While both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have courted the former chief of staff, and Powell described having had extensive discussions with both candidates, he said he is currently weighing the decision between them as a decision of an individual decision.
More than anything, though, he said he was concerned about America's capacity to lead in a world which has witnessed its largest expansion of wealth in history, and faces myriad of related challenges.
Interviewed by Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson along with former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Powell said he would vote for the person he sees has having the right vision for America, the right competence and the right team, but also the person who can best add "the right spark to the American presidency, because the rest of the world is looking for a spark."
Powell said he was concerned about America's fallen image in the world, though he believes that is still recoverable because people believe in this country as a land of hope and of dreams and of opportunity.
The next president could restore that faith, making a concerted effort.
"Both of these candidates are capable of that," he said.
Asked by Isaacson to evaluate the presidential candidates, Powell said he he has had "long comprehensive" discussions with Obama, and that he has been good friends with John McCain, who he said should be respected as a true war hero.
On the eve of the Independence Day holiday, Powell said both candidates were totally dedicated to the welfare of the country and it was "a disservice to July 4," to debate who's the more patriotic between them.
McCain will be challenged by his close relationship with the Bush administration and by the fact, Powell said, that he has become leader of a party in disarray.
Obama is clearly charismatic, and may not have as much experience, but would have to demonstrate to America that he's got enough experience.
He said he'd come to a decision "in due course".
Powell and Nunn had engaged in a wide ranging discussion with Isaacson of Iraq, Afghanistan, Gays in the military, and other issues.
Powell noted the U.S. had managed low-level diplomatic contacts with Iran early in the Bush administration, and said of the Administration's refusal to talk now, "I don't think you can have a dialog with somebody when you put a precondition out there that asks the other party to give you what you want before you start talking."
Asked if that didn't sound like he was on the Obama side, the former general quickly retorted "I'm on the Colin Powell side."
He added it appeared centrifuges were spinning in Iran, and Europe and the United States may need to face the reality we don't have the diplomatic tools to prevent Iran from creating weapons grade uranium.
Nunn warned the world may be on the verge of an explosion of enrichment around the globe, and he proposed the only solution may be if every enrichment facility, including ours, comes under international inspections, including cameras and other technical means.
On Iran and Afghanistan, Powell acknowledged Isaacson's point that as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, it may have seemed more prudent to have continued to focus on Afghanistan rather than rushing into Iraq. "One can make that argument," Powell said, though he noted Afghanistan was thought to have been "under control" at the time.
At one point, Isaacson asked Sam Nunn whether he might consider the vice presidency under Obama, and Nunn responded he considered it a great honor to be mentioned in that regard, but did not expect to receive an offer, adding that the team around the president is very important.
"Right, Colin?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Powell.
The Aspen IdeasFestival launched into its fourth edition Monday evening and Tuesday, with a flurry of "Big Idea" presentations, panels, performances and interviews by a series of star players in their respective fields.
"There is nothing better than sharing ideas with a friend," Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson, a former CNN executive and recent biographer of Albert Einstein, said in opening the event amid a giant tent whose ceiling was decorated in green, yellow and blue octagons.
Isaacson emphasized that we may rarely remember a specific material gift given us years ago, but we rarely forget the gift of a good idea shared and discussed with a good friend. Indeed, such ideas are often at the root of our best innovations, and often lead to life-changing moments.
A series of speakers gave inspired summaries of the big ideas they planned to present or discuss during the week.
Amidst these, Damian Woetzel took the stage. He was until very recently the principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, and is in Aspen to assume the role of 2008 Aspen Institute Harmon-Eisner Artist in Residence. Woetzel ended a brief presentation by calling on his entire audience to come to their feet to perform an elemental set of ballet dance moves.
"A big idea is a humble proposition," said string theorist Brian Greene, a physicist at Columbia University. "Science is the greatest of adventure stories...It is the birthright of every child."
Bill Clinton, who organizers said had originally asked to take a 'pass' this year after appearing at the previous IdeasFestival gatherings, turned up on the agenda after all, with a prime Saturday evening spot.
Though presumptive presidential nominees, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, have both spoken in other years here, this year they are not jetting into the event - though Obama's top economic adviser, University of Chicago professor Austan Goolsbee, is eagerly awaited later in the week.
The weeklong event has become a fixture at this former mining town in a valley at 8,000 feet nestled just West of the continental divide in the Colorado Rockies, and so have the star-studded presenters it has attracted - ranging from Supreme Court Justices, former President Bill Clinton to leading performers, poets and cultural leaders.
Producers of the event, the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic publishing company, have gone to an unprecedented effort to make the sessions available, with both numerous public sessions in town and plans to post full videos of 95 of the 175 presentations on the Internet.
As usual, attendees are bound to enjoy wondrous chance encounters on this glorious Bauhaus campus.
My escorts to the opening session were Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard, an old friend, and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Let the good ideas spring forth!
That's where we began Day 3, our final sessions.
Onslaught is the title of a one minute film clip, here, of Dove's "self-Esteem Fund". You may know it - the image of an innocent, befreckled redhead girl staring into the camera, while a flurry of beauty product advertisements stream by.
"Talk to your daughter, before the beauty industry does," reads the message flashed across the screen at the end, as the girl crosses a street with a backpack over her shoulder, staring into the camera.
Here, we learn a bit more about our moderators. Kate discusses how she had worked for half a dozen years in the advertising industry. She described how her teams of marketeers and advertisers focussed on a common critical ingredient to sell products, whether it be washing machines, bubble gum or cigarettes:
"Every single campaign had some element of sex in it," she acknowledged.
The Dove campaign, she added, was what she considered "among the most provocative and brilliant" of a very small number of advertising campaigns conveying the message that it's fine to be who you are.
Unfortunately, it is largely drowned out by advertising telling girls - and increasingly boys - they should have a certain figure, and largely ones that have little to no body fat, encouraging illnesses of anorexia [and, for guys, "manorexia"] which can be fatal. One in for young girls have an eating disorder in the united states, Ms. Roberts told us, or roughly the equivalent ration to those who have HIV/AIDS in Africa.
We examine a series of staged advertising photographs appearing in popular American magazines, many of which were judged to be offensive, ranging from Tom Ford advertisements [you may Google for yourself] lodging beauty products in the intimate areas of naked fashion models.
We discuss a Dolce & Gabbana advertising campaign that appears to show a half naked man pinning down a woman surrounded by images of scantily clad men, implying gang violence towards women. This was pulled in Spain, though not especially graciously.
Our readings include descriptions of a billboard of a woman stretched out in suggestive undergarments, on which graffiti had been inscribed, "No wonder young women are raped." User-submitted, explicit photos are published on the website of the multibillion dollar fashion clothing company American Apparel, which allows viewers to click on the pictures to see more about the products and the models. One such model turned out to be a porn star. Is this suitable for teens - or for that matter for marketing to the general public?
As I noted, earlier, we had tremendous contributions from all on this last day, especially the moderators. As we discuss this, Amita notes that even though she's been an expert in the field of adolescent health and has three children, she had never really been exposed to these most overt images.
We discuss how important discussions are within families, in the context of these images, and the sort of behaviors they imply. "Children will listen to you whether you're cool, or not," said one parent, knowingly.
Our Inner Compass
One of our more silent participants speaks up towards the very end with perhaps the most eloquent remarks of the three days. He outlines how he, at a very young age, learned about sexuality and learned at a similar time about the importance of having, building, respecting and utilizing a strong "inner compass" to guide oneself in life - and how this inveriably must occur begin in the family and in the home.
At the end of the final session, we went round the room one more time, describing our take-aways, and were united in identifying complementary "calls to arms" that will lead to action following the seminar - and we agree to keep in touch on ways we may help as individuals, and collaboratively.
The annoyance seemed all the more poignant since CNN Anchorman Wolf Blitzer, a perennial Aspen summer attendee, had spoken the night before in an interview with Institute President Walter Isaacson about the election, and the perception of how much alleged sexist innuendo in reporting on Hillary Clinton's presidential run had influence the outcome.
This is how we started Day two of the three-day seminar, as another participant said successful women often felt they needed to tow a line between being frigid and being a slut - certainly an inglorious proposition.
Can Leaders be Sexy?
A conversation about sexuality and political leadership in the United States ensued, with the usual explorations of travails Clinton - both Bill and Hillary - as well as others such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who some felt was unfairly put down for acting as if she herself were 'wife of Bush' [referring to a gaffe she was once quoted as having said].
Hillary Clinton was contrasted to Maggie Thatcher, who when running to become UK prime minister depicted herself doing household chores to make herself more acceptable to British voters. One person criticized Hillary for sticking with the president, while another suggested running for president as a divorcee may not provide a strong candidacy. Others asked why we should care about personal, sexual lives, while an Aspen regular recounted a scene within recent years when Hillary was spotted at a local shoe store, and bill was lying on the floor putting shoes on her, in a very loving act.
One moderator asked why we should care about our leaders' personal lives - and some responded it was often a matter of personality, authenticity and trust. One female participant recounted President Clinton having given her an unusually intimate embrace on a rope line at one of his appearances in a recent year here in town, while another participant credited him with giving any person his undivided attention - a rare political skill. A third recounted some leaders even in campaigns that fall short, like Hillary Clinton this spring and Mike Dukakis in 1988, could develop an aura - a sense of charisma - without being overtly sexual.
President bush 43, argued one colleague, depicted an ideal family life, with the implication he held high moral values, yet in her mind he had totally violated them in many of his policies, especially by launching into war with Iraq. Another colleague held up the total public adoration of Princess Diana as an example of a public image of a woman which soared despite her difficult marriage and tragic death.
"It's not just what you do, but how you do," quoth one. Many of us agreed to the media's role, a subject for the final day, and a long-held cynicism born in part of the Watergate and Vietnam War era towards public office and government as playing a role in how sexuality and fidelity are viewed - in some ways a sign of character - though an underlying respect for machismo in some cultures could turn a blemish into an accolade.
The group spent quite a time discussing Marriage - monogamy, polygamy, gay marriage - as had been discussed on the first day, when one amongst us asked where the line is drawn - would one consider allowing a person to marry a goat [notwithstanding how one might determine whether the goat could enter such an agreement out of free will]. Beyond laughter, consensus pointed to the answer "no" to that one, though the point perhaps was well taken.
The topic then swiveled abruptly to sex workers - ranging from $4,000 a night resort ladies in Morocco observed by one participant to the description of prostitution in Madagascar, where sex workers perform their services in rice tents in filthy muddy streets, all for 30 cents for "a full sex act." Ashley Judd, the celebrity representative of Kate's organization had declared after visiting one such grimy tent, "I didn't feel God in there." Yet the workers say they continue because it's the only way they can afford to feed their children.
Other accounts from India describe four layers of brothels in which the top layer involves cages - young women and often children are caged in these places mostly run by madams, and in those cages service up to 50 men a day. They're only let out if they need to be treated for sexually transmitted diseases, so they can be brought back to work again. We're reminded that 70% of sex workers are female, but 30% are male, often young boys. And we're told also of more horrific circumstances, and of women who have no means of childcare who keep their children in a bassinet under the platform where they work.
Against all this, and chilling data on the sex slave trade and seven and eight year olds trained to shout to tourists "I do boom boom" "choose me", we are asked whether prostitution should be made legal. After all, would 10,000 sex workers in Bombay, for example, not receive better treatment and be in better health if the industry was regulated to some standard?
It is a question we discuss. No cheerful answers come to the front.
Later, in the afternoon and at the banquet and party in the evening, we gather and chortle a bit about some of the lighter side of our seminar in the presence of those attending others. No doubt, we are a bit glib about our topics of sexuality and power, and notice some envy from others. Yet this all becomes a bit more somber when we then augment the jovial moments with the atrocities also brought to bear to demonstrate power and control through use of sexuality to create cultural - and physical - barriers.
More to come.
While the Socrates experience has grown from the concept of convening a variety of youthful American professionals of diverse views over a topic of burning interest [past topics have ranged from the Dilemmas of the Digital Age (the initial seminar, led by Charlie Firestone) to Leadership (David Gergen, moderator)], perhaps no topic has brought quite such a sense of cautious expectation and anxiety as "Sexuality, Power and Culture" offered this year.
The seminar is moderated by the highly gifted team of Kate Roberts, founder of YouthAIDS, reaching some 600 million people in 60 countries with life-saving messages, products, servics and care, and Prof. Amita Vyas, a Johns Hopkins professor specializing in reproductive health who is among those who once journeyed to Calcutta to work alongside Mother Theresa in the Missionaries of Charity.
Even the first day's readings were eye-opening.
Some revelations had to do with inequities, others with the extent of misinformation, distortion, myth and a sense of what is taboo which often feed violent and life-threatening behaviors.
An early essay in the inch-thick binder, "Why Can't a Man be More like a Woman?" describes the dual standards of decades of slowing or preventing drugs to help women control their reproduction in many countries, while male sexual dysfunction drugs were often rushed to market. Perhaps this is most extreme in Japan, where oral contraceptives were kept off the market for decades for various reasons (an assertion in 1967 that Japanese women were physiologically unique, a suggestion in 1990 it would accelerate spread of HIV, and in 1998 "because artificial hormones in sewage might feminize fish") whereas after the accidental discovery sildenafil could overcome some cases of erectile dysfunction, it was approved for the Japanese market in six months.
Early on, was a treatise on celibacy in Northern India and the interpretations of brahmacharya, including a lengthy discussion of whether men may attain greater power through the discipline of not emitting sexual fluids [described here, though not in the writing, in gender neutral terms in part to note that the moderators said they had not been able to discover any similar concept for women and their physiology].
Others stretch into Sub-Saharan Africa - where 70 percent of the world's HIV positive people reside - and Iran, where a sexual counter-revolution is described among well-educated, unemployed youth otherwise suppressed under Islamist rule as girls and young women wear scanty clothes under their loose-fitting veils and gowns so they may frolick with boys and young men at exotic parties in private homes despite the risk of lashings from 'morality police' if they're caught.
Our discussion is brisk.
Kate asks us to identify ourselves, what brought us to the seminar, something unusual not in our biographies, and - tormenting some - explain our definition of sexuality, what it means for each of us.
In keeping with the tradition of Socrates, the conversations themselves are confidential, but we learn a lot from each other about diverse experiences among our group alone, even if we come largely from a professional background of a certain age living in America in the early 21st Century:
[in no particular order]:
* Taboos and stigma of sexuality are still sufficiently strong that the notion of sharing even in a reasonably 'safe' group of peers is felt by a significant number of participants.
* We have several physicians, one of whom says three patients in their late teens had presented themselves in the last month or so as planning to change gender, and all three had mentally made the transformation already despite no physical alterations as yet.
* One of the participants recounts Mormon ancestry, including an earlier generation in which one polygamist man fathered 64 children.
* Another participant shares having been abused as a toddler and still struggling with that, eliciting gentle expressions of support and sympathy from around our circle.
* Some of the descriptions of sexuality are simple and beautiful, one participant describing simply as "life force" and many touching on its role in self-identity and in intimacy.
* This last reflection contrasts SHARPLY with ghastly descriptions shared by the moderators of rape and mutilation, often born out of myth or social belief.
* Several participants describe the challenges of addressing sexuality with teenage children and relatives.
* One participant loves trampolines.
* Several, especially women, cite how women are controlled in relationships via sexuality... more on this to come, no doubt, as inextricably linked though perhaps not as much in this first day was spoken about empowerment of women as we were being encouraged not to become too focussed on gender per se.
* One participant described to everyone's amusement a mother who was on the forefront of National Institutes of Health-backed contraceptive research, and yet never spoke once about sex or sexuality with her children - except to say, once they were married - "now you're married, you need to have kids."
The discussions that ensued ranged broadly - with several poignant interjections by the moderators on issues such as America's policies against supporting HIV prevention programs which also addressed reproductive rights - which could of course be a seminar in its own right.
It is very clear how much rather than how little our cultures, our governments and our religions dominate our expression of sexuality, and conversely how the expression may become a strong, even violent outcome.
We discuss a picture of two Iranian men being prepared to be hanged because they were found to be gay, and another photo of two young girls wearing t-shirts proclaiming "GOD.HATES.FAGS.COM". We also discuss sex education in our families, and our middle schools, and the roles of stigma, fear and acceptance of wide-ranging opinions and practices in individual and social lives.
On Day Two, however, we move onward to the subject of where Sexuality is Power, and where it's Taboo.
More to come.
NOTE to readers: While this is the first coordinated effort to blog from Socrates, we also realize it is darned near impossible to provide the ambiance of each of the five groups simultaneously, no matter how much we enjoy multitasking. For you, however, there is some reprieve. Long-time attendee and good friend Pascal Levensohn, who incidentally heads the program's community-building activities, is participating in the "Media and Our Conflicting Values," seminar moderated by former FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
Find his post "Am I My Brother's Keeper? Stewardship of Media Content in the Internet Age," here.
Arriving in Aspen, one feels immediately healthier in the freshness of the thin air at 8,000 feet.
This isn't simply good fortune, or happenstance, but the product of careful planning and decades of cultural and political cultivation. And certainly good fortunes and serendipity play a role as well.
I have just arrived in Aspen to participate in the extraordinary experience known as the Socrates Seminars.
And I can't help but feel exuberant here amid the bright early chill of this lush green meadows surrounded by rocky peaks caressed by the dawn sun.
Among the Bauhaus style lodgings and seminar rooms, scores of participants from across the country will spend the next three days in one of five seminars each morning, spend the afternoons recreating - rafting, horseriding, hiking or listening to world-class orchestral notes at the popular Music Tent - and engrossed in evening conversations.
The event is really an intellectual phantasmagoria - a rapid romp of the mind [and body, for those who normally dwell at sea level] and soul through a selection of classical and contemporary topics with peers from the professional world.
This is the twelfth year of the program, which has always held its original seminars in this time frame, around the Independence Day holiday, and in recent years has accelerated its offerings with a Presidents' weekend winter edition, and others during the year.
All told, more than 1,200 individual participants have attended Socrates Seminars - including some 400 in 15 seminars during 2007 alone under the leadership of Executive Director Mark Chichester in his first full year at that role.
While the tradition of the Institute goes back to 1945, when Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke visited the declining town of Aspen, Co., and was stricken with the notion it could be rejuvenated as a cultural and intellectual retreat. He then thrust it in that direction, founding the institute in 1950, later following up with the Aspen Music Festival and the Aspen International Design Competition.
Socrates itself, though, is the inspired brainchild of Gary and Laura Lauder.
Noting a lack of early and mid-career participation in Aspen Institute and inspired by the growing changes brought by technology and the emerging commercialization of the Internet, the Lauders persuaded the Institute to launch Socrates now a dozen years ago.
Today, returning to the program for most perennial participants feels like a combination of a homecoming, a university reunion, a bootcamp and a weekend college 'cram' study session preparing for exams.
Each year brings a few stalwart multi-year participants like Peter Hirshberg, one of a cast of leading digerati who is generally recognized as attending the most seminars from the outset, and dozens of 'newbies' often with extraordinary experiences and qualifications, including 15 scholarship-awardees this year.
Yes, it is also partly an indulgence. Yet it is an indulgence that frequently changes the course of careers and refines objectives of present and future leaders of our country.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain have spoken at events surrounding Socrates in recent years.
And this years seminars are all timely: "Media and Conflicting Values", "Ethnic Conflict and International Security", "The intersection of Foreign Aid with Security, Morality and Business", "Humanity, Power, Leadership", and "Sexuality, Power and Culture."
The Socrates folks have me in the last of these - and the first day's reading (more on this) is an eye-opening and broad foundation ranging from celibacy to cultural profligacy, where victims are not hard to discover, nor are the egregious violence brought on them easy to forget.
The discussions are often intense, and always private - yet this year I've been welcomed to blog from the seminars.
I can hardly wait.
Clay Shirky, NYU professor and author of "Here Comes Everybody" threw up a picture of a barn raising and notes its not just proximity, but a collective form of reciprocal altruism which brings people together, seemingly spontaneously, to erect a barn as part of his discussion of getting people together 'quickly and noisily'...
Some fun examples of collective 'actions' and self-organizing range from Lego figurines to a buyers club for homeschooling needs - building on the model of collective benefits in addition to the barnraising motivation ("either I owe you a favor, or I would like you to owe me a favor").
Shirky then noted a number of efforts such as the Virtual Company Project and Freelancers Union Alliance, aimed at making it possible for people to come together into networks for collective action without the formal instances of organizational frameworks recognized by law.
Esther Dyson warned in a Q&A that follows that one should these communities have few safeguards against malicious actors, noting instances where bad people, when published, often retaiated, and usually against people one would consider to be good. "The tools will not set everybody free if they're prisoners of their own sociology." She cited Social Innovation Camp, sicamp.org.
Nokia's Bob Iannucci argued that on mobile platforms, business is just getting started, in his presentation subtitled "there is yet another mobile revolution to come." He predicts an increase use of sensors, noting phones are already combining microphones and speakers [of course] as well as accelerometers, cameras, light sensors, global positioning capabilities, etc., and that these may be used in future to track potential outbreaks of influenza or weather affects.
To emphasize the scale of this opportunity, he noted a Nokia phone is delivered to a new user every 17 seconds, and a new capability across its phones would go out to 450 million customers in the course of a year. He said many users, especially in underdeveloped areas, rely on these devices to determine where markets are available, and where they are not.
Esther Dyson discussed the opportunity for users to adapt a "pro choice" attitude towards technologies - rather than the advertising-based "stuck down their throat" traditional advertising approaches. "Much to advertisers' surprise, users are not always trying to buy stuff," she said, adding users are often aiming to attract attention for their own work or products. Nonetheless, she sees advertisers such as airlines who are otherwise bystanders in this process to potentially be allowed to provide, for example, better prices or flights to customers allowing them to know their travel plans discreetly.
Dyson and Iannucci noted privacy remains a major issue, though.
"You can cheapen it just like you can turn good people into prostitutes," is how Dyson put it.