Magazine article Humanities

Picture of A HUMANIST

Magazine article Humanities

Picture of A HUMANIST

Article excerpt

IF THE GREAT VALUES OF THE LIBERAL <4 arts are curiosity and tolerance, then Walter * 1 Isaacson is a great humanist. He shares this m. gift as a wonderful storyteller.

One of his favorite stories is about his daughter, Betsy, with whom he has a teasing, close, and sweetly affectionate relationship. A few years ago, when Betsy was a precocious teenager, already aware that all biography is, as Emerson said, autobiography, she had some fun with her father. She ticked through his books. Ben Franklin, she said, is "an idealized version" of Walter himself. And Einstein, she said, was Walter's father, Irwin. Walter had to agree that his father was, like Einstein, "a kindly, Jewish, distracted humanist engineer with a reverence for science." Kissinger? "You were writing about your dark side," said Betsy. And as for Steve Jobs ... "I worry," Betsy said, "that you were writing about me, a bratty kid who likes art and technology." "Hmmm," replied Walter. "Maybe so."

I can see Walter's smile widening as he tells that story, his eyes lighting up with all that is delightful about the quirks of the human condition and the abiding wonder of family love.

I met Walter when he came to work at Time magazine, where I was also a junior writer, in the winter of 1978.1 knew immediately that I, along with my colleagues, would all be working for him before too long. He was magnetic, multitalented, and he already seemed to know everyone who mattered. Even then, Walter attracted crowds of all kinds-friends, mentors, protégés, intellectuals, celebrities. Our mutual friend Steve Weisman recalls visiting Walter in the Hamptons and attending eight brunches, lunches, dinners, and cocktail parties in one weekend. I once accompanied Walter on a men's cruise to Nantucket, where he disappeared into a teenybopper bar and emerged with NBC anchorman John Chancellor. These days, every summer at the Aspen Institute, Walter brings together an astonishing lineup of doers and thinkers-industrialists, artists, tycoons, techies, ex-presidents, statesmen, actors, gurus, scholars, and social and scientific activists of one kind or another. Aspen "is his own university," says his friend Kurt Andersen, the novelist and public radio host.

Walter celebrates his friends. He had been a year behind me in college, and I would later hear him tell people, in his generous way, that we had been friends there. I wish we had been, but I'm not sure we ever met then. "He was the mayor of literary Harvard," recalls Andersen, who was two years behind Walter on the Lampoon. "You could see where he was headed."

At Time back in 1978,1 knew I wanted to be his friend right away. He was warm and funny and endlessly curious and interesting. You wanted to talk to him all night, and, during Time's endless closing nights, I sometimes did.

During one of those conversations, he told me that, while home for the holidays during his last year as a Rhodes Scholar, he had been summoned to an airport motel and approached by a high official of the Central Intelligence Agency, who tried to recruit him. The agency, to its credit, was looking for the next generation's best and brightest. It is interesting to speculate about Walter's life and career if he had become a spy. More than anyone I have ever met, he can get anyone to tell him anything. But Walter was too openhearted for a life in secrets, and he had already been won by journalism.

After Oxford, he went home to work for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, covering local politics. Within a year or two he knew more about the underside of Louisiana politics than the character Jack Burden in All the King's Men. Inevitably, his talent was discovered, and he began his fast climb at Time.

Walter did not disguise his ambition in those days, though never at the expense of someone else. "He wanted to succeed," recalls Andersen, "but he wanted his friends to succeed, too." In 1988, when he was well on his way to the top at Time, he invited his fellow Time Inc-ers, in town for the Republican National Convention, to visit his childhood home in New Orleans. …

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