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.)
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.”
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.