Thursday, March 7, 2013

"A Second Chance At A Question"

Okay, so less than two weeks ago, I attended an event showcasing Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonya Sotomayor, accompanied by a question I was dying to ask, and I never got to. 

Twelve days later I have the opportunity to be in the company of another hotsy-totsy national luminary.  There would again, I was certain, be a “Question Period.”  This time, I am determined not to be shut out.

Through a financial advisor connection, I am invited to a luncheon arranged by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, where the Guest of Honor will be former Treasury Secretary, economic adviser to two presidents, and former President of Harvard University (until he asserted that women were deficient in science and engineering aptitudes), Lawrence H. Summers.

Surveying the pre-event gathering, I notice primarily older (even than me) attendees, presumably retired and undoubtedly loaded, the kind of people whose foundations endow Public Television series.  There is also a smattering of geeky, enono-nerds (whose algorithms, I imagined, cranked out fortunes), and a sprinkling of “pretty boys” whose grooming and bone structure scream “Nine Figure Trust Fund.”

I am seated at “Table 20”, right up front, to the left of the interview area.  Along with the salad and the carrot cake desert already laid out, the table includes two stubby little golf pencils and a stack of three-by-five cards on which our questions are to be written.  We are instructed that only one question will be permitted per table.

My question, which I had prepared ahead of time, has, I believed, deep and resonating significance.  Like an arrow, it shot to the straight heart of “economic science” itself, querying whether economic theory has any provable objective reality, or is it all just a matter of opinion. 

A “Table 20” competitor wants to know if there is going to be inflation, and if so, when.  I scoff at such self-interested piffle.

There is indisputably something personal riding on my question being asked, and I behave accordingly, meaning inappropriately competitively.  Averting a potentially ugly “table war”, my financial advisor, who is also the inflation-question guy’s financial advisor, prevails upon the Card Collector to accept both questions. 

It is no slam dunk.  But I am at least in the game.

The guest speaker is introduced by Eli Broad, a local real estate billionaire.  That’s the kind of audience it was, heavily money movers and shakers, (plus five ambassadors from various countries.)  Being a guy who writes stories for nothing in his  slippers, I feel intimidated and overmatched.  My net worth veered considerably closer to that of the white-jacketed gentleman ladling out our salad dressing.

The introduction ended, Mr. Summers ascends to the dais, projecting, I detect, the aura of a Jewish summer camp owner, physically unheroic, but unequivocally “The Man.”

It is immediately apparent that Summers needs little prodding to regale us with his wisdom.  Four questions from the interviewer filled forty-five minutes of (almost entirely one-way) conversation.

Summers unquestionably had his “talking points” down pat.  And he needed to, because the man would be sorely tested that day.

Though not by the questions.

Throughout Summers’ presentation, an attractive blond photographer clicked away, while attired in a short black miniskirt, a skirt that became eye-poppingly mini-er when the woman sat down.    

Directly in front of the respected guest speaker.

I apologize for being indelicate – and I’m abridging my description for taste reasons – but there’s a story to tell here.  And it is not prurient speculation on my part; we’re talking biological inevitability.  As the former Harvard President and Secretary of the Treasury rattles off his responses, every man paying attention – which may only be me – is aware of the epic struggle simultaneously playing out in that room.

Summers holds forth about TARP and “Too big to fail”, and all I can think of is,

“How is this man concentrating?”

He opines about the stability of Europe and the repeal of “Glass-Steagall”, and I’m thinking,

“I can’t believe how he’s focusing!

Aware of the difficulty, the miniskirted photographer tries gamely to adjust.  She crosses her legs.  She sits sidesaddle in her chair.  But her mission is picture taking.  And optimum effort requires a  “head on” positioning.

Summers continues his well-practiced presentation, apparently unfazed by the spectacle in front of him.  But if you look closely, there is a tenseness in his eyes, and a deliberateness to his gaze.  You can see the discipline and determination that made Summers so successful.  The man is willing himself not to look.

The event ends after three audience questions, none of them mine (though one was about inflation.)  Later, however, on the staircase down to the lobby, I buttonhole, and ask Mr. Summers my question, as to whether economic theory is simply a matter of opinion.  

Mr. Summers provides me a reasonably uncanned response. Economic theory, he explains, is not mathematics (in its precision), but nor is it Shakespearean interpretation.  There are things that eighty-five percent of economists agree on, but the press, for its own reasons, confers unearned respectability on the crackpot extremists. 

I appreciated Summers’ response.  But the truth was that by then, I was interested in an entirely different question.  Which was,

“Were you distracted at all by that photographer?”

I believe I know the answer.

But I would have loved to have had it confirmed.

1 comment:

JED said...

I really liked this story. What I get from it is that no matter how important a person may be and no matter how serious the situation they find themselves in, life still happens and you have to be prepared to handle it.

I also like the questions you come up with for the famous and politically important people you meet. You know, Jon Stewart is taking time off from his show. There's an opening for you.

Jim Dodd (JED)