Book Explores Creative, Smart Leaders

Posted November 30, 2009 at 2:55pm

Walter Isaacson denies that his new book, “American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane,— is a memoir.

“I’m not conceited enough to think people want to hear all about me,— he said.

Yet the book, a collection of essays Isaacson wrote about innovative leaders, serves as a retrospective on his prominent career. Isaacson began as a reporter in New Orleans. He then moved to Time magazine, where he eventually became editor. He served as chairman and CEO of CNN News Group from 2001 to 2003. He has served as CEO of the Aspen Institute since 2003, and in November, President Barack Obama appointed him chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the U.S. government’s civilian broadcasting operations abroad. He is passionate about issues involving the Middle East and education, especially in his home state of Louisiana.

In “American Sketches,— Isaacson’s essays cover the broad spectrum of his career. They are drawn from his biographies, magazine profiles and book reviews. Only two, the introduction and the conclusion, are new. Older essays were chosen to honor leaders who were not only smart but also creative.

“That was my theme of the book, which is that leadership is not just smart people,— Isaacson said. “It’s people that are innovative and willing to work together.—

Successes and failures following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 inspired Isaacson’s look at leadership in this book, and the author used his epilogue, “The Future Restored,— to focus on the individuals and circumstances that have led to improvement following the devastation. Named vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority in 2005, Isaacson witnessed both the devastation and the recovery. He saw the actions of those working toward improvement in New Orleans as an example of the creative leadership he admires.

“What surprised me was not the restoration of the old but the advent of the new: the influx of innovators and entrepreneurs and creative young people who were painting, like a pentimento, fresh brushstrokes onto the canvas of New Orleans,— he wrote.

Other examples of creative leadership came from throughout mostly American history. Isaacson excerpts his biographies of physicist Albert Einstein, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He includes looks at political giants such as American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as innovators such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and director Woody Allen. A few are more personal explorations of journalists he respects, such as Newsweek editor Maynard Parker and Time magazine co-founder Henry Luce.

One of the most insightful essays is a review of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) book “Living History— and aide Sidney Blumenthal’s book “The Clinton Wars— that Isaacson wrote for the New Yorker magazine in 2003, nearly three years after President Bill Clinton left office. He smartly used the review to explore the evolution of presidential memoirs, dating back to a slave who helped President James Madison. Modern presidential insiders both fawn over and disparage their former bosses, hoping to defend their record while building their own credibility. They can exaggerate the writers’ importance in the process and serve to attack those who foiled their work.

“All this best-selling bellicosity is likely to continue the trend away from the old recollected-in-tranquillity manner of White House memoirs. At the very least, it will make for more interesting reading,— Isaacson wrote. “And we are unlikely to miss, at least for a while, the quaint platitudes of a Raymond Moley, who concluded his memoir by calling for a future politics based on ‘fine thinking and generous impulse.’—

Yet fine thinking and generous impulse are two of the traits Isaacson applauds in his subjects and tries to put into practice himself. And in that sense, this book, reflecting on the wide range of leaders he admires, is a kind of memoir.