The Atlantic Prepares for Its Biggest Washington Event

Margaret Low Smith and Steve Clemons tell FishbowlDC why Washington Ideas Forum is bigger and longer than before.

Before they could begin to set the lineup for this year’s Washington Ideas Week, now entering its eighth year, organizers would have to settle a logistical quandary. “The question was, before or after?” AtlanticLIVE president Margaret Low tells FishbowlDC. The time of demarcation she’s referring to is Nov. 8, 2016—Election Day.

“I would say, this is my personal view, I hate doing Washington Ideas before an election in an election year. I’m on record as saying that. I think it’s much more interesting when the choice has been made and we can begin looking at the echo effect of that national choice,” says AtlanticLIVE editor in chief and Washington editor at large Steve Clemons. “But, for a variety of reasons, we’re doing it before the elections,” he continues.

With the decision to hold it before Election Day winning out, the forum and its surrounding events, created in conjunction with event parter the Aspen Institute, is set for Sept. 26-29.

One of the major reasons for this decision, according to Low, is a sort of zeitgeist-y sense of ripeness to a late September forum. “Whatever you think is happening in this election, there is a level of engagement and electricity in the air and a desire for conversation that I think is stunning, and so, I’m actually really glad. I feel like we sort of landed at the kind of perfect moment in the arc of the fall to have Washington Ideas because I think people are feeling, caring deeply about the country and the world and they’ll want to hear really thoughtful people addressing the big consequential topics,” she says.

But forgetting, if you can, the fact that it’s an election year, there are other ways in which the forum is looking different than in previous years. This time around, it’s a bigger, longer show. In addition to the two-day forum itself, happening at the Harman Center for the Arts Sept. 28-29, there is a series of events throughout D.C. preceding and accompanying the slew of speakers and interviews that will grace the Harman Center stage.

It starts with a presidential debate watch party and pre-debate talk with Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows at The Hamilton Live, continues the next day with national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing race, politics and culture in America at Sixth & I, followed by a screening of the documentary Inside Charlie Hebdo on Sept. 28 at the Newseum, complemented by a discussion about press freedom.

Part of the reason for this year’s expanded ambitions has to do with the expanded scope of Washington Ideas. Even though it occurs this year during the final leg of the elections, the focus of the forum isn’t consumed by that. Organizers wanted the time and space to explore realms like culture, social justice, science and genetics, national security.

“The frame we tried to give it this year is, ‘What are the issues and ideas that the next administration and the next Congress and the rest of us need to understand?’ And then from there you sort of take a broad look at the biggest issues of our time,” says Low.

Underpinning all of that is a desire to maintain a string of talks and events at once both intellectually stimulating and entertaining, that respond to this premise Low describes: “If I was somebody who was going to go sit in a chair at the Harman theater, who would make me lean forward in my seat and want to hear?”

“We want to create an interview that isn’t just meet the press but that goes a bit deeper in an Atlantic-y kind of way; it comes at an issue from a different angle. And if we’re just replicating what’s on a Sunday morning talk show than that’s not enough,” says Clemons.

“D.C. is probably the most jaded place on earth where people have seen it all, done it all, and do it all, and so, what you want to do is try to create an environment and a place that reaches and scratches that jadedness off of people and gets them to think about the world in ways in which they’re not used to doing, and it’s hard,” he says.

As part of creating that experience, organizers decided to “turn Washington, D.C. into our campus,” says Clemons. “What we found is that by going deep, creating a lot of variety, creating a lot of depth, creating these sorts of moments that I think are memorable we realized we could move beyond the two days in the venue. We wanted to create more of a footprint in Washington, D.C,” he says.

AtlanticLIVE and its marquee D.C event live in a different space than what existed seven years ago. The competition for events, especially those presented by publications, is dense. But as competition has grown, so too has Washington Ideas. What started as a 300-person, elite event now has attendance numbers that have reached 1700. (To accompany the inclusivity, area students are invited to attend for free.)

“We know that we have a kind of hit here. You can tell by how people vote with their feet and they come to it. It’s nice to have something that’s from Washington, of Washington, still inspired by people outside, but I think that is a neat thing,” says Clemons.

And Low doesn’t thing there’s anything in D.C. that can match it. “[Washington Ideas] is a highly produced, choreographed, beautifully booked almost theatrical experience,” she says. “I don’t know everything everybody does–it is an incredibly competitive space–but I don’t think there is anything of this magnitude, anything that is the peer of Washington Ideas in this city.”