American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricaneby Walter Isaacson
What are the roots of creativity? What makes for great leadership? How do influential people end up rippling the surface of history?
In this collection of essays, Walter Isaacson reflects on the lessons to be learned from Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton,… See more details below
What are the roots of creativity? What makes for great leadership? How do influential people end up rippling the surface of history?
In this collection of essays, Walter Isaacson reflects on the lessons to be learned from Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton, and various other interesting characters he has chronicled as a biographer and journalist. The people he writes about have an awesome intelligence, in most cases, but that is not the secret of their success. They had qualities that were even more rare, such as imagination and true curiosity.
Isaacson reflects on how he became a writer, the lessons he learned from various people he met, and the challenges he sees for journalism in the digital age.
He also offers loving tributes to his hometown of New Orleans, which both before and after Hurricane Katrina offered many of the ingredients for a creative culture, and to the Louisiana novelist Walker Percy, who was an early mentor. In an anecdotal and personal way, Isaacson describes the joys of the "so-called writing life" and the way that tales about the lives of fascinating people can enlighten our own lives.
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My So-called Writing Life
I was once asked to contribute an essay to the Washington Post for a page called “The Writing Life.” This caused me some consternation. A little secret of many nonfiction writers like myself—especially those of us who spring from journalism—is that we don’t quite think of ourselves as true writers, at least not of the sort who get called to reflect upon “the writing life.” At the time, my daughter, with all the wisdom and literary certitude that flowed from being a thirteen-year-old aspiring novelist, pointed out that I was not a “real writer” at all. I was merely, she said, a journalist and biographer.
To that I plead guilty. During one of his Middle East shuttle missions in 1974, Henry Kissinger ruminated, to those on his plane, about such leaders as Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir. “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces,” he said. “But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” I have always been one of those who feel that history is shaped as much by people as by impersonal forces. That’s why I liked being a journalist, and that’s why I became a biographer. As a result, the pieces in this collection are about people—how their minds work, what makes them creative, how they rippled the surface of history.
For many years I worked at Time magazine, whose cofounder, Henry Luce, had a simple injunction: Tell the history of our time through the people who make it. He almost always put a person (rather than a topic or an event) on the cover, a practice I tried to follow when I became editor. I would do so even more religiously if I had it to do over again. When highbrow critics accused Time of practicing personality journalism, Luce replied that Time did not invent the genre, the Bible did. That’s the way we have always conveyed lessons, values, and history: through the tales of people.
In particular, I have been interested in creative people. By creative people I don’t mean those who are merely smart. As a journalist, I discovered that there are a lot of smart people in this world. Indeed, they are a dime a dozen, and often they don’t amount to much. What makes someone special is imagination or creativity, the ability to make a mental leap and see things differently. In 1905, for example, the most knowledgeable physicists of Europe were trying to explain why a light wave always appeared to travel at the same speed no matter how fast you were moving relative to it. It took a third-class patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, to make the creative leap, based only on thought experiments he imagined in his head. The speed of light remains constant, he said, but time varies depending on your state of motion. As Albert Einstein later noted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
The first real writer I ever met was Walker Percy, the Louisiana novelist whose wry philosophical depth and lightly worn grace still awe me when I revisit my well-thumbed copies of The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. He lived on the Bogue Falaya, a bayou-like, lazy river across Lake Pontchartrain from my hometown of New Orleans. My friend Thomas was his nephew, and thus he became “Uncle Walker” to all of us kids who used to go up there to fish, capture sunning turtles, water-ski, and flirt with his daughter Ann. It was not quite clear what Uncle Walker did. He had trained as a doctor, but he never practiced. Instead, he worked at home all day. Ann said he was a writer, but it was not until after his first novel, The Moviegoer, gained recognition that it dawned on me that writing was something you could do for a living, just like being a doctor or a fisherman or an engineer.
He was a kindly gentleman, whose placid face seemed to know despair but whose eyes nevertheless often smiled. I began to spend more time with him, grilling him about what it was like to be a writer and reading the unpublished essays he showed me, while he sipped bourbon and seemed amused by my earnestness. His novels, I eventually noticed, carried philosophical, indeed religious, messages. But when I tried to get him to expound upon them, he would smile and demur. There are, he told me, two types of people who come out of Louisiana: preachers and story-tellers. It was better to be a storyteller.
That, too, became one of my guideposts as a writer. I was never cut out to be a pundit or a preacher. Although I had many opinions, I was never quite sure I agreed with them all. Just as the Bible shows us the power of conveying lessons through people, it also shows the glory of narrative—chronological storytelling—for that purpose. After all, it’s got one of the best ledes ever: “In the beginning . . .” The parables and narratives and tales in the Bible always seemed more compelling than the parts that tried to decree a litany of rules.
My parents were very literate in that proudly middlebrow and middle-class manner of the 1950s, which meant that they subscribed to Time and Saturday Review, were members of the Book-of-the-Month Club, read books by Mortimer Adler and John Gunther, and purchased a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as soon as they thought that my brother and I were old enough to benefit from it. The fact that we lived in the heart of New Orleans added an exotic overlay. Then as now, it had a magical mix of quirky souls, many with artistic talents or at least pretensions. As the various tribes of the town rubbed up against each other, it produced sparks and some friction and a lot of joyful exchange, all ingredients for a creative culture. I liked jazz, tried my hand at clarinet, and spent time in the clubs that featured the likes of reedmen George Lewis and Willie Humphrey. After I discovered that one could be a writer for a living, I began frequenting the French Quarter haunts of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and sitting at a corner table of the Napoleon House on Chartres Street keeping a journal.
Fortunately, I was rescued from some of these pretensions by journalism. While in high school, I got a summer job at the States-Item, the feistier afternoon sibling of the Times-Picayune. I was assigned the 5 a.m. beat at police headquarters, and on my first day I found myself covering that most awful of stories, the murder of a young child. When I phoned in my report to the chief of the rewrite desk, Billy Rainey, he started barking questions: What did the parents say the kid was like? Did I ask them for any baby pictures of him? I was aghast. I explained that they were grieving and that I didn’t want to intrude. Go knock on the door and talk to them, Rainey ordered.
To my surprise, they invited me in. They pulled out photo albums. They told me stories as they wiped their tears. They wanted people to know. They wanted to talk. It’s another basic lesson I learned: The key to journalism is that people like to talk. At one point the mother touched me on the knee and said, “I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this.”
Almost twenty-five years later, I recalled that moment in the most unlikely circumstance. Woody Allen had been hit by the furor over the revelation that he was dating Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his estranged consort, Mia Farrow. He invited me to come over to his apartment so that he could explain himself. It was just the two of us, and as soon as I opened my notebook, it became clear how much he wanted to talk. At one point, when I asked if he thought there was anything wrong with this set of relationships, he replied in a way destined to get him into the quotation books: “The heart wants what it wants.” After more than an hour, he leaned over and said, “I hope you don’t mind me telling you all this.” I thought, as his psychiatrist might have, No, I don’t mind. This is what I do for a living. I get paid to do it—amazingly enough.
When I went north to Harvard, I drove up with cases of Dixie beer piled in my beat-up Chevy Camaro, so that I could play the role of a southern boy, and I reread Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury, so that I could channel Quentin Compson while avoiding his fate. The most embarrassing piece I have ever written, which I fear is saying a lot, was a review of a biography of Faulkner for the Harvard Crimson that I attempted to write in Faulkner’s style. (No, it’s not included in this collection.) Not surprisingly, I was never asked to join the Crimson, but I did join the Lampoon, the humor magazine. Back then the Lampoon specialized in producing parodies, such as one of Cosmopolitan that had a fake foldout of a nude Henry Kissinger. It was thus that I learned, though only moderately well, another lesson that is useful when traveling in the realms of gold: that poking fun at the pretensions of the elite is more edifying than imitating them. I also began, for no particular reason, to gather string and write a chronicle of an obscure plantation owner, then no longer alive, named Weeks Hall, who had, earlier in the century, invited a wide variety of literary figures and creative artists to be houseguests at his home, which he called Shadows-on-the-Teche. From that I learned the joys of unearthing tales about interesting and creative people.
During the summers, I tended to come back home to New Orleans to work for the newspaper. I liked to think that I had the ability to drive into any small town and, within a day, meet enough new people that I would find a really good story. I pushed myself to practice that every now and then, with mixed success. If I were hiring young journalists now, that would be my test: I would pull out a map, pick out a small town at random, and ask them to go there and send me back a good story in forty-eight hours.
On one such outing through southern Louisiana, I wrote a set of articles on the life of the sharecroppers on the sugarcane plantations along Bayou LaFourche. The pieces showed the effects of my having read James Agee once too often, in that they tried too hard to be lyrical and literary, but they did help me get an even more interesting job the following summer. Harry Evans, who is now well known as an author and a historian, was then the hot, young, crusading editor of the Sunday Times of London. He gave a talk in which he lamented that America was no longer producing as many literary journalists in the mold of Agee. Without even a pretense of humility, I put together a packet of my sharecropper pieces and sent them off to him in London, asking for a summer job. I heard nothing, promptly forgot about my impertinent request, and thus was a bit baffled when months later a telegram arrived at my dorm (an occurrence almost as unusual then as it would be today), saying: will hire for limited term as thomson scholar. It was signed by someone I had never heard of, but I soon realized it was an offer from the Sunday Times. The “Thomson scholar” bit was because Harry needed a way to get around the unions in hiring someone like me, so he made up a fellowship and named it after the paper’s then-owner, Lord Thomson. I scraped up the money to buy a cheap ticket on Icelandair to London.
It was the summer of 1973, and the Watergate scandal was unfolding. Harry had created an investigative unit known as the Insight Team, and he put me on it under the mistaken impression that, since I was an American, I bore some resemblance to Woodward and Bernstein. My first big assignment was to go up to Dundee, Scotland, where the mayor, quaintly known as the Lord Provost, was suspected of having Nixonian tendencies. When I arrived at the airport, I cockily presented my Sunday Times press credential at the car counter only to be told that I was not old enough to rent one. Too embarrassed to tell my editors, I hitchhiked to my hotel.
Over the next few days, I was able to meet a lot of local characters and get them to talk. I pieced together a tangled web involving secret land purchases combined with nefarious adjustments to zoning laws. The article I wrote so baffled and unnerved my editors that they sent in reinforcements in the person of the most amazing journalist I have ever known, David Blundy. He was wild-eyed, boisterous, thrill-seeking, conspiratorial, and so excessively lanky that he looked like an animated cartoon character. One night when we returned to the hotel, the desk clerk mentioned that someone was in our room. David uncoiled himself into full alert mode, assuming that it must be some thug hired by the Lord Provost, and barked to me that I should take the elevator and he would take the stairs. The point of this eluded me, but I did as I was told. We arrived at the sixth floor at the same time. David flung open our door and, since he was a chain-smoker, immediately collapsed on the floor wheezing from his race up six flights of stairs. The interloper turned out to be a television repairman who scurried out of the room leaving various parts strewn on our floor.
I subsequently partnered with David on stories involving the troubles in Northern Ireland, Morocco’s war for the Spanish Sahara, and a ring of traders violating the sanctions against Rhodesia. He was exhilarated by danger. Once in Belfast he insisted that we go cover a demonstration, when I was quite content to stay at the bar of the Europa Hotel. He showed me that even though the street clashes might seem violent and bloody on television, just a half block away things were calm and safe. Journalism required an eagerness to get up and go places. While we were out, a bomb went off at the Europa Hotel. Blundy insisted that this should serve as a lesson for me. I agreed. But when he was killed a few years later by a sniper’s bullet in El Salvador, I gave up trying to fathom the meaning of the lesson he wanted me to learn.
At the Sunday Times, I learned that I was not cut out to be a Woodward or a Bernstein. I tended to like people too much to relish investigating them. Perhaps that’s the flip side of finding it easy to meet strangers and get them to talk. For example, one week I was sent to cover a fire at an amusement center, known as Summerland, on the Isle of Man, in which fifty people had died because of chained exit doors and other lapses. I ended up meeting Sir Charles Forte, the chief executive of the company that owned the park. He was very open, indeed vulnerable, as he discussed the mistakes that had led to the tragedy. It made for a good story, but it could have made for a really great story if I hadn’t decided to downplay some of what he told me. My instinct to be sympathetic got the better of my instincts as a journalist.
I learned from Harry Evans’s example that it was possible to be crusading and investigative while also retaining access to the people you cover. With his engaging manner and skeptical curiosity, he could be both an outsider (he was from Manchester) and an insider (he was knighted), as the occasion warranted. Every now and then, this lesson would be reinforced for me. For example, my first week covering the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan for Time, I wrote a piece that looked at the facts he used in his stump speech, ranging from taxation levels to how trees caused pollution, and declared many to be dubious. I thought I would be shunned by the campaign staff on the plane the following week. Instead, I was invited to the front to ride with the candidate. There’s a phenomenon common to many people in public life. Bill Clinton’s mother described it when she said that if he walked into a room of a hundred people, ninety-nine of whom loved him and one who was a critic, he’d head over to that one to try to convert him. I found that true of Henry Kissinger as well. Like a moth to flame, he is attracted to his critics and feels compelled to convert them.
My stint at the Sunday Times helped me win a Rhodes scholarship, in part because members of Rhodes selection committees tend to be, not surprisingly, quite anglophilic. My panel was thus probably overly impressed by bylines in a British newspaper. The interviews took place in a French Quarter hotel, and I was spending my Christmas break shucking at a nearby oyster bar where, fortunately, nobody had any idea what a Rhodes scholarship was. Since my dream at the time was still to be a “real writer,” I was quite intimidated when I saw that Willie Morris was on my selection panel. I paid no heed to one of the other judges, an Arkansas law professor who was about to launch an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. Years later, Bill Clinton surprised me by recalling the questions he had asked and the answers I had given. He also told George Stephanopoulos that I would go out of my way to be tougher on him as a journalist, now that I realized he had been on my selection committee. He knew that the remark would get back to me, and he probably calculated it as a bit of reverse psychology. In any event, I ended up having to oversee Time’s coverage of his amazingly messy second term, and my thoughts about him are reflected in the review of his memoirs included in this collection.
Before leaving for Oxford in 1974, I had an offer to be a summer intern at the Washington Post. This should have been an irresistible treat, since Watergate was coming to a climax. I was, however, still in the throes of my “real writer” obsession. So I decided instead to take a job as a stevedore on a derrick barge unloading ships in the Port of New Orleans. I assumed that kind of job would provide me, like it had Mark Twain, with a cast of characters for my intended Great American Novel About the River. Indeed, it did—or would have had I been Twain. In the bottom left drawer of every desk I’ve had since then lies the manuscript of my unfinished novel, set on the derrick Terence with Captain Coon and his colorful crew. Every decade or so, I pull it out, polish it up a bit, then reread it to remind myself that I am not, in fact, a “real writer.” The world will have to make do with Huckleberry Finn.
At Oxford I studied philosophy, politics, and economics; combined with my history and literature concentration at Harvard, that prepared me to be a journalist and biographer, but not much else. My adviser there was a lively but wise professor named Zbigniew Pelczynski, a Hegel scholar who had been active in the Polish underground during World War II. Once again, I was exposed to the specter of Bill Clinton. Pelczynski assigned me a paper on how democratic undercurrents can be manifest in authoritarian regimes, which I promptly dashed off. He was not impressed. There was a better paper that had been written by a star student of his a few years earlier, and he made a copy of it for me. I probably knew the author, he said. No, I said glancing at the name. But he’s from Arkansas and you’re from Louisiana, Pelczynski pointed out. I allowed that not everyone in Louisiana knew everyone in Arkansas; indeed, I suspect I let my petulance show by declaring that I’d never known anyone at all from Arkansas, ever.
Bill Clinton’s paper, on democracy in Russia, was in fact far better than mine, which made this professor’s pet from Arkansas seem all the more annoying. Almost two decades later, in 1992 when I was a national affairs editor at Time, I got a call from Pelczynski. Reporters were asking him to talk about what Clinton was like as a student, he said, and he was wondering if he should give them copies of the paper. I was puzzled for a moment. What paper? I had long since forgotten about the essay. But once I recalled it, I realized that it could be explosive. It no doubt included some sentences that, taken out of context, or perhaps even in context, would cause Clinton big problems, especially since Republicans were already criticizing him for going to Russia as a student. A journalistic dilemma: Do I tell a well-intentioned old professor to show reporters a paper that could disrupt Clinton’s candidacy? After a few moments of reflection, I replied that I didn’t know what he should do, but if it were one of my papers, I would want him to ask me first before releasing it. So Pelczynski said he would ask Clinton what to do.
That left a second journalistic dilemma. If I could find the paper, Time would have a great scoop. Should I? I called my father in New Orleans. “Go down to our basement workshop,” I asked him, “and look in a white chest of drawers just behind the table saw and see if you can find an essay on Russia by Bill Clinton.” A few minutes later, my father came back to the phone sounding upset. During one of the many New Orleans floods that afflicted our basement even before Katrina, that chest and its contents had been destroyed. My mother had thrown it out. I was disappointed, but part of me—the side of me that made me a less-than-tough reporter—was relieved. A journalistic dilemma had been averted.
A few years ago, after Bill Clinton left office, I visited Pelczynski in the Oxfordshire cottage where he had retired. He pulled out a scrapbook containing Clinton’s paper. Also there was a telegram sent during the 1992 campaign from Betsey Wright, who was part of Clinton’s ever-busy damage control team. It thanked Pelczynski for asking whether he should release the essay, and it urged him not to. I reread the paper and, this time around, found it rather good. I suggested to Pelczynski that he send a copy to the Clinton Library. Historians should have some things that eluded journalists at the time.
Under Pelczynski’s spell, I considered becoming a philosopher. Well, not really a beard-stroking philosopher, but at least pursuing an academic career in the field. I had written my Oxford dissertation on an aspect of John Locke’s view of property, and I decided to send it to two philosophy professors I’d had at Harvard: John Rawls and Robert Nozick. This was an inspired approach, since they held opposing views on Locke’s notion of property, so one of them would likely find my analysis interesting. On my way home after finishing Oxford, I went to call upon each to see which might want to take me under his wing as a doctoral candidate. Both of them—Rawls somewhat more politely than Nozick—let me know, based on reading my Oxford dissertation, that the world of philosophy could make do quite well without my services. Thus I went back to the New Orleans States-Item, which was then in the process of being absorbed into the Times-Picayune.
I was assigned to cover City Hall, a job made easier because Mayor Moon Landrieu, who was dedicated to integrating the power structure of the city, hired Donna Brazile to be an assistant and the guardian of his door. Most of the old politicos resented having a young black woman controlling their access to the mayor. But I found her sassy attitude refreshing, and I used to pump her for gossip and information. A key to journalism is spotting people like Donna, who are always completely clued in. Star reporters like Woodward and Bernstein never reveal their sources. I subscribe to a thirty-year statute of limitations. Donna gave me some of my best stories.
Thanks to my job, I was able to rent one of the apartments in the Pontalba Buildings, which flank Jackson Square. They are owned by the city and the state, and I put myself on the waiting list to get in. One day, the city council president told me he had gotten me bumped to the top of the list. He also gave me a blue light, which baffled me at first until he explained it was a police light that I could put on my dashboard so that I could park illegally in the French Quarter. These were the days before press ethics had evolved into a refined theology, so I accepted his largesse.
My final chance to be lured away from the writing life came when I got a call from a man named Cord Meyer, who had worked in some mysterious capacity for the U.S. embassy in London and spent a lot of time getting to know the American students at Oxford. It turned out that he was with the CIA, and he arranged for me to meet a colleague of his by the swimming pool of the New Orleans airport Hilton hotel. It all seemed very cloak-and-dagger exciting until the recruiter began stressing that they did not, of course, want me to be a covert agent but rather an analyst at headquarters. If he had pushed the former prospect, I might have accepted on the spot, and this would be a much different book.
That same week I also met with an editor at Time who had been dispatched to venture forth from Manhattan and find young journalists from “out there.” New Orleans had just held a mayoral primary featuring twelve candidates, each quirky in a delightfully different way (one of them was married to the founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House and campaigned, wearing a gorilla suit, on the platform of buying a gorilla for the Audubon Park zoo). I had gone around to every ward leader and made them fill out a chart of how many votes each candidate would get in each of that ward’s precincts. With that and a bit of luck, I was able to predict correctly the exact order and vote percentages for all twelve candidates. When the Time editor arrived in town, the paper was touting my feat in its promotional ads. He offered me a job, which I accepted over the CIA one. My last act at the newspaper was to write a column predicting the runoff. This time I didn’t go around interviewing every ward leader, because I was cocky enough to think I knew enough on my own. I got it wrong. Another lesson.
I was the only reporter from “out there” who had been found by this wandering editor, and when I arrived at the Time-Life Building I was brought like a proud catch to the thirty-fourth floor to be presented to the top boss, Hedley Donovan. 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.
As it turned out, the people I got to know and work with at Time over the years actually did come from a diverse array of backgrounds, rich and poor, rural and urban. There was a tendency that afflicted many of us who made it into the national media to forget our roots and become more likely to attend a Council on Foreign Relations meeting than a Rotary Club lunch. So when I became editor of Time, we organized a three-week Greyhound bus trip across America, on old U.S. Highway 50, which forms the Main Street of scores of towns across the nation’s midsection. My fellow Time journalists on the trip included the children of a train engineer from Ohio, a rent-to-the-poor businessman from Arkansas, a Boys Club executive from the Stuyvesant Town housing project, a dockworker’s son from Mississippi, a domestic worker from Harlem, and a bus driver from Long Island. We dropped in at chicken-processing plants and bowling alleys, Kiwanis Clubs and PTA meetings, Pentecostal churches and cheap bars that cashed checks on payday. We did a similar trip a few years later using a boat to go down the Mississippi, starting in Hannibal, Missouri, and climaxing in New Orleans. As explored in works ranging from the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn to Route 66, there’s a fascinating mix of engagement and detachment that comes from being on the move, stopping as a stranger in a new place for an adventure, and then moving back onto the road or the raft, leaving all complexities behind. Journalists and writers are particularly drawn, I think, to that mix of engagement and detachment.
During my early years at Time, I was assigned to work under the national affairs editor, Otto Friedrich, a wry man with a bushy red mustache who seemed perpetually amused by himself. He taught me a wonderful insight about journalism and later biography: Obscure facts and pieces of colorful detail, even though they may seem trivial, provide the texture and verisimilitude that make for a great narrative. It was something that Plutarch noted at the beginning of his Lives: “Sometimes a matter of lesser moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations, than the most famous sieges.” Friedrich had expanded on the notion in a piece he titled “There Are 00 Trees in Russia.” The “00” referred to the way a newsmagazine writer sticks in “00” or “TK” as a placeholder for a fact and then lets a researcher fill it in.
From Friedrich, who wrote books on the side, I learned that writing biographies and histories could be a satisfying accompaniment to a day job in journalism. When covering the 1980 Reagan campaign, I was struck by the bug-eyed bevy of people who showed up on the fringes of rallies and handed out leaflets purporting to expose the insidious nature of the East Coast foreign policy establishment. The leaflets were filled with charts and arrows about the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rockefellers, the Bilderberg Group, Skull and Bones, and various banking cabals. I asked my Time colleague Evan Thomas about it, under the theory that as an East Coast preppy he could decode it. Eventually we began to talk about writing a book that would explore the reality and myths about “the establishment.”
We sketched it out in a summer cottage in Sag Harbor on Long Island. I’m a night person, and would try to stay up until 5 a.m., at which point I would hand over my notes to Evan, who got up around then. We’d go to the beach in the afternoon. We came around to the dual approaches that were at the core of our work at Time: Tell the tale through people, and make it a chronological narrative. We selected six men who were at the core of the so-called establishment (Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, Chip Bohlen, and George Kennan), and we traced chronologically their interwoven lives through prep school, college clubs, Wall Street, the foreign service, cold war statecraft, and the Vietnam War.
We took our outline up Madison Street in Sag Harbor to Amanda Urban, who had recently become a literary agent, and she sent us farther up the street to Alice Mayhew, who was an editor at Simon & Schuster. She heard us out for a few minutes, grasped the idea immediately, and said that she had always wanted to publish such a book and it should be titled The Wise Men. And so it was.
We were concerned that academics would dismiss our book as being too (or “merely”) journalistic, so we immersed ourselves in presidential archives and relied heavily on what real historians reverentially call “the documents.” That proved useful after one of our early interviews, in which McGeorge Bundy denigrated our thesis that there was anything that could be called an “establishment” group. Then Evan found, in the Lyndon Johnson archives, a memo by Bundy titled “Backing from the Establishment,” which detailed the behind-the-scenes role our characters played and urged Johnson to create an advisory group of them that would offer support for the Vietnam War.
But I also became convinced of the benefits of journalistic legwork, not just archival research, in writing contemporary history. For example, the daily letters that Lovett wrote Harriman provided a wealth of archival documentation, but by the late 1950s, when long-distance telephoning became common, they were abruptly replaced in the files by cryptic phone messages saying such things as “call me regarding Laos.” It thus helped to be able to interview the players with a reporter’s notebook in hand.
That was all the more the case when I set out to write a biography of Henry Kissinger. I learned that many of the documents in the archives had been written more for the purpose of posterior-covering than for historical accuracy. (His aide Winston Lord told me that Kissinger sometimes had aides write three versions of meeting memos: one for the archives, another for Nixon, and an accurate one for Kissinger.) So it helped to go out and ask the players what truly lay behind the official memos. As Kissinger himself once pointed out: “What is written in diplomatic documents never bears much relation to reality. I could never have written my Metternich dissertation based on documents if I had known what I know now.”
Kissinger, it turned out, was not excessively thrilled by what I wrote, and he let me know. Over a two-day period, as he read the just-published book, he dictated a flurry of letters declaring various points I made to be “outrageous.” Some were hand-delivered from his office on Park Avenue to the Time-Life Building by a mildly amused L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who was then Kissinger’s young associate and later had the slightly easier job of being America’s viceroy in Iraq. At one point Kissinger confronted his close friend Henry Grunwald, who was Editor in Chief of Time Inc., and thus my boss. Grunwald told Kissinger that he considered my book to be fair and straight down the middle. Kissinger paused and then grumbled, with that ironic sense of humor that saved him, sometimes, from pomposity, “And what right does that young man have to be fair and straight down the middle about me?”
Perhaps as a reaction, I decided to do my next book on someone who had been dead for two hundred years. I picked Benjamin Franklin, because I felt the country was becoming too ideologically and politically polarized. Franklin was the founder who helped the others find common ground and practical solutions. He realized that tolerance and compromise would be the new nation’s key civic virtues. These were ideals I felt could use a little exalting at the time. Instead of doing it by preaching, I again felt it was better to convey these ideals through narrative biographical storytelling.
One of the things that struck me about Franklin was that he was an avid and serious scientist. We sometimes think of him as a doddering old dude flying a kite in the rain, but his experiments produced the single-fluid theory of electricity, which was the most important scientific advance of the era, and the lightning rod, which was the most useful invention. Whether he was charting the Gulf Stream or recording botanical designs, he loved science and would have considered as philistines those who took no interest in it. In our age, however, many supposedly educated people feel comfortable joking about how they are clueless about science and intimidated by math. They would never admit to not knowing the difference between Hamlet and Macbeth, but they happily concede that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome or between the uncertainty principle and relativity theory. I wanted to show that science—even for a nonscientist like myself—could be fascinating and creative and imaginative. Once again, the best way to convey that message was through the narrative of a person, in this case Albert Einstein.
Those of us who write history used to have a variety of sources. There were wonderful diaries, such as the one that Secretary of War Henry Stimson kept during World War II, but those have disappeared due to laziness, time pressures, and the fear of subpoenas. We also had letters—those of Franklin and Einstein each fill more than forty volumes—but in the age of telephones and e-mails, these, too, have pretty much disappeared. There was a glorious period of the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years when we had secret tape recordings, but this delightful practice was discontinued after it brought Nixon down. Nowadays, policymakers are wary of keeping notes, writing honest memos, or sending e-mail. Everything can be subpoenaed by congressional committees. I wish there were a way we could convince Congress to pass a law giving privacy protection to e-mails and other such material except when a court orders that they are truly needed for a serious criminal case; they could then become part of the archival record open to historians after twenty-five years. But that’s unlikely. The only new resource historians will have are the great journalistic books—such as those by Bob Woodward, David Sanger, Jane Mayer, Barton Gellman, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Steve Coll, George Packer, Thomas Ricks, Michael Gordon, and many others—that pry out from the powerful players what really happened behind the scenes. If print journalism and the business models for newspapers collapse in the Internet age, these will soon disappear as well.
“All biography is autobiography,” Emerson says, and I suspect I have projected some of my own sentiments on the subjects I profile. That is particularly true of Franklin. A successful publisher, journalist, and marketer—and a consummate networker with a techie curiosity—he would have felt right at home in the information revolution and as a striver in an upwardly mobile meritocracy. I could relate to that. My daughter once pointed out the obvious, that in writing about Franklin I was writing about an idealized version of myself. Yes, I admitted, but what about Einstein? That, she noted, was me writing about my father. Indeed, my father is a kindly, Jewish, distracted, humanistic engineer with a reverence for science. Einstein was his hero, just as my father has been mine. At that point I asked my daughter what she thought I was doing when I wrote about Kissinger. That’s easy, she said. You were writing about your dark side.
One topic that has always interested me, throughout my various journalistic and writing endeavors, is the impact of technology on our lives. In 1989, I went to Eastern Europe to cover the unraveling of the Soviet Communist empire. When I got to Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, I was put in the Forum Hotel. Because it was where foreigners stayed, it was one of the few places to get satellite television. One of the maids asked if I minded my room being used in the afternoon by schoolkids, who liked to come watch MTV and the other music video channels. I said sure, and I made a point of coming back early so that I could meet the students. But when I came in, they weren’t watching MTV. They were watching CNN, which was showing the unrest at the Gdansk shipyard. I realized that the collapse of authoritarian regimes was inevitable because they would eventually be unable to control the free flow of information in a digital age.
I saw something similar ten years later in Kashgar, an oasis town in western China across the Gobi desert from the rest of the nation. In the back of a small coffee shop on an unpaved street, three kids were sitting around a computer. I asked what they were doing. They were on the Internet, they said. I asked to try something and typed in “time.com.” The screen said “Access denied.” I typed in “cnn.com.” Again, access denied. One of the kids elbowed me aside and typed in something. CNN popped up. He typed something else. Time popped up. I asked what he had done. “Oh,” he said, “we know how to go through proxy servers in Hong Kong that the censors are clueless about.” As I watch that region of western China erupt in occasional protests coordinated on Twitter and Facebook, and as I see the same happening in Iran and elsewhere, I realize that digital technology will do more to shape our politics than anything since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press to Europe helped usher in the Reformation.
I have also watched, with much joy and some trepidation, the effects of technology on journalism and writing. When I first came to the Sunday Times of London, reporters still typed their stories on paper and handed them to typesetters. There was a room on a different floor that held what was called “the new technology”—word processors that could send stories directly into type. But the typesetters’ union had blocked the implementation of the system. Because I had used computers and word processors at college, I tried out one of the idle Sunday Times machines. In protest, and as a warning shot, the typesetters’ union called a “chapel meeting,” meaning they all stopped work as the newspaper neared deadline. It was my first taste of the Luddite tendencies harbored by some in the newspaper business.
In the early 1990s, even before the advent of the World Wide Web, I was struck by the rise of online communities such as the Well. We did a Time cover story called “Welcome to Cyberspace,” and it was clear that we were seeing a fundamental transformation of media. Until then, information tended to be packaged by large companies and handed down to a mass audience. Henceforth, there would also be another model: Communities would be built online in which participants created and shared information among themselves, peer to peer. When I was put in charge of “new media” for Time Inc., our group focused on creating communities and discussion groups online, rather than merely using the Net for cheap electronic distribution of our magazines. Time and its sister publications struck partnerships with CompuServe, Prodigy, and the fledgling AOL to create a variety of online bulletin boards and discussions about our articles.
The Web changed things. We were no longer confined to the walled gardens carved out of the Internet by the commercial online services. It became easy—too easy—to put our entire magazine online. The idea of community got downgraded to a few “comments” sections at the bottom of pages. Users were no longer treated as members of our community; instead, they were surfers who glided by while glancing at our articles.
At first we thought that users might pay for such privileges, but once we helped develop the idea of banner ads, young account executives from Madison Avenue came rushing to our door with bags of money to pay for as many user eyeballs as we could muster. So we got seduced by Stewart Brand’s mantra that “information wants to be free, because it is now so easy to copy and distribute,” while ignoring the second part of his formulation, which is that “information wants to be expensive, because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.” There is a tension between the two parts of his concept, one that we must still resolve.
The new technology offers wonderful possibilities for the so-called writing life. I hope, for example, that my next book will be written with an electronic reading device, such as a Kindle or a Sony Reader, in mind; I want to integrate my words with music and pictures and voices. I think journalism can thrive in the digital realm as well. It will be deeply enriched by citizen journalists and bloggers, while traditional journalists will benefit from magical new ways to distribute what they produce. Even old-fashioned print may benefit. Paper, after all, is a very good technology for the storage, retrieval, distribution, and human browsing of information. Imagine if we’d been getting all of our information on electronic screens for four hundred years, and then some modern-day Gutenberg came along and took the words and pictures and put them onto nicely designed pages that we could read in the bathtub or bus or backyard. We’d be impressed. We might even declare that paper was such a good technology it would replace the Internet someday. At the very least, paper will, I think, find an enduring niche as a pleasing and convenient complement to electronic forms of information distribution.
However this future evolves, we will have to answer a pressing question: How will writers (or anyone else who creates content that can be digitized, from movies to music to apps to journalism) make a living in an era in which digital content can be freely replicated? That is now my greatest worry as I contemplate the so-called writing life that I hope to continue—and that I hope my daughter and all future generations will continue.
For three hundred years, ever since the Statute of Anne was established in Britain, there has been a system under which people who created things, such as books or articles or music or pictures, had a right to benefit from copies that were made of them. Because of this “copyright” system, we have encouraged and rewarded three centuries of creativity in various fields of endeavor, and this has produced a flourishing economy based on the creation by talented individuals of intellectual property. Among other things, this allowed all sorts of people, ranging from Walker Percy on down to me, to make a living at the so-called writing life. May the next generation enjoy that delightful opportunity as well.
© 2009 Walter Isaacson
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