Speakers I’ve Heard This Semester

"Any sentient being who likes to play with ideas knows all about the Athenaeum at Claremont." – Carl Schramm

At Claremont, four nights a week, every week of the year, notable speakers come to dinner and give a speech in an intimate setting (the Athenaeum). Unlike at large universities, where big names draw thousands of people, here any student gets one-on-one time if he desires it.

Here are some of the folks who’ve visited Claremont this semester, with my notes / impressions.

Bono, lead singer, U2; co-founder, advocacy organization DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa)

He was a passionate if somewhat unpolished speaker. But he spoke from the heart. I was impressed with his sheer energy and how he conveyed his feelings on poverty without sounding overly nanny-ish. Of course, from a policy perspective — how he wants to solve the Africa problem — he’s bankrupt. From a motivational perspective, though, impressive.

William Kristol, founder & editor, The Weekly Standard

I had dinner with him as well so got a good sense for how he thinks about things. My notes: a) Kristol is super smart with an extraordinary grasp of political history; his speech is peppered with references to random elections and politically significant events from the past, b) he’s convinced we’re in a "new era" and the current political circumstances are "unprecedented", c) Iraq, a war for which he was one of the main intellectual cheerleaders, has the potential to get back on track and be worthwhile (a minority view), d) Kristol is expected to tow the conservative line on everything, and for the most part he does. I like unpredictable thinkers and pundits — hard to find in political journalism.

Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer, The New Yorker; author of book on global warming

Not very impressive. Typical ultra pessimism on global warming — nothing new here. I’m sure she’s a good reporter. But as a speaker, not so much.

David Talbot, founder, former editor-in-chief, Salon.com; author, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

Boomers miss JFK. Period.

Anderson Cooper, journalist, CNN anchor, Anderson Cooper 360

The man who asked "tough questions" during Katrina! Anderson came across as affable, thoughtful, and yes, gay. (Apparently he has a thing for black men.) I have nothing against Anderson or CNN, but I’ve never thought as highly of TV journalists as print ones because on TV your looks and charisma matter too much. This means the sorting of talent is not exclusively driven by journalistic talent. Anyway, his overarching point: "Follow your bliss." On a young person’s dream of going into politics: "I think you should become a real person before you become a fake one."

Ronald Fogleman, four-star general (retired), Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

He’s obviously reached the pinnacle of success in the military world, but he didn’t address — as I hoped he might — when military strategies cross over to the civilian world and when they don’t.

Peter Wehner, speechwriter for George W. Bush; head of Whitehouse think tank "Office of Strategic Initiatives"

Extremely impressive presence: thoughtful, humble, open to ideas different from his own, eloquent. Wehner was in the inner circle at the White House up until August ’07. With a front row seat in some of the important decisions made by the federal government, Wehner had loads of insight. I asked him about Matt Scully’s article and he said there are inaccuracies; unlike Scully, he thinks Michael Gerson is gracious and modest. He talked about the importance of hearing a range of perspectives, so I asked him about the perception that the White House is insulated and that Bush is surrounded by yes-men. He challenged that perception, saying, for example, they often invited outside policy experts, public intellectuals, and pundits to the White House, even if these outsiders disagreed with official policy.

Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor, The New Republic, contributing editor, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly

He writes and thinks about every topic under the sun. He spoke about global warming. I chatted with him before dinner, during dinner, and then listened to his speech. Very impressed. On global warming he says there is a scientific consensus, but it’s narrower than some think. It is: 1) the world temp has increased by one degree, 2) humans have had something to do with it, 3) the earth will continue to get warmer. Until someone can make a profit off environmental problems, there won’t be action. The global energy sector is huge: 5% of energy is bigger than all of IT or telecom. We need to impose stricter regulations on fuel efficiency and other things. Then internalize the environmental problems. Then attach a price to it. Then there will be innovation.

Carl Schramm, president, CEO, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; co-author, Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism

The Kauffman foundation is the largest organization in the US (and the world?) devoted to studying the economic effects of entrepreneurship. They do lots of good work on studying and promoting the importance of small business, free markets, etc. I was shocked to learn that their endowment is some $2 billion, making it 30th largest foundation in the U.S. Yet it seems they operate mainly as a think tank (and less a direct grant giving org). How many think tanks have such a large endowment?!

Jabri Asim
– former deputy editor of Washington Post book review, author of a book on the word "nigger"

He offered an interesting history of the n-word (nastier than many think) and concluded that while we shouldn’t ban the word altogether, it should be used sparingly and never in the casual way people in the street use it.

Ronald Heifetz – co-founder, Center for Public Leadership, director, Leadership Education Project, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Leadership is more an activity than a character trait. This is all I remember. Not impressed, even though Heifetz is a big name in the field.

Neil Budde, vice president, editor in chief, Yahoo! News; founding editor and publisher, The Wall Street Journal Online

He believes in the maxim that we tend to overestimate short term impact of new technology and underestimate the long term impact. Same could be said for the effect of the internet and blogs on the news industry. No one really knows what’s going to happen in terms of newspapers, news consumption, the web, etc. He’s bullish on the Yahoo alliance with local newspapers, though he didn’t provide any more detail on what has so far been a rather vague concept.

Richard Peterson, managing partner, Market Psychology Consulting; author, Inside the Investor’s Brain: The Power of Mind Over Money

He’s at the leading edge of neuro-economics. An interesting field worthy of study for any investor.

Orhan Pamuk, Nobel laureate in literature (2006)

Awesome thoughts on writing, books, Turkey, and life. He read a bit from his Nobel Laureate speech:

I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

6 Responses to Speakers I’ve Heard This Semester

  1. Krishna says:

    Hey Ben,

    Change that title for the link under Bono (He’s bankrupt) – may be he should shut up and just sing, but he’s no less shrewd.

    Besides making U2 an industry leader in the management of its business operations and intellectual property (unlike most bands, U2 owns and controls most of its own catalog), he’s currently the Managing Director at Private Equity firm Elevation Partners, part of its core investment team comprising of financial whizkids Fred Andersen (Ex CFO – Apple Inc.), Bret Pearlman (Ex M.D – Blackstone group), Mark Bodnick and legendary venture capitalist Roger McNamee (Ex founders – Silver Lake Partners).

    Hardly the bunch to give him company – were he to be bankrupt, even intellectually or of ideas.

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for the information on who Anderson Cooper chooses to sleep with. My monitor appears to have a problem because it isn’t showing that information for any of the other speakers.

    Alternatively, perhaps that was a theme of his speech?

  3. Bones says:

    Cooper’s bedhopping is just the mystery show behind the show CNN sells him on. Was the black man there with Cooper? Because the stories are he broke up with him long ago.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Anderson’s gay — big deal. From what I’ve heard he actually prefers Hispanic men over black guys, but I could be wrong.

    In any event, never be too quick too judge a person’s orientation. Lots of people “come across gay” but apparently are straight.

    Just look at Trevor Traina, for Christ’s sake. Between his love affair with jewelry and that psychopath of a mother he had… it sure would make sense.

  5. Katie says:

    I also don’t see how anyone’s perceived sexuality has anything to do with their speech. Who cares if he is or isn’t gay? Does that have any impact on his performance?

    Unless it was the theme of his speech. Otherwise, it detracts from your analysis.

  6. Chris Rako says:

    What an amazing set of speakers.

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