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Biographies to uplift and inspire


Few biographies in modern times have attracted the kind of rave reviews that Walter Isaacson's portrait of Steve Jobs received. For sheer integrity and intellectual honestly, there hasn't been anything like this in a long time. Isaacson, a former chairman and CEO of CNN and Managing Editor of Time magazine, was on familiar territory in writing the book on Jobs. His previous work includes biographies of Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin. Currently President and CEO of the non-partisan think-tank Aspen Institute, Isaacson is visiting India next week to promote the Aspen India initiative, during which he will also deliver a talk on his work on Steve Jobs amid unprecedented Applemania across the world. He spoke to Foreign Editor Chidanand Rajghatta in Washington on Friday.

Do you write biographies to uplift or unveil?

I try to uplift people through my biographies. I want readers to be inspired by Steve Jobs' passion for perfection and making beautiful products, I want readers to be awed by the beauty of Einstein' curiosity and how he could challenge conventional wisdom. I want them to admire Benjamin Franklin' ability to bring people together to find practical solutions and by Henry Kissinger' ability to construct a triangular balance of power with the US, China, and Russia that preserved America' influence after Vietnam. However, that means portraying some of my subjects'flaws and putting them into the context of their personality and success. Steve Jobs told me he was successful because he was "brutally honest" to people, and I should be the same in his book. Well, that meant showing that Jobs's brutal honesty could make him unkind and a jerk at times, and also showing how it was part and parcel of his genius. All of my subjects, likewise, were human with some flaws as well as strengths, and I try to unveil those in a sympathetic way. Einstein loved humanity but could be detached and cold to real humans close to him. Franklin believed in compromise and tolerance, but he made a bad mistake by compromising and being tolerant of slavery at one point in his life. Which of your four biographies has given you the most satisfaction and why? My most satisfying biography was that of Benjamin Franklin, partly because I found his message so important. He believed in humility and tolerance. He ran away from the rigid theocratic town of Boston at age 17 and lands in Philadelphia, where there are Quakers and Jews and slaves and free blacks and Anglicans and Moravians and Presbyterians all trying to get along in a small town. And he promotes religious and ethnic tolerance. During his lifetime, he donated to the building fund of each and every church in Philadelphia. And at one point they were raising money for a new hall in Philadelphia to accommodate visiting preachers, and he wrote a fundraising document that said that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send someone to preach Islam and teach us about Mohammed, we should offer a pulpit and listen because we might learn something. And on his deathbed, he was the largest individual contributor to the first Jewish synagogue built in Philadelphia. So when he died, instead of his minister accompanying his casket to the grave, all 35 ministers, preachers, and priests of Philadelphia linked arms with the Rabbi of the Jews to march with him to the grave. That's the type of multicultural society the US was trying to form then, and it is one of the great strengths of India that it is trying to do so these days. India is a place where I have seen an election in which a woman who was born a Roman Catholic ran against a Hindu man and when she won stepped aside for a Sikh who was sworn in by a Muslim. Ben Franklin would have loved that and would have truly loved all about India.

As a former member of the Harvard Lampoon, where do you fall in the ongoing debate on free
speech v blasphemy vis-?-vis films, cartoons and other depictions of the Prophet Mohammed?

I believe in free speech, and I think it is counterproductive to tell other people what to write or say or to try to censor publications. For my own self and my own personal values, I think it is wrong to be offensive to someone else's religion, and it is truly bad to produce things that intentionally stir up hate or prejudice. I do not know why people would want to intentionally offend or incite others.

The print media is thriving in India, a trend exemplified by The Times of India. At the other of the world, and spectrum, there's the New Orleans Times-Picayune, your early-career paper which has sized down to thrice-a-week. Where do you think we are headed - in the US and in India?

I think that journalism is finding many useful outlets: print, the web, mobile devices, and social networks. In the US, we have better journalism now than every before. Our problem is that we do not have a workable new business model to pay for journalism now that it is migrating onto electronic platforms and readers do not usually feel they should pay for online news and information. It will take a few years to come up with a new business model, and in the meantime things are going to be messy for journalists who want to make a living in the US, unfortunately.

Will physical form of newspapers, journals, and books cease to exist in the face of e-publication ?

I think print will remain a useful technology. It is a wonderful technology for storing, distributing, retrieving, interacting with, and interfacing with information. Print will probably account in the future for 25 per cent of how we consume books, newspapers, and magazines - and 75 per cent of the time we will be consuming them electronically.

Walk us through the Aspen India partnership. What is your sense of the current intellectual leadership and problem solving skills in India?

The Aspen Institute has international partners in Prague, Czech Republic;Paris, France;Berlin, Germany;Rome, Italy;Bucharest, Romania;Madrid, Spain;New Delhi, India;and Tokyo, Japan. These centers conduct independently developed and supported programs, conferences, and seminars on region-specific issues, global challenges, and leadership development. Each partner works closely with the Aspen Institute in the United States to develop unique programming but also to stay true to a mission of valuesbased leadership and enlightened dialogue. They are all locally-directed and have their own sense of mission that relates to their own country.

What is Aspen's level of involvement with elected representatives in India?

One thing that Aspen US and Aspen India do together is a dialogue of top leaders from our two countries. In 2002, both in India and the US, a need was felt for a strong Track II dialogue between the two countries to take the fledgling bilateral relationship to a new level. CII and the Aspen Strategy Group of the Aspen Institute, USA were identified as the appropriate organisations to take this initiative forward, which was intended to bring the world's oldest and largest democracies closer. The bi-annual dialogue has strengthened over the years, with the discussions and agenda changing with the evolution of the formal bilateral relationship, the evolving geopolitical realities, and new strategic concerns. The India-US Strategic Dialogue is considered to be the most successful Track II dialogue between the two countries which has sustained over time. The success of the dialogue has resulted in bilateral Track II conversations with Israel, Singapore and China and a Trilateral Dialogue between India-USA-Japan. The dialogues are led by Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Professor Joe Nye from the US side, and the India side has had leaders of comparable stature and wisdom.

Do you buy the thesis that the 21st century will be a Asia-Pacific century? Will this include the United States? Is the US decline, and the rise of China and India, inevitable? Will there be a triangulation of power? Is the projection of India's power, and its quest for great power status, overstated or overestimated ?

I think that India, China and the US along with Europe will all be power players in the next 50 years. One competitive advantage that India has over China is that it is comfortable with the free flow of information, ideas, and opinions that will be crucial to thriving in an information-age networked economy.

What are the mistakes that the United States has made in the 20th century that India needs to avoid?

The biggest mistake that the US has been making is to allow its education system to slip from being the best in the world. It has also allowed the educational divide between privileged and less-privileged students to get wider. This means it will not have as productive of an economy in the future. India should be at the forefront of creating great educational opportunities for all its people.

Reader's opinion (1)

Satyadev RajuOct 10th, 2012 at 14:08 PM

Awesome article about Isaacson....a nice insight into a man who has penned one of the toughest biographies in recent times.

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