Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 3, 2008
A rumor landed in my lap a few days ago that Walter Isaacson will be leaving the Aspen Institute in another year ” two at the most.
If true, it’s not exactly shocking. If he sticks around just one more year, Isaacson still will have had one of the longest tenures in the top slot at the Institute.
Perhaps more important than the length of his stay will have been his impact ” and that has certainly been impressive.
Under Isaacson, the Institute has become a three-ring circus (and I mean that in the best way possible) of intellectual and political Big Names and Hot Shots.
The Aspen Ideas Festival has, all by itself, shown more life than the previous decade’s worth of Institute programs ” and it’s been just one part of a massive Isaacson onslaught.
The roster of those he has lured here has ranged from the enlightenment of the Dalai Lama to the Dark Ages of Bush Administration torture apologists.
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All in all, whenever it ends, it’s been a serious spate of resume polishing for all concerned: Isaacson’s already-sterling resume (chairman and CEO of CNN, managing editor of Time, a bunch of best-selling books); the Institute’s own resume; and the resumes of everyone who’s been invited here during Isaacson’s reign. (Of course, with such a star-studded roster, maybe the real point is the permanent blot on the resume of any would-be hot shot who wasn’t invited here.)
It’s hard to imagine where Walter Isaacson might go from here.
He’s certainly not a man to move down the ladder ” any ladder ” but any step up would seem to be into a slot that would involve Secret Service protection.
(And if he does run for a job like that, I can only suggest that he do a better job of vetting his running mate than some candidates I can think of.)
But the real question will be not what where Mr. I. goes after he leaves here, but where the Institute goes.
It’s not that I don’t care about Walter Isaacson ” but I’ve never even met him. And, with him as former editor of Time and me as former editor of The Aspen Times, we are only in the same profession in the sense that a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs. (And no question here about who’s the Big Dog.)
My concern is for the Institute itself. It’s a vital part of what makes Aspen the extraordinary place it is. And anyone who’s been watching the Institute over the decades knows that its personality can change in a spectacularly Jekyll/Hyde fashion.
Over the nearly 60 years of its existence ” since its founding by Walter Paepcke in 1950 as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies ” the Institute has often reflected the whims and character of whoever was in charge.
Not that that’s necessarily been a bad thing.
Sometimes the tops guys have launched the Institute forward, making it a seriously thoughtful, major player in national and world affairs.
An easy example: In 1990, under the leadership of David McLaughlin, the Institute was celebrating its 40th birthday with both President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in attendance when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Significant early discussions that shaped the U.S. response to Iraq were held between Bush and Thatcher in Aspen. That’s the big time.
On the other hand, it’s hard to forget the events of 1979. That’s when longtime Institute chairman Robert O. Anderson had a hissy fit.
Anderson ” a very wealthy man who was used to getting his own way in all things ” went a little berserk when the Aspen City Council refused to let him build a 356-room hotel and 56,000-square-foot conference facility at the Aspen Meadows.
In revenge, Anderson sold the Institute’s entire West End campus ” the Music Tent, the Meadows, Paepcke Auditorium, the works ” and tried to move everything to a lovely, isolated spot near Crestone.
That didn’t work out so well. Crestone’s great, but it’s not Aspen and the Institute lost a lot of ground. Eventually they had to buy almost everything back and struggle to regain their footing.
More recently, there was the incident that began in 1999, when the Institute hired former Aspen Mayor John Bennett to improve local programs and local relations.
Bennett’s hiring was announced with great fanfare, as were his immediate accomplishments.
But then a new president took over and immediately made it clear that he was determined to take a different path. To hell with Aspen, said Elmer Johnson, the new guy. Under his leadership, the Institute was going to concentrate on its mission to be a “global forum for leveraging the power of leaders to improve the human condition.”
Whatever that might have meant, it certainly didn’t mean worrying about relations with Aspen.
Pretty soon, Bennett was gone.
A couple of years after that, Johnson was gone.
And that was when Walter Isaacson stepped in.
I think that, under Isaacson’s direction, the Institute has returned somewhat to its original mission as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
When it was founded, the Institute ran seminars for executives, focused on the Great Books and the Great Ideas. Nothing in there about “a global forum for leveraging the power of leaders.”
When Johnson was on his way out the door, Institute Chairman William E. Mayer told a reporter for UPI that what the Institute does is “more like adult education. … What we try to do is get people to come and think.”
I think (Wow! There you go. See how that works. Even I’m thinking now) that Water Isaacson’s version of the Institute has indeed generated a lot of thinking.
But the question, as I mentioned way back at the beginning, is what comes next.
Perhaps a new president will come in on Isaacson’s heels and decide to impose a new vision: “Enough of this Ideas Festival nonsense. Ideas aren’t for ‘festivals.’ They’re serious business. Let’s start leveraging some power.”
If that happens, then Walter Isaacson will not have left a legacy. His “shining moment” will turn out to be just a flash in the pan.
To be sure, the Institute isn’t ” or certainly shouldn’t be ” all that flighty. William Mayer is still chairman of the board. And the rest of that board is full of names so impressive and illustrious that I almost got a nosebleed just reading them.
But if history’s anything to go by (and I suspect that the Institute’s official position would tend to be in favor of history as a worthwhile study for the prediction of the future) then the post-Isaacson years should be interesting to watch.
If, of course, Walter Isaacson is actually thinking of leaving.
Hey, as I said, it’s all just a rumor.