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Isaacson to speak at Institute as part of Ben Franklin book tour

Eben Harrell
Special to The Aspen Times

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, will give his first public lecture in Aspen this Saturday.

Isaacson, who is in the midst of a book tour for his new biography “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” will use his speech to discuss his book and draw connections between Franklin’s life work and the civil-minded ethos of the Aspen Institute.

Isaacson calls Franklin “the best diplomat we’ve ever had,” capable even during the delicate period of the American Revolution of balancing a high-minded idealism with a hardheaded realism. Similarly, the Institute’s executive seminar program aims, through the study of history’s great philosophers, to temper executive’s pursuit of business interests with enlightened values and ideals.



Isaacson also points out that Franklin himself set up a “great book” seminar for local tradesmen and business owners. Like the Institute seminars, Franklin’s discussion group, dubbed the “Junto,” functioned by the Socratic method, favoring dialogue and discussion above dispute.

Although he concedes that Franklin is a “middleweight, homespun” philosopher, Isaacson points out that he was deeply committed to just and legitimate leadership – a commitment at the heart of the Aspen Institute’s work.




Isaacson, who left his position as chairman and CEO of CNN in April to assume leadership of the Institute, spent 10 years working on the biography. It proved to be a formative experience in his life.

“This is what Ben Franklin did in his life,” Isaacson told CNN’s talk-show host Wolf Blitzer in a January 13 interview. “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 involved in policy and government and ideas, and decided to have a second phase.”

He calls the timing of the Institute’s job offer “serendipitous,” intersecting as it did with the completion of his book.

When asked if he thought it was appropriate to use the Institute as a stop in his book tour, Isaacson answered “It’s important for me to give a talk on my book in Aspen.” It’s the only public lecture Isaacson is scheduled to give at the Institute this summer.

Isaacson, who will now split his time between Aspen and Washington, D.C., feels fortunate to begin the “second phase” of his life in Aspen.

He calls the town a “magical place committed to the synthesis of mind, body and spirit, a perfect setting for the work of the Institute.”

The Institute, founded by Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke 53 years ago, is an international nonprofit organization “dedicated to informed dialogue and inquiry regarding issues of global concern.”

Since its inception, the Institute has grown and changed, but its central mission has remained to engage corporate and world leaders in humanistic discussions. It still runs its “executive seminar” program, which gathers leaders in various fields to discuss the ideals behind the great books of Western political thought.

Isaacson will speak at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Paepcke Auditorium at the Aspen Institute. The lecture is being cosponsored by the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and is free and open to the public. For information, call 544-7929.


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