The Cherwell Profile: Walter Isaacson

The former US Sec­retary of State, Henry Kissinger once recalled the days when he had been a professor at Harvard. “I tended to think of history as run by im­personal forces,” he said of his views from the ivory tower. “But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” 
Four decades later, academ­ics still focus on the “imper­sonal forces” of history, to the exclusion of the study of the individual, as any undergradu­ate lecture will show. Walter Isaacson, a Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College in the 70s – and biographer of Steve Jobs, Kissinger, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin – dissents from the popular academic view, finding that “great people” are equally powerful catalysts as the “grand forces of history”.

Seeking to find the forces be­hind Isaacson the biographer, I turn to his time at Oxford. Isaacson went up in Michael­mas 1975, and within a year was getting his hands dirty in the personality-driven politics of the Oxford Union. He fell in on the side of Benazir Bhutto, an acquaintance from their un­dergraduate days at Harvard. Bhutto was elected President in the Hilary Term of 1977.

Amusingly, history does re­peat itself, or at least rhyme: then, as now, Union elections were plagued by allegations of backroom campaigning, with candidates flouting a prohibi­tion on canvassing. Later on, after Bhutto’s asssassination, Michael Crick, himself a Union president in Michaelmas 1979, summarised the sentiment dogging Bhutto’s campaign, “Some people thought she was using her name and money to buy the presidency.” Isaacson remembered the campaign differently, highlighting his be­lief at the time that her elec­tion would bolster her father’s political position in Pakistan. Regardless, Isaacson’s idée fixe with powerful figures, both as an observer and accessory, was formed early on at Oxford.

Though he did not realise it at the time, Isaacson’s first brush with a history-shaping Oxford personality occurred before he arrived, at his Rhodes Scholar­ship interview in New Orleans in the fall of 1974. On the inter­viewing panel sat 1968 Rhodes Scholar and Univ alumnus Bill Clinton, though Isaacson re­calls being more intimidated by the southern writer Willie Mor­ris, and taking little notice of Clinton. He does recall Clinton’s ruminative question: “if three people are in a boat lost at sea, and the boat can only handle two, is it permissible to force everyone to draw straws and throw one person off the boat?” Isaacson replied no, because even though the suggestion was a utilitarian approach he believed in the necessity of “an individual liberty approach.” (At a minimum this exercise pro­vided an ounce of preparation for the ethical millstones that come with writing a Kissinger biography.)

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Once at Pem­broke, Isaacson took to the Hegel scholar and politi­cal philosophy tutor Zbigniew Pelczyn­ski. For one tutorial, Isaacson recalled, “Pel­czynski asked me to write a piece on democracy in Russia, and when he read my essay he said it wasn’t very good. He showed me one from somebody he had taught a couple years earlier, and he said, ‘Do you know Bill Clinton?’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve never heard of Bill Clinton.’” Pelczynski as­sumed that the two Americans with heavy southern accents must have run into each other before. (Clinton’s has unfortu­nately faded after two decades in D.C. and New York, but must have stood out dissonantly from the rest of Oxford in the late 60s.)

“Years later [in 1992] Pelczyn­ski called me, and said that with Clinton running for President people wanted to interview him, and he said, “Should I give them that paper?” referring to Clinton’s… And I thought, “Oh my God, that means Bill Clinton won’t be President”—because that would have been used by his opponents to show how na­ïve he was about Russia.” Clin­ton had al­ready been criti­cised for travelling to Russia as a student. Isaacson advised Pelczynski to consult then- Governor Clinton first, and he requested that the paper not be released. Isaacson related his journalistic dilemma in this instance: his belief in releasing information, and his desire to get a scoop for Time magazine, both of which were tempered by ethical qualms.

Shuffling back to Isaacson’s contemporary work, I men­tioned that his biography of Ste­ve Jobs had been noted for jux­taposing reverential praise for Jobs’s genius with anecdotes of his acrimonious personality. I asked him whether this was an incognito form of hagiography. “There may be truth to the un­derlying premise that a flawed hero is more appealing than a perfect one,” Isaacson an­swered. “Novelists through the ages, starting with Henry Field­ing and Cervantes, operate on that premise. But that was not my conscious intent. My aim was simply to be honest. I por­tray Jobs as petulant and of­ten rough on people, because he was. As he often reminded me, he was a brutally honest person. If something sucks, he said, then he would say it sucks. He urged me, in turn, to write an honest book about him. Such a book would not make him more popular, he thought; it was that an honest book would avoid the trap of being dismissed as an in-house book that nobody would believe. It was hard to write an honest book with all of his flaws, because I liked him.”

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Emerson wrote that “All biog­raphy is autobiography.” Isaac­son has adapted this to state that he sees his family, as well as himself, in all of his biographi­cal subjects. Isaacson sees his reflection in the ever-curious Ben Franklin; his father, a hu­manist Jewish scientist, is Ein­stein; and his daughter Betsy is the creative but “bratty” Jobs. In Kissinger, Isaacson sees his “dark side”. Yet when I ask him who he would like to write his bi­ography, he tersely replies, “No one,” though after a moment he admits that if a biography were to be written he would prefer a series of anecdotal vignettes— “half remembered sketches”— instead of a traditional biogra­phy.

As our interview concludes, Isaacson hastens to note his membership of Vincent’s, the locus of Oxford Blues and big names—despite not being a varsity athlete himself. Proving that, at least as a student in the Oxford bubble, the world really does revolve around personalities.