Politics & Policy

Davos Journal, Part VI

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is it: the final installment of these notes from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, here in Davos, Switzerland, high up in the Alps. The previous parts? I, II, III, IV, and V.

(Incidentally, a reader has written me to say, “Jay, if it weren’t for the Super Bowl and you, we would have no more Roman numerals.” I’m glad to do my part.)

A group of us breakfasts with Abdullah, King of Jordan. We are not on the record, I’m afraid — but I can tell you this: The king is very, very articulate — you might even say super-articulate. His English is not exactly British, not exactly American. Sort of half and half. He discourses on the Middle East with more insight, clarity, and sense than any commentator on television. And I have the following thought: If you’re going to have a king — and, as democrats, we don’t necessarily want one — he might as well be the sharpest guy in town.

One more observation: If I were a radical, I would really, really hate him.

‐Abdullah has to leave early, because it’s snowing enthusiastically in Davos, and he has to fly elsewhere. In previous years, I have described Davos as a sno-globe — I mean, as looking like a sno-globe, one of those pretty little shakeups you get at airports. This year, I think it’s truer than ever. The fat flakes hit your face, and you know you’re not in Caracas anymore. (Not that I’m from Caracas.)

(Which reminds me to say: Hugo Chávez did not get invited, probably because of the Forum’s great concern for a surfeit of gases.)

‐We have a little music — or at least a musician. He is Maxim Vengerov, the great, young Russian violinist. He is given the Crystal Award, which many a musician, and many an artist, has won over the years. Vengerov is not only a musician, he is a UNICEF ambassador, and he has played for children all over the world. He has traveled to many hairy places. For example, as WEF father Klaus Schwab says, he has played for child soldiers in Uganda.

He doesn’t play for the WEF audience, which surprises me a little. I thought he’d play something brief and unaccompanied — a movement from a Bach suite, or something. But he does give a graceful, lovely, and thoroughly enjoyable speech. This is amazing, because speeches about music are usually rot: platitudinous, wrong, boring, nauseating, or some combination of those.

On receiving the Crystal Award, Vengerov jokes that he may not be able to get it through airport security. (At least I think he is joking.) He goes on to say that he was “blessed” to be born in Russia, and live there for twelve years — and then to study in London, Amsterdam, Israel, and the U.S. All of this has “helped shape my character and personality,” and “helped me to become a musician.”

“Music is healing,” he says, and for once the statement isn’t treacly. It is “a power we often underestimate.” In ancient Greece, they prescribed music to the ailing, Vengerov says.

He speaks of his mother, who “proved to me that music can do wonders.” She founded an orphanage, and has “rescued many children from the streets.” From the earliest age, “I have seen what music can do.” And “that is why I’m thankful for this award, which is a great responsibility, and I will do my best to make my mother’s investment in art pay off.”

I think I’ve captured the gist of the thing. And Vengerov achieves something rare: a speech the right length and sounding just the right notes.

‐You will want to know about a friend of mine in Switzerland — a wonderfully brave, independent, non-conforming man. He shows up in Davos wearing a cap that depicts Bush as Che Guevara. It says, “Viva la Re-Election!”

Viva, indeed!

‐I have made this point before — in previous years — but may as well again: It sometimes seems that the World Economic Forum, in choosing its staffers, hires them from modeling agencies. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence . . .

‐It is John McCain’s turn, for coffee with journalists in the Hotel Rinaldi. And he has “brought along a friend,” as he says: Lindsey Graham, his senatorial sidekick from South Carolina. McCain is not at his most articulate — far from it. Perhaps he is a little tired from his work and travels. It’s funny: President Bush is always knocked for inarticulateness, but McCain never is. Sometimes Bush can, indeed, be inarticulate; sometimes he is a fabulous communicator. The idea that Bush is any less verbally capable than McCain . . .

Anyway . . .

McCain handles the questions decently. I make a language note or two: He is one of those who use “Democrat” as an adjective — “my Democrat friends,” “the Democrat position.” Senator Graham talks like a cast member of The Andy Griffith Show. This can be effective, or not. In any case, I have always been an advocate of talking like where you’re from. What the hey.

Conversation inevitably turns to Iran, and McCain says that Bush must go before “the American Congress and the American people” before he does anything. I think: So much for the element of surprise.

McCain also speaks of “the rise of isolationism and protectionism in America,” which is perfectly “understandable.” But, understandable or not, it must be countered. McCain is nicely clear on this point.

Toward the end of the session, McCain tangles with a member of the press. I won’t name her, but she’s tall, Greek-born, flame-haired, and L.A.-residing. McCain has always been described as testy, but I would describe him as beyond testy in this exchange. He is weirdly inappropriate.

Arianna interrupts him a couple of times, in what strikes me as a normal give-and-take. We do this in this room all the time. But McCain pounces all over her, pointing out that everyone else has let him finish his sentences. That’s not bad, at all: but he does this in the tones of a parent scolding a child — when the parent is in a particularly bad mood. This is hugely awkward, sort of freezing the room.

I think, “This is odd, for a politician.” Politicians are used to give-and-take, and they know how to roll with the punches. They also know how to turn feisty, or obnoxious, questioning to their advantage. Think how Reagan might have handled this: “Geez, Arianna, had too much coffee today?” And McCain has been in politics for about a thousand years — successfully, too.

To me, the flame-haired Greek American comes out much the better in the exchange. And, as between her and McCain, on the question of the war — and this is what the jostling has been over — I am 100 percent McCain.

One more thing: A different journalist suggests to McCain that China doesn’t want to be a superpower. McCain is nonplussed, unable to answer (as I might well be). He finally says, “And maybe pigs can fly” — which about sums it up.

‐Winding down this Annual Meeting, Prime Minister Tony Blair gives a speech in the Congress Center. He notes that this is his last appearance in Davos as prime minister. He looks forward to coming back, and “telling leaders where they went wrong, and how easy the job is.”

His speech is wide-ranging, but mainly addresses global warming — Davos’s topic, not to say obsession. Blair is, as always, smooth, thoughtful, and amusing. Talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger — everyone’s American hero, for his position on global warming — he says, “He is the only political leader who makes me feel body envy when I’m standing next to him.” Blair also says how “fantastic” it is that “we have John McCain here,” for he is “driving the agenda forward in the United States.” Blair means global warming, of course. He calls this a “moral cause.”

Years ago, our senior editor — NR’s senior editor — David Pryce-Jones referred to Blair’s “evangelical eyeballs.” I see what he means, on this afternoon.

In the Q&A, Blair is really good, as expected. He wonders “how we can tackle climate change” without including nuclear power in the energy mix. He says, “We have to get over this quite false view that nuclear power offers nothing by way of the future.” He further says, “I’m a great respecter of NGOs,” and “pressure groups have an extremely important part to play” in public affairs. But, “in the end, leaders of a country have to take responsibility for doing the right thing despite the pressure put on them” — and that means, by golly, nuclear power.

A bracing statement.

At some point, a religious leader rises to put a question to Blair. I don’t see who he is, and don’t hear his name. But, at the end of his question/statement, he says, “Had you not been prime minister, you would certainly have been a cleric.” Laughter and applause in the Congress Center. Blair then quips, “I don’t know whether that generous applause indicates that many of you wish that I had been.”

Another Blair line: “My ambition nowadays is to please some of the people some of the time.” (Blair is frightfully unpopular in Britain, on all sides, for a variety of reasons.)

A bit later, Blair maintains that the division in our debates is not between Left and Right, but between “those who believe in an open world and those who believe in a closed world.” On one hand, there are “isolationists, nativists, and protectionists,” and on the other — well, others.

Before leaving, Blair gets a big question — on identity. “What is your identity?” Blair begins by noting that he was born in Scotland to an English father and an Irish mother. This has the effect of renewing my gratitude for the word “British,” and the concept of Britishness. This concept has been much under attack for the last ten or so years. And what Tony Blair is, is British.

He concludes his answer by saying, “I come back to values — the key thing that binds people together.” Values transcend borders, skin color — everything.

Davos accords the PM a standing ovation, and this despite the Iraq War, which they hate down to their fur-lined boots.

‐A panel then convenes, and it is the closing panel. John McCain sits on it. He tells the assembled Davosites, “I bring you good news: I think that the Congress will act very quickly on this issue,” and the Bush administration too. What’s he talking about? Why, what else is there to talk about? Global warming. “I freely admit to you,” says McCain, that “it’s very late and may not be enough, but I think that for the first time there may be some action on this very important issue.”

My sense is that McCain’s global-warmingism is almost enough to make Davos forgive him for the war. In this, he is similar to Blair.

‐At night, there is a concert, as there always is on the final day of Davos. The Basel Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Lionel Bringuier. Who’s he? Well, he’s 20 years old — which is an extraordinary thing for a professional conductor to be. And Bringuier is a very good one. For my review of this concert, check out the New York Sun, here.

‐The following morning, I take a last walk around Lake Davos. It’s amazing how the mountains change here, how the scenery changes. Things never look the same, even when you’re looking at the same things: It depends on the light, the mists, the everything.

But enough of my junior-high poetizing. I’ll tell you what I hear in Davos, with regularity, especially from American (left-wing) participants: Don’t worry about Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president has no control over the country’s nuclear program, he’s just a figurehead, the other mullahs are much more reasonable — Ahmadinejad is just an excuse for Bush and the Israelis to be belligerent.

And if these pooh-poohers are wrong? Will we ever hear from them? “Sorry”? What will their line be, post-kaboom? That Bush and the Likud drove them to it?

On that awful note, I will bid you farewell. Thanks so much for joining me, on this Swiss journey, over these many days. I’ll talk to you soon, when I tell you a little about London. Again, thank you, and see you.

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