A slide presented by David Bradley of The Atlantic featured a spoof photo of Walter Isaacson as "Director of the NSA."
A slide presented by David Bradley of The Atlantic featured a spoof photo of Walter Isaacson as "Director of the NSA."Smith / Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The first “big idea” to be rolled at out at the ninth annual Aspen Ideas Festival, which started on the Aspen Institute campus Wednesday afternoon, is the notion of creating a national service program in America that would attract one million young people annually.

The Institute has created a new policy program around the idea of giving Americans a way to serve their country for a year — for a modest stipend — without volunteering to join the military.

“The idea in this is to stop defining service as only someone who wears a uniform,” said Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star Army general and former commander of troops in Afghanistan. “What we’re really talking about is culture change.”

McChrystal raised the idea of creating a national service campaign during last year’s Ideas Festival and has been working on the concept with the Institute since then.

He was part of a panel on the topic Wednesday along with John Bridgeland, author of a forthcoming book on volunteering in America called “Heart of the Nation.”

In a recent op-ed piece for Politco, Bridgeland said a new national service program “should mean a period of full-time national service as a rite of passage for every young American, ages 18 to 28.”

Service would not be mandatory, and it could include the military, but it would also include the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps or programs such as Teach for America.

“National service would be optional, but expected,” Bridgeland wrote. “Every college admissions officer or employer must start to ask, ‘Where did you serve?’”

McChrystal echoed that theme, when he said that in the future “I kind of want the people who didn’t (serve) to look at the floor in embarrassment” when asked the question about their service.

As the Ideas Festival unfolds its packed schedule through Tuesday, the idea of national service is likely to generate a lot of discussion, as will issues in the news, including recent Supreme Court decisions and the National Security Agency.

David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media Company, gave his usual wry introduction to the Ideas Festival and joked that since the festival had been recently sold to the NSA, credentials would no longer be needed as drones with face-recognition software had been deployed above the Institute grounds.

The festival this year has tracks focused on space, the Middle East, the economy, design, issues in America and the “reinvention of television.”

This morning, for example, Karl Rove of Fox News and formerly of the Bush administration is speaking at 9 a.m. on the future of the Republican party.

At the same time, Daniel Limondadi, a senior engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be addressing the question, “What is Mars teaching us?”

At noon, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will be speaking on “What drives the economic health of our states?”, but he may not pull attendees away from the panel on “Arts, inequality and the truly rich society.”

The line-up of speakers and presenters at Ideas Fest — none of whom have been paid to appear according to festival organizer Kitty Boone — is typically impressive.

Two Supreme Court justices — Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — will be at the festival, as will a bevy of bold-face names with Washington experience, including U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and former House member Gabrielle Giffords.

From the world of finance comes Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and David Rubenstein, the co-CEO of the Carlyle Group.

And David Brooks, Katie Couric, Tom Friedman, Ariana Huffington, Steve Inskeep and Andrea Mitchell will be in attendance from the media sector.

In all, over 350 speakers, presenters and moderators are listed in the festival program guide, and almost every one has an interesting and impressive resume.

Thankfully, Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent of The Atlantic, is also on the list.

An expert on the Middle East, Goldberg has in recent years at the Ideas Festival developed a knack for making sure the pretension level on the Aspen Institute campus doesn’t soar totally out of control.

Wednesday, he stepped up during the big opening convocation and said one of his ideas was to start a campaign to convince America’s fruit growers to stop putting little stickers on every piece of fruit they sell.

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...