The Bilderberg group met this past weekend in the town of Sitges, near Barcelona, exciting conspiracy buffs into frenzies of thrilled horror.
Back in the 1990s, I attended 3 or 4 Bilderberg meetings as a guest of Conrad Black, the Canadian media magnate.
Based on that experience, I well understand the group’s intense need for secrecy: If Bilderberg meetings were open to the public — if they were carried live on C-SPAN — the intense global fascination with the mysterious group would vanish at a puff.
I don’t mean that Bilderberg meetings are boring. They aren’t, not especially. They are precisely as interesting as any other conference that focuses on global economic data, the urgency of European integration, and the ever-rising menace of populist conservatism in the United States. I cannot recall ever hearing anything said in off-the-record conversations that the person speaking would not have said on-the-record. And in fact, everything said at Bilderberg is published in a summary volume, only with names redacted. Thus you can read in full the impassioned speech delivered at the plenary session urging more pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. You will be left in ignorance only whether those words were spoken by the Croatian finance minister or the former editor of the second-largest newspaper in Spain.
The idea of Bilderberg as a shadow world government is rather funny. Bilderberg itself demurs, on grounds that the group only hosts discussions, never adopts resolutions or anything like that. But that’s not the real rebuttal. Unlike Davos, Bilderberg is a membership organization: Most attendees return every year. Over time, this practice has given Bilderberg a distinct yesteryear quality. You were much more likely to meet an “ex” this or “former” that than anyone in office today. Guests too tended to reflect the interests and enthusiasms of prior decades. You wouldn’t meet Bono at Bilderberg. (Or rather – you wouldn’t have in the 1990s. Maybe you would now!)
For this reason, already it was true in the 1990s that Bilderberg felt itself being overtaken by glitzier competitors, especially the World Economic Forum in Davos. Nobody would ever describe Bilderberg as glitzy. Meetings were decidedly low-tech: panel discussions, not powerpoints. The group met in comfortable but hardly sumptuous resort hotels. Meals were served buffet style, with the group’s patron, the Queen of the Netherlands, carrying her own plate and joining the queue.
It was precisely the anachronistic quality of Bilderberg that always fascinated me most and that looms largest in my own memory.
Scene: I’m in the hotel bar after a Bilderberg session in Belgium. I get into conversation with an elderly fellow-attendee, a wealthy German businessman. Then: “You know, I was a Nazi.” Weren’t a lot of people? “Oh yes. But I was especially ardent. I volunteered for service in Russia.” What happened? “My parents were aghast. They thought the war was madness. They were influential people – and so my father got me an assignment as military attaché in Portugal. That’s the only reason I’m alive now.”
Scene: At my first meeting, I met David Rockefeller. During a long conversation I was able to ask, “Tell me about your father’s relationship with Mackenzie King.” I should mention for Americans: Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest serving prime minister. He began his career as a student of labor relations, worked for the Rockefeller family, and is often harshly described in Canadian history books as some kind of servitor of the Rockefeller interests. Not according to David Rockefeller: “Mackenzie King was my father’s best friend. Yet in all the years they knew each other, they never called each other by their first names. It was always, ‘Mr. King’ and ‘Mr. Rockefeller.’”
Scene: Conrad Black was chatting with Lord Cranborne, the eldest son of the Marquis of Salisbury, and the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Lords. The Salisbury clan are lineal descendents of Queen Elizabeth I’s most trusted adviser, William Cecil, and a family that has held onto its collected gains for getting on half a millennium. The Conservatives were just collecting themselves after the catastrophe of 1997, and Cranborne was suggesting that they should adapt a theme from the Labour playbook, the “stakeholder society.” Black laughed. “Seems to me,” he said, “that the Cecils are the ultimate stakeholders!”
Scene: I am stepping out of the minibus into the security cordon at the hotel hosting the Bilderberg. Beyond the cordon are a group of photographers equipped with super-telephoto lenses. They are snapping photos of attendees. These photoshoots are regular features of the meetings: the same people return year after year, building an archive of faces for some conspiracy database somewhere. They snap mine too. Briefly I consider walking over and telling them that they are wasting their time. Then I rethink. I discover I rather like being mistaken for an international man of mystery. I decide I’ll keep the secret a little bit longer.