on with kara swisher

Walter Isaacson on Whether Elon Musk’s Ends Justify Being Mean

Kara Swisher talks with the author about his new Musk biography, cruelty, and more.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix/Shutterstock

Kara Swisher definitely isn’t tired of talking about Elon Musk, she assures producer Nayeema Raza at the start of the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher. Musk’s importance and outsize influence in multiple key industries isn’t going away, and neither should open debate about what makes him tick — or why, as Swisher puts it, Musk’s “bad part” has outmatched his potential during this new Twitter-dominated period of his career.

In the episode, recorded in front of a live audience at the New Orleans Book Festival, Kara has a long, periodically contentious conversation with Walter Isaacson, the famed biographer of Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein — and, most recently, Elon Musk. Isaacson has shadowed Musk for his upcoming book, including when Musk took over Twitter and amid the controversy and chaos that followed. In the interview, Swisher asks Isaacson why he wanted to write about Musk’s life, what he learned, how Musk and Jobs compare, and what he makes of Musk’s cruelty toward others.

While they both mostly agree about the impact Musk has had as an innovator, they disagree about plenty of the rest. “It’s really hard to know where the person stops and the visionary begins,” Kara later tells Nayeema back in the studio, referring to her ongoing debate with Isaacson about Musk, “and that I think is where we part ways.” Below is the complete transcript of their conversation.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: I want to start, first, you’ve written a biography of Kissinger, Ben Franklin. It’s interesting, because you go from alive people to dead people rather interestingly.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, you can figure out why. I mean, after I did Kissinger and dealing with him, I said, Okay, next time I’ll do somebody who’s been dead for 200 years. Yeah, so I did Ben Franklin. I do Franklin and Einstein. And your friend Steve Jobs, who was —

Kara Swisher: Yeah, he wasn’t my friend. But okay.

Walter Isaacson: Well, he said, “Do me next.” Yes.

Kara Swisher: Okay. Is that how he said it? That’s kind of strange.

Walter Isaacson: And I’m like, “Okay. Ben Franklin. Albert Einstein. You?”

Kara Swisher: Did he really say, “Do me”? Okay. Doesn’t sound like the Steve Jobs I know.

Walter Isaacson: Well, after I did him, I decided on somebody that had been dead 500 years and went back to Leonardo.

Kara Swisher: And then, of course, he then, then did die. So then you did The Innovators, a group of hackers, how they created digital revolution. Leonardo da Vinci, he’s definitely dead. And then you did Jennifer Doudna and gene editing, who I’ve interviewed, who did CRISPR. So tell us how you happened upon doing Elon Musk’s, what is it, biography?

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. It’s a biography, and it’s because he is the most interesting person around today. And I happened upon it well before he thought of buying Twitter. And I thought, Okay, he’s doing two of the most interesting things you could possibly do. He’s bringing us into the era of sustainable energy with electric vehicles, solar, and battery storage. And he’s bringing us back after — for ten years, America has not been able to send anybody into orbit. He has been able to send humans into orbit and is bringing us into a new era of space exploration. I said, Well, this is the most interesting person around.

Kara Swisher: So how did you approach him? What was the approach?

Walter Isaacson: It was kind of interesting. We have a mutual, I’ll say friend — you know Antonio Gracias, who was on the board, longtime Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. And he said, “You know, you probably ought to think about doing Elon Musk.” And I said “Yeah. I mean, I love space travel. I love climate and electrification.” And he said, “Well, I’ll arrange a phone conversation with you.” So I was at a friend’s house, staying a summer weekend, and we had this conversation. And it goes on for more than an hour, Elon Musk and myself.

Kara Swisher: Yeah. He can talk.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, no, I was the one talking. And I said, you know, “I’d love to, I think I’d love to do it, but you have no control. It’s gonna be biography. It’s gonna be mine. I want you to open up,” et cetera. He said, “Yeah, I think let’s just do it.”

And I said, “Sounds good.” He said, “Well, can I tell people?” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” So I went from our little part of the guest cottage into the main house. Now people go, “Oh my God.” I said, “What happened?” They said, “We were just getting all these emails that you’re doing Elon Musk,” and he had put it on Twitter as he was speaking to me, and I was like, my agent is there and you know, all these people getting emails like 20 minutes later. That he had tweeted out “Walter Isaacson’s writing this book.”

Kara Swisher: Yeah, he’s got a little problem with impulse control. But we’ll get into that in a second. I obviously know him well. I’ve interviewed him dozens of times, and in public.

Walter Isaacson: Dozens, yeah, and you have an awkward relationship with him

Kara Swisher: Today I do.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah.

Kara Swisher: Yes, I don’t appreciate someone tweeting homophobic, misogynist, and other things, racially insensitive things, continually. And it ultimately did break down our relationship. But I did have great admiration for the inspirational part of what he was doing. So you started doing that, and then you spent, you had been spending how many hours with him?

Walter Isaacson: I travel around with him, spend quite a bit of time in Austin. I love going to Star Base, which, as you know, is the place at the very, very southern tip of Texas near Brownsville, but nothing else. And you know, Boca Chica, and you stay in Airstream trailers and they have the launchpad for what will be the largest movable object ever made by humans, which is Starship, which he hopes eventually will go to Mars. So I spent a lot of time down there and some time in Fremont, California, and in —

Kara Swisher: Which is where Tesla is.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. Tesla is Silicon Valley and then down in Los Angeles, which is where both the SpaceX headquarters and the design studio is. I said: “Here’s the way I want to do it. I don’t want to just write a biography based on ten interviews, or 20 interviews. I just want to shadow you the whole time. I want to be in every meeting. I want to, you know, watch you go up and down the assembly line at Fremont or the Rocket assembly line at Hawthorne, California.” And he just lets me be there as a shadow.

And so it’s almost like Boswell got to do with Dr. Johnson. I think I’ve had more access than anybody we know to the most interesting person possible. I’ve had more access than anybody’s ever had to a biography subject.

Kara Swisher: Is that a surprise to you, that he gave you such access? I mean, he’s an enormous narcissist. You understand that? So I can see why he would like Walter Isaacson following him around.

Walter Isaacson: I think that’s a little, I mean, I don’t think that what drives him is narcissism.

Kara Swisher: Okay. Tell me.

Walter Isaacson: I think that, um, this is gonna sound … actually, you’ll probably get it and believe it. He is driven by a sense of mission, and there are three or four missions, some of which are just so ethereal, such as: Humans have to be a multi-planetary species because consciousness will die out if we don’t become multi-planetary before the window closes on this this planet. I mean, at first I thought this is something that people say in inspirational pep talks to their employees or in podcasts to Joe Rogan, but it’s not something you really — he believes that.

Kara Swisher: Yes, he does.

Walter Isaacson: He also believes in sustainability and that we have to move to the era of electric vehicles.

And you have to remember when he started, even 2007, 2008, GM had killed the electric car. Every other company had killed electric cars. And he said, “If we don’t do it, we’ll never get to the era of sustainable energy.”

Kara Swisher: Absolutely.

Walter Isaacson: I think he’s not driven by, what do you call it, narcissism. I don’t think he’s driven by money.

Kara Swisher: That’s true.

Walter Isaacson: But I do agree with you. He doesn’t have much more impulse control than most people we know.

Kara Swisher: Well, I wanna get to that in a minute because it’s moved into a curdled, into cruelty, actually, in a lot of ways. And we’ll get to it. I, I, I feel when you attack someone with muscular dystrophy, inaccurately, to your millions of followers, it’s cruel. It becomes cruel. The power. But we’ll get to that in a second because I want to talk about the actual things that are inspirational. First, Tesla, which, I met him when he was at X.com, and this was a payments company, but before that, I met him when he had essentially a Yellow Pages that he was running and —

Walter Isaacson: Zip2.

Kara Swisher: Zip2. Right. It was that he made a little bit of money from that, not a lot. And he, and I think he was pushed out, like a lot of these entrepreneurs.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, like Steve Jobs, like a lot of people, you start a company and then you get eased out, either by the funders, the venture capitalists who think you need adult supervision, or because he’s the most intense, hard-core character there is. And so he’ll stay up till 4 a.m. making everybody work and then play video games till 6 a.m. and then think the people who are not still there standing with him aren’t serious.

Kara Swisher: Sure. He was a little calmer then, as I recall. But nonetheless, he had done these series of things. X.com was competing with PayPal, and then he went on to start Tesla — or not to start, someone else had started Tesla — he got involved.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, well, he was originally, I mean, they’re all co-founders in the sense that Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning had the idea for the company but no funding and hadn’t really got it going.

Kara Swisher: Right. He’s been the driver. There’s no question.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, Musk brings in the funding. They bring in two or three other people. Musk brings in J.B. Straubel, who, you know. So one of the interesting things about companies is the argument over who is really the founder. And you even have that with Paul Allen and Bill Gates. You have it with, to some extent, Wozniak. And so in any company that’s successful, people think it was their company — and they’re all sincere.

Kara Swisher: So he did this, he was the driver, so to speak, in a car company. He really was the one that pushed it through. And the reason I was attracted to him is because everybody else was doing an idiotic dating service or a laundry service for …

Walter Isaacson: He was doing things with physical objects.

Kara Swisher: Well, not just that — that were difficult and inspirational. And so it was unusual. I always used to joke that San Francisco was full of entrepreneurs, uh, helping young people have assisted living. So San Francisco was assisted —

Walter Isaacson: But also what you go back to, the famous line of Peter Thiel, which is: They promised us flying cars and what we got was 140 characters — meaning the stupid … we got these stupid little …

Kara Swisher: That’s the only interesting thing Peter Thiel has said. Um, but that’s true. It wasn’t something — he was unusual, they were not doing, and it was very hard and possibly would be a failure. So that’s what was attractive to me: someone actually taking on a real problem.

Walter Isaacson: The degree of difficulty. And it wasn’t just a digital thing, it wasn’t just software, something you could do in your basement or your garage or your garret or your dorm room. He was making rocket ships and cars.

Kara Swisher: Cars. Right, exactly. Which was very inspirational and unusual at the time, and there are more people that have gotten into all these various things and in main investments.

Walter Isaacson: Name one.

Kara Swisher: Uh, there’s lots of people I know have made satellite investments, I’m just saying. But nobody has done these two together. Absolutely, 100 percent. There’s no question. What’s really hard is to sort out the visionary from what’s happening now. And we’re gonna get into that in a second. So he starts this company. I know you wanna to say —

Walter Isaacson: But keep a pin in that, because vision without execution is hallucination.

Kara Swisher: Yes. Absolutely.

Walter Isaacson: And the question that you gotta get to with Elon Musk is he was able to execute. He built the factories.

Kara Swisher: A hundred percent. A hundred percent. And I recall there were ups and downs at one point when I interviewed him, he had gotten so upset that Tesla was gonna go out of business. And it was unusual for someone to say to me, “If I don’t succeed, humanity will die.” And I was like ​—

Walter Isaacson: And what’s even more unusual is that he believed that.

Kara Swisher: He did. Which I thought was a little bit over his skis on that one. And I kept calling him, and when the Trump administration came in, when he was going to that meeting with all the tech people, he’s like, “I can convince him not to be anti-immigrant. I can convince him not to be racist.” And I was like, well, “Jesus, I’m glad you’re here,” but I feel like you’re not —

Walter Isaacson: That’s why we’re journalists and they’re players in the arena, though.

Kara Swisher: So he moved on from Tesla. And then moved to SpaceX and other things. Now, today, you’re in the middle of this, you’re — that’s what you were thinking the book was going to be about. Correct? And you delved into his history, you’re delving into his history. Correct. His childhood.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. I mean, we start the book with this astonishingly difficult childhood in South Africa with a father who is Darth Vader and who still is still alive, but haunts Elon every day.

Kara Swisher: And still is Darth Vader, from what I can tell. Hasn’t made the transition to Nice Darth Vader. Correct?

Walter Isaacson: Correct. And as Elon’s mother says, you know, the story of the life is to make sure he doesn’t turn out to be like his dad.

Kara Swisher: Uh-huh. So it’s what haunts and moves him in many ways.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. But look, one rule, one rule of biographers of, uh, important people. And don’t take this in a gender or sexist way, but it’s all about Dad. Einstein when his father has gone bankrupt doing electricity. Ben Franklin when his father runs away. Jennifer Doudna, even, inspired by a father. Barack Obama’s sentence in his memoir that he begins with, that every successful man is either trying to make up for the sins of his father or live up to the expectations, and that explains me. So when you’re starting a biography, and sometimes it’s a mother too, but the mother — am I gonna get in trouble here?

Kara Swisher: Please. Please do.

Walter Isaacson: Tends to be more loving. I mean, tends to be more unconditionally loving in the cases of powerful people. And Steve Jobs had it doubly because he had a biological father and an adoptive father, and they were both haunting him.

Kara Swisher: So when you think about this, I, I don’t know what you do in cases of lesbians, but I won’t ask you. Um, my kids seem to be doing rather well.

Walter Isaacson: Julia Prosser, who’s the publicist here, keeps giving me hand signals.

Kara Swisher: Like “Stop, stop.”

Walter Isaacson: “Don’t go there.”

Kara Swisher: One of the things that’s worrisome, maybe, that some people raise, is that it excuses behavior. That this troubled angry child grows up to — and this is why —

Walter Isaacson: You know, the problem with the biographer is you explain a behavior. And you can explain it by either troubled childhood, or you can explain it by what I’ll call the hard wiring. As he says, he has Asperger’s. There are people wired different ways. And Steve Jobs was wired differently.

Kara Swisher: I’m gonna ask about him in a second.

Walter Isaacson: And sometimes that means your ability to show empathy. I mean, especially if you look at somebody with autism-spectrum things, they’re different. So you explain all that, and then I will probably have people saying to me, “Oh, you tried to excuse the fact that he was mean to this person.” And I said I’m trying to explain the fact because we’re all human, and when you understand somebody better, I just think that makes all of our lives more interesting.

Kara Swisher: Well, let’s talk about Steve Jobs and the comparison, because one thing you told CNBC recently was that Elon shares a —

Walter Isaacson: I told whom?

Kara Swisher: CNBC.

Walter Isaacson: Oh, CNBC.

Kara Swisher: Yes. I’ve been tracking you very closely, Walter. He shares the traits of being “unemotional with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.” Both of whom I think are much more emotional, actually. Maybe talk about how the trait serves people day to day versus their legacy. Any differences.

Walter Isaacson: I think with Steve Jobs, for example, the book sort of begins and ends with Wozniak saying to me, “The big question you have to ask is, did he have to be so mean to people? Could he have been kinder and gentler to people?” And at the end I ask Woz the answer, what he thinks. He said, “Well, if I’d run Apple, I would’ve been much kinder to everybody. Everybody would’ve gotten stock options. every, you know, it would’ve been like family.” And then he pauses and he says, “But if I’d run Apple, we probably would’ve never have done the Macintosh, not gotten it out.”

And Steve Jobs, when I asked him that question, he said, “Where you come from” — I think he thought I came from New York or something, but not New Orleans. But he said “People like you wear velvet gloves and you talk, you know, politely. And, but if somebody screws up, I gotta say, ‘It sucks.’ I’ve gotta be the mean person.”

And this is what Musk says as well, which is, “You wanna be kind.” People like me want to be kind to the person in front of them. They never want insult them. Whereas that may make you feel good and it may make the person in front of you feel good, but it’s kind to one person instead of kind to the enterprise or kind to the mission. And so you screw up doing the mission right, and the enterprise right, because you’re trying to be so nice to individuals. And Elon Musk does not have, intuitively, the empathy gene to care that much. Whether the person in front of him likes him or thinks, you know, he is, he’s just a rough character when it comes to empathy.

Kara Swisher: Okay. Of course the person who wants to save humanity hates people, then, is what you’re saying?

Walter Isaacson: You know, that’s true of Albert Einstein. It’s true of, I mean —

Kara Swisher: Well, Thomas Edison was a well-known asshole, but go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: Henry Ford. I mean, I think that there are people who care about saving humanity and there are people who care very much about the people around them or people they meet. And, no, it’s not a Venn diagram where the overlap is a lot.

Kara Swisher: So when you think about Jobs and the comparison, talk about the difference in doing these biographies.

You spent an enormous amount of time with Jobs and then he died. He was sick when you were in, so he had a, he had a much, I think he had a little more perspective on his life. I definitely noticed a softening of him, and not in a soft way, but a reflective way, I would say.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, he was much more reflective, but not softer. When he came back from the …

Kara Swisher: … The first …

Walter Isaacson: … Transplant in Memphis, everybody thought, Okay, we’re gonna get a kinder and gentler Steve, because he had … And Jony Ive and Phil Schiller and —

Kara Swisher: These are people at Apple.

Walter Isaacson: He’s telling them everything they’ve done, it sucks. You know? And I mean, you saw that a lot. He was just rough on people. Now, I don’t defend being rough on people. I actually try to be very nice to people, but I’m never gonna invent the iPod. I’m never gonna send somebody to Mars. So it’s indulgent to be nice to people, but you shouldn’t take pride in that if you’re not doing, you know, getting something accomplished.

Kara Swisher: You know, I call it, I have a thing called a prick to productivity ratio that with people in Silicon Valley … if you’re a giant prick, you’ve gotta be —

Walter Isaacson: That’s a great— I’m gonna steal that line.

Kara Swisher: You can use it any time, but you have to be very productive in order to be that much of a prick.

Walter Isaacson: People used to come up to me and say — after I talked about Steve Jobs, and I’d said, you know, that whole thing about “If somebody’s work sucks, I have to tell ’em” — they’d come up to me and they’d say, “I’m just like Steve Jobs.”

I’d go, “Yeah, okay. Tell me how.”

“Because if any of my employees do something and it’s not great, I just tell ’em it sucks.”

I said, “Have you ever invented the iPod? Have you ever created the iPhone?” And that is basically the prick to productivity ratio.

Kara Swisher: So they’re just prick, all prick. So when you — I know all of them, by the way, just so you know, I’ve covered them all for many decades now.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. Is that she’s writing a memoir? Is it gonna be … Pricks Who Have Known Me, I think is the title.

Kara Swisher: No, it’s actually a great title. Maybe I’ll just call it Pricks I Have Known.

Walter Isaacson: Tell me —

Kara Swisher: Right now I’m thinking of calling it Burn Book, but we’ll see. Oh yeah. But we’ll see. So when you’re thinking about, when you wrote about him, when you look at that book now, how do you feel about it? What did you get right? What did you get wrong?

Walter Isaacson: On Steve?

Kara Swisher: Yeah.

Walter Isaacson: The Steve Jobs book I think I got right. The fingertip genius he had in connecting design to technology,

Kara Swisher: Right.

Walter Isaacson: And that at the end of his life, he told me, “You gotta do Leonardo da Vinci next.” I go, “Why?” He said, “Because what you write about is people can connect the arts to the sciences, the technology.”

Kara Swisher: That was his big thing. It was.

Walter Isaacson: And Leonardo and Vitruvian man, you know, the naked guy doing jumping jacks in the circle.

Kara Swisher: Which I believe is owned by Bill Gates. But go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: Owned — well, yeah, no, not quite. But anyway, that I think is why, you know, Bill Gates was here a couple days ago and Bill Gates is much more brilliant in terms of coding and analysis than Steve Jobs was, but Bill Gates invents the Zune, and Steve Jobs invents the iPod. You’re probably one of 12 people in this room who even remember what the Zune was.

Kara Swisher: I still have my Zune. Yeah.

Walter Isaacson: The Zune was an MP4 player that looked like it was designed in a basement in Uzbekistan by blind people.

Kara Swisher: Right.

Walter Isaacson: It was ugly.

Kara Swisher: I will tell you a very brief, funny story. Walt Mossberg brought, who was my partner for many years, brought the Zune to Steve Jobs and it was square; it was this weird, shitty brown color. I don’t know what else to say. That’s what it looked like. Poop. And so Walt started to hand it to him. And Jobs, because he was ridiculously dramatic, overdramatic, Walt started to hand it to him, and Jobs went like this: “Ugh.”

Walter Isaacson: Yeah.

Kara Swisher: Like, I cannot touch this. This is so ugly. I can not touch it.

Walter Isaacson: Important. And you know, the Steve Levy counterpart was when Steve gives the iPod to Bill Gates and Bill Gates just goes into a zone and just tries to grok the whole thing.

Kara Swisher: Which he couldn’t.

Walter Isaacson: And can’t take his, take his eyes off of, by the way,

Kara Swisher: By the way, he did call the iPod, Bill Gates, to me and Walt, he said it was “trivial.” It was “just a hard drive in a white box.” That’s what he said to us. He said it was trivial. And so I said, “Well, if it was so easy, why didn’t you do it?”

Walter Isaacson: By the way, I’m gonna tell you something that Bill Gates said here, because it connects to both Steve and Elon Musk. Bill Gates the night before last, at the end of the interview, I was asking about artificial intelligence and OpenAI, and he started talking about how last September they brought it to him. He said, “Well, that’s no good and I won’t be impressed until it can get a five on the AP biology exam.” And they bring it back to him and it gets a five on the AP. He says: I’m now back at Microsoft. Satya has asked me back. I’m doing product reviews of connecting AI to security, AI to, you know, communicate all of our things we do. And so you’ve seen it. How Bill Gates would sit there at product-review meetings going like that. He’s back in the Microsoft offices doing product-review meetings on how to connect AI, because they of course have the rights to ChatGPT from OpenAI. Now who started OpenAI?

Kara Swisher: Elon Musk.

Walter Isaacson: Elon Musk.

Kara Swisher: All right, with Sam Altman, with many people.

Walter Isaacson: And Sam Altman. They split, and there is gonna be such a rivalry there.

Kara Swisher: Well, there’s gonna be a rivalry, and there’s sort of an arms race going on. A little bit sloppy. I’m a little bit worried about how quickly they’re rolling this stuff out without safety measures, but that’s what they did with the internet, so why not try it again, ’cause that worked out so well …

So let’s go into the comparison. What would Steve Jobs think about Elon?

Walter Isaacson: As you know, Elon Musk went to go visit Apple about a month and a half ago. And they both have a control sense, that you gotta control things from end to end. Whether it’s they have to control the manufacturing, the anode and the cathode of the battery and the rolling of the battery and the making of the battery pack and the manufacturing and whatever.

And Steve Jobs, too, had that feeling, that for, say, the iPhone you have to control the iTunes store, you have to control the content, you have to have the iOS software, and you have to have the hardware. Unlike Bill Gates, who was quite happy to make the DOS and Windows operating system and license it to Compact and HP and Dell and everything. So the end-to-end control is the common thread that they have. The one big difference. And this is your friend Larry Ellison, who’s only —

Kara Swisher: He’s also not my friend, but go ahead. None of these people are my friend. I cover them. Larry and I don’t hang out on the weekend.

Walter Isaacson: Larry Ellison’s been on two boards: Apple and Tesla. And I said, “What’s the difference?” He said what Musk gets is that if you want to be innovative day after day, you have to do the manufacturing yourself. You can’t outsource it and say the iPhone will be built in China and that you have to be on the factory line every day. And so what Musk says is that the machine is difficult to make, meaning the car, the rocket, whatever, but much more important is the machine that builds the machine.

Kara Swisher: Sure.

Walter Isaacson: How to design the factory. And Steve Jobs never went to China, never walked the assembly line.

Kara Swisher: That was Tim Cook’s job.

Walter Isaacson: Whereas Musk, if you asked me what’s the most surprising thing, it is the amount of time he spends on the assembly lines, not in product, just reviews, meeting,

Kara Swisher: All right. But what would Steve Jobs think of Elon Musk?

Walter Isaacson: What would Steve Jobs think? First you, because you know him, and I’ll try to think through while you’re answering.

Kara Swisher: I think he would’ve abhorred him.

Walter Isaacson: Abhorred him. Why?

Kara Swisher: Jazz hands in a way that’s pointless and cruel.

Walter Isaacson: Who?

Kara Swisher: Jazz hands. “Woo! Look at me!” The “look at me.” The obsession with looking at himself even through casual cruelty. I don’t think that was Steve Jobs in any way.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, I don’t know that Steve Jobs, if you said, what are the top ten qualities you respect in a person, would have niceness as one of the top ten.

Kara Swisher: No, not necessarily, but not cruelty. It’s very different.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. Uh, you’ll have to read the book. The “cruelty” is a simple thing to slap on, but I think it’s more complex.

Kara Swisher: All right. Let’s slap it on then. Paul Pelosi gets beaten up. Elon Musk immediately, had just took over Twitter, decides to tweet and comment on a trope that it was a gay love spat and kind of blame Paul Pelosi for it. It was abhorrent, Walter.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, that was a really, really bad thing to say.

Kara Swisher: I don’t feel Steve Jobs would’ve done that. Ever.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. Okay.

Kara Swisher: That’s not cruel from your perspective?

Walter Isaacson: It was really bad. Yeah, it was, and it was wrong, and it was factually inaccurate.

Kara Swisher: Often he is, he’s frequently wrong, but never in doubt.

Walter Isaacson: And I, well, and then he deletes it. I mean, I think he’s very impulsive and yes, there’s not a filter that most people have, which is what you would call the kindness filter or the lack of cruelty filter sometimes.

Kara Swisher: Why does it keep going on? So you get there and suddenly he buys Twitter. What happened there, because I, listen, this was always part of Elon’s makeup. Ninety percent was fascinating. Ten percent was needlessly cruel, juvenile, and meme oriented. Also …

Walter Isaacson: I’m sorry, of what?

Kara Swisher: Meme oriented? Just memes. Like a 12-year-old boy on perpetual —

Walter Isaacson: You mean Twitter in general.

Kara Swisher: His behaviors, his little jokes, et cetera, et cetera. One time we were in a meeting with someone very important, and he would only talk through a monkey that he — a stuffed monkey — that he had next to him, to the person. Stuff like that. I didn’t mind.

Walter Isaacson: By the way, you’re saying what is true is he’s the most interesting character around today.

Kara Swisher: I just thought it was bizarre. I didn’t think it was interesting.

Walter Isaacson: And I am absolutely fascinated by somebody who is this interesting, this intense, has been this unbelievably successful. And I don’t mean in making money, though he is the richest person on the planet.

Kara Swisher: Not right now.

Walter Isaacson: But I mean, in getting rockets to orbit when NASA can’t do it.

Kara Swisher: Get it. I get it. I had this argument with Marc Benioff. He’s like, “There’s two sides to every coin.” I said, “People aren’t coins. They are much more — so what?”

Walter Isaacson: There’s a million sides to every facet of personality

Kara Swisher: I get that, but 10 percent of them were like this, which you’re seeing on Twitter.

All these outbursts, often not very nice, often scathing to people like he did with the Icelandic entrepreneur, and then he was wrong again. He insulted this guy, you know about this, Holly. And then took it back because probably legal and financial issues all of a sudden were presented to him. It was a very id response. That was 10 percent of him. Now it’s 90 as far as I can tell. And the 10 percent, that the other part is gone. What has happened over the ownership of Twitter? What have you seen when you’re covering that?

Walter Isaacson: Well, I think you’ll be surprised at what he is doing and wants to do with Twitter. On the surface you can say everything about this dumb tweet and, and yeah, I’m not gonna defend any Paul Pelosi tweet, and he probably wouldn’t today. But if you start at the beginning of his career, as you did, let’s say, oh not the pure beginning … X.com, and wanting to have a social network with a financial system connected to it …

Kara Swisher: Yep. That’s the goal.

Walter Isaacson: And that’s, I mean, what I’m trying to do is, I mean, if you want, we can just talk about every tweet he did and should he have done that —

Kara Swisher: No, I don’t want to. But it’s a pattern.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. But if you wanna look at the big goal, it’s disrupting the banking industry as he did with the thing that became PayPal, but then he left and it didn’t do it. If you connect banking and finance. And just in our lives, say, journalism and creation of content and writing and Substack and others, if you make it so there’s easy digital payments and that people who make content can be rewarded in a simpler way and you connect that to a social network, that will be as transformative as anything that’s happened online since the invention of social networks.

Kara Swisher: Well, it’s already happened in China.

Walter Isaacson: Already happened. A social network …

Kara Swisher: You know, there’s government — this is not a new, fresh idea that they’re doing.

Walter Isaacson: No. I mean, nor was sending rocket ships to Mars. I mean, a hundred years ago, people were —

Kara Swisher: Well, that is fresh. Actually, I would call that fresh, but go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: No, I’m not saying … but nobody here is doing that. And if you take a notion, that content, and you try to merge WeChat, Substack, PayPal, Venmo, Twitter, banks, and put it all together, you have transformed not just what you do online, you’ve transformed your life. Which is: How do I get rewarded for the content I create? These are the bigger ideas that I think people almost get distracted from when they say, “Why did he tweet about Paul Pelosi?”

Kara Swisher: Why did he then? Why doesn’t he? Part of me is like, “Just get to work and shut the … up.” Shut the fuck up is what I’m thinking, but go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. And you and I would more be that way, but he’s not that way.

Kara Swisher: Right. But why do that? Why shoot yourself constantly in the foot? It’s —

Walter Isaacson: I would think that if you asked him this past New Year’s Eve, as his brother did, you know, “What do you regret?” He says, “Well, I kind of regret shooting myself in the foot all the time.” Yeah. Why does he do it?

Kara Swisher: He has a gun, apparently, that, like, goes off all the time and he’s out of feet.

Walter Isaacson: And his foot is in the way.

Kara Swisher: Right. So are people still —

Walter Isaacson: No. I mean, you know, does he shoot himself in the foot a lot? Yeah. Yeah. Does he know he does that? Yeah.

Kara Swisher: Why does he keep doing it?

Walter Isaacson: Read the book.

Kara Swisher: Okay. All right. Are people speaking truth to him? Are you?

Walter Isaacson: Uh, I’m the biographer. I’m the observer. I’m Boswell. I don’t sort of say, “Hey, by the way, your foot is right where you’re pointing that gun. Why are you going to pull the trigger?” So I don’t, there are people who are very good at giving him news and you know, some of them, they’re not that famous. But Gwynne Shotwell, Franz, you know, Franz von Holzhausen, the designer, the people at SpaceX. And he has very strong, very loyal, hard-core people around him. And at Twitter he found, I mean this was a huge divergence of corporate or company culture, and you’ve seen it in Silicon Valley. There’s one extreme where everybody has yoga and you know, mental-health days and —

Kara Swisher: Yes, I get that.

Walter Isaacson: And he wants a hard-core group posse around him. And he feels he can do more. That means he’s rough and has a hard-core group of people around him.

Kara Swisher: Sure.

Walter Isaacson: They push back often. Does he get bad news often enough? Well, I would say it probably would be more useful if he got more people saying, “Don’t aim that at your foot right away.” However, because he barrels through these things, he has been able to do things that nobody else has been able to do.

Kara Swisher: That kind of —

Walter Isaacson: When you write a —

Kara Swisher: That sounds like the plot of the movie where Drew Barrymore lights everybody on fire, Fire Starter, which is: Oh, well, she’s got a lot of powers and she does blow up everything, but hey, she’s talented.

Walter Isaacson: I didn’t see the movie

Kara Swisher: Yeah, okay. It doesn’t end well.

Walter Isaacson: Okay. Well this movie, we’ll see.

Kara Swisher: We’ll see.

Kara Swisher: So are you, one of the things I worry about is enablers. I think a lot of these Silicon, not just Elon, there’s enablers that grow up around these very wealthy people —

Walter Isaacson: Well, you know, with Steve Jobs —

Kara Swisher: Did not have a lot of enablers.

Walter Isaacson: Correct. And Steve Jobs early on when he had the original Macintosh team, was very much, Elon Musk–like, “I want a hard-core team. We’re gonna put a pirate flag on top of the building.” You remember, you wrote about it.

Kara Swisher: Yes. I always find the world’s richest people acting like they’re pirates kind of vaguely ridiculous, but go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: Uh, well, it’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy.

Kara Swisher: Yet they’re not pirates, but go ahead. Go ahead.

Walter Isaacson: So every year they secretly, amongst that group, gave an award to the person who best stood up to Steve Jobs. What you may like, is the first three years it was won by women. Each time.

Kara Swisher: Of course, not a surprise.

Walter Isaacson: Deb Coleman, Joanna, what was her name? Joan —

Kara Swisher: Yeah, I know who it is, yeah.

Walter Isaacson: And one other. And what was particularly interesting is every one of them, when Steve Jobs eventually found out, but every one of them he promoted. That is an important task of leadership.

Kara Swisher: That is correct.

Walter Isaacson: Is to have somebody around you who stands up and you know, says, you know, “Don’t go king crazy.” You know, just because you think you’re the king, don’t go crazy on it. And you could probably go down the list of everybody I’ve written about and say, “Do they have enough people who push back on them?”

Kara Swisher: Yeah. So I find that absolutely true. Steve Jobs was very willing to accept criticism and liked it actually. One time —

Walter Isaacson: And I think that Musk does that a lot more than people think. He always at meetings will say, and look, I can tell —

Kara Swisher: Really, because I find a lot of all guys, mostly guys, sitting around laughing at his jokes. That’s what I see.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah, and I think you’ll see something different in the book.

Kara Swisher: I hope to, but I think there’s a lot of violent agreement with him and head shaking in many ways. On the little stuff they argue with them, but the main stuff, not so much.

Walter Isaacson: What main stuff?

Kara Swisher: Well, I, you know —

Walter Isaacson: Should you tweet about Paul Pelosi? I mean —

Kara Swisher: No, no. But that shows some character flaws.

Walter Isaacson: No, I’m telling you —

Kara Swisher: I’m just using that as an example because there’ve been dozens of them.

Walter Isaacson: Okay. Radar in the car. Should the car have radar? There’s a lot of pushback on, back and forth on that, and sometimes he’s creating new programs to do it.

Kara Swisher: Sure. Sure. But let me say, I think I’m one of the people who did push back on Elon, a lot, in a very friendly way. Because I really do have a lot of regard for him. And when I didn’t —

Walter Isaacson: How did you push back?

Kara Swisher: Lots of different — like, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” You know, stuff like that. “Why are you doing it this way?” The COVID thing we used, you know, when he was being really quite tone deaf around COVID initially, we had an argument. All kinds of stuff.

Walter Isaacson: Who was right.

Kara Swisher: Well, a million people died. So, you know, I feel like —

Walter Isaacson: No, I meant, but COVID was a complex —

Kara Swisher: One hundred percent. It just was, he was certain —

Walter Isaacson: Of whether this should have been lockdowns.

Kara Swisher: That’s correct. He was certain. I was like, “We don’t know yet.” And I feel like, anyway — I’m not gonna get into this.

Walter Isaacson: I do agree that he sometimes has a higher degree of certainty than I have. And maybe you have.

Kara Swisher: Without information. Because he was giving me all kinds of information and I kept calling him “Dr. Musk” — and he wouldn’t stop. But that’s okay. I just felt it was like someone who didn’t know what they were talking about … just never stopping talking.

Walter Isaacson: And sometimes people like me, I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Kara Swisher: Well, that’s true.

Walter Isaacson:  I got COVID wrong.

Kara Swisher: But I get that. So the, the last question I wanna ask you is when you think about that, you know —

Walter Isaacson: We’re not going to get to Ben Franklin, sort of the friendly dudes?

Kara Swisher: We’re not talking about Ben Franklin. He’s dead.

Walter Isaacson: Hey, you know, he’s wonderful. He goes in Phila—

Kara Swisher: You wrote that 109 years ago, so I don’t really care about that, but please buy it, everybody. Please buy the book and buy them all together along with … there’s gonna be a package with the Elon Musk book. Um, when is the book release date?

Walter Isaacson: We have to see what happens. Like, you know, Starship going into space, things —

Kara Swisher: Him going into space.

Walter Isaacson: You know, your other billionaire friends are all sending themselves in space. He never thought of doing that for himself.

Kara Swisher: But he did tell me that he wanted to.

Walter Isaacson: He wanted to send you into space, probably.

Kara Swisher: Probably. He said he wanted to die on Mars, just not on landing, which was a very adorable thing to say. But no, the reason he didn’t talk to me is I pushed, I didn’t even push back on something. He misread a quote or one of his enablers did. And he just wrote me a note saying, “You’re an asshole.” And I’m like, “go fuck yourself.” And that was the end of that.

Walter Isaacson: That seems like a, you know —

Kara Swisher: Well, it’s ridiculous.

Walter Isaacson: That, that’s the type of exchange that doesn’t surprise me.

Kara Swisher: Yeah. But he doesn’t wanna listen to people who disagree with them. In any case, we can argue about that. I’m excited to read your book, but when you’re … the last question, um, has he threatened to cut you off? Because I think he’s gonna cut you at some point. That’s my prediction.

Walter Isaacson: Look, I’m just shadowing him. I mean, I don’t feel that I’m a participant in this game at the moment. Last time I was onstage like this, yesterday, was with Brian Green. And one of the most amazing things in this cosmos is that they’re particles that are entangled, and by observing them, you change their position, you know, Heisenberg to Schrodinger, et cetera. My role is not to be engaged with him. My role is to watch, take notes, and tell the story. And the story is this awesome, epic, complex story. So it’s not about: Does he like me, do I? you know, it’s —

Kara Swisher: Well, I don’t care if he likes me either.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. This is not what it’s about. It’s about having a ringside seat into the most interesting, and you’ll admit that —

Kara Swisher: Sure is.

Walter Isaacson: … The most interesting person on the planet right now doing the most interesting things and driving people crazy in the process. And I’m just there to tell a narrative story that helps you understand it. It explains why things happened. And there’ll be people who say, “Oh, you explained it, so you are justifying this or that or the other.”

Kara Swisher: Sure. You’re gonna get a lot of that.

Walter Isaacson: I’m gonna get a lot of that.

Kara Swisher: Probably from me.

Walter Isaacson: Yeah. Probably from you, but hopefully you’ll finish your memoirs before you get mad at my book.

Kara Swisher: I will make some determinations about these people in my book. You’ll know what I think.

Walter Isaacson: Right. But you’re different from that. I mean, you are somebody who is paid and adored to have strong opinions about these things. I just come from a different background.

I worked from the Times Picayune. I went there, I covered a story. I reported the story. People didn’t pay me to have my opinions on it. They paid me to get the narrative right. I had a mentor here, who’s a writer, meaning he was my mentor, Walker Percy, the really great novelist. And at one point I talked to him, and I was saying, “Hey, your book, The Moviegoer” — I was like 15 — “you’re trying to teach me something, or is there something in there I’m missing? What is it about?”

He said, “Well, there are two types of people come out of Louisiana, preachers and storytellers.” He said, “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller. The world’s got too many preachers.” And so I don’t try to preach in the book.

Kara Swisher: I have one final question. Just one single answer. Is Elon Steve Jobs, or is he Howard Hughes?

Walter Isaacson: Oh, he’s Steve Jobs. But I mean, in the sense that, I mean, I’m not totally an expert on Howard Hughes, but I’m not —

Kara Swisher: Great strides in aviation.

Walter Isaacson: What?

Kara Swisher: Great strides in aviation.

Walter Isaacson: Okay. Steve Jobs, who I, as you know, enormously respect, he transformed things with the iPhone — our whole lives are transformed — and making the first computer you can take out a box, plug it in.

Kara Swisher: Interesting. We’ll leave it at that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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