex Pareene caught more of the evening here. Tucker Carlson and Pareene, whom I was seated next to, have apparently crossed swords in the past — and while Pareene admits successfully ducking Carlson, Carlson wanted to express some tough, not too pleasant words to the blogger so Carlson vented with me over some of Wonkette’s “over the line” commentary.
Other highlights of the evening included Chris Matthews asking the evening MC Sir Harold Evans “Why is this room 90% white?” Sir Harold responded by asking why more than 90% of the guests on Hardball are white. Matthews said that beyond all other issues, the “biggest struggle is who we are.” He argued that race and reconciliation are the issues this nation needed to deal with. He said that “the San Andreas fault line in the country is race and ethnicity.”
Tucker Carlson responded by saying that “the nation’s original sin was slavery” but that intermarriage rates between ethnic groups were rapidly increasing in the U.S. and that this was a good measure of change in the racial divide. My colleague Gregory Rodriguez at the New America Foundation has written more prolifically than anyone I know about this trend and validates Tucker Carlson’s point — but it was interesting to have Matthews just shoot this topic into the room that night.
Matthews went on to say that “Obama was a symbolic breakthrough” on the race front. Because he’s black, Matthews suggested, everyone is excited.
Washington Editor of The Week Margaret Carlson asked a panel of Tom Friedman, Tucker Carlson, Claire Shipman, and Jim Lehrer what the ’08 race would look like.
Jim Lehrer said that prognosticators on the election were all going to be wrong. He said that this election was unprecedented and that there was no conventional wisdom to rely on.
Tina Brown followed up by asking who would “bring the best people” into government. Tucker Carlson said that “the most secure candidate would bring the best people.” He said insecure people bring “yes men” and Cabinet types who will not challenge or threaten them. He said — somewhat facetiously I think — that Richard Holbrooke should be the next Secretary of State, no matter who is president. The room broke into laughter — probably because Holbrooke excels in the art of intimidation.
Ben Bradlee appealed to the audience to maintain faith in newspapers. He’s not high on computers and blogs — mostly because it’s too uncomfortable to drag the computer to the john. He said “the newspaper and magazine work best in the bathroom.”
Harold Evans asked the panel where they were on the Iraq War before the war. Tom Friedman was for the war. Jim Lehrer said he had had no opinion. Claire Shipman was undecided. Tucker Carlson said he opposed the war — and then was lobbied extensively and sold a bill of goods by the administration and supported the war, which he regrets. Carlson said he’s a “paleo” conservative and that national interests rather than democracy crusades should guide our foreign policy course.
Lehrer said that interests should always drive our foreign policy but that didn’t mean rejecting efforts to promote democracy. But he said “It’s one thing to have a war to spread democracy and another to just favor democracy.”
Carlson said that he had no problem building strong relations with a benign dictatorship (not sure if that’s an oxymoron) when it was in our national interests.
On the war and what to do in the Middle East, Friedman admitted he was out of ideas. He didn’t know what to do. I spoke to him after the program and referenced his recent appeal to the Saudis to take King Abdullah’s peace plan even further than they had. I suggested to him that while that was creative — this was a time when the U.S., Europe, the UN, Russia, the Arab League and others all had to be creative and not look to the Saudi King to take steps that severely undercut his legitimacy in the eyes of his public and in the Arab world. In fact, the initiative already moves the Arab world quite dramatically far — so that the U.S. and Israel had to respond creatively as well.
Friedman agreed — but he said that he expressed real frustration with where we are at and sees a problem in a world that is perceiving an America that has increasingly diminished capacity to achieve its objectives in the foreign policy arena.
Tucker Carlson said that he saw America moving towards an isolationist phase after this Middle East adventure. Claire Shipman agreed.
Jim Lehrer countered saying that “If Iraq goes bad, the world will need the idealism of the U.S.” I don’t quite know how Lehrer’s concept would work given that if Iraq gets even worse, American citizens are probably going to be a bit sick and tired of what Bush-style idealism untethered to reality and spiced up with presidential swagger achieved for this country.
Tom Friedman also stated that we “used to worry about a world with America having too much power. Now we have to consider what to do with a world with too little American power.”
Despite the glitter, the powerful political and journalist figures that there were there, and the high probability of a vapid evening — it was actually interesting and important.
The cynicism that ran through the room about the sorry state of American affairs in the world was palpable and shared by most there — across the majority of the political spectrum.
— Steve Clemons