Q&A with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute

Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson
Courtesy photo |

The annual Aspen Ideas Festival, launched by the Aspen Institute in 2005, is back in town this week with the usual smorgasbord of national and global influential figures.

This week also marks the last Ideas Festival under the leadership of Walter Isaacson, who is leaving his position as the Institute’s president and CEO later this year. In January, the author and historian will join the faculty at Tulane University in his hometown of New Orleans. He also has a biography on Leonardo da Vinci due out in October, while the current National Geographic series “Genius” is based on his book “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

Isaacson, 65, who joined the Washington, D.C.-based think tank in 2003, was the primary architect of the Ideas Festival, which has expanded to include a Spotlight Health series as well as the Security Forum, which returns to Aspen in July.

The former editor of Time magazine, as well as the president of CNN, Isaacson’s interview subjects in Aspen — not all during the Ideas Festivals — have included presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, then-Sen. Barack Obama, Karl Rove, John McCain, Bill Gates, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even part-time Aspen resident Lance Armstrong.

Last week, Isaacson sat down with The Aspen Times to discuss a litany of topics, including his most interesting interviews, why he doesn’t own a television, his fascination with historical figures and racial relations in the Crescent City.

The following are excerpts from that interview:

Aspen Times: What do you consider the biggest or most significant news story that has emerged from previous Ideas Festivals?

Walter Isaacson: When Loretta Lynch came here directly from having an unexpected meeting with Bill Clinton in an airport and then had to recuse herself (in 2016). That was pretty big news that she had to discuss here. Last year, (Joe) Biden and John Kerry were here, while in the middle of the Syria and the Iran deal situation, so they made news. The biggest idea that came out was when Gen. Stanley McChrystal (in 2012) proposed the idea that every young American spend a year or two in national service, and then we created out of that the Franklin Project, which has now grown very large and is promoting the idea of a service here, so that’s how ideas sometimes get turned into action.

AT: Was there any white whale, in terms of speakers you wanted at Ideas Fest, who you just couldn’t land?

Isaacson: We’ve had Obama … and McCain and Mitt Romney and all the candidates. This year we’ve gotten some Cabinet secretaries from the Trump administration, but not many.

AT: Is it more difficult with the Trump administration?

Isaacson: It’s always difficult, I think, in the first year of an administration, and it’s a little bit difficult because they’ve got a lot on their plate these days.

AT: Who stands out as the most memorable interview you’ve had here?

Isaacson: I think Barack Obama, right before he became president, was mesmerizing in terms of capturing people’s attention. I truly loved the intellectuality of John McCain and Mitt Romney. I found Bill Gates to be more engaging about his life goals than I had ever heard him before. And I’ve always liked the scientists who come: Brian Greene and Eric Lander. Also, the most fun interview for me was doing John Batiste and Wynton Marsalis together about how race in American music have woven together for two centuries. Richard Branson was also a fun interview, because he’s such an amusing person.

AT: How’s that?

Isaacson: He has an exuberance and he’s willing to tell jokes on stage, and he wants to go to outer space.

AT: What about your interview with Lance Armstrong in 2011? (Armstrong told Isaacson that with “hundreds and hundreds of tests, around the world, in and out of competition, urine, blood, hair, all of the things they used to test. … I’m going to let that stand and speak for itself.”) Did you believe him at the time?

Isaacson: I’m not as much an expert on that story, and he was cagey in the interview. I don’t think he ever outright denied using performance enhancers.

AT: How much has news delivery changed as a result of technology since you joined the Institute?

Isaacson: I think there have been two major changes for the bad. One is that there’s been a fracturing of journalism so that people can now get their news from different ideological angles. They can go to their corner of the blogosphere, or their preferred Twitter feeds, or their cable new channel, or their edge of the talk-radio dial and get their opinions re-enforced, as opposed to us as Americans generally sharing a common base of news. And that’s come because of digital technology that has enabled hundreds of cable channels and thousands of blogs and new media in which people are more partisan and more bitter.

The other change for the worse has been that the business model of journalism has been decimated. And that’s partly because people rarely pay for journalism. It’s mostly advertising-supported now, and that’s not a sustainable business model. When I was at Time, half our revenue came from readers paying for it, and half the revenue came from advertisers. So you have a balanced revenue stream. When you’re (relying on) advertising only, you have an incentive to create click bait and sensational news, rather than high-value information that people used to pay for.

AT: We could put “Kim Kardashian” in every one of our headlines, regardless of the subject matter, and get a lot more views.

Isaacson: You just said it. If you want to get more eyeballs for advertisers, you put “Kim Kardashian” in the headlines. But if you were reliant on readers paying for your news, because it is high-value information, you’d start losing readers if you mainly wrote about Kim Kardashian.

AT: What news source do you first go to in the morning?

Isaacson: I usually go to my iPhone while still in bed, and I will tell you in order — the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and then Politico, Vox, then CNBC, and then I go to my Twitter feed to see what stories people I follow have recommended overnight.

AT: How closely have you followed local news in Aspen?

Isaacson: I have both papers I go to, and I follow people on Twitter. I tend to follow the news in Aspen.

AT: Is there a particular subject that captures your interest?

Isaacson: Aspen, like many communities, faces the issue of how to preserve what makes it charming and special and then how to be open to new things. You don’t want growth in Aspen, because that could overwhelm the town. But you also don’t want a place that becomes stagnant. And Aspen does a very good job at the moment of balancing preservation and progress. It has a good city government, the mayor (Steve Skadron), I think, is good, and they are sensitive to the fact that you need both preservation and progress, and you need to retain the unique character of Aspen.

I do believe strongly that what Aspen needs is expanded presence of Colorado Mountain College, because any great community needs a great center of education and job training, and that’s why I’ve been very supportive of Colorado Mountain College. And I think if they expand the campus they have across from the (Aspen-Pitkin County) airport, it’s a way to bring diverse, younger people into town without overwhelming what the town can handle. Having a steady stream of young, eager people with different interests can help create an innovative, entrepreneurial economy in the whole area — not just Aspen, but the valley. I think that would be the next big thing I would hope for Aspen. And I know that Colorado Mountain College is hoping to build apartments, as well as new classrooms, and I think that would help the Institute and the Music Festival, to have faculty housing in the summer and help the community by having a place for eager, young people to study and live.

AT: What do you think the Aspen Institute needs in its next leader?

Isaacson: First, a disclaimer, which is I’ve stayed away from the process because I think it’s bad form to be hiring your successor. I think in the 14 years since I and the rest of the team we assembled have been running the Institute, we had a new initiative every couple of years. First was opening up public programs. Second was expanding the Henry Crown Leadership Network to be a global leadership network. Third was we invigorated the Aspen campus and built a meeting hall. Fourth was creating new public programs for each of our policy areas. And most recently it was having a youth-engagement program, especially for kids in under-served communities and cities.

I say that because I think whoever comes in next will have to have two or three ideas of where to take the Institute next, because I think you always have to be refreshing the Institute’s strategy with new approaches. That could be deciding to open up more Aspens all over the world, or small Aspens in cities throughout America, or something that I’m not able to imagine. But I hope that the new person who comes in will come in with a big basket of what Aspen can do next, and bring it to the next level.

AT: Between the Institute, your work on the New Orleans City Planning Commission and other endeavors, how do you manage your time to write your books?

Isaacson: I don’t watch television and we don’t own a television, and that gives you an enormous amount of extra hours in the week.

AT: And this is coming from a former television executive.

Isaacson: After I left CNN, I saw no need to have a television.

AT: How long have you been without a television?

Isaacson: When I came to Aspen, in the president’s townhouse there was a television, and we took that out right away. In our apartment in New Orleans, I don’t have a TV, and we had a TV in our Washington house, but we didn’t use it. I do think that you can always find time for things you like to do. People can find time to go fishing, find time to play golf. I love to write. I love to write about interesting people. So if I have a couple of hours in the evening, that’s how I prefer to spend it, and there’s always time to find things you like doing.

AT: You were working on a biography on Louis Armstrong. Can you tell us what happened there?

Isaacson: I learned everything there was that I could about Louis Armstrong, but still didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know whether he was happy. I didn’t know why he was smiling. I didn’t know his feelings about race. He remained an enigma to me. So I decided to put it aside. Maybe now that I’m moving back to New Orleans part-time, I can maybe find time to do that biography.

AT: What has attracted you to taking on such enormous historical figures such as Einstein, Steve Jobs, and soon to come, a book on Leonardo da Vinci?

Isaacson: I like people with creative minds, and I like exploring how creativity comes from being able to connect the arts and the sciences. That’s what Steve Jobs did by connecting beauty and design to electronics and computation. That’s what Einstein did when he played Mozart to inspire him to understand relativity. And the ultimate creative genius in history at standing at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences was Leonardo da Vinci. His drawing of the “Vitruvian Man,” the guy in this square and the circle, is the ultimate symbol of the connection of arts and sciences. And he tried to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known. And by crossing so many fields, he was able to spot the beauty of nature’s patterns.

AT: How much time did it take to work on that book?

Isaacson: About four years, but for years leading up to it I would be gathering string visiting Florence or reading his notebooks. When I write a book, sometimes I’ll chew on a topic for years and then throw myself into it for another four years.

AT: What are you chewing on now?

Isaacson: I think I need to take a break. I don’t have ideas for a next book. In some ways Leonardo da Vinci is a culmination of all the subjects I’ve been writing about. I poured a lot of effort into it because it is the capstone of a series of books of what makes creativity and genius.

AT: You wrote an op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune supporting the removal of the Confederate monuments of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Gen. Beauregard, along with the one opposing Reconstruction. That was published in 2015, and last month, those statues were removed. What was your level of involvement in the monuments’ removal?

Isaacson: I just expressed my opinion and supported Mayor (Mitch) Landrieu, who was in favor of removing the monuments. Wynton Marsalis came to Aspen a few years ago, and I was walking around campus with him, and we both had been asked to be on the Tricentennial Celebration Committee for the city of New Orleans. I said, “I’ll do it if you do it.” And he said, “Yes, but one favor: Help me make them take down Robert E. Lee.” I said, “Wynton, I’ve driven around Lee Circle thousands of times. I’ve never paused to even think about or worry about who was on top of that pedestal.” And we were walking through the marble garden, and he stopped and he looked at me and said: “We do. We think about it every time we go around it.” And that’s when I said, “I get it. This really hurts people.” And we all live in a community and you try not to do things that hurt others in your community, and Wynton helped me understand that by insisting on keeping a monument to a general who had no connection to the history of the city of New Orleans, it was hurtful to half the people in town.

AT: So what does this say about New Orleans in 2017?

Isaacson: New Orleans has always benefitted from its diversity. It was a town that was settled by the French, the Spanish, Americans, Creoles, the Houma Indians, and then waves of Italians and Germans and Irish and Vietnamese, Croatians, and that helped create the food, it helped create jazz, and it helped create the feel of what New Orleans is. And it means each step of our journey, whether it’s recovering from a hurricane or planning for a 300th birthday party, you have to stop and say: “What can we do to make it feel like one community in which everybody is valued?”

AT: What would you recommend doing with those statues?

Isaacson: Beauregard is a beautiful statue and he had some connection to New Orleans, so I’d leave Beauregard up somewhere in New Orleans. Liberty Monument, which was a group of people who killed police officers to fight against integration, I would dump it in the Mississippi River. Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are important historical figures and deserve to be put somewhere appropriate. Jefferson Davis’ home (near Biloxi, Mississippi) would be a good place to put Jefferson Davis. There are appropriate places for these monuments that have a true historic connection. … I think it was a healthy discussion to have because people had to realize why you memorialize somebody. Why do we celebrate people? How do we do it in a way that promotes respect and decency and unity in a community? And it was a good discussion to have, and it was settled almost unanimously on the City Council and the process worked well. And it left a healthier city. Sometimes we have trouble talking about race in America, but in New Orleans, there’s an ease in talking about racial issues, and this was yet another facilitator of that conversation.