A few weeks ago, I visited Jobs for the last time in his Palo Alto, Calif., home. He had moved to a downstairs bedroom because he was too weak to go up and down stairs. He was curled up in some pain, but his mind was still sharp and his humor vibrant. We talked about his childhood, and he gave me some pictures of his father and family to use in my biography. As a writer, I was used to being detached, but I was hit by a wave of sadness as I tried to say goodbye. In order to mask my emotion, I asked the one question that was still puzzling me: Why had he been so eager, during close to 50 interviews and conversations over the course of two years, to open up so much for a book when he was usually so private? “I wanted my kids to know me,” he said. “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”
Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, hits stores this week as one of the most highly anticipated books in years. The choice of author was pure Jobs — he called Isaacson in 2004 and asked him to write it, shortly before the Apple co-founder went in for his first cancer surgery. Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time and CEO of CNN, had a biography out about Benjamin Franklin and was working on one about Einstein — lofty company for Jobs, who in 2004 wasn’t seen as quite the level of genius as he would be just a few years later. Then again, Jobs made a habit of seeing things before others did.
Isaacson was a good choice. As he showed in his Time article Citizen Ben’s 7 Great Virtues, adapted from his Franklin biography, he has a knack for distilling the wisdom of great men and showing its lasting relevance: “In a world that was then, as alas it still is now, bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, Franklin helped to create a new type of nation that could draw strength from its religious pluralism. This comfort with the concept of tolerance — which was based on an aversion to tyranny, a fealty to free expression, a willingness to compromise, the morality of respecting other individuals and even a bit of humor and humility — is what most distinguishes America and its like-minded allies in the messy struggles that confront a new century.” It’s not hard to come up with similarly sweeping statements about Jobs.
Isaacson brings a career journalist’s eye to his biographical work, and that means often exploring the sides of a story that others have only glanced at. In late 2009, two years after the publication of his Einstein biography, Isaacson wrote in the Atlantic about the controversial side of the great scientist’s first trip to America — a trip that otherwise saw Einstein treated as a mega-celebrity. He had aligned himself with the European Zionists agitating for a Jewish homeland, while many American Jewish leaders were insisting on a more cautious approach to combating anti-semitism. Einstein’s star wattage brought the debate to the fore and only hardened the two sides. Harvard declined to host him for a lecture, and many prominent Jews spurned his efforts to raise money for a university in Jerusalem.
Jobs isn’t the first tech star Isaacson has written about. In December 1997, Time named Andy Grove, Chairman and CEO of Intel, its Man of the Year. Isaacson wrote the accompanying piece, and it shows an appreciation for the vast implications of the digital revolution. (It’s also a bracing reminder of how good things were back in the late ’90s.)
The U.S. now enjoys what in many respects is the healthiest economy in its history, and probably that of any nation ever. More than 400,000 new jobs were created last month, bringing unemployment down to 4.6%, the lowest level in almost 25 years. Labor-force participation has also improved: the proportion of working-age people with jobs is the highest ever recorded. Wage stagnation seems to be ending: earnings have risen more than 4% in the past 12 months, which is the greatest gain in 20 years when adjusted for inflation. The Dow is at 7756, more than doubling in three years, and corporate profits are at their highest level ever. Yet inflation is a negligible 2%, and even the dour Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan seems confident enough in the new economy to keep interest rates low. Driving all this is the microchip.
These days Isaacson is the president of the Aspen Institute and Chairman of Teach for America — two positions that give him the platform to be the kind of big thinker he has so often written about. After Hurricane Katrina, he was named vice chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a board that oversaw spending on recovery efforts. He wrote about New Orleans’ school reform efforts in a 2007 Time article, The Greatest Education Lab. “I grew up in New Orleans, went to a private school there and have since been acutely aware of how, in almost every American city, there is a two-tiered education system: one for the poor and one for the well-off,” he wrote, and went on to detail the entrepreneurial free-for-all that aimed to rebuild from scratch one of the nation’s worst school systems and turn it into a model for urban education. He followed that article in 2009 with a piece that argued for one of the more controversial notions in federal education policy: national standards. How to Raise the Standard in America’s Schools contends that a “quasi-voluntary” system driven by financial incentives would create, to borrow a phrase from President Obama, a “race to the top.”
As a longtime media executive, Isaacson also has a special interest in saving that industry’s crumbling ad-driven business model in the era of free content. His proposal for a system of micropayments, in the article How to Save Your Newspaper, spurred serious debate in the publishing business when it came out in early 2009. It was the kind of elegant solution that another very big thinker might have proposed: Steve Jobs.
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