Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid is the keynote speaker at this year’s Camden Conference, Feb. 19-21 at the Camden Opera House.
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid is the keynote speaker at this year’s Camden Conference, Feb. 19-21 at the Camden Opera House.

Jim Matlack is in his slippers when he answers the door. I caught him in the middle of a small breakfast of cinnamon toast, but he waves it off and we sit down in the sunny living room of his house on top of a hill in Rockport. It's picture magazine perfect. A narcissus blooms on the windowsill and the view just tumbles on downhill out the floor-to-ceiling windows: slender winter tree trunks, rocky outcroppings, the blue sea shining in the distance.

It's so peaceful, so refined, so retired from the troubles of the world.

Matlack has his back to the view and his eyes on the telephone. His mind is on foreign policy, not scenic landscapes.

He just got some bad news from Brigadier General Nicholson. The brigadier had been tapped to head a new Pentagon think tank on military strategy in Afghanistan and just couldn't make it to Camden in February.

"Really, I was surprised when he said he would come," said Matlack. "It's always a push for someone who is in current service. World events can jump and someone can't come."

Matlack recruits speakers for the annual Camden Conference on foreign affairs, held every February for the past 22 years. It's a couple weeks out now, and Matlack has a lineup that includes ambassadors, retired spies, and scholars. But he has to find a replacement to fill the shoes of the brigadier.

"There is nobody who is more informed about how the military applies boots on the ground in Afghanistan," said Matlack.

He glances at the telephone next to his chair.

"I'm waiting for a call back. I've been talking to the Carlisle War College in Pennsylvania," he said. Another high-ranking general and two colonels had already turned him down. The U.S. Army War College is a graduate school for military officers with over eight years of military experience and for a few selected non-military government employees. It's an elite training school and they don't accept individuals from the world at large.

The colonels felt they didn't have enough experience in Afghanistan.

"It could be. I don't know. Maybe they don't want to stand in for a brigadier general."

"There were other good choices, too," said Matlack. "One was a writer of the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual for Iraq."

But he was already booked for that February weekend.

For 22 years the Camden Conference has successfully lured world-class experts in foreign affairs to Maine in the dead of winter

Sticky questions of protocol are a minor problem in attempting to pull together world-class speakers for a conference in a small town in mid-winter. It used to be easier. The foreign policy conference was built from foreign policy experts, including Central Intelligence Agency and foreign service G-Men who had retired in the Camden-Rockport area in the 1970s. All they had to do back then was to make a phone call to bring in the big guns.

"They had foreign service and CIA networks," Matlack said. "In those years, it was personal connections that brought in speakers. Senator Bill Cohen came the first year, and

Larry Eagleburger, who later became acting secretary of state." Then Eagleburger brought his military buddy Brent Scowcroft along.

Scowcroft was the United States national security advisor for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush and advised President Obama on choosing his national security team.

But that was a long time ago and many of the original founders of the Camden Conference are gone, and so are their CIA and State Department connections. Matlack spent much of his career working on foreign policy issues, but it was for the American Friends Service Committee, a peace-loving Quaker organization. Getting first-string speakers-the kind of names any of us would recognize from the nightly news - is now a year-round effort that requires months of negotiation. And that only happens after the Camden Conference program committee agrees on the list of speakers. Matlack will take nothing less than consensus on who to invite. If the board can't agree, they drop the name from the list. Then Matlack starts to headhunt.

"I'd say about half are cold calls with no personal link," said Matlack.

Cold calls? Sounds about as much fun as telemarketing.

"What do you pay them?" I asked, thinking the Camden Conference must have deep pockets to pay high-profile speakers who could charge $5,000, $10,000, even upwards of $40,000 for a speaking engagement.

"We don't."

"You don't pay them?" I asked.

"We pay them an honorarium. I think it's $1,500 or so. Our budget isn't big enough to pay them."

I know all about cold calls. I'm a reporter and I know you have to hit the right balance between being confident and being personable - not so confident that you appear arrogant and not so personable that you appear too familiar. I try to imagine what it would be like to get former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the phone and ask her to come up to Maine for one of the coldest weekends of the winter - Hey, Condi, c'mon up, we can't pay you anything, but we can put you up in a local hotel and serve you lobster and local beer and question every decision you ever made as a member of the Bush administration.

"Why would they come?" I asked. "You have to be able to offer them something."

"That's why landing a well-known keynote speaker is so important," said Matlack.

The telephone rang and Matlack grabbed it and walked off towards the kitchen. He was back a half minute later.

"It wasn't him," he said, sitting back down and taking a bite of his cold toast.

If the guy from the War College can't come, Matlack will start pulling on other strings. He's confident he'll find someone who will fit this particular slot on the agenda.

At least he has the keynote nailed.

A famous journalist headlines the 2010 conference.

The keynote speaker is the key to getting the other speakers to sign on, said Matlack. They need to know that this is a serious meeting of the minds with other world-class thinkers who are working on the same sorts of problems they are. They have to be convinced it is a high-level event.

"Rashid's name came up right away as a keynote for the 2010 conference," said Matlack. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and best-selling author of books about the Taliban, reports regularly for news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and BBC Online. He is also a frequent guest on National Public Radio and CNN.

"It was a blind lead," said Matlack. "But someone had his e-mail address in Lahore and I sent the introductory letter and the Camden Conference information packet by e-mail. That's all I had. I didn't have an address or phone number."

"Rashid got back to me and said, 'Well, this sounds interesting. I might be able to do this' and then there was this negotiation on issues of cost. Could we afford the flight from Pakistan, that kind of thing. I had to go to John Snow, the president of the Camden Conference, and find out how much financially we could stretch."

Matlack later learned that Rashid had an American agent. Contacting the agent was the route he would have had to take if that personal -mail address hadn't turned up. That would have been a dead end.

"It's happened before," said Matlack. "You just can't get in the door. That would have happened with Scowcroft last year, if we hadn't had a contact. We had no link to him and if we just went in over the transom, that invitation was not going to go anywhere."

The invitation to Brent Scowcroft was passed on to a contact who knew someone who would put it on Scowcroft's desk, bypassing all the gatekeepers. There was a personal note from Matlack reminding Scowcroft that he had been a speaker at the first conference and that the event had evolved and become a meeting place for people intimately involved in the issues of the day. Could he come? Scowcroft said yes, he could come on Friday, but only if Matlack could get him out to Texas for a Saturday afternoon meeting.

Matlack could. And it wasn't only Scowcroft who had time constraints. Two other speakers wedged their talks between meetings in Washington and New York, jetting in to Portland, getting the limo up and then back down the coast and out on the quickest flight, barely giving the limo driver time for a coffee break in between.

Matlack's headhunting pays off

Matlack picked up the phone again and stood up.

"I'm just going to call the War College, again. You don't mind?"

No one answered his call.

"This seems a bit stressful, for a retiree," I noted.

"No, this isn't that bad," he said. "It just means I don't get to go through the usual process of sending them a packet and a follow-up e-mail. I just call them up and ask them for two minutes. My first question is, 'Are you available for that weekend?' If they aren't, that's the end of the conversation."

"By this time, four weeks out, the speakers are booked and I'm usually in the middle of logistics," said Matlack. "But anything could happen."

Matlack's latest target was Larry Goodson, an advisor to the US military on strategy in South Asia and author of Talibanization of Pakistan (July 2007, Palgrave Macmillan). Goodson had originally e-mailed Matlack to request transcripts of the 2010 conference.

"His background was as strong as anybody we were after. He didn't get in touch with me asking to speak at the conference. It was a persuasion. With persistence and a little luck I was able to turn his interest around."

An hour later, the War College called. Goodson would be happy to come in February.