AMERICAN SKETCHES: GREAT LEADERS, CREATIVE THINKERS, AND HEROES OF A HURRICANE
By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, $25.99, 285 pages
Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.
“I have always been one of those who feel that history is shaped as much by people as by impersonal forces,” writes Walter Isaacson, somewhat startlingly, as if he were unique in making this commonplace observation (and who, besides, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler and the loon with the sandwich board, would say otherwise?).
“In particular,” he continues, ominously, “I have been interested in creative people.” It’s at this point at the cocktail party at the Colorado campus of the Aspen Institute, a high octane think tank of which Mr. Isaacson is president and chief executive officer and where “creative people” from the Charlie Rose A-list go to practice on the beginners’ slopes for the big one at Davos, recycle the old conventional liberal wisdom dressed up in the newest techie/globalist/futurist jargon (see Thomas Friedman), and think “creatively” - it’s at this point that you begin to edge away. Whenever I hear the phrase “creative people,” you might mutter, I reach for my Uzi.
But that won’t do. We’re guests here. Nor is Mr. Isaacson entirely to blame for falling into this kindly old philosopher role. He was, in fact, once a fine investigative reporter, most notably at Henry Luce’s Time magazine, where Whittaker Chambers also did some of his best work (Chambers gets mentioned here in a parenthetical note), and where Mr. Isaacson became the magazine’s 14th editor. From there it was chairman and CEO of CNN, then on to the Aspen Institute as creative thinker-in-chief. Who wouldn’t jump at the job?
The hard fact, however, is that fine journalists and good writers aren’t necessarily cut out to be intellectual mandarins. And as these previously published articles, reviews, character sketches and essays demonstrate, Mr. Isaacson is a run-of-the-mill intellectual pooh-bah but at his best as a journalist and writer.
From the Vietnam days, there’s this sketch of John F. Kennedy/Lyndon B. Johnson adviser Mc-George Bundy, who (although Mr. Isaacson wouldn’t put it this way), helped get us into the war that Richard Nixon successfully got us out of: “His laserlike intellect radiated from behind his clear-rimmed glasses with an intensity as hot as his smile was cold. Had he been half as smart, he might have been a great man. Instead, McGeorge Bundy came to personify the hubris of an intellectual elite that marched America with a cool and confident brilliance into the quagmire of Vietnam.”
Or this on Henry A. Kissinger, characterized by “dark humor, aversion to sentimentality, keen understanding of the role that realism must play in a messy world, and a somewhat less keen appreciation for the role that morality plays in sustaining the policy of a democracy.”
Good on the best and brightest, and good on Mr. Kissinger - up to a point. But like all old-school liberals, he just can’t bring himself to believe Mr. Kissinger thought of Nixon as a great president. Nor in his sketches of Ronald W. Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, can he admit that Reagan actually out-thought and outmaneuvered Mr. Gorbachev at every turn, steadily moving him down the path leading to the collapse of the communist empire.
Other sketches: George Plimpton, who comes away oddly diminished; Woody Allen, whose long, apparently heartfelt interview leaves him sounding self-indulgent and minimally intelligent. Mr. Isaacson is also known for his biographies, portions of which appear here: Mr. Kissinger, unauthorized and scorned by its subject (he later forgave Mr. Isaacson); Albert Einstein, generally well received; and Benjamin Franklin, published shortly after two other Franklin biographies appeared, one of them the fine study by James Srodes.
There are also the pieces with journalist turned thinker/futurist. In one, titled “A Bold, Old Idea for Saving Journalism,” a lecture parlayed into a Time cover story and now a book chapter (“You should always get at least three uses out of any piece you write,” William F. Buckley Jr. once said), he advances a number of suggestions for ways of saving journalism like charging for online content. But there’s little new here, with all the relevant solutions already thoroughly analyzed by armies of bloggers and implemented by such newsmen as Rupert Murdoch.
Think-tank stuff aside, Mr. Isaacson is best when his emotions are fully engaged, as when he writes of his beloved hometown, New Orleans, post Katrina: “All of us from New Orleans have savored that … madeleine moment when a stray taste, sound, smell, or sight brings remembrances of things past. It happens whenever I hear the badly rhymed but beautifully mournful - now even more so - first few bars of ‘Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?’ ”
Just so. And in the end, the writer trumps the thinker or political theorist, hands down.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).