I wonder how Steve Jobs and Walter Isaacson, his chosen biographer,
will get on?
Jobs is authoritarian, belligerent, secretive, vindictive—and original. Isaacson, who once ran Time
magazine and CNN, is a deft politician, a smooth agent, an eager-to-please social animal whose work has always been proficient and commercial, but which has never broken new ground.
Jobs is the ultimate entrepreneur, Isaacson a devoted company man.
Jobs has resisted telling his story, indeed, has famously found himself at odds with almost every journalist who has covered him and his company with anything much more critical than a hagiographic point of view.
Isaacson is not a mere journalist, rather he’s assiduously climbed to the level of his subjects. Now the director of the Aspen Institute, a social network of the elite, he has even seen himself as a possible Secretary of State.
Isaacson’s two recent books—about Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein—are august profiles of the type that Jobs would surely like to have for himself. His earlier book about Henry Kissinger, when Kissinger was still on his game, is of a different sort. Isaacson deftly slices Henry up. The Apple people, if they have done their homework (which, if it involves reading books, they probably haven’t), might well dismiss Isaacson’s Kissinger as a youthful book, and consider the more decorous Franklin and Einstein as mature works.
I’ll bet the Apple people see Isaacson as the closest they can get to a biographer on Steve’s level. They want two men of accomplishment to sit down together. They want two men who are ready to write history together. Ideally they want writer and subject to be mixed up in the making of this book. Steve, or his people, dictating the book, Isaacson imagining that he intimately relates to the subject of it, might be the subject, but for the grace of god.
It is a deft choice. Most biographers, independent if not envious sorts, take out their inevitable frustration with their subject (living or dead) in their book. Isaacson, however, has always gotten on with difficult bosses. Isaacson’s bosses have almost always been pleased that Isaacson has worked for them. Most of them have felt, I’d guess, that if they had to choose a biographer, they would have chosen Walter.
And yet there is hope that this choice can backfire.
If Isaacson likes to associate with great men, to imagine himself as a great, too, what he really understands is the shape of the modern career, the strategic, even Faustian mastery of the commercial world that produces epic success.
That’s the darkness that animates Isaacson’s Kissinger book—preternatural talent depends on preternatural ruthlessness.
The hope for a great story about Jobs—and there is a great story here, one of the greatest—is that Isaacson will have analyzed that his own career, quite a bit sleepier than he would have imagined it would be at 57, will benefit from selling Jobs out.
That would make a doubly fine story.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.