In American Sketches: Great Leaders. Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane, Walter Isaacson — editor, biographer and journalist — collects a sampling of the essays and reviews he has written over the years for publications such as Time, the New York Times, and Wired. The selections are organized around themes like "Franklin and Other Founders," "Statecrafters," and "The Age of Technology, " and Isaacson adds an introductory essay on the writing life in which he attempts to define the relationship between non-fiction prose and writing that is considered creative. In effect, he considers the question of whether or not he is what his daughter should consider a "real" writer.
False modesty aside, there is no question but that the author of authoritative biographies of Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin is indeed a "real" writer. Each of these books provides an incisive, nuanced picture of a complex man, his place in the world, and his struggles and contributions. They are carefully wrought tomes worthy of comparison with the best that the genre has to offer.
The best essays in the new volume are equally nuanced and carefully thought out. "Fighting Words," written for the New Yorker, reviews memoirs of the Clinton presidency, one by Hillary and one by insider Sidney Blumenthal, in the context of the White House Memoir as a genre. He goes back to Paul Jennings a black slave who served in the White House under James Madison and wrote a memoir of his years there after his freedom was purchased by Daniel Webster. Culling samples from the administrations of F.D.R., Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter, he concludes that the tone established for the form combines "praise for the patron, that subtly shades into self-praise, inside accounts of policy struggles in which the author turns out to have been right, a dollop of historical commentary, some gossip that gently settles old scores, and a good index for colleagues who may not want to read the whole thing."
His profile of Bill Gates is another example of Isaacson's better writing. Although somewhat dated in its discussion of Microsoft's business, its portrait of the man, his quirks and values, his goals and passions, is infectious. Consider the founder of Microsoft speeding in his sports car without a seat belt and turning his head from the road to talk to the author. Listen to him singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" in a music trivia game. Chuckle as he locks himself out of the house he is remodeling. Isaacson is as much interested in the complete man as he is in the business man.
As would be expected, Isaacson, recognized now as the go to it guy on the subjects of his biographies, is often called on to review the new books about them and speak about them in general. Richard Beeman writes about Franklin and the founding fathers; call Isaacson. Henry Kissinger publishes Diplomacy, Isaacson reviews. The trouble is that when you are called upon to write about something on a variety of occasions over a period of years, you may have a tendency to repeat yourself. This is not so noticeable when the essays are published over a period of years. When they are set next to each other in an anthology, it's another story.
Indeed, after a while the repetitions get annoying. How often do we need to be told about the founding fathers' compromise on the language in the "unalienable rights" passage of the Declaration of Independence? How often do we have to hear about Kissinger's realpolitik as compared with the idealism of the Neo-cons? How many times do we have to hear about Einstein's statement that God does not play dice, and Niels Bohr's retort: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do." People, he tells us, are loath to admit they don’t know the difference between Hamlet and Macbeth, but they have no trouble admitting ignorance about genes and chromosomes. And he tells us again in almost the same words just in case we missed it the first time. These are things no one would notice in essays published over time; put them together in one volume and they stick out like sore thumbs.
Still if one can get past the annoyance, there are some valuable insights on some of the more important issues of the past, of the present, and, indeed, of the future as well.