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The Altar of Walter

For faithful followers of brilliant careerist Walter Isaacson's brilliant career, what's to be learned from his leaving CNN? Maybe that everyone at AOL should run for the nearest exit.



That was the ’nuff-said subject line of the dozens of e-mails I got when Walter Isaacson, as part of the great soap opera at AOL Time Warner, recently stepped down as chairman of CNN. Walter as an idea, a fact, an event, a drama, a measure, a sum of all things—as well as a droopy, old-fashioned name.

So many of us in a certain media generation (Walter is 50) have a Walter thing. This isn’t my first go at trying to explain the obsession. Walter, who briefly loomed large in the history of the Internet, is a figure in the book I wrote on the subject. In it, I tried to dissect Walter’s unique confection of classicism and opportunism, remarkable diligence and rank ambition, that is so compelling (and often infuriating) to so many of us. (As the Internet passes into kitsch, and its wildest manifestation, AOL, into farce, my book Burn Rate is becoming a musical. The composer, Paul Scott Goodman, besides writing songs for dancing CEOs and a chorus line of venture capitalists, has also written a song called “Kneeling at the Altar of Walter.”)

Walter is our fantasy life: a media-business action figure. A perfect combination of vast intelligence, adroit political talents, impeccable connections, savvy publicity skills, deep reserves of corporate sucking-up abilities, and an equal facility with both high- and middlebrow sensibilities. And on top of that, he’s a good writer (his Kissinger biography—which he wrote when? At what hour of the day?—is a brilliant thing). What’s more, he can go to an endless number of parties without apparent fatigue.

He has—at least up until now—accomplished that thing that is so elusive to and so sought-after by the rest of us: a perfect career. As able an organization man as he was a journalist, he made Time Inc. his own. Really, he just never made a mistake. Never got caught out. Or at least never failed to recover beautifully when he had to recover.

Walter is a yuppie platonic ideal. (Walter, in fact, may be what we of a certain middle-aged media generation talk about instead of talking about girls.)

It is of no small significance to the Walter myth that he accomplished what he accomplished at Time Inc., and then Time Warner, and then AOL Time Warner—that he stayed within this fold right up until now. For one thing, these are arguably the most vicious and fraught companies that have ever existed—so to have risen for nearly 25 years there almost without setback is the feat of a remarkable career athlete; there aren’t a handful of others who have done it. For another, these companies, Time Inc. and its successors, represent, in their transformations and grandiosity and shamelessness, all of our media lives. This is, for better or worse, our company (as New York is our city). And Walter, for many of us, has been the manifestation of the most extreme demands, the most difficult contortions, of this company and this life.

Of course, not everyone who shares the Walter obsession feels a sense of admiration. Indeed, how you regard Walter—as perfect example or bad example—in some sense defines your bias in our media generation: Do you accept the career itself as the art—and therefore see Walter as representing a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress figure? Or do you see careerists, of which Walter would be the highest expression—not so much Machiavelli as Eddie Haskell—as the real agents of the whole mess we’re in (these anti-careerists refer to Walter as Wally, in an effort to deprive him of his very Walterness)?

But from either view, it was a stunning moment when Walter announced his departure from CNN. For the latter group, there was the possibility that some rough justice had occurred: Walter had finally been taken down by the same sort of hubris (in Walter’s case, his assumption that he could, without a hitch, move from success in magazines to success in television) that was taking down the whole of AOL Time Warner (which, as foolishly, assumed it could segue from magazines to all other media). For the former group, it was an existential moment for our Pilgrim—how would he finally deal with failure?

It may be, though, that we are so eager to prove that Walter is, in the end, mortal that we’re missing the more obvious point: If Walter is one of the greatest careerists of our time, then the move he is making now probably has far more nuanced meaning than the morality play we small minds would make it.

In the Walter-got-his-comeuppance view, he is seen as part of the purge that has so far taken the careers of Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, and, the day before Walter’s exit, Steve Case. In this Kremlinology, Walter is former AOL Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin’s creation. A decade ago, Levin, searching for someone to help him with his inexpert technological hankerings, vaulted the also inexpert Walter out of the ranks of Time’s many senior editors and brought him to the hallowed thirty-fourth floor and a big office suite and into the new role of editor of new media. Walter led the effort to create Pathfinder—history’s first razzle-dazzle Website—and, not insignificantly, was most responsible for the Internet’s becoming, with Time’s imprimatur, an advertising-driven medium (if you connect the fateful dots, this dream of selling advertising is what ultimately brought AOL down). Then, just before Pathfinder flopped, Walter was whisked back to Time, where he was made managing editor and where, arguably, he saved the idea of the news magazine—by exchanging worldly hard news for domesticated soft news (TOO MUCH HOMEWORK!). Then, just before the great nineties ad boom expired, Walter was promoted to Time Inc. editorial director—one step from the Henry Grunwald Time Inc. editor-in-chief job that, nobody doubted, he was born to have.

At which point the AOL deal happened. Walter aligned himself squarely with Levin and with AOL’s Bob Pittman. Early on, he tried to become the editorial director of the combined new-media–old-media operation. When that didn’t work out, he took the possibly even grander job of CNN chairman. This is a hard job in any circumstance, but it’s an impossible job when the guys who put you in the job themselves get ousted. Walter, in other words, when the stakes were as high as they get, finally played a bad hand.

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