“His speech was dreadful,” said Ken Sparks, the secretary of the Economic Club at the time. “Harry McPherson told me he didn’t know whether we’d ever be able to have a second meeting because the first speech was so terrible.”
He need not have worried. A quarter-century later, under the leadership of Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein, the Economic Club has become a cornerstone of the Washington business community, a place where the late Harry C. McPherson Jr., a powerhouse lawyer who was once counsel to President Lyndon Johnson, could break bread with Sparks, a local economic development leader.
The club’s success stems as much from its exclusivity as its appeal as a forum for speakers wishing to bend Washington’s ear, whether it’s Republican House Speaker John Boehner touting the merits of his debt proposal or Dan Akerson, the latest chief executive of General Motors, proclaiming the company’s return to the stock market 16 months after a government bailout.
“It’s widely thought that the Economic Club is the place where the rubber meets the road when it comes to business and government,” said Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who addressed the club last year. “It’s a terrific audience to have the chance to speak to.”
It’s also an audience that tends to more reflect the region’s suit-and-tie establishment than its open-collar — and increasingly diverse — entrepreneur class.
President George W. Bush has spoken to the club, as have Bill Gates, Ben Bernanke, Hillary Clinton and Ted Turner. On Tuesday, Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, plans to address members for the first time as part of the Economic Club’s 25th anniversary celebration (Capital Business is a media sponsor).
“It has become the ultimate forum in the Washington area for businessmen to have an intelligent discourse about the economy,” said Vernon Jordan, who served as the club’s president between 2004 and 2008.
The mid-1980s were a tumultous time for Washington business. The savings and loans crisis was beginning to take shape, and transportation and energy deregulation was in full swing. The influence of the D.C. Bankers Association, which had long served as the area’s premiere meeting ground for business leaders, was waning as the economy began to take a turn for the worse.
There were other changes, too. More and more companies were leaving downtown D.C. for the suburbs. Software companies began cropping up in Maryland and Virginia. The local banks and retailers that once ruled Washington were being sidelined by newcomers.
“With all of that going on, we thought maybe there was a role helping Washington find its place in this new world,” said Sparks, who was then chief executive of the Federal City Council, an organization of business and civic leaders who worked behind-the-scenes to affect Washington policy.