Author, Editor, CEO: Walter Isaacson

Harvard and Oxford graduate and Rhodes Scholar Walter Isaacson began his career at the Sunday Times of London and then the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He joined Time in 1978 and served as a political correspondent, national editor, and finally editor of new media before becoming the magazine's 14th Managing Editor in 1996. He became Chairman and CEO of CNN in 2001, and president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003. He is author of “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” and “Kissinger: A Biography” and is co-author of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.”

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority by Governor Kathleen Blanco. In December 2007, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to be chairman of the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership. He is Leader of the U.S. Delegation of the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange-Dioxin, Chairman of the Board of Teach for America, and is on the boards of United Airlines, Tulane University, and Science Service. He is also on the advisory councils of the National Institutes of Health, the National Constitution Center, and the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

As a correspondent for Time magazine, Isaacson covered then-governor Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for the presidency and “spent a lot of time in Santa Barbara” doing so. When contacted by telephone for this interview, Isaacson says another local connection was his “boss and colleague, Jamie Kellner,” former CEO at Turner Broadcasting, who has a home in Montecito. The Aspen Institute also supports a fellowship program in Santa Barbara, run by Keith Berwick.

Mr. Isaacson is the featured speaker at this year’s Westmont President’s Breakfast, to be held Friday, February 6, at 7 am in the Grand Ballroom of Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort. Tickets are $75 per person and can be purchased by calling (805) 565-6895. Seating is limited, and tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

Last year’s speaker, Fareed Zakaria, host of “Fareed Zakaria GPS” on CNN, calls Isaacson, “America’s greatest renaissance man, dazzlingly accomplished at running large organizations, tackling foreign policy, and writing bestselling works of history.”

Q. Your talk is titled, “Perspectives on Our Greatest Challenges from Einstein, Franklin and Kissinger”; that puts Kissinger in some heady company. Does he deserve that?

A. I think I’m going to focus on Franklin and Einstein (laughs).

This is completely off your topic, but since you’ve been at the top of the media heap, let me throw it out: According to author-journalist Kenneth Whyte, who wrote “The Uncrowned King, The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst,” daily newspapers were the media in 1895, and in New York City alone there were as many as 48 dailies fighting for the public’s attention. Although big city daily newspaper circulation is falling, thousands of websites now compete for our attention. In some ways, isn’t what we have today on the web similar to what existed on city streets more than one hundred years ago?

In previous generations, including during the founding of our country, you would find dozens of newspapers of every partisan stripe. The good news about the web is that it gives us that diversity of voices once again.

You have suggested the web hasn't changed much about our content, however, that we've “just been putting old wine in new bottles.”

I don’t want to go that far. I believe that the Huffington Post, YouTube, and Social Networking are all major advances in media.

If that’s the case, where do things like Time and CNN fit in?

I’m going to give a talk while I’m in California on the need to start creating content that people will pay for on the web, because I think that traditional companies like Time and the LA Times will have trouble finding a business model if they just give away all of their content for free on the web.

I think you have to go to a micro-payment system the way the brilliant Steve Jobs did for Apple, as well as a subscription model. You need all sorts of choices and options for the consumer. If Steve Jobs has been able to convince music lovers – of all people – to pay small amounts for songs, then surely we can find a Steve Jobs-type solution for other forms of media.

The hurdle may be the ease of payment, correct?

You’re exactly right. You need two things: low price and one-click easiness, so that it’s not either a financial or psychological hurdle to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy that copy of the paper.’

Do daily newspapers have a future in print form?

I think that paper is a wonderful technology. If we had been getting our information technologically for centuries and some inventor came along and said, ‘I can put it on paper and deliver it to your doorstep and you can take it to the backyard or the bathtub or the bus,’ we would all celebrate that paper was a wonderful technology and that it might even replace the internet. I think paper is good in some situations and electronic delivery is good in other situations, but if we learn to charge people for information whether it’s in print or online, that can help save the print publications.

Won’t a “carbon tax” negatively affect paper publications?

I think we’ll have to save a little money on paper and do a little more recycling, but it will not be more onerous than if you’re growing corn or shipping parts for machinery to different places. We’re all going to have to use recycled paper better.

The net has made it much easier to research material, but as a biographer, does that come with some negatives?

What has made it difficult is that people no longer write letters, and e-mails are generally not saved, so we biographers are not going to have as good a written archive of a person’s life.

To the subject of your upcoming talk at the Westmont President’s Breakfast: In a recent speech you gave at the Aspen Institute, you said that Einstein worried more about fanatical atheists than he did religious fanatics. In the light of our current situation with Islamic terrorism, do you agree with Einstein?

I believe that the lesson from Benjamin Franklin as well as Albert Einstein is that fanatics can be dangerous whatever their beliefs and that we have to create a world that is more tolerant. Einstein felt that radical atheists were more intolerant than the religious people he knew and felt that certain questions such as those involving religion were far too vast for people to be absolutely sure of themselves, so they should show a little more humility and tolerance.

Following that line, does belief in God have a future?

Absolutely. The belief in God has been part of human existence forever and I see no reason why that should change. Albert Einstein believed that neither science nor technology should make you less religious. He believed, and I agree with him, that the more you appreciate the wonders of this universe, the more awed and humbled and religious you would be.

Upon release of your book on Albert Einstein in 2007, you were a guest on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” How does one prepare for such an appearance?

The biggest mistake you can make is to try to prepare for The Colbert Report. I walked in and decided to go with the flow. It was kind of easy, because I compared him [host, Stephen Colbert] to Albert Einstein and he liked that comparison.

Will there be another World War, and if so, what will it look like?

I’ll quote Einstein first: Einstein said, “I don’t know how World War Three will be fought, but I do know how World War Four will be fought: with sticks and rocks.” That’s why he was in favor of nuclear arms control. I think the wars of the future will not be global nuclear exchanges, but long struggles against terrorism and other forms of extremism.

So, twenty, thirty, forty years out, we’re still doing this?

I fear that forty years from now we will still be engaged in a struggle against radical terrorist extremists.

What do you make of President Obama retaining the use of his Blackberry?

I’m thrilled that Obama is keeping his Blackberry. It shows a strength of will in staring down the bureaucracy that tried to take it away. It also shows he’s willing to communicate outside the bubble of the White House.

You have said that your next book will be “one of the first books for the electronic age,” and that it will be published online in some format, and “will be available for anyone to edit, enhance, or destroy as they wish. They can share with friends and republish it as they wish. It will be fully collaborative and interactive. This new type of book will be always evolving and improving.”

Were you kidding?

I’m working on a couple of books now and whatever book I do I’d like to put on the web so people can annotate it, add music, and other forms of media. I think it’s exciting what Amazon is doing with the Kindle; they open new things you can do with books.