Red Mass, Atlantic Ideas Forum Showcase DC Leaders, Limits

The Red Mass and the separate Washington Ideas Forum unfolded flawlessly in the nation's capital over recent days — but underscored also the limits of what even informed citizens can learn about civic affairs.

Today’s report explores lessons from these events and suggests ways that individuals can seek to learn and be heard even when events rely on eminences who deftly avoid the toughest face-to-face questions.

We cover first the annual Roman Catholic Red Mass ceremonies Oct. 4 intended to inspire judges, lawmakers, and other public officials. As usual, this year’s services attracted U.S. Supreme Court justices and other prominent officials to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

A special feature this year was Donald Cardinal Wuerl’s reflections — he entitled them “Scenes from the PopeMobile” and “What Now?” — based on the historic visit to America last month of Pope Francis I, Donald Cardinal Wuerl and U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Oct. 4, 2015 (JIP photo by Andrew Kreig)whom the Cardinal closely accompanied. The cardinal, at left, is with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts in our photo as they were leaving the historic church located two-thirds of a mile north from the White House.

We attended also the Atlantic Magazine’s Washington Ideas Forum featuring three dozen speakers. Most have held high government or business posts.

That program organized in cooperation with the Aspen Institute was informative, useful and entertaining, with much it now available for free viewing on the Atlantic's YouTube channel, C-SPAN, and elsewhere.

One overall impression is how smooth and otherwise compelling most leaders can be, even when questioned at length by well-known journalists seeking to bring out new information in a memorable manner. Another takeaway is that at least some topics remain too hot to handle. Therefore, even the best forum sessions complement but do not replace investigative fare and commentary from alternative outlets.

The Red Mass originated centuries ago in Rome, London and Paris, and was launched in the United States in 1928. The services are organized by the John Carroll Society, which is named for a leading drafter of the U.S. Constitution. Carroll later became the first Roman Catholic archbishop in North America. "Its purpose," Carroll Society members say of the Red Mass, "is to invoke God's blessings on those responsible for the administration of justice as well as on all public officials."

Officials can use words as a tool for truth or confusion, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory stressed in the mass's featured homily or sermon. Gregory used the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel to illustrate a lack of understanding among the world's peoples.

Archbishop Wilton GregoryShown in a file photo, he prayed that officials would be wise and truthful, but warned that such qualities can only be sustained when officials undertake their tasks with humility, including proper respect for God.

After the religious services Cardinal Wuerl spoke at a brunch at the Capitol Hilton to share highlights of the papal visit to the Washington, DC region and its larger lessons. Wuerl has been the longtime archbishop of Washington whom Pope Benedict XVI elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010.

The cardinal recalled from his motorcades that the pope constantly opened windows of a modest-sized Fiat and urged the driver to move closer to crowds so he could better connect with the crowds, especially the powerless.

"One of the things I love about this pope is that he is the same in public and in private," the cardinal continued. "He's the same whether he's meeting a president, or a chief justice, or a child who has been handed over a railing to him."

We shall continue those remembrances below, but first want to provide more detail on the Washington Ideas Forum, which convened an extraordinary array of prominent speakers for two days beginning Sept. 30 at Harman Hall near the historic center of downtown Washington, DC. One purpose is to help readers here access the materials. Another is to underscore how even a fairly long interview has difficulty revealing all we need to know about the powerful, or even the once-powerful.

The format for most speakers was a one-on-one interview lasting 15 minutes. Among the featured speakers were former Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee shown below being interviewed by Atlantic senior editor James Fallows in a 25-minute video.

Gore described television as powerfully distorting and worsening the 2016 presidential campaign because, among other things, it is expensive for candidates and fundamentally a top-down, non-interactive communications channel. “When our country was founded, our information ecosystem was formed by the printing press, and it had certain characteristics where individuals could easily enter the public square," Gore said. "The ideas were treated more according to a meritocracy.” The 25-minute interview can be seen in the video below:

Sharing their views also were: Carlyle Group Founder and CEO David Rubenstein, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), and two GOP former presidential nominees, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Among many others were White House advisors Valerie Jarrett and Benjamin Rhodes, former Secretaries of States Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, and Linked In CEO Jeff Weiner and Martine Rothblatt, founder of both Sirius XM and United Therapeutics.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, and shown in a file photo) was among many other newsmakers, who included the longest-serving Obama cabinet member, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and one of the newest, Attorney Gen. Loretta Lynch. A complete agenda can help readers locate video and other coverage via a web search.

Elizabeth WarrenSignificant news announcements were made by several of the speakers. Others made newsworthy comments on larger developments over recent days, such as the launch of Russian air attacks last week against U.S.-based anti-government fighters in Syria and the announced resignation by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

MSNBC host Chris Matthews made an impassioned denunciation of elites in American politics who, Matthews said, have scoffed at enforcement of immigration law and thus angered ordinary Americans enough foster the rise of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. Atlantic writer Amanda Ripley narrated an engaging and information commentary on a video presentation on the growing problems presented by the growth of drones within the United States.

Other speakers — such as Martine Rothblatt, #BlackLivesMatter Co-Founder Opal Tometi, Defense Advanced research Projects Agency Director Arati Prabhakar and documentary director Stanley Nelson — provided insights on long-running cultural issues. Rothblatt, for example, has been listed as the highest-ranking female CEO in the business world after becoming also in 1994 one of the nation's best known transgender pioneers.

Nelson directed the documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" now opening in theaters nationally. Under questioning by Atlantic editor James Bennet, the director explained the curious historical quirk that the panthers in the mid-1960s learned that carrying loaded rifles was legal under California gun law if the rifles were in plain view and so the a relatively few members achieved nationwide publicity for their start-up group by carrying the weapons to California's legislature, where Gov. Ronald Reagan complained they were justifiably arrested for bearing arms. Another major speaker on cultural issues was New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.

In such ways, the program provided a valuable overview of major civic problems and solutions. The access to top names was impressive and appeared well-received by all attendees we encountered. The Atlantic and its partners have made the program available for free via the Internet, a point worth repeating.

Yet worth noting also is that a program almost entirely comprised of successful speakers creates inherent limitations: One can hardly guarantee the appearance of top figures if they are grilled too bluntly. They may show up once but the message would percolate for other occasions. Thus a Sen. John McCain, for example, has avoided specifics so far on the actual identities of the Syrian rebels he met on a congressional fact-finding trip in 2013. Critics have alleged that some were Al Qaeda and future ISIS leaders, as we reported in Does Turkey Secretly Support ISIS? 

David MilibandThe issue is far from trivial when McCain and his political allies are leading an effort to arm rebels with more advanced weapons (which might then be used against the United States) or undertake other sensitive actions that could boomerang. Not surprisingly, McCain primarily focused on attacking the Obama administration's Middle East policies rather than sorting through the complexities of many armed groups in Syria, few of whom have shown much sustained loyalty to the United States and other Western allies. .

Another example involved International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband, who since 2013 has run the non-profit group. Its has a workforce of 21,000 and an annual budget of some $450 million. Previously, he was a Labour Party member of Parliament and the foreign minister in his native United Kingdom.

Miliband's basic message is he advocates humanitarian policies. These days that means cajoling or embarrassing Western nations such as the United States into granting more financial aid for global refugee operations and also welcoming more refugees, especially from the devastated regions of Syria and Libya.

Milibrand insisted during the Ideas Forum that he does not advocate military policies beyond humanitarian logistics.

Nonetheless, his militarist/interventionist instincts surfaced during his remarks, underscoring for those undertaking independent analysis that Miliband and his political allies advocated invading Iraq in 2003 and then imposing a "no-fly zone" in Libya that led to overthrow of its government.

The British intelligence services were directly under his authority, and his younger brother Ed Milliband led the Labour Party in Parliament from 2005 to 2010. A check of reference materials suggests that he remains a member of the Rockefeller created Trilateral Commission who reportedly earns up to 20,000 pounds per speech and maintains extensive private consulting business streams. This is not to begrudge him for doing well, only to note that his is yet another instance of lack of accountability for advocates of precisely the disastrous policies that so many of them are now well-paid to try to solve.

Such a situation is hardly an accident, especially because it is widespread if not pervasive in public life. Also, it is far beyond the capacity of an interviewer or other commentator to rectify. All the more reason then to mention such realities even in the context of informative and otherwise well-run interview and conference.

As one forward-looking, positive solution: The conference organizers have created lively discussions via social media, including the Twitter signature: #ideasforum. Thus, those who have something to say or otherwise contribute may readily access the discussion and proceed from there. 

Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer with clergy (Red Mass 2015 -- JIP Photo)Red Mass Lessons Point A Way Forward

A somewhat similar situation exists with the religion-inspired gatherings such as the Red Mass, albeit with different solutions for those who want to get further involved in relevant issues.

That event in a sense celebrated the eminences populating Washington and the world but offered also a religious and otherwise spiritual dimension, including paths for civic betterment.

The mass is open to all, of course, including regular parishioners or special visitors. So, there exists common ground between audience members of different economic circumstances or even faiths.

In that spirit, Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, of Jewish background and portrayed in the photo at right in the top left corner, has been a regular attendee of the mass since his appointment to the court. Another regular attendee is Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, shown at bottom right in the Justice Integrity Project photo taken Oct. 4.

As it happens, these participants are involved in both current and historical controversies that our project has covered in depth but with minimal response from the principals. They are occasionally available for  essential social patter among friendly gatherings, but formal inquiries are ignored and indeed considered gauche. A link to our ongoing JFK Assassination and Warren Commission coverage is here, Beware Of Wrong Conclusions From New CIA Disclosure On Oswald. Our attempt to question Breyer during Q&A at one of his lectures about a then-current controversy involving years of false financial statements by his colleague Thomas is here, Justice Breyer Reviews Court History, Skimps On Thomas Dispute.

Some might find it particularly interesting to learn Breyer's reflections on his little-known service as a Warren Commission staffer investigating President Kennedy's assassination, especially since St. Matthews is where President Kennedy's funeral mass was celebrated. At the bottom of the same steps that Breyer traverses each year during the Red Mass, John F. Kennedy Jr. gave his iconic "Little Soldier" salute on his third birthday to his slain father on Nov. 25, 1963, only to suffer an untimely death himself at age 38 in a 1999 airplane crash. The powerful photo below was by the late UPI photographer Stan Stearns. John F. Kennedy Jr. at father's funeral, Nov. 25, 1963 Stan Stearns UPI

Realistically, there is little chance after all these years that Breyer or any of his surviving Warren Commission staff colleagues would open up about their decision-making, aside from occasional insistence to friendly audiences about their own good faith and good judgment. We are among those researchers who have unsuccessfully sought these opinions for years. But such inquiries and invitations for dialog fail to obtain responses. The essence is that those who (many of us believe) helped cover up the crime of the century have gone to eminent legal and other government positions, which means kid-glove treatment from those others entrusted with relevant academic, legal, foundation, journalistic or elective posts.

Furthermore, neither a church nor a religious-themed brunch is a place to pose difficult questions, of course, except in general from the pulpit, as Archbishop Gregory emphasized in his homily.

The bottom line is that major decision-makers such as the Supreme Court justices are largely immune from any direct feedback in person after their Senate confirmations, aside from positive feedback accorded them because of their status on the court. That was on full display on Sunday when young lawyers and law students crowded around the justices after the brunch to pose for pictures. I was handed a camera several times and asked to snap the shots, which I gladly did as the appropriate action for the time and place.

A Papal Example

Pope Francis Visits Washington, DC Sept. 23, 2014 (EFE)This is the place, however, for a different approach in sharing blunt talk and ideas on building a community informed and motivated so that leaders will respond.

And fortunately, there seem to be lessons and indeed solutions to communications problems that can be drawn from last month's U.S. visit by Pope Francis helping foster new and existing communities.

As indicated by accompanying photo (taken by the news agency EFE on Constitution Avenue just south of the White House on Sept. 24), Cardinal Wuerl accompanied the pope closely through the Washington segment of the three-city visit. This photo shows a modified Jeep Wrangler, which the pope used along with a Fiat sedan smaller than accompanying security cars.

That kind of accessibility brought many warm and uplifting stories, including one about a little immigrant girl who breached security to run up and hand the pope a note: Francis and Sophie's secret: girl who hugged pope delivers immigration plea. 

The visit also brought potential danger, and even at hater in an unexpected place: A restricted area for members of congress and other VIPs.

CNN broadcast nationally a threat voiced via an open microphone moments before Pope Francis entered the Capitol chamber. The New York Post reported the story here: Woman threatens to throw shoe at pope on floor of Congress. The unidentified woman's voice was clearly Southwestern/Southern in tone. For current purposes, we shall report simply that the current congress contains very few who fit that description and a former Naval intelligence officer has already named a suspect based on voice comparisons with C-SPAN interviews.

The important point for now is that a challenging environment faces everyone in public life, or who aspires to understand current affairs.

On Sunday, Cardinal Wuerl shared inspirational, humorous, and poignant moments of the paper visit too many to share here. The gist, however, is that even the pope wanted to overcome obstacles to be heard, to question, to hear others, and to evangelize.

He had the ability to use many tools, Wuerl said, but among the most important was his force of example.

"With the [car] window," the cardinal recalled of their rides through the city, "he was a symbol to all of us: 'If you are going to see people, lower the window.'"

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Related News Coverage

Red Mass, Supreme Court and Papal Visit

U.S. Surempreme

Guardian, Francis and Sophie's secret: girl who hugged pope delivers immigration plea, Staff report, Sept. 24, 2015. Sophie Cruz, five, hand delivers a letter for Pope Francis during a parade in Washington DC.  Five-year-old Sophie Cruz went to Washington with a letter for Pope Francis.Like thousands of people on Wednesday, she waited anxiously for the “people’s pope” to pass by on the National Mall. Francis had said he wanted to step out of the popemobile, spontaneously, and greet the American people. But he hadn’t; the security threat was too great, the barriers too many. As Francis passed, Sophie slipped past the barricade and started to walk toward the popemobile. The security guards stopped her in her tracks. But then the papal procession stopped, too; suddenly, the pope beckoned the little girl. A guard carried Sophie to Francis, and the “son of an immigrant family” – as the pope boldly called himself next to Barack Obama earlier in the morning – embraced the daughter of another immigrant family, in the middle of the street, in a moment instantly beamed across the world. But beyond the very public hug, Sophie’s letter carried its own secret message: she traveled with her father Raúl and other immigration activists to Washington to see the pope – and push for immigration reform.

EFE via VidaLatina San Diego, Pope's U.S. visit, Staff report via Sept. 23, 2015. The pope moved through the streets of Washington before tens of thousands of people in the classic popemobile, a vehicle especially configured to transport the pontiff on his public appearances, and or this trip, the popemobile is a white Wrangler, a model produced by the popular FCA all-terrain vehicle brand: Jeep. The U.S. Secret Service had it for more than a month so that it could be prepared to fulfill all protective requirements. The vehicle has a glass roof but is open on the sides, which allowed the pope to easily bless a baby brought up to him by a security agent. Wrangler is a popular model, contrasting with the luxury of previous popemobiles produced by Mercedes Benz and something that is more in tune with the relatively low key personality of Francis.

New York Post, Woman threatens to throw shoe at pope on floor of Congress, David K. Li, Sept. 25, 2015. Despite all the heavy Secret Service and Swiss Guard security around him, Pope Francis came this close to getting a shoe hurled at him as he headed to the floor of Congress. As CNN’s cameras awaited the pope’s entry, a woman in the crowd, with a noticeable Southern accent, could be heard ​saying that she planned to “take my shoe off and throw it at his head.”


Washington Post, Clash of the clergy: Dispute between Washington cardinal and senior churchman goes public, David Gibson, October 20, 2015. In the latest installment of an increasingly sharp exchange conducted via the media, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on Monday rejected what he took as a swipe at him by Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, also a member of the U.S. delegation at gathering of global bishops in Rome.

Washington Post, Supreme Court rounds out docket with cases from Iranian bank, moose hunter, Robert Barnes, Oct. 1, 2015. The cases and others will be added to about 35 petitions the court has agreed to hear in the new term.

Washington Ideas Forum

The Atlantic, Washington Ideas Forum: Newsmakers Speak to Year's Most Pressing Issues and Ideas of Consequence, Staff report, Sept. 30, 2015. Al Gore, Theo Padnos, Madeleine Albright, Lonnie Bunch, Jeff Weiner, Stanley Nelson, and others to participate in two-day summit.  It's a time of landmark change and challenge: the Supreme Court has secured the future of the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage is now the law of the land. While the U.S. tests new relationships with old foes, from Cuba to Iran, the brutality of ISIS continues to stun the world and perplex policymakers. At home, a gripping debate has been revived on race and justice in American society. Such pressing issues and ideas of consequence will define the seventh annual Washington Ideas Forum, presented by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute on September 30 and October 1, 2015. The two-day program, to be held at the Harman Center for the Arts, will play host to speakers shaping dialogue around politics, business, education, culture, media, science, art, and technology. Tickets are available now.

"There is something very powerful about what unfolds on stage at Washington Ideas," said Margaret Low Smith, president of AtlanticLIVE. "Some of this country's leading thinkers and doers open up and talk about issues and ideas in a very candid way. We have a fascinating line up this year and expect two memorable days." Journalist Theo Padnos, who was held hostage in Syria for almost two years by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, will discuss his experiences for the first time in a live forum setting. Padnos' mother Nancy Curtis and cousin Amy Rosen, who both worked to secure his release, will join the conversation, along with Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently authored a detailed account of the private efforts of families to rescue loved ones from Syria. The Atlantic's editor-in-chief James Bennet will moderate the discussion.

Washington Ideas Forum will also feature conversations with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who now chairs the Albright Stonebridge Group; Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture; former Vice President and Chairman of Generation Investment Management Al Gore; Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson; DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar; Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics and founder of Sirius XM, who is transgender and the country's highest paid female CEO; and Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn.

The Atlantic,

on YouTube.

The Atlantic via YouTube, Mitt Romney Surveys the 2016 Field, Molly Ball, Sept. 30, 2015. The former Republican nominee on his would-be heirs, including Donald Trump. As he looks back on 2012, Mitt Romney has some regrets. “I wish I could do it again,” he told The Atlantic's James Bennet on Wednesday during an interview at the Washington Ideas Forum. “You learn from your experience.” Bennet interjected, “You could!”  Romney reiterated that he’s not considering getting into the current presidential race. But, he said, “There’s some things I’d do differently.”

The Atlantic,

"Flying robots: a fun new thing for everyone — from normals to celebrity wedding planners — to worry about when planning a ceremony."

The Atlantic via YouTube,

, Oct. 1, 2015. 

C-SPAN, Washington Ideas Forum, Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, Oct. 1, 2015. Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA) was interviewed at the 7th annual Washington Ideas Forum. Topics included the outgoing Speaker of the House’s legacy, the battle to fund the government, and Planned Parenthood funding.