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Awards & Honors: 2014 Jefferson Lecturer

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson
Patrice Gilbert
By David Skinner

The story of Walter Isaacson—celebrated journalist, biographer, intellectual leader, and humanist—begins on May 20, 1952, when he was born at the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans. Much later on, he described his father, Irwin, as a “kindly Jewish distracted humanist engineer with a reverence for science.” His mother, Betsy, was a real estate broker for whom Walter would name his only child.

The Isaacsons were local boosters. They appreciated the unique racial and cultural mix of their neighborhood, Broadmoor, and joined a committee to help preserve it. The family lived on Napoleon Avenue, and Walter, the older of two brothers, was noted early on for his ambition. Student body president at the Isidore Newman School, he was also named “most likely to succeed.”

An article in the “Terrific Teens” column of the Times-Picayune reported that he’d been working to unite students of different religions and races to develop a program for tutoring poor children. He also joined a committee that worked to reopen a public pool that had been closed to sidestep integration. It was not yet clear that he wanted to be a writer, but a keenness to understand how the world worked and to find ways to address social problems was evident. He told the Times-Picayune columnist, Millie Ball, that he thought his future might be in sociology or political economics.

Another strain of his upbringing was literary. As Isaacson recently wrote in a personal essay in Louisiana Cultural Vistas, published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, his parents were proudly middlebrow. They subscribed to Time magazine, the Saturday Review, and the Book-of-the- Month club, all staples of the mainstream cultural diet in those days.

In addition, he personally knew a bona fide novelist: Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and many later works that address a mixture of existential, religious, and scientific themes. This uncle of a childhood friend entertained occasional questioning from the future journalist about the messages written into his carefully layered books.

Throughout his life, Isaacson has shown a knack for meeting interesting and important people. In college, “he was the mayor of literary Harvard,” Kurt Andersen recently told Evan Thomas for an article in Humanities. Interviewing for his Rhodes scholarship, he nervously underwent a grilling from Willie Morris, the well-known writer and editor, and a young Arkansas lawyer named Bill Clinton.

Returning to New Orleans after studying philosophy at Oxford, Isaacson took a job as a reporter with the New Orleans States-Item, which later merged with the Times-Picayune. He covered City Hall and while looking around for sources found an especially valuable one in Donna Brazile, then guardian of access to Mayor Moon Landrieu, and later on a well-known adviser to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

How Walter Isaacson went from covering City Hall in New Orleans to the editorial staff of Time magazine concerns one of the few instances when he was mistaken for a provincial. Hedley Donovan, Henry Luce’s chosen successor, had sent forth one of his editors to discover some young journalists from the Great Beyond west of the Hudson River. As this editor arrived in New Orleans, he could not help but learn about Isaacson, who was being touted by his newspaper for correctly predicting the outcome of a 12-candidate mayoral primary. Isaacson’s glory was shortlived, however, as he failed to correctly predict the winner of the runoff. The editor from Time nevertheless offered him a job.

Brought to New York City, Isaacson was presented to the editor in chief. As Isaacson tells the story,

Donovan proclaimed how pleased he was that they had found someone from “out there,” because far too many of the people at the magazine had gone to Harvard and Oxford. By the way, he asked, where did I go to school? I thought he was joking, so I just laughed. He repeated the question. The editor who had found me gave me a nervous look. I mumbled Harvard in a drawl that I hoped made it sound like Auburn. Donovan looked puzzled. I was whisked away. I do not recall ever being brought to meet him again.

The gift of knowing the right people, in Isaacson’s case, may very well be a happy side effect of wanting to know more about people, period. At a recent photo shoot, during a short break while equipment was being reset, Isaacson turned to one of the cameramen and said, very simply, “Tell me something about yourself.” On a sidewalk in D.C., he lately ran into a writer he’d worked with. The writer was coming back from lunch with some younger colleagues, and it wasn’t long before Isaacson was pumping the junior writers for information about what they were working on. Many journalists find it easy to go into interview mode, but the case of Walter Isaacson is that plus something else. In his younger days, he fancied he could be dropped into any small town and come out with a story. He even tested the theory, producing a series of articles on the lives of sharecroppers at a plantation in southeastern Louisiana.

At Time magazine, he got to work on national and international stories—big league journalism practiced with big league resources. In 1980 he covered the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. A picture from the time shows him looking barely old enough to buy a drink while being offered a treat from Nancy Reagan walking the aisle of the campaign plane like a stewardess. With access came a sense of responsibility. Isaacson and Evan Thomas coauthored a book that took readers beyond the weekly news cycle to look at how a group of privileged, Ivy Leaguers from the same blue-blood milieu made Cold War history. The Wise Men directed a spotlight at such establishment figures as Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson to produce a group portrait of key supporting players who shaped American foreign policy after World War II through the Vietnam War.

The Time magazine formula of writing history on the spot, through the lives of historymakers, was an agreeable match for the intensely social and hard-working Isaacson. And being at Time brought him into the orbit of some of the most interesting people around. When, in 1984, Steve Jobs came to Time to tout his awesome new desktop, Isaacson, the only reporter on staff who wrote on a computer, was asked to sit in.

 In the 1980s and ’90s he got to cover two of the greatest stories going. The first concerned the decline of the Soviet Union and its ripple effects across Eastern Europe. Seeing Lech Walesa rallying shipbuilders in Poland and the dissident Vaclav Havel becoming a leading light in then Czecho-slovakia confirmed his belief that history is not simply the result of impersonal forces but that individuals play major roles—a view he happened to share with Henry Kissinger, about whom he wrote a thorough, not always friendly, but well-received biography in 1992.

The other major story was the digital revolution. Isaacson was promoted to new media editor for all of Time Warner for two years during the era of the Pathfinder website. One of the first large-scale entrants into digital journalism, combined content from Time, People, Sports Illustrated, and several other magazines, offering it free of charge. Though notable for its ambition and for bringing advertisers online, its go-big strategy failed to set a template for online writing and reporting. The near future proved more amenable to search engines and smaller news-gatherers. Isaacson was then named managing editor of Time, the most senior editorial position within the magazine. As the tide shifted away from political news, the magazine under Isaacson still looked to occupy a great breadth of common ground. He never abandoned the classic Luce editorial formula, but he looked to update it with sharper writing and a broader cultural scope that included an energetic commitment to the story of digital technology.

In 2001 he became the CEO of CNN, overseeing its operations during 9/11 and afterwards, a job he held until 2003. While at CNN, he began working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a good period for popular books about the American Founders, but Isaacson’s fondness for his subject is evident throughout. He seemed to identify with the lighthearted Franklin, a fellow lover of science and technology who, like Isaacson, made friends easily.

The life of the mind has become Walter Isaacson’s major subject, and it goes well with his day job as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, which might be described as the Ben Franklin of think tanks: well connected, intellectually broad, and consistently practical-minded. Founded by Walter Paepcke as a bipartisan forum where leaders could escape the rough and tumble of daily politics to reflect on enduring values, the institute has become an important venue for education reformers, technologists, and global leadership.

One of the more commonly asked questions about Walter Isaacson is, How does he get so much work done? When asked by Humanities magazine, he replied, “I don’t watch TV. If you give up TV, it’s amazing how many hours there are between 7:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. in which you can do writing.”

The reason it’s a popular question is that while running the Aspen Institute, Isaacson has completed two generously sized biographies. The first, about Albert Einstein, forced him to confront a whole battery of research and writing challenges. Readers wondering whether he might have skipped some of the hard parts are greeted by several pages of acknowledgments, stating Isaacson’s various debts to numerous physics professors and Einstein scholars. But it was more than math homework that made the book a huge best-seller: In its descriptions of Einstein’s breakthroughs, Isaacson showed off a pictorial gift that helped him to describe some of what Einstein was visualizing when the physicist discovered the general theory of relativity and other breakthroughs.

Writing the biography of Steve Jobs required a spectacular commitment to journalistic principles, re-reporting oft-told stories, getting close to the mesmerizing and mercurial founder of Apple without falling under his spell, and tracing the sometimes technical steps of several major innovations. To make things more difficult, Isaacson was writing from within the whirlwind of the present moment, with its constant reminders that the person he was writing about was considered by many to be no mere mortal. That the biography doubles as an ethical portrait of Jobs is, of course, a credit to Isaacson’s careful study of his subject.

Still practicing the Henry Luce philosophy, Isaacson used the story of Steve Jobs to tell a major story of our times. And just as Jobs humanized the personal computer and portable devices to appeal to a large variety of consumers, Isaacson has humanized the complicated interior lives of a series of historical figures, helping us to better understand several people who have changed the world.