Isaacson to bring ‘some energy’ to Aspen Institute?
January 16, 2003
It’s probably fair to say that Walter Isaacson will be the first president of The Aspen Institute who has hung out at Hunter S. Thompson’s house.
“I have occasionally made the pilgrimage to Woody Creek,” Isaacson said Wednesday.
Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time magazine, got to know Thompson up close and personal when the famous writer worked up a few columns for Time in 1997.
“Walter is a good one,” Thompson said. “He is one of the brightest people I have run across in my life. It is the industry’s loss. He might give the Institute some energy.”
Could the good will between the two men mean that the father of Gonzo journalism will have a future role to play at The Aspen Institute?
“He is going to be dean of studies at some point,” Isaacson said, with a touch of levity in his voice. “Dr. Thompson is my mentor.”
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Isaacson, 50, is currently chairman and chief executive of the CNN News Group and oversees CNN and CNN Headline News.
On Monday, he announced he will be leaving CNN and joining the Institute as president, taking over where former Institute President Elmer Johnson left off in August 2002.
Isaacson will be based in Washington, D.C., where the majority of the Institute’s staff is located and where the Institute’s policy programs are generally focused. The Institute’s expansive Wye River Plantation conference center is also close to the capital.
The Aspen Institute is dedicated to engaging corporate leaders in humanistic discussions, and Isaacson is also hoping to use the Institute as a place to bring world leaders together to resolve conflicts.
“I’d like to get involved with wrestling with international affairs and use [the Institute] as a convening authority to see if we can find common ground, to use it as something of a conflict resolution group,” he said.
Ironically though, Isaacson doesn’t plan to start his new job until after the looming war between Iraq and the U.S. is finished.
“I’ll probably start in April,” Isaacson said. “I told them [CNN] I will stay through the war.”
And after that, he plans to spend “as much damn time as I can” in Aspen, adding that probably means June through Labor Day and over the Christmas holidays.
Isaacson is no stranger to Aspen, having been here for previous Institute functions, to attend the high-level Forstmann, Little conferences in September, and to participate in industry discussions at the HBO Comedy Festival.
“When anybody invites me to Aspen, I go,” Isaacson said.
And when he starts his new job, he said he’s interested in keeping the community of Aspen involved with the Institute, something that hasn’t always been a high priority with past presidents.
“I love the town of Aspen,” Isaacson said. “And I think we should make sure there is a real involvement in all parts of the Aspen community, but that doesn’t mean every seminar will be open to the public.”
Despite his affinity for Aspen, coming to work for the Institute wasn’t necessarily on his radar screen.
“It happened I was up in New York in December for the annual dinner of The Aspen Institute,” Isaacson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during an interview this week. “So, we went to this big black-tie dinner, and while I was there, while I was leaving, some people came up to me and started asking me about doing this, and I said the timing is not exactly right but it’s something I really want to do with my life.”
Isaacson’s announcement to leave CNN for the Institute made global headlines and probably generated more media coverage of the organization than anything since George Bush and Margaret Thatcher spoke at the Institute on the eve of the last war with Iraq.
And, Isaacson said, he was ready for a change from journalism, a career he started at The Sunday Times of London. He also worked as a reporter and city hall columnist for the New Orleans States-Item/Times-Picayune and then joined Time in 1978 as a national affairs writer in New York. He subsequently became the magazine’s nation editor and an assistant managing editor.
In 1993, he was named the editor of new media for Time Inc., and in 1995, he was named managing editor of the magazine.
He is currently finishing a biography of Benjamin Franklin, which will be his third book.
“This is what Ben Franklin did in his life,” said Isaacson during his interview with Blitzer. “He was a journalist. He was a reporter. He had his own newspaper and other things. And then, at a certain time in his life, about the age I am now, he decided to move and he formed the American Philosophical Society … He got very involved in policy and government and ideas, and decided to have a second phase.”
Isaacson said yesterday that his media colleagues have taken his announcement in stride.
“Everybody has an awesome respect for the Institute,” he said. “And most of them have spent the last few days trying to cadge invitations. And I’ve given out some, but only to the most thoughtful of them.”
[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]