After Jeffrey Epstein: What the scandal means to Columbus and Les Wexner

Dave Ghose
Les Wexner

If you’re looking for the quintessential Les Wexner experience, the Jefferson Series might be it. Since 2014, it’s featured renowned architects, best-selling authors, Oscar-nominated actresses, decorated military leaders, a former U.N. ambassador and other prominent figures in media and politics. The lecture series is a passion project for Wexner, who seems to love nothing more than reveling in its heady mix of big ideas, public service, deep thinking and philanthropy.

On Oct. 1, the program launched its seventh season with a typically star-studded affair. Washington Post columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, a Wexner favorite making his fourth Jefferson Series appearance, moderated a panel discussion on China with two former U.S. secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. Wexner often offers introductory remarks for these lectures, and this one was no different. The 82-year-old L Brands founder refused to let the explosive Jeffrey Epstein scandal—a controversy unlike any other Wexner has faced—keep him from a public appearance at one of his favorite Central Ohio events.

Standing before the sold-out crowd of nearly 900 at the McCoy Center for the Arts, Wexner thanked everyone for supporting the series and introduced the speakers. After he returned to his seat, Zakaria acknowledged Wexner and his wife, Abigail. “I first want to thank Les Wexner and everybody involved in putting this together,” he said. “As many of you know, this whole idea and this civic engagement has been the brainchild of Les and Abigail, and I think it is just so important to have successful people in America give back to the community in this way.” The crowd responded with hearty applause.

The warm reaction revealed a lot about Columbus and its relationship with its most powerful citizen. Amid one of the darkest years of Wexner’s public life, his hometown hasn’t turned on him. After decades of good works, philanthropy and civic leadership, even a sordid saga of lies, extravagance, sexual assault and impunity hasn’t broken the cocoon of goodwill that surrounds him.

But the saga is not done.

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