Atlantic magazine owner David Bradley and his co-sponsors, the Aspen Institute and the Newseum, are convening a “First Draft of History” conference on Oct. 1 and 2 for a select group of invitees. Based on the advance publicity, the event sounds as appetizing as a meal of Melba toast dunked in dishwater and slathered in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!
Important People—including Larry Summers, Janet Napolitano, Michael Bloomberg, David Petraeus, Lindsey Graham, Timothy Geithner, David Axelrod, Jeff Bewkes, Alan Greenspan, Robert M. Shrum, Vikram Pandit, Pete Peterson, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, and Eric Schmidt—will be speaking on-the-record to Important Journalists—Ron Brownstein, Brian Williams, Jim Lehrer, Michele Norris, Andrew Sullivan, Chris Wallace, Chris Matthews, James Bennet, Maria Bartiromo, Charlie Gibson, Jeffrey Goldberg, Dan Rather, and James Fallows—about important things. Underwriting the event will be Allstate, Boeing, Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, ExxonMobil, SAP, Thomson Reuters, and UTC, according the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz.
Oh, and Elliott Yamin of American Idol fame has been scheduled to perform. I’m not kidding.
I see nothing in the program notes about the Important People and the Important Journalists pairing off to slow-dance the night away at the romantic Newseum, where the shindig is taking place, but such a bland turn of events wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s hard to imagine any of the Important People conscripted for the “First Draft of History” saying anything quotable, let alone historic, at the conference. And although there are a few shit-disturbers among the journalists (you know who you are), it’s equally hard to imagine many of them asking impolite or painful questions of the Important People. It’s going to be more excruciating for the attendees than watching a two-day long episode of Charlie Rose. The folks participating in the National Postal Museum’s all-you-can-lick philatelic buffet, just around the block, are going to having a blast in comparison.
I’ve got just three questions about “conferences” like these: Why, why, why? Other than hustling a little cash for the good cause that is the Atlantic magazine, what purpose do they serve? No, certifying members of the power elite does not qualify as a good cause. Will Gen. Petraeus make history by disclosing that he regrets the surge plan? Will David Axelrod volunteer that the Obama administration is a mess? Will Vikram Pandit fall to his knees and confess that the crash of 2008 was all his fault and beg to be shot? Not a chance. The participants will regift the presents they’ve given away dozens of times before, and the by-invitation-only audience will tear into the packages as if it’s their ultimate Christmas.
The most rankling thing about the “First Draft of History” has got to be its name. Only a moron could mistake a two-day session of star-studded gas-baggery for a draft of history. The sessions will produce barely enough substance to pad a publishable interview, let alone deserve history’s attention.
In cribbing the phrase first draft of history for their conference, the organizers demonstrate their ignorance of both history and of journalism. The original phrase was coined by former Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham, who delivered it to Newsweek correspondents in 1963, shortly after the Washington Post Co. purchased the magazine. Far from ballyhooing the greatness of the press and implying that historians owe it some debt, Graham staked a much more modest position. He acknowledged that much of journalism was “pure chaff” but said that “no one yet has been able to produce wheat without chaff.” He went on:
So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.
Take it from me. The Bradley Prom will be all chaff and no wheat. If you’re forced to attend, treat it like an Episcopalian wedding—eat first. And bring a crossword.
Maybe they should have called it “The Roughage Summit.” Note to Bradley and others: It’s “first rough draft of history,” not “first draft of history.” (See pages 323-24 of Katharine Graham’s Personal Historyfor the Phil Graham anecdote.) Send chaff recipes to email@example.com. There’s more substance in my Twitter feed than the entire Bradley Prom. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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