tv Historian Walter Isaacson Ford Foundation President Darren Walker CSPAN April 22, 2022 6:11am-6:56am EDT
many awards we don't have enough time. walter you have documented through these biographies of some of the most complicated complex and challenging personalities of history and of course your biography of benjamin franklin stands out because franklin franklin was an enigma to so many and i want you to talk about why. this film because of course can is an extraordinary interpreter
of history and particularly american culture? but why today? is an old dead white man like benjamin franklin relevant. yeah, ben franklin is the historical figure we most need back today. he's the person who helped try to unite. the colonies to dissipate the passions and the hatreds and the ideologies. he was a person who most connected science to statecraft believed as that thing as eclipse showed about the importance of saying let's not jump to conclusions. let's have the experiments be made whether it was about lightning or whether it was about taxation or he tied us together with the postal system. so he did so much but the main thing is the arc of his moral life. i think represents the ark of our nation's moral life a quest
for self-improvement, but deep flaws that needed to be faced later in his life so that he could help rectify them the most obvious was that he enslaved two people when he owned his print shop in philadelphia and then he becomes appalled at that concept and you talked about public education both in your book and on the panel earlier. he starts two things. he educate the academy for the education of youth in philadelphia, which becomes pan and the associates of dr. bray which was a public school to teach children of slaves and freed slaves. then having done this compromise because he always believe that to hold a democracy together we had to make compromises at times. but the hardest thing we do in our life is to know when to make a compromise and when to stand true for a moral principle and he got it wrong a few times and
he made a list of every time he got it wrong like when he ran away for he was apprentice himself. he broke the apprentice runs away to philadelphia famously, but the last one is that he the great arata in his life was tolerating slavery. so he said, how can i rectify it? and he rectifies it by becoming the president of the society for the abolition of slavery, which in 1777 was pretty early for that and creating a revolving fun for apprenticeships and young people you talk eloquently that charity is not just charity. it's fighting injustice that's ingrained into the system. so by starting so many civic organizations the free library of philadelphia the academies for the education of youth this notion of a revolving fund for people who wanted to start small businesses. to me and being the greatest innovator of the time from the
lightning rod to the franklinton. all of that makes them the quintessential american flawed but on a journey towards what he'd called the pursuit of moral perfection, but during his life. he actually achieved that transformation. right and during the life of our country. i find him to be a metaphor for the country. we're trying in fits and starts to achieve that transformation. but even at the end of his life in his journal, he's trying to figure out what didn't i do when my students here at tulane we decide okay. should we take the name a bear off of a bear hall or take things nsa? okay. i understand why you may want to take names down. but before you do it think if they put you a portrait on the wall here someday, what a 100 years from now will be causing people to say we've got to take that person's portrait down. was it because you you eight
meat or because you you know gas burning car or maybe even because you were supported abortion. i mean be able to challenge your own beliefs to see how history might judge you. but your other among your other biographies jefferson. well, that's mr. meacham. i wrote a little about him, but you have written about jefferson and the difference there is jefferson. was jefferson was unable to make and john said that earlier this morning and then that gordon reed was here because what i call it the jefferson conundrum meaning, how do you judge people who were great in many ways but in the light of history, i hate it when people use in the context of their time, which is usually a euphemism for you know, excusing right a moral lap. but with so many people who fall
prey to the jefferson conundrum even in my work writing about biology with the codebreaker you have james watson, who is the greatest biologist of the 20th century does the structure of dna but becomes racist basically in his feelings about race and heredity. so, how do you teach watson and biology? how do you teach jefferson in history? annette? gordon. reed was pretty interesting last yesterday. and so was imani perry? which is it's too easy for us to just dismiss a jefferson or something now, i do give frank. i do think that you earn extra credit for being ahead of the curve of history and franklin's reputation just is certainly he is held in higher regard. through the lens of of moral framework right living his life
right, and he comes to grips with slavery. and of course jefferson doesn't even free even sally hemmings much less is preponderance of his slaves. so yes, i think even as we the great thing about history is we get to reassess people, but we also have to be humble about knowing what they knew when they knew it, but your point that he is a metaphor for today. and this is why he is relevant, right it is it is as if that that dialectic between franklin and jefferson continues that that tension of jefferson saying i know that this is wrong. but this is necessary in order for me to have all of this.
right. i mean i think i think in some ways that's a metaphor and here's something that's also bad about jefferson. was that he was actually a deeper moral thinker and franklin now that i love really franklin, but ben franklin's a very practical more and sort of gets it right look sometimes, you know deep philosophers and madison and jefferson or amongst them. and yet the deeper philosopher who's reading john locke and writing all these treatises. they still can't have the common sense of an average printer and shopkeeper like ben franklin on market street. so as a deeply reflective person who read all the great philosophers jefferson should have gotten it a little bit better than he did. so interesting that that and i think that you're your narrating through american history. metaphorically through through
franklin is a really when people ask this question today, why are these guys relevant? i mean, i think it's such a powerful. articulation of why we need history all of our history, but why understanding these men? is so important to understanding today and i think walter among the things that you've been able to do is to throughout your career. look back and look forward so to go from someone like franklin to steve jobs. yeah, that was a head snapper. i mean walter, how did you why did you what was well, you know if you want to know what ben franklin really was he would say i was an inventor, you know lightning rods to clean burning stoves even inventing concepts like the concept of federalism. we have both the states and the
union and they exist they coexist and so what sets franklin apart is he's the greatest innovator of his time thinking of new things whether it's inventions or concepts a ways to balance power with the bourbon pack nation or figuring out how to do experiments on the temperature of the water in the atlantic to figure out the gulf stream. so, where's mr. meacham became interested in sort of grand political leaders after doing ben franklin i said, i'm actually more interested in innovators people and one of the things about franklin and jefferson together they would have you were a philistine if you didn't appreciate the science of the time if you didn't try to understand newton's balances and checks if you didn't understand anatomy. we lost when i was young this sense that we all had to appreciate science. and so what i did was after
franklin i said what caused us meaning people aren't scientists to be intimidated by it. it was sort of einstein. he makes it something like you have to be einstein to understand einstein and so i wanted to do a book on him to show that science has the beauty and that led me of course after i did ben franklin and steve and i did ben franklin and einstein you'll appreciate this since his wife was on your board now i get a call from steve jobs and he says do me next. and i said, yeah. yeah franklin einstein you you are again. but then i realized that steve jobs had done more to affect our lives and any secretary of state or you know, fed chairman or even president and the fact that i walk around with an iphone and have my eps and my uber and everything else so i became interested more in innovators
than in powerful leaders. that's a really but getting back to franklin was a big believer in the humanities mean the notion of being well read. and the notion of what we think of today is the liberal art and because he didn't get to go to school. he was the 10th son of a puritan immigrant and big the 10th son. he was gonna be his father's tithes to the lord and so his father was going to send him to harvard to study for the ministry is a long time ago when harvard knew how to train ministers but franklin, let us say was not cut for the claw one point. he said to his father when they were salting away the provisions of the winter. he said let me say grace over right now. we get it done with once and for all for the entire winter. we don't have to say it every meal. so his father decides not to send him the harvard and runs away to philadelphia. but yeah, it's it's that sort of
self-taught person where he is apprentice to his brother who's a publisher and printer and every night. he takes books down from the shelves and learned and what franklin does there are two people in history maybe three of account aristotle, but two people in the history of humanity. who really tried to learn everything you could possibly know about every subject that was knowable leonardo da vinci and ben franklin and that's why i wanted to do biographies about because what they see is the connection between the arts and the humanities as you said at the end of your talk that people yeah steve jobs once said and it goes right to your story about poetry that basically the reason bill gates created the zoom, which was the most god-awful product ever to be done in microsoft. word is almost unusable was because he studied only coding in science and computer science.
we're steve jobs studied calligraphy dance poetry and art when he went to college and so that notion as steve did when he ever did a product launch. he always showed the last slide was the intersection of the arts and technology. and so that's what we do it tulane, but that's what you were saying, too. key to creativity and speaking of creativity. philadelphia during franklin's time was the cradle of creativity. for this country, absolutely and why was that, you know, i think that it's deeply important to understand why some places in some times become cradles of creativity and if we go through history can start in 1570. with florence becomes the hub of the renaissance you go to 1770 where philadelphia is 1970 where the stanford areas and you say what makes it work well in
philadelphia and in florence in particular as you spoke about early, and i loved your comment on it's a shame that diversity got defined in the context of the bakkie decision instead of in the context of the glorification that we see here in new orleans by having a diverse culture and we know why that's a great thing not something to be imposed by law, but if you look at let's pick florence when leonardo goes there. he is a total misfit. has borne out of wedlock he's gay. he's left-handed. he's distracted. he's you know, he's but he gets the florence and the medici family thinks he's great and he becomes accepted and a town in which people coming in from the ottoman empire of fall and the silk road that has the greatest diversity everywhere. they have any place in that's why the renaissance happens there in 1770 when ben franklin well before them, but when ben
franklin runs away from boston which with all due respect to boston, which we both like was a very puritan very monoculture and if you deviated any way if you like on the wrong side of the antinomian crisis of god's grace alone, you had to leave and go found world island or something, right? so he runs away and comes to philadelphia where there's moravians and -- and episcopals and anglican's and blacks and slaves and freed slaves and that's a cities name city of brotherly love, philadelphia. that diversity allows the birth of america just like florence allows the birth of the renaissance. but but he was truly a singular figure and in this did he have i mean the he didn't have a medici where their patrons in philadelphia not exactly, but it was good at trying to find patrons and when he starts and but what he does is more create
a community of pain not just patrons, but civic leaders, and he created what he called the leather apron club because it wasn't for the wealthiest of philadelphia or the workman of who is for the middle class. he called it. we the middling people who were the shopkeepers on market street leather aprons because they're the people who got up early put on the leather apron open the door of the shop and they were there and that leather apron club decided to figure out how to do civic improvements and every month, they'd come up with one the free library the militia the streets we've been cool the academy that becomes pan and and i think that was his secret and you see it in great cities where it's not just some patron handing down things but this sort of civic life. well, i mean, i think it's really interesting when contrasted with so many of the other founding fathers who were just flat out elitist. oh jefferson, i mean if you want
to rag on poor jefferson, i wish him that we're still here to defend him or meet him. i miss him. is they both start academy right university of virginia, and then the academy in philadelphia that becomes pan and if you read their founding documents, and this goes back to your previous panel. jefferson's creed for the university of virginia was to skim and the top the cream the elite and train them for great leadership. and franklin in his academy was to take every kid from every walk of life and make them able to be more participatory in our economy, and it was not supposed to be a selective place for the elite and i still think when you talk about public education. that's what we have to regain the notion of is that education is not supposed to be a privilege for the elite.
and so how did you and ken come to work? i mean, what was that like you remember the late? great michelle smith. so we're having dinner. no. no, we're having dinner in washington together and i had worked with ken a little bit kenny come down to tulane to some of of the students remember and he said who should i do next and michelle and her father? i guess robert smith had all helped do these libraries and i said you got to do ben franklin and here's why our country is becoming more fractured. you know, who was the person who tried to find the common ground and it was at that dinner at you know, restaurant and georgetown that michelle and i convinced him to do it, but it was an easy sell because i think can had a feel for ben franklin and he was the founder two things about him that made him good for this a type of thing. first of all, he was the only
middle class founder as you said most of them were land owning aristocracies like the jeffersons madison's or the merchant aristocrates like the atoms and john hancock families, whatever we did not really have a middle class nor in england. are a middle class and ben franklin's greatest invention is inventing the concept of the middle class shopkeeper and you know being the backbone of american values in this whole idea of civic america, right? i mean really came out of that. i mean the tocqueville i mean all of what came after yeah, that was tocqueville. i mean, it's very pretentious me to say this, but first of all democracy in america is the book most quoted and least read ever only about seven of us had read it and that's because mr. prescott made me read it at newman, but i do think that
tocqueville gets something wrong that franklin gets right, which is tocville said that there was a disconnect and attention between americans individualism and their association forming instincts that they always forming association and would franklin said is no it is our barn raising quilting bee instincts that are individualistic but allow us to come together and voluntary associations. let's do it. but talk well also. said the issue of race and the indigenous people and he came down in new orleans and that's where he saw it right in 1840 or so. and now, you're right. toefl gets most things right he gets that right? yeah, he gets that right in a way, but but he gets it right. franklin got that right too. i mean they both had the same assessment. it's they all had this i mean
jefferson, i mean they all had that assessment that you know, that was the interesting jefferson had that too. yeah intellectually. yeah intellectually, right, but i think again this is the really hard part for the privileged. class in america who throughout history have wrestled with? the philosophical enlightened view of what is right and wrong. and what is needed? feed their privilege, right? and this is why what you did with ford and what you've done in your book. is a concept i hadn't wrestled with enough and i love it when somebody gives me a new idea. i hadn't really wrestled with enough which is that when philanthropy comes away to protect a system that has some inherent in justices in it. that's a problem and that foundations have to deal with
the underlying injustices. not just be selves that you know, the wealthy can feel i've given back but that's really hard walter. i mean it was it, you know into carnegie didn't he didn't see a problem with inequality. i mean he thought that god had imbued men like him and rockefeller with special talent and it wasn't about questioning mean the fact that there were children falling into the iron pits because there was no osha. it didn't really affect him because that was what it took to make carnegie industry. well, i think with carnegie and rockefeller, it was a double whammy which is you have this sense of almost, you know, god-given privilege. now, you know that but also a
social darwinianism and they believed, you know, because darwin had come along in the 18 late 1860s and like well, it's just a survival of the fittest and that really hurt america in that post-reconstruction period through the industrial revolution and it took in your book you write about it. the carnegie's and rockefellers and others to have a sort of a move forward in their thinking but this is where your work on watson and others. i mean, this is also a period when the american eugenics society right games and who were the funders of the eugenics movement? and this is why the color carnegie phone bring harbor labs is funded by your foundation. i mean before you were there, but yeah, but but the reality is philanthropy. was itself investing and these
ideas that were rooted in these notions of hierarchies of social construction of race, for example, but that philanthropy these these the roosevelt. i mean these were progressive great american families philanthropist who believed that italians were not as smart and capable. as british or scandinavian people and that germans. yeah, and then said earlier we think that was a long time ago, but we're not that far removed whether i think mitch was talking, you know about his yeah father no it's but that american eugenics movement is the 1920s and it's only when the nazis take it over and gives it such a horrible stench that we act like, oh, we would never felt
that way and isabel workhelson and her great book cast reveals. the nazis came to the american south. and studied the ways in which laws had been passed. against minorities and i hadn't understood that before isabelle's book. i did a little talk with her and she it wasn't a great book and she but she really uncovered some really interesting. yeah, it gets to a deeper thing which is why we wrestle with history and when you said, why are these founders important? they're not important because we carve them and marble and put them in a pedestal. they're important because we wrestle with our history and this is something that i fear for now when we're starting to get lost like don't wrestle with history this way or that way from both the left and the right and the woke and the right wing and everybody saying don't teach it that way it might discomfort, you know would you have to do is
be like ben franklin and keep that ledger and say what did i get wrong? and let's wrestle with everything from our science. are you jennings and my friend evan thomas just finished a book on the dropping of the adam bomb, you know, that was something that's a complex thing and we all have knee jerk reactions, but we should take history and say what i use that's a horrible word, but it's called complexify it and when any of us students sort of says well, we had to do it. that way. i said, let me complexify it for you. because actually in a democracy complexity and messiness is a part of our right and we're losing the ability from every reason from gerrymandering the money in politics to have people sit down and say there's a complexity here. let's see if we can sort it out as opposed to going to either side well, so you grew up in this city a complex place. complex, especially on race in this particularly.
you shall having grown up here to recall all the first times that you understood race, of course mitch's father moon was somebody who led us there, but i could remember. maybe 500 yards from here. i'll ask and walking across audubon park with my cousin alan bissinger and back, then are maids. it's up and the sun of who is our age of one of the maids. we were going to the merry-go-round in ottoman park. and i was like five or six or so to learn to read i was walking and my cousin said i want to go to the merry-go-round. and suddenly i stopped and started i threw a tantrum i said, i don't want to go. i don't and nobody could figure out i don't want to go and it occurred to me as we got closer. there was a sign that i had seen before but never knew or thought about and said white only and we were with clyde who was a our
age and black and i just wanted to avoid having to go there so all of us in our lives, but especially if you grow up i think in this place broad moore when i grew up and latoya cantrell was there but mitch landry was there as a mix neighborhood. we at an early age developed a radar about it andy lack terry bakay others here. we talk about this endlessly about the need to re-engage with our radar about race but but walter, i think people like you who are intellectuals you lead a particular kind of life. it's easier, correct for you. i'm privileged enough to be yeah that way and and you are privileged enough. to be able to reject ideologies and tropes that are fed to you.
with the objective of dividing you from other americans. but not everyone. is as safe and secure. so, how do we think about those people? are phil vulnerable and who do feel invisible? and resentful and i assume you're talking about whites as well as blacks and people who feel that this globalization of free trade and free markets and technology and have outsourcing may have made us a richer nation, but they got left behind and straight back behind and you've already ragged on the aspen institutes. i can join you. i'm not packing on the answer, but i love to this specially when you ran no nobody remember about six or seven years ago before trump was nominated. walking across the institute and thinking about how everybody there was involved. what would you call the davos aspen consensus that we all love
free trade, etc, etc. and we had taken trips across america when i was at time magazine and i began to see the resentments of the people who free trade made it great. they could go to walmart on a sunday afternoon get a flat screen tv set, you know, that was half the price of what it had been a few years earlier, but then on monday morning, they couldn't catch the early bus to go to the maytag plant because it had been moved to mexico and there was a resentment building up and frankly a resentment. that was somewhat racist and definitely anti-immigrant and how come everybody's trying to speak spanish in our schools and we can't get the job in the plant now etc and those of us who believed in that davos aspen consensus got it wrong. we were unaware of the legitimate resentments that we're building up in a society in which the prosperity of the 90s left people behind. i think that's fair and accurate
assessment of what? what happened? so i guess walter, where do we go from here? i mean you are at a great american university. you've got all these bright students. you have a platform your walter isaacson. what's your council? well, i mean, i think it begins with. reinventing the ben franklin in us in america that we should do a lot more here instead of saying you can never happen. i believe that manufacturing should come back. i believe that good jobs are the heart of a stable society. it's definitely would been franklin believed. so i think that as we face all these around the world there's a line from pogo you're too young to remember what pogo was it was a cartoon strep, but he said we have met the enemy and he is us and the point was we have to
create the type of opportunity society that people felt that they may have had 50 or 100 years ago. there is no generation in america that didn't feel that the country would be better for their children and it was for them except for now people doubtful. so i think we have to america's ability to create these things and you think benjamin franklin? gives us a guide. he gives us a guide because he believes it came from the sort of middle class and small businesses being able to grow for every on for every apprentice to be able to then start an enterprise a startup entrepreneurial culture. that's what market street was built upon in the 1770s when philadelphia when franklin was there and that's what i i do think. sometimes we lose we feel resentful not just because we've
lost power to be governments everything but also big corporations and i'm like you i believe in the american system the free markets and capitalism, but we don't want people to be alienated and think that big corporations, you know can crush us. i got kids in my tulane class have great ideas for companies or services they want to do but the main thing they worry about is how could facebook crush me? how could google crash me if it becomes good, so we have to have the type of system where people can start businesses again. so and by the way, omega equitable my wife kathy is very involved and entrepreneurs week and idea village, which is to have a revolving fund for people unlike me who had a grand uncle and uncle or whatever who could help if i needed to get to the hibernia whitney bank and have a mortgage or something cosa to make sure everybody has that opportunity to you know, start something they believe it so last point at like you to
addresses because we are here at tulane. and in many ways like many of the great american universities, tulane grappling with the role of higher education in a democracy and i would like you to reflect on what you think the role is and and what are today the things that worry you and the things that give you reasons for hope and encouragement because you hear you are here you are in the midst of utina glasses. well as a historian i go back and i go back to ben franklin and when he said what was the purpose of the university he was doing it's to create good citizens of the country. we were trying to become and to create opportunities for each new generation. and sometimes we lose sight of of that in higher education. but shaping good.
people who will become good citizens is the role of a university you were very close to and i was very close to to one of the most wonderful saints who walked this earth the late great peter gomes and harvard and he was a minister of the memorial church, and i don't remember much even who our graduation speaker was anything else, but i do remember the sermon he gave on the day. we graduated that morning, which is he called it what we forgot to tell you. and he said we told you this was a great elite exclusive place. and you were privilege to come here and then made it more exclusive as you went up. what we forgot to tell you is it's not about exclusivity. it's about inclusivity because that's what you're going to be judged on as a citizen of the world. how many people you brought into it and afterwards he told me the story later. somebody came up and he was saying what do you want to be and the person who?
i'm really hope i'll be successful. i want to run for office. i'm going to be president of the united states. and peter said aim higher. he said this university is produced a lot of powerful people. it's even produced a few presidents. but it hasn't always produced kind people and good people who care about including others into it. that's what we should have taught you and that's what we forgot to tell you. so true and i think it reminds me of wb dubois and in the souls. of black men he when he talks about the talented tenth, right? the work of men like him and other elite blacks was to cultivate that talented tense. later in his life. he was challenged.
and he came to understand that it wasn't just about creating a cotery of elite blacks. but it was about creating an environment so that the other 90% could thrive? and equip themselves with the ability to the lift others up. rather than simply building leadership among the talented tents could then engage with the broader white elite? and so in some ways he was and talking about the soul of black folks. engaging in his own ovation of ideas that were based on account of a white elitist system and the white higher education system, which of course he of the graduate of harvard like you
was able to imbue into his own sort of a framework that as he grew older and wiser was challenged. you know, that's what professor henry louis gates will teach us about dubois who he knows well, but it's about franklin is about all of us is he wasn't always perfect what he did was he reflected on i've gotten this wrong. just like franklin said i got the biggest thing of all wrong slavery. i've got to figure out how we're going to move forward the voice. does that too and to me? that's also the purpose of a university is to give you that humility to keep thinking get up every morning and say two things to yourself. i'm a really lucky person here. i am in the city of new orleans and a great place. i'm grateful and my gratitude will make me more inclusive, but the other thing you should think is okay. let me question every belief i had the night before because i'm
probably getting some things wrong and that's something we've lost as a society too. once you get locked into your beliefs these days you get in your echo chamber of talk radio or cable news and we don't say hey, maybe i was wrong about free trade in the davos consensus. so maybe i was wrong about affirmative action, or maybe i was wrong about the robert e lee statue and we have to sometimes say hey, i got some of these things wrong. well franklin was a deeply curious. person and that stems from that which is every moment of his life like leonardo da vinci would see something and stop and try to find out more about it. i saw the wonderful rainstorm today. he studied how the winds going rain storms and it helped them figure out that storms move up the coast and they certain way. that curiosity about the simplest things in ben
franklin's notebooks in leonardo's notebooks in an albert einstein notebooks. there's the same question that they asked which is why is the sky blue? all of us see a blue sky every day or two here in the city. but when we're children, we may ask why is it blue? we lose that curiosity about the everyday wonders of nature and that's what the truly creative people is is they never outgrow their wonder years? well walter isaacson, you never cease to amaze and saying back at you darren. so thank you walter for inviting me to your beautiful city. thank you. give it up for walter isaac's. heretonight we are celebrating e
IN COLLECTIONSCSPAN2 Television Archive Television Archive News Search Service
Uploaded by TV Archive on