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‘It Was Never a Game Plan’: Walter Isaacson ’74 Looks Back on Storied Career

Walter S. Isaacson ’74 joined the Harvard Lampoon before seeing the light and becoming a renowned journalist.
Walter S. Isaacson ’74 joined the Harvard Lampoon before seeing the light and becoming a renowned journalist. By Courtesy of The Aspen Institute
By Joyce E. Kim and Cam N. Srivastava, Crimson Staff Writers

Walter S. Isaacson ’74 is a people person.

“He’s always interested and engaged and works on meeting and getting to know people,” Bruns H. Grayson ’74, a classmate of Isaacson’s at Harvard, said.

That spirit comes through in Isaacson’s work — since graduating from Harvard College, Isaacson has had an illustrious career in journalism and as an author, writing 12 books including authorized biographies of Henry A. Kissinger ’50, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

Isaacson thrived during his time as an undergraduate at Harvard, graduating cum laude in History and Literature and joining the Signet, a literary society, and the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

“What the Lampoon did was help me realize that you could be a writer, and I was never talented enough to write creative fiction or amazing humor,” Isaacson said. “But I did realize that both journalism and nonfiction writing were very fulfilling paths to pursue.”

Still, the beginning of college marked a distinct transition from his Louisiana upbringing.

“He was a kid from New Orleans. When he first got to Harvard, he was maybe a little bit intimidated by it, as everybody is. But I think that passed pretty quickly,” said Evan W. Thomas III ’73, Isaacson’s friend, and later, co-author. The two met when they started working at TIME magazine in the late 1970s.

“I knew right away — the instant that I met him — that he was special,” Thomas, a former Crimson Sports editor, said.

Thomas’s initial impression of Isaacson would be prescient. After graduating, the Lowell House resident would go to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar — with Grayson, also a Rhodes Scholar — before starting his career as a journalist. He became the editor of Time in 1996, just over twenty years out of Harvard.

“I joked that I knew the instant that I met him that I’d be working for him before long. And that was true,” Thomas said.

Isaacson would go on to become the CEO of CNN in 2001, before stepping down to serve as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. In 2018, Isaacson retired from the Aspen Institute to teach history at Tulane University, in his hometown of New Orleans.

Still, he wonders if he should have accepted the CEO role at CNN, as he found writing stories more “fun.”

“I enjoyed the content side. It was a mistake, in retrospect, to try to become a manager and the CEO of CNN, because I liked the reporting and writing more than I liked the management,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson sees his winding career path as a series of “spontaneous” decisions.

“Up until a few years ago, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up,” Isaacson said. “I kind of stumbled into journalism because it was fun. And from there stumbled into nonfiction writing. But it was never a game plan. I think there’s a part of Lord of the Rings, in which he says, ‘Not all who wander are lost.’”

But despite his full-time jobs at TIME, CNN, and the Aspen Institute, Isaacson always kept working on books, gaining renown for his biographies of prominent people. He was still at TIME when he published his first in 1992, on Henry Kissinger.

Grayson recalled how when Isaacson was writing the biography, peers were “astonished” by Isaacson’s ability to get Kissinger to open up to him, even though Kissinger was “all pissed off about it.”

“People were astonished that Kissinger was so garrulous and indiscreet and wondered how it was ever that Walter had gotten him to talk the way he did,” Grayson said.

According to Grayson, Isaacson used to tell him that staying silent could be a powerful tool during conversations.

Grayson recalled Isaacson saying, “‘It’s amazing if you’re working with somebody and you ask a question and then you just shut up, how they will fill the vacuum and they’ll start to talk.’”

Since then, Isaacson has written eight more books, most recently a biography of Elon Musk published in 2023. Though he is 72 years old and his reputation precedes him, Grayson doesn’t think Isaacson will stop writing anytime soon.

“I don’t know what his next subject will be or who his next subject will be, but I can’t imagine him stopping,” Grayson said.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

—Staff writer Cam N. Srivastava can be reached at Follow him on X @camsrivastava.

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