Kara Swisher couldn’t wait to interview — and cross-examine — her longtime friend Walter Isaacson about his new biography of Elon Musk, but she did wait to do so until after the reviews, and fact checks, had all come out. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, she finally gets her showdown, armed with not only her own criticism but everyone else’s as well. Below is the full transcript of their long conversation, in which Kara presses Isaacson on how and why he wrote the book and tries to get him to respond to nearly all of the complaints thus far.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: So I’ve really been looking forward to this. I really have. I first want to say congratulations on the book. It’s getting a ton of attention and will no doubt be a best seller for many weeks ahead, or months. But I have to say it’s turned out as I expected it would when we talked in New Orleans. As you remember, we had kind of a tough interview and we had disagreements, which is fine. Let me just be clear. Walter and I are friends. We have disagreements, just like friends, and this is a professional disagreement. So, I just want to know: Are you ready for a hard-core interview?! Because hard-core is what life’s all about, apparently.
Walter Isaacson: Hard-core is what Musk keeps talking about.
Swisher: That’s ridiculous.
Isaacson: When I walked into that Twitter headquarters, everybody was psychologically nurturing and friendly.
Isaacson: And he said, “We got to be hard-core.” I guess I can expect you’re going to do that.
Swisher: Please — it’s hustle porn, is what I like to call it, along with entrepreneur porn and everything else. But let me read you my mini-review of your Musk bio: “Sad and smart son slowly morphs into mentally abusive father he abhors, except with rockets, cars, and more money. Often right, sometimes wrong, petty jerk always. Might be crazy in a good way, but also a bad way. Pile O’babies. Not Steve Jobs. You’re welcome.” And that is my review of your product.
Isaacson: I read it.
Isaacson: I sort of nodded.
Isaacson: And I said, “Okay, let me go through each and every word.” It’s like, wow. Maybe I should have had you write the last chapter.
Swisher: Yes, I should have. So let’s talk about it. How would you characterize the reception and reaction of the book in general? How would you characterize it?
Isaacson: Well, he’s got so many fanboys that think he walks on water, and he’s got so many enemies that think he’s truly evil. And I was kind of surprised that most of the reviews and most of the discussion was pretty straightforward. I mean, there were some critical reviews, like the one on The Guardian that I think you pointed out. That was a thoughtful, legitimate criticism of the book. Now, maybe because my wife is shielding me from it or something, I haven’t seen things that were massively unfair. But let me tell you something. My daughter told me, “After the book comes out, just shut off reading what is now called X.” So, I haven’t seen what may be either wet kisses or darts being slung at me on that platform.
Swisher: So, you’re not on X. You’re not on X right now.
Isaacson: I’m on, but I haven’t gone —
Swisher: Gone searching for yourself.
Isaacson: I don’t go through the notifications anymore.
Swisher: Right. Well, it’s mixed, I would say. And a lot focused on you. Have you heard from Elon about the book?
Isaacson: No. A couple of text messages … I mean, a couple of postings he did on X. I know I either read or saw where he said that he hadn’t read the book, and jokingly said Walter told him not to read it, which of course has some virtue of truth because I said that “I want to ride along with you; I want you to be totally transparent. Let me in every meeting, but you have no control over this book, and I don’t want you to read it in advance.”
Swisher: Right. So, no private exchanges. I know you were with him a few days ago with Lex Friedman, right?
Isaacson: I did the Lex podcast, and afterwards we were together, and somewhat oddly he didn’t talk about the book. I didn’t talk about the book. It was, um —
Swisher: So, you ended cordially, you have ended —
Isaacson: I guess. Elon Musk is not an emotionally connective, nurturing, or whatever, person. It was a little bit … just very professional as it’s always been. It hasn’t been like he either hugs me or slugs me.
Swisher: Not yet. Have you heard from other sources, like Errol Musk, his father?
Swisher: What has he had to say?
Isaacson: I think he sent me pictures of the kids when they were young, looking fit, and he said, “How could anybody think that I treated them badly or psychologically badly?” That said, I’ve had many communications with him over there, because he is somewhat of a Darth Vader, I guess, in the book. And he sent me many pictures over the years. And I tried, in the book, to allow him to have his say, even though Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk, Tosca Musk, Maye Musk obviously say that he was very psychologically dark at times.
Swisher: Absolutely. We’ll get to that a little bit more in this. But I first I’ve got to go to the news, actually, the factual accuracy about Elon’s decisions about Starlink in the Ukraine in September ’22. In the book, you detail — it was an inaccuracy, actually. You detail, upon discovering the Ukrainian military was planning an attack on Crimea using drones powered by Starlink, Elon “secretly told his engineers to turn off coverage within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. Elon denied this, saying there was no coverage to turn on.” Instead, he said, he refused to act upon a request, from Ukraine presumably, to reopen the Starlink access.
Isaacson: And let me just tell you a story, because I’ve tried to be as transparent as I can. It was one evening, and he told me that they were launching the secret attack, a drone attack, drone submarines, using Starlink. And he was not going to allow it. He was not allowing it to happen, that the subs were going to wash ashore because he wasn’t going to allow them to use Starlink.
I made a mistake of thinking he made that decision that night. In fact, what he did that night was he just reaffirmed that decision. As you’ve seen in the book, there are all these text messages: “You got to turn it on.” And he was saying, “No.” So I should have said it, and I’d now say, instead of “He turned it off,” that he reaffirmed the decision to have it geofenced.
And I do think … I’m not trying to be too defensive, because I’ve tried to be real open about this. I don’t think it really changes it — that that night, he gets to decide whether or not Ukraine gets to attack Crimea, and who put this power in his hands? And if you read the rest of it, because it’s all text messages, it’s not just Crimea, the 100-kilometer geofencing there, which he reaffirmed, as opposed to started, that night. But he’s actually changing in the Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine.
Swisher: Yes. That’s right.
Isaacson: And better off as saying things like, “This is my home village, my parents are there. You can’t tell me that’s an offensive thing when we go there.” So it’s larger, and I wanted to make very clear: Okay, the geofencing had been in place and the decision that night was to deny the Ukrainian request — but it gave him a lot of power.
Swisher: Yes, it certainly did. It obviously required a correction because it was a Washington Post excerpt, and you have said you’ve made a mistake here. You went online to tweet a correction or clarification: “They asked Elon to enable it for their drone sub-attack for the Russian fleet. Musk then did not enable it because he thought, probably correctly, it would cause a major war.” I get the need for the correction. But did you have to add “probably correctly”? It seemed that really —
Isaacson: Yeah, I don’t know.
Swisher: That struck me as —
Isaacson: First of all, one point that I was trying to make, which is why it was so dramatic at the time, is the Ukrainians did not know it was geofenced. They did not know that there was a policy in place saying, “100 kilometers, your subs are going to go out.” That’s why they thought that this had just happened that night.
What Musk told me, and he’s apocalyptic, as you know. He believes that everything is either the end of the world or the greatest success for humanity. And so he believed that had there been a Pearl Harbor–like sneak attack that sunk the Russian fleet in Crimea, that that would’ve led, he said, “to a nuclear war.”
Swisher: Why did you say —
Isaacson: I did not believe that, and that’s why I didn’t put in, “Probably correctly, a nuclear war.” I just said it was going to lead to “major …”
Swisher: All right, but why would you say “probably correctly”? Because it was a major war. They invaded their country. It was —
Isaacson: Definitely a major war, yeah, that Russia invaded Ukraine. The question is whether then all of NATO, and it becomes a much wider war with perhaps tactical nuclear weapons. I’ve got a lot of interest in the Ukraine War, and I support Ukraine. I do know that there is a Russian law and doctrine, that an attack on the homeland will lead to a certain type of response, including … I don’t want to —
Swisher: Which they’ve done elsewhere, and it hasn’t led to nuclear war.
Isaacson: Right, right. And I think, had the entire Russian fleet in Sevastopol been sunk by a whatever you call, sneak attack, Pearl Harbor–like attack, that that would have escalated things.
Swisher: All right. Let me get to a better question. What does it reveal about his power intentions and why is he in this position, of which he’s entirely unqualified? It’s just guessing, Walter. Come on. He doesn’t have —
Isaacson: Why is he in the position to turn off or on —
Swisher: Specifically. What does it reveal about his power? DOD should be making these mistakes or non-mistakes. He shouldn’t be in that position.
Isaacson: Yeah. I mean, I don’t give him advice, but that night I said, like any normal person, “Have you talked to General Mark Milley, the head of the Joint Chiefs? Have you talked to Jake Sullivan, national …” And he goes, “Yeah.” And they ended up talking. Now, he has said, and I don’t know this because he didn’t tell me, but he said it subsequently, in the past few days, that had they made a request for him to turn on Starlink, he would have done so. I don’t know. I’m just telling you that this is his mind-set about the power.
But I thought it was weird that he had this much power. And so what he does after talking to them, and I think — but you may push back at me — it was the right decision, which is: “All right, I’m going to make a deal. SpaceX is going to make a deal with the U.S. Defense Department and its intelligence agencies, and we are going to outright sell a certain number of Starlinks to the Defense Department, to the CIA, and we’re even going to create a military version of it, which I don’t know exactly the difference, except for that it’s more sharply focused, and call it Starshield, and the U.S. government gets to decide how it’s done.”
Isaacson: Well, that’s actually the right outcome.
Swisher: Yes, presumably. It’s another issue of why the Defense Department found itself in this really uncomfortable situation.
Isaacson: Now, let me go there if you don’t mind.
Isaacson: Because you asked, “How did we get in this position?” And this is not a defense of Elon trying to bestride the world. But why is it that when Russia invades Ukraine, ViaSat doesn’t work? These are just denial-of-service attacks the Russians are doing. The U.S. military has no, Ukrainian military has no communication, there’s only one set of communication satellites that withstand the attacks by the Russians. And so one reason he’s in this position —
Swisher: Or maybe they didn’t attack it, but go ahead.
Isaacson: No, no. As far as he told me —
Swisher: He told you.
Isaacson: And you could say, he said, “We had hundreds and hundreds of attempted attacks from the Russians, but Starlink didn’t go down.” The Russians were trying, of course they were trying to take it down. I mean, they were trying to knock it out and they didn’t. So this is not a defense of him bestriding the world, but what the hell is NASA doing? What the hell is the Defense … Why can’t ViaSat? Why can’t Boeing? The solution to this is other people should be able to make — Jeff Bezos and Amazon, they’ve not got any of their satellites in orbit.
He’s in this position. And by the way, U.S. intelligence satellites, the ones the CIA and the intelligence [community] put up into high-Earth orbit, the only way they can get into high-Earth orbit is the Falcon Heavy. And SpaceX.
Swisher: Yes, I’m aware.
Isaacson: NASA can’t launch them. Boeing can’t launch them. So if you want to fix it, you got to have competing companies, and you also have to understand, for better or worse, how did Musk end up being the only person who’s got 5,000 satellites, got rockets that can take things into high-Earth orbit, rockets that can reland and reuse themselves? That’s what the book is about too. And I know that seems like I’m praising him. But it is true. Boeing — I’m sure it’s run by really nice people — but Boeing can’t get astronauts into orbit.
Swisher: I think one of the things I am finding missing, even though you say it, it’s not quite as explicit as I expect it, which is it doesn’t grapple with all the different kinds of power in the hands of one unelected, unaccountable, and I go so far as to say, unstable, in many ways, individual. We’re seeing it writ large constantly on Twitter, even if it might be performance art. Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker article did grapple directly with this, “As a matter of consequence for our national security and democracy.” Did you feel you should have leaned into this more?
Isaacson: I think you’re right that — I do say it in the book — and I think you could say it’s a valid criticism. I don’t lean into it more and say it much more vibrantly. But I do, I’ll say it right now: I think an unelected official having control over the only communication satellite, and deciding on that night whether to enable disable or not enable, as I got right in the book, both the attack on the Crimea and also in the Donbas … I don’t think it should be in the hands of one unelected person.
And I’ll say it even further: an unelected person who is mercurial, has a … global epic sense. And I say it, and if you want to, and your criticism I know is I should say it more loudly and say it more often. Someday I’m going to write a book called Burn Book, and I’m going to say everything really loudly.
Swisher: Well, I’m going to be really loud, but is he unqualified? Do you think he’s unqualified to make these decisions?
Isaacson: I think yeah. I think I’m unqualified. I think that anybody … now, who thought that somebody of your or my generation would say we should leave this to the CIA and not … I grew up worrying about that. But now I think, No, the U.S. government, its intelligence agencies have the intelligence, meaning the information, to make decisions like this. It shouldn’t be me. It shouldn’t be Jeff Bezos. It shouldn’t be Elon Musk, and I’ll put Elon Musk even more in that category because he’s more mercurial. And of course in Burn Book, you would use a tougher word than that than most people.
Swisher: Well, we’ll get to that.
All right. One theory offered by that L.A. Times review by Brian Merchant was this kind of idle framing of Elon Musk, which happens. He describes there may be a “tacit pact between author and subject in the Isaacson ‘great man’ biography: The author will unearth unflattering personal anecdotes and share stories about the subject’s capacity to be cruel. In exchange, the subject’s greatness will be treated as an assumption, the raison d’etre for the book itself. In honor of Isaacson’s habit of using pithy, memorable phrases to describe a phenomenon, we might call it ‘the Isaacson Accord.’”
Is there an “Isaacson Accord”?
Isaacson: I didn’t read all that. I didn’t read it, but there’s some merit there.
Swisher: That made me laugh.
Isaacson: I can’t remember the, uh — I’m not sure I want to dub it that — but we’ll call it the accord. I haven’t seen that. But yeah, you read the first part, which is that I share or recount or tell a lot of stories that show the dark side and how bad he is. And then I think the commentary is that I also then show that he is an important, influential, consequential larger-than-life person. I think I cop a plea to that, meaning I hope I show over and over again the lack of empathy, the jerkiness, there’s a word that begins with A that I’m sure is in Burn Book.
Swisher: Asshole. You can say it.
Isaacson: That I actually use in my book many times, about —
Swisher: He called me an asshole.
Isaacson: He called you one?
Swisher: Oh sure, yeah. In an email.
Isaacson: Okay. But I do talk about him being not only mercurial but at times just going from weird personality to weird personality. And I think there are enough tales, probably more than enough, that show the difficulty, the assholicness or whatever the adjective is, in the book. And yeah, as you say, the essay you quote says in return, I, we talk about he has had —
Swisher: It’s a deal you make to get that access. I mean, I think it’s over access journalism.
Isaacson: I do think he’s had an incredibly large impact as well.
Swisher: Certainly. Yeah.
Isaacson: So I don’t know exactly the nuances of what that commentary is. But yes, it’s true that I wouldn’t be writing about Elon Musk had he not been the only person who can get astronauts into the Space Station.
Swisher: Sure. But let me ask you about the accusation of access journalism — listen, I’ve been subject to it, But in this unique way, is this the danger of access journalism that you, one, start to like the person or gets more sympathetic?
Isaacson: Well, no, I don’t go around liking Musk. Here’s the question of access journalism: You’ve got to keep in mind every moment of the day and every paragraph that you write that you’re writing for the reader, not the subject. And you’ve got to sometimes hold yourself back because you’re not caring, what’s he going to say after the book comes out, or what is he going to feel about it? And I do that, but it’s hard. I mean, you’ve got to work at that. And if you read the book, as you said, there are enough stories that show the dark side, the mercurial side, the problematic side, the way he treats people. And I don’t try to excuse it.And yeah, when you have access, that can be a problem. But I learned that when I first worked at The Times-Picayune and then Sunday Times of London, I used to think you had to get close. And sometimes journalists these days don’t do that as well, meaning just sit and listen and just watch and make sure you can be up close.
But I learned from the late Harry Evans, who was my editor in London, that you can have access as he did to the top realms of power. But then you could put out the story as you saw it. I’ve watched some of the great access journalists, people only I can remember like Hugh Sidey, even Ben Bradley.
Swisher: Certainly he was accused of that with John F. Kennedy.
Isaacson: And then watch Woodward and Bernstein, and you try to make sure you can be a little bit more like Woodward and Bernstein, which is get people to talk, but try to keep the reader in mind.
Swisher: Although he’s been accused of, recently, access journalism by — you can see who he likes and who he talked to in a lot of his books. But I want to get to your reflections on the process in a minute. We’re going to jump into the book. Walk me through your framing. You set it all up. It was interesting when I read the beginning in your prologue with Elon’s upbringing and obviously chronological start to the biography. You continue to reference it constantly in the book, this childhood in South Africa, bullying, violence. Why did you start with this? Because it started to feel by the end of the book like an excuse, and I kept thinking: I had a bad stepfather, I don’t do these things. So many people have bad childhoods.
Isaacson: A lot of people have bad childhoods. And they probably have a few demons in their head. I’m not sure you do.
Swisher: Not these kind of demons. No. Why did you start with this?
Isaacson: At the very beginning I talked to his mother, Maye Musk, and she says, “Here’s the issue for your book: The danger for Elon is that he becomes his father.” And I talked to Kimbal Musk. He’s like, “He’s a drama addict, he’s addicted to storm and it comes from this deep violent childhood.” I don’t know that it seems like it excuses him because it shows this inability to just sit back and savor success. That he is addicted to having dramatic confrontations. And even I don’t know whether it’s Grimes or Talulah Riley, it’s in the book, his second wife or his on-again-off-again girlfriend, who says from his childhood, he associates love with drama and sometimes harshness.
Swisher: So you feel like it’s explaining it. Did it make you — spending time with Errol helps you understand this? Obviously I try to meet everybody’s parents because I think ultimately it sometimes boils down to that quite easily.
Isaacson: Can I quote Obama? And I’m sorry to interrupt you.
Swisher: Go ahead.
Isaacson: It is true. One of the things every biographer knows is it’s all about the parents. And Obama has that at the beginning of his memoirs, I think every successful man is either trying to live up to the expectations of his father or live down the sins of his father. And in my case it’s both. I think whether it’s Nixon opening his memoirs with a sentence; I’m not sure he understood the meaning of it. It was a simple sentence, which is, “I was born in a house my father built.” Or Bill Clinton’s opening sentence. A lot of powerful people who have demons in their head — it goes back to Rosebud.
Swisher: Yeah, but does it make you more sympathetic? I mean, I do know his mother too, who can be a handful, let me just say.
Isaacson: And so can you.
Swisher: Yes, I get it. But it does feel like it’s a bit of an excuse. You use the word manchild in the book. I have used the word adult toddler to describe Elon. I do grok that childhood defines us. I absolutely do. I think it’s critically important. But do you worry this framing of Elon as a child absolves him of the accountability he deserves as a 52-year-old man?
Isaacson: Well, (a) it doesn’t absolve him. And so let me make that clear. And I think it’s clear in the book with many anecdotes. But this is a complicated thing — and I think you and I talked about it in New Orleans back when we were eating crawfish and drinking whiskey — which was, when you understand a person, in other words you try hard to understand, does that morph into a gray area where you’re trying to justify? And I kind of try to understand the demons that dance around in his head. Does that justify him being an asshole to people? I hope I can say, “No, no, no, no, no.” But part of the job of a biographer is to say, “I want you to understand where all this is coming from.”
Swisher: Yes, I get it. But you also allow everyone else to say it as if it’s the only thing. And every time I read one of them saying, “Oh, but it’s his demons,” whether it was Grimes or whatever, I’m like, Get him to get therapy for fuck sake.
Isaacson: He doesn’t go to therapy.
Swisher: No, really? You’re kidding. You’re kidding. He doesn’t go to therapy.
Well, these people are continually making excuses — and one of the issues I have is they’re all paid by him. But one of the things that I also wondered about is fact-checking these stories. I know from my own family, everyone’s family, everyone has a different point of view of what happened. There was a kid that punched Elon and Errol tells you that the kid’s father had just died, and I believe of suicide, and Elon told him he was stupid, and Elon and his brother dispute that and say the kid ended up in juvie.
Talk about your sourcing, and do you think the brother of your subject is a credible second source, for example? Because I have heard Elon call people stupid over and over and over again and I can imagine if someone’s father just died, there might be something happening there. But that’s populated by his side.
Isaacson: I think you’ve recounted what I did in the book accurately, which is I tell the story as Elon saw it, then I talked to Errol. And in that case I have to lay it out for the reader: Errol says, “No, no, he called the boy stupid. Of course I took the side of the boy and here’s why.” And you know what, Musk once said to me that in any situation with a police and a perpetrator, you have three stories: one side, the other, and the truth. I sometimes have to say to the reader: Here’s what Kimbal says. Here’s what Elon says. Errol says it differently.
Swisher: Did you call this kid? Or call the juvenile-detention center?
Isaacson: That was, you know, 45 years ago, and I was not able, or I don’t know whether the kid’s still around. But you write, on things like that you try … Look, I talked to, what is it, 150 people? Every time he did something … and you move on — if I can move on a second from the childhood — he does this over and over again. He said he learned to punch people in the nose, and I show him punching people in the nose. So when it happens to say John McNeil, when it happened to Martin Eberhard, co-founder of Tesla, John McNeil, former president of Tesla, when it happened, I can go through —
Swisher: You did go back to that. Well, the only reason is because he hangs a lot on that he was bullied. And then if you didn’t talk to the kid or the juvenile-detention center, why put it in there if you can’t confirm either one of their —
Isaacson: Well, first, all sides, even Errol says he was beaten up, he was in the hospital.
Swisher: Yes, I get that. I get that.
Isaacson: His face got smashed.
Swisher: I get it.
Isaacson: The only question is, should you take the side of the guy who smashed his face —
Swisher: Or explain it, or explain that part.
Isaacson: Or explain it. I did. And I said that according to Errol, Musk called him stupid. And you know what? You’re right. Musk does it. So does Bill Gates. So does Bezos. They use the word “stupid” a lot. And so it’s understandable there, and there is no doubt that all of this bullying and getting beaten up happens as nobody says … Errol said, “Oh, but I gave him a great childhood. But yeah, this Veld School, this wilderness camp, of course, people sat on you and they beat you up. That’s the way we were in South Africa.”
Swisher: I wouldn’t have put it in if I couldn’t confirm it, I wouldn’t have, but that’s just me.
Isaacson: Well wait, wait, wait. I don’t want to fight too much. But nobody denied that the whole incident happened. And I let Errol say, almost confirming what Elon says. Elon says, “I had to stand there and my father betrayed me and took the bully’s side.” And Errol said, “Yeah, he had to stand there. I berated him. I took the guy who beat him up’s side.”
Swisher: Yes he did.
Isaacson: So I think everybody has the same story there. It’s just — should the dad have taken the side of the guy who beat him up even if Elon called the guy stupid?
Swisher: Yep, I get it. I get it.
Isaacson: Which he probably did. I agree with you on that.
Swisher: It does give Elon sympathy from the beginning.
But I want to do a lightning round of things that were not in the book actually and understand why they were omitted. It seems like you didn’t speak to Elon’s daughter Vivian Jenna Wilson, who is trans.
Isaacson: I tried. Yeah, I tried, and I don’t want to go too much into it, but communications through family members … and so there are quotes from her. And what she said, and the messages even on Christmas and —
Swisher: Why didn’t you want to go into it, given he has posted several, what I would characterize as anti-trans statements?
Isaacson: Oh yeah, no, I do go into all that. I’m just not sure I want to tell you who gave me her text messages.
Swisher: Okay. Did you try to reach out to her directly?
Isaacson: Yeah, I asked people, “Can I get to her?”
Swisher: And you couldn’t?
Swisher: Okay. Brian Merchant pointed out that there was also “not a single mention of the sweeping allegations of racial discrimination at Tesla’s flagship Fremont factory that resulted in juries finding Tesla liable for millions in damages. Workers of color say they were called the N-word and saw swastikas painted on the bathroom.” There were a lot of sexual harassment allegations at Tesla. Why not go into this more?
Isaacson: Yeah, I think that’s a valid — there are lawsuits against it, I probably could have gone more into that. It wasn’t something that anybody accused Musk of specifically or personally or anything. It was just things that happened at the Fremont factory. And I’ll cop a plea. Except for that, there was really no Musk involvement. If I’d been writing a book about Tesla, it would’ve been more important, but —
Swisher: Okay, well I think the DNA of every company is the DNA of its founder, but he’s not the founder —
Isaacson: He’s got seven companies, too.
Swisher: Yeah, that’s true.
All right. [Musk’s] use of drugs seems to be missing, which has been written about a lot about recently. You mentioned he smoked weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but there’ve been multiple reports on the effects of ketamine and Ambien. He’s even talked about Ambien use and perhaps more. It seemed nowhere to be found.
Isaacson: Well, I think there was some stuff, and then you and I talked about it.
Swisher: Yeah, we did.
Isaacson: You had stronger evidence than for better or worse —
Swisher: I just heard from people, I wish someone would report it. And then the Journal finally did. The Journal finally did.
Isaacson: Yeah. The Journal did some stuff. I have in the book, about drugs and prescription drugs and Ambien and everything else. Ketamine, he says, is an effective treatment for depression, and it’s prescribed. So he does prescription, whether it be ketamine, prescription serotonin-uptake inhibitors. I have him talking about maybe being bipolar, but not being diagnosed.
Swisher: He has said this about himself.
Isaacson: Right. And so that’s all in the book. And he does, well, let’s say self-medicate, but with prescriptions.
Swisher: Is it being used in a clinical setting for him by a real doctor, not I want some ketamine. I’m going to prescribe it myself?
Isaacson: You can be a judge of real doctors, but there are people who have doctors who prescribe it.
Swisher: Michael Jackson had a doctor — that didn’t turn out very well.
Isaacson: Yeah. Look, one thing I will say is because of SpaceX clearances, security clearances, ever since the Joe Rogan thing where he smoked dope on the podcast, he is subject to random drug tests for illegal drugs. Now, that doesn’t mean it would pick up ketamine, nor would it say, “Hey, that doctor who prescribed it, was that sort of a charlatan doctor you just found and paid or is that a real doctor?”
Swisher: Right. You never went to raves with him or the stuff he likes to go to you? I don’t mean to say parties.
Swisher: He likes to go to raves.
Isaacson: Yeah. Okay.
Swisher: You didn’t socialize with him, correct?
Isaacson: I had to keep a bit of a line, and I watched some people around him and some people who worked with him who kind of crossed the line a bit and late at night would think, Okay, I’m his party pal. And I had to make some judgments. There are times I went out to dinner with him, but I didn’t want to pretend to be some pal who partied with him. And if I crossed that line and started going to late-night parties … But let me say something else —
Swisher: Yeah, Walter Isaacson at a rave is not something I want to see.
Isaacson: No, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
Isaacson: Look, I’ve got gray hair. I’ll take you to Jazz Fest.
But look, I’ve been a reporter a whole lot and you always hear these stories of, “Oh, somebody” — not Musk — “went to Jeffrey Epstein’s island or had wild sex orgies with whole lots of drugs and they spent all night having sex orgies.” You asked me how do I put in the fact that both his father and he say he was beaten up by a bully and they have different opinions on whether he deserved it? You can’t throw in that “Somebody says,” “Somebody said,” “I went to a —”
Swisher: I’m wondering if you discussed it directly with him, use of drugs.
Isaacson: Yeah. He actually talks about that he’s not as much of a party person, that he goes down to Cabo and he doesn’t like it and he flies back. I suspect, because I’ve asked him about it … that he’s far less of a party animal than people say. But maybe that’s projecting because I’m not as much of a party animal as some of your friends.
Swisher: Okay. All right. I’m just curious. There’s a lot more talk of it lately, that’s why. One of the other ones was [what] Jennifer Szalai raised in her review in New York Times, when Elon was rambling onto you about the “woke mind virus.” This is in the way of his ambitions for multi-planetary civilization. She says, “it would have been nice if Isaacson had pushed him to answer a basic question: What on earth does any of it even mean?”
Isaacson: Look, people, you say the “woke mind virus” and people say, “What do you mean by that?” And I try to explain it, but again, I’m progressive. I know that wokeness is one of those subjects that means you say the word and everybody scatters all over the place. I think I make it pretty clear in the book what had gotten him upset and also make it pretty clear I think it’s a weird apocalyptic thing for him to be worrying about.
Swisher: Yeah. Okay. Another one is from Vox’s Constance Grady. She writes “he goes through women. Isaacson chronicles the four major romantic relationships of Musk’s adult life with a shamelessly misogynistic binary. All Musk’s girlfriends in this book are either devils or angels, and accordingly they bring out either the devil or angel in Musk’s uncontrollable nature.”
You had written, “he developed a fervor that blocked his goofiness and a goofiness that cloaked his fervor.” I think you were harder on Amber Heard. And I don’t know Amber Heard.
Isaacson: I think you tweeted that out. I think I saw that.
Swisher: Yeah. But go ahead.
Isaacson: Amber Heard I talked to quite a bit and her sides in the book. Look, I’m not an expert on this, but in the periphery of my vision, I kind of followed the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard thing. We’re talking about people that are excitable. I don’t know what you want to say. So that whole situation with Johnny Depp, you can see that she’s dramatic. Now, Musk talks about her in the book as playing wonderful things, roleplaying as his favorite whatever video-game character. And I have scenes of her picking flowers by the side of the road and hiding in the Tesla factory to surprise him on his birthday.
But the storm and turmoil that both sides tell me about, this is not a matter of dispute, that was part of the attraction. And I’m telling that as part of a theme, that this guy — even leave aside Errol Musk and say maybe I do too much on childhood. Part of the theme of this life is this person is attracted to drama and storm. When things are calm, he surges, he buys Twitter or whatever. So this is true of the relationship with Amber. Nothing hurt him more than that relationship, and there’s a scene at the end when they just have a — not knockdown, because we’re not talking physically here — but brutal fight in Rio de Janeiro and she’s claiming that “he’s locked up my passport.” I get her side. I get his side. I get the security guard’s side. I get everybody’s side. And in the end I talk about her saying, she sends me pictures of that night after they made up, and there’s a picture in the book and they’re kissing on a balcony in Rio at midnight on New Year’s Eve. So I’m trying to illustrate not Amber Heard. I’m giving her, I hope, her say and the benefit of the doubt, and I think she says something like, “Elon loves playing with fire and sometimes it burned him.”
Swisher: Yeah. I get it. I get it.
Isaacson: This is all an explanation of a guy addicted to drama and storm.
Swisher: Okay. So one of the things in that regard is this cruelty and asshole behavior seems somewhat excused because he manages, somehow, to replace a rocket part with a toilet latch. Wow. Amazing. I fully understand.
Isaacson: Wait, wait. I’m not going to cop a plea of that. Whoa, I’m going to stop you. I don’t say you get to be an asshole if you get to make a rocket latch or whatever. I say this is a person who’s doing all these things and you have to figure out, how does the fabric weave together?
Swisher: And you don’t think you give him a pass. Some of his partners do with, I think it was Grimes saying, “I tried to stop him from being king crazy.” I was like, “Why is he king crazy?”
Isaacson: I know. I love that.
Swisher: Except — why is he like that? Why? Why does he need a lady to help him not be an asshole? That, to me —
Isaacson: Why is he king crazy? I mean, that’s what the book is about.
Swisher: No, what I mean is that abrogates his responsibility as a man.
Isaacson: By the way, it was Talulah who gets credit for trying to keep him from being king crazy. I like Talulah. I like Grimes a lot too, but —
Swisher: So you don’t believe the cruelty has to be linked to his accomplishments.
Isaacson: No, I don’t think the cruelty is justified at all, but with complex people you’ve got to tell the complex story, and I don’t think, and I know you and I talked about this a year ago and so it helped me write the book, which is don’t put any sentence in that says that this cruelty was in any way justifiable because he made a latch to a rocket hatch better.
Swisher: Thank you. I’m going to bring in Steve Jobs here because sometimes you do seem to be arguing that their demons create the creation, I guess. Many people have excused Elon’s behavior to me like this. Marc Benioff and I had a long back-and-forth. He basically said it’s okay because he lands rockets on a surfboard, except when I actually pointed out the homophobic remark he made, and then he’s like, “Oh,that’s not good.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not.”
Isaacson: It’s not.
Swisher: I can think of many geniuses who aren’t assholes. How far does the, and I’m not necessarily just accusing you of doing this, go to support toxic assholic behavior in people? You have a quote, I think from Grimes: “Demon mode causes a lot of chaos but it also gets a lot of shit done.” Do you believe you have to be an asshole to get things done?
Isaacson: No. And I have written many books, from Jennifer Doudna to Ben Franklin, of people who are as nice and nurturing as you can be. In fact, if you have a criticism of Benjamin Franklin, meaning John Adams does, it’s that he was too ingratiating and insinuating. In other words, he tried to be too nice, seemed to get people to like him. What Steve Jobs once said to me, he said, “People like you” — I mean, he was talking about me — “who wear velvet gloves and live on the East Coast.” I don’t think he’d been down to New Orleans with us knowing which coast I actually live on. He said, “You’re always trying to get the people in front of you to like you, and you’re always being empathetic, and you always want to be their friends, and you never want to get them mad, and you think that’s being nice. Well, that’s kind of egotistic. It’s being nice to yourself because you’re not caring that much about the enterprise.”
I think there’s some balance, and I’m going to get personal here for a moment and you can decide it’s too boring. When I ran Time magazine, you remember back in those days. They were nice magazines on paper and stuff.
Swisher: They were. Yeah.
Isaacson: I knew everybody there and I just loved all the people I worked with.
Swisher: You have a very nice reputation there.
Isaacson: Yeah. And it was sweet and we never had to fire anybody because the magazine was doing well, and then I get moved to CNN, which is owned by the same company, and — once again, I don’t want to get people mad. I want to be known as being nice. But you know what? I was really bad at running CNN. It needed to be disrupted. People needed, I won’t name names, but you can think of some of the anchors and some of the people there. I needed to have been more of a disruptor, more of an asshole than I could be.
Swisher: I don’t know if you need to —
Isaacson: But I needed, actually, to leave CNN as well.
Swisher: Okay, that’s exactly … remember I told you that.
Isaacson: Thank you. I’ve taken your advice many times in life. That’s why I was surprised you criticized me.
Swisher: No. That’s okay. This is the ’90s and aughts, by the way. Nineties for Time and early aughts for CNN, for people who —
Isaacson: Your listeners don’t even remember that century.
Swisher: Yeah. Don’t remember it. Yeah. I’m not even going to bring up what you did with Pathfinder.
Isaacson: You just did.
Swisher: Let’s talk about Steve Jobs, because I thought you were much harder on him for much lesser behaviors and zero crazy tweets, none of which spilled out into the public. I don’t find him anything like Steve Jobs, and you, I mean —
Isaacson: I don’t either. And by the way, look, I thought one of your criticisms would be — because I saw you wrote about that — I don’t apply too many judgments. I tend to have my own judgments.
Isaacson: I weave some of them in, but I let a reader say, “Okay. I’ve just read this story. Here’s what I feel.” I tried to do that with Jobs. I really liked Jobs. I really respected him.
Swisher: Me too.
Isaacson: I thought he did an amazing thing. I thought he parked in the handicap space, and I thought, But that’s not tweeting, what you’re talking about.
So most people who read the Jobs book, I sell — I mean even last night, I was at the 92nd Street Y and everybody’s bringing me the Jobs book to sign. They said, “This changed my life. This guy totally inspired me. This is the most important book because I just wanted to be like Steve Jobs. I fell in love with him.”
So I don’t think you come away from the Jobs book, other than saying he gets mad at the person making the smoothies at the Whole Food or he parks in the handicap spot … I think Jobs is very much exalted as an epoch-changing character who had his rough spots. Elon Musk is at least one order of magnitude more — more in being rough and in some ways more in running six or seven companies doing all sorts of weird things. If you read this book, about a third of the people who read this book will come away hating him more and a third will come away liking him, and I think a third will maybe say, “All right. That was a really weird narrative and I’m going to have to process it.”
Swisher: I think actually Jobs would’ve abhorred Musk. Actually, I say that. I think he would’ve because of the way he behaves in public particularly. What do you think Jobs would’ve thought of Elon Musk?
Isaacson: I think he would’ve truly not liked the political and public non-niceness. I don’t think that the way he treats Andy Krebs on the rocket launch pad and yells at him or the way he treats Don McNeil sometimes, when he’s lying on the floor of the conference room in a catatonic state. But I think there was a spiritual quality to Steve Jobs that had a gentleness when it came to, I don’t know, public matters. Help me here.
Swisher: Yes, he was. He was actually a very wise person. I’ve been listening to a lot of our recordings and his interviews and he’s thoughtful and doesn’t say … I agree he could be a jerk to people.
Isaacson: Yeah. I mean, Musk is very hard-core, and I think especially when Musk veers off to his late-night politics, I’ll call it, because there are times when you’re with Musk even —
Swisher: Very reasonable.
Isaacson: Today he’s with Chuck Schumer, or yesterday —
Swisher: He was calm.
Isaacson: — With Chuck Schumer and Chris Coons, the democratic senator from Delaware, and he’s saying, there’ll be times he said to me, “I really want to get a party of the center. I want to bring people to … I think we’ve lost the center in this country.”
Swisher: He is lying to you.
Isaacson: Then late at night he’s drinking Red Bull and taking Ambien and he’s amplifying the fringes.
Swisher: There’s an expression, does the drunk agree with the sober? I think he’s lying to you when he’s sober. I think the drunk is exactly who he’s become.
Isaacson: I think that they’re actually different personalities, and I sometimes think that one personality hardly remembers things that, especially when he gets into the Mr. Hyde mode of Jekyll and Hyde.
Swisher: Sure. I get that, but he’s not Mr. Hyde and he’s not … It’s like, again, I’m in the “seek therapy” mode of this. Now, let me ask you this. You said in one interview you were silent in the reporting. And I utterly, completely — that’s exactly the way to go, like a camera even. That’s what you were trying to do.
But now I want you to be a photograph. I would like you to take a position on him. Going away from two years of spending time with this man, what do you think of him? And let me just say, when my book — I come to conclusions about people I like. I have a whole chapter of people I like because I think you have to have that. Sam Altman. I personally like Reid Hoffman, Brian Chesky.
Specifically, do you like this person and what did you come away feeling about him when you finished?
Isaacson: Well, a couple of points. You’re right to say I don’t want to get in the way of the reader making his or her own judgments. And so sometimes I’m telling you the story, I’m quiet, you get … You know, one of the first great biographies, the first great biography I ever read was when I was about 17 years old. T. Harry Williams on Huey Long. And it begins with an amazing, funny anecdote of Huey Long. He’s a Baptist from upstate Louisiana going down to Cajun country where it’s Catholic and talking about Sunday mornings and hitching up the horse to the wagon so he could take his Catholic grandmother to mass. And finally his campaign manager said, “Huey, you never told us you had a Catholic grandmother.” And he says, “Hell, we didn’t even have a horse.” He lied. And then — but T. Harry Williams doesn’t say, “So he was a liar,” or doesn’t say, “He was a lovable rogue.”
Swisher: Okay. Right.
Isaacson: You get to read these angles. So I’m not trying to say to the reader, “Here’s your conclusion.”
Now you’ve asked me a question about —
Swisher: The book is written, Walter. You don’t need to talk to Elon Musk anymore. There’s a point —
Isaacson: He’s not listening to your podcast, I suspect.
Swisher: Yeah. I doubt it.
Isaacson: And no, but I’m telling you because I know you and I have had this discussion, which is how come you don’t tell us your conclusions on everything?
Swisher: Yes, I would like a conclusion from you.
Isaacson: And I don’t write Burn Book, I write a narrative, I walk a person you can help me state —
Swisher: Okay. All right. But what about on a personal level on this show?
Isaacson: On a personal level, first of all the word “like” — it’s such an anodyne word. I mean, I don’t quite … I mean, likability is not in the top 500 adjectives one uses. And I know you don’t fully buy into what I’m saying here, but there actually are different … As Grimes said, “It depends on which Elon you happen to be with.” And there are times when he really is inspiring about his mission.
Isaacson: Okay. And you’ve seen it. You’ve written that.
Swisher: I like SpaceX Elon. Sure.
Isaacson: And he’s inspiring about the missions and the very first when he was doing that, I thought: This is a type of pontification you do on pep talks for your team or on podcasts. He doesn’t really believe that we have to be multi-planetary. And after a while I’m going, You know what? It may seem crazy, but he actually believes that we should be space adventurers or we should move to the era of electric fields.
Isaacson: I like, once again to use an anodyne word, when I’m watching him do that, when I’m watching him be really funny, when I’m watching him make a pretty major decision about how you’re going to switch a line on the assembly line to, I mean, a station on the assembly, I go, “Whoa. I’m impressed by that.” Then there’ll be times when, I mean, I’m surprised he’s letting me sit in the room, but he’s just reaming somebody out for not knowing the what he calls the idiot index of a part, which is how much the material costs versus the final product. I’m going, “Man, how can you do that to that guy?” “Don’t like that?” “No, I didn’t like that Musk.” Am I supposed to tout up all the times I liked and respected and all the times I flinched at a fault?
Isaacson: Yeah, it was —
Swisher: Let me give you an easier … Scott Galloway calls it an idolatry of innovators that excuses cruelty, that excuses antisemitism, excuses misogyny, excuses being quite frankly not an ideal father as long as you’re really fucking rich. Is it an apologist not to come to a conclusion or not? You don’t have to disagree with —
Isaacson: You know, I mean, I come to a lot and I let the reader come to a lot of conclusions in this book, which is a lot of the things … look. You’ve read those Twitter chapters. What he did, the hypocritical things of trying to ban reporters on the Washington Post after he says he’s for free speech. A lot of those things he does, I think, clearly, is not me apologizing for him. It gets back to this saying of, “Okay, if you send rockets to Mars, does that allow you to be an asshole?” And no, I don’t defend being an asshole, but he is also an interesting character and even Scott would say, and certainly you would, that he’s been able to recreate the internet in low-Earth orbit. He’s been able to make rockets that not only get satellites into orbit and humans into orbit, unlike NASA, but they land and he can reuse them.
Swisher: Sure, but Walter —
Isaacson: I go on and on. That doesn’t excuse him being a jerk, but you got to tell the whole story.
Swisher: Jennifer Doudna will have more impact on the human race and she’s a lovely person.
Isaacson: I loved writing that book and I would love you to tell your readers if you don’t like Elon Musk, buy The Code Breaker because she does —
Swisher: No, none of this. All right. Okay. You won’t take a position on him. That’s fine. We’re almost done. I want this to be very quick, so I need to answer yes or no or if you have one little thing to say, do it.
Isaacson: I got it.
Swisher: Do you think Elon has a point about the woke mind virus, yes or no?
Isaacson: I’m sorry. I’ll try. I think it’s overblown. Do you mind me answering just enough?
Swisher: Sure. Please. Go ahead.
Isaacson: And I’ll be pretty crisp. I thought he was totally wrong when he was appalled that, at Twitter, they had suppressed or kicked off people who said that the lockdowns are ridiculous or that it could have been a lab leak or that, these things. And then I began to think, Well, maybe we should have had that debate on lockdowns and mask mandates. Do I think the woke mind virus is a problem? In some places. Is it in the top 100 problems this nation has? Probably not.
Isaacson: I’m sorry, that’s not one of them.
Swisher: That’s okay. That’s good. Do you think he should rectify how he treated Twitter employees, in particular people like Yoel Roth, whom he made a dangerous target, or Paul Pelosi, for example, who he lied about after his attack?
Swisher: Yes. Okay.
Isaacson: I could survive with the one word answer there.
Swisher: Yes. Okay.
Isaacson: Yes on both counts.
Swisher: Will he?
Isaacson: He kind of says he … He deleted the Pelosi tweet and said he apologized.
Swisher: He did publicly, but he didn’t. He said he also told somebody he called him, but he didn’t. Just didn’t.
Isaacson: Yeah, he did it publicly, but sort of, yes, whatever. I do think he knows that it was absolutely a really bad thing to have tweeted, but that doesn’t mean that he’s apologizing for it.
Swisher: A month later he’s doing someone else —
Isaacson: On Yoel, there’s a lot on Yoel in the book. This is a truly decent person.
Swisher: Yes, yes. Indeed.
Isaacson: And Elon gets along very well with him for a very long time, including defending him from being a Hillary supporter and attacking Trump — and then Musk turns on him in a way that just still makes me flinch. And I know you don’t like me going back to childhood, but it’s being at that wilderness camp and just punching people in the nose unnecessarily. And yeah, the Yoel thing, if you think I’m sugarcoating and being too nice to Elon Musk, read the whole part on Yoel Roth, who was a good man.
Swisher: I get that. I get it. I think he was a piece of shit to do that. That’s what I think.
Isaacson: I heard you on that, yeah.
Swisher: And there’s no excuse. Elon was a piece of shit to do that.
Do you think his fear of population decline and the need to repopulate the planet Earth is rational? I have four kids, he has 11, but —
Isaacson: I do think that the danger of overpopulation is incorrect. That declining birth rates are a problem.
Swisher: Okay. Do you think we need to be a multi-planetary civilization, Walter?
Isaacson: Man, that would be so cool. Yes.
Swisher: Yes. Okay. Where do you think Tesla will be in five years given quickly increasing competition from across the globe, especially in China? Do you think it’ll be tough?
Isaacson: I think they will have a low-price global car under $25,000. That’ll be huge. I think he will not conquer full self-driving as quickly as he thinks. You and I both have joked about his … but he has just switched, as you know from one of the final chapters of my book, to AI machine learning and that has made FSD 12 particularly good. So I think Tesla —
Swisher: You think Tesla will be dominant in five years?
Isaacson: Yeah. So, I mean, you look at what happened with the charging network.
Swisher: No, dominant?
Isaacson: Dominant meaning I think it will —
Swisher: Low-margin business.
Swisher: It’s a low-margin business, but okay.
Isaacson: I know, but now GM and Ford are having to say we’re going to use the Tesla Supercharger network, which, that’s into the Starlink thing. It gives him more control.
Swisher: Gives him, okay, but Tesla will be dominant compared to all the competitors.
Isaacson: I don’t know what you exactly mean by dominant, but it will be —
Swisher: What he is now.
Isaacson: Well, he’s now more valuable than all other car companies combined, all other —
Swisher: I’m going to take the other side of that bet. I think China’s going to run right over him. And then there’ll be competition for everyone.
Isaacson: Okay, okay. The good thing about being a biographer is you get to write about what’s happened.
Swisher: Blaming of the ADL for the Twitter ad falloff and now he’s meeting with Netanyahu because he needs someone to make him look like he doesn’t dislike Jewish people. What do you think of that?
Isaacson: Wrong. Totally wrong. And the falloff on Twitter ads is not because of the ADLs, it’s because he’s made it so it’s too controversial that no brand wants to be there. So wrong, no, or whatever the answer is.
Swisher: What do you thinking of them dragging Netanyahu in to make him look good?
Isaacson: My sympathies for Netanyahu having to do things or whatever it is. Not the highest on my list today.
Swisher: Oh, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Do you wish that he hadn’t done the Twitter thing while you were writing the book because it took so much away from the other story?
Isaacson: Well, it certainly made for a really rollicking, amazing, complex roller coaster.
Swisher: Okay. Too much.
Isaacson: But yeah, if I wanted to have lived an easier life, it would’ve been more fun to write just about batteries and cars and rockets.
Swisher: Comment on his recent comments on China, which were also reflected in your book about the Uyghurs and the need to placate China.
Isaacson: Yeah. He is more in the camp of, let’s placate China. He has obviously both huge amounts of sales and factories there, but I’m not sure it’s just financially motivated. I think he actually believes a confrontational stance to China is, and I think I agree with that, I think is not a great idea. I think we’ve got to figure out how to have a modus vivendi with China.
Swisher: Interesting. I think we need to get along. We also need to punch them in the nose. See? We have a different opinion.
Isaacson: Hey, well, in some ways I think we might be —
Swisher: In the nose. See, we have different opinions.
Isaacson: Hey, well, in some ways, I think we might be agreeing there, which is compete and …
Swisher: A real punch in the nose, actually.
Isaacson: Oh, I’m not sure the punch in the nose leads to a great end of the movie.
Swisher: That’s true. Fair point. How do you assess the Twitter files now that he made such a big deal of, which proved pretty much a goose egg?
Isaacson: I think it was way overblown, and I disagreed with the premise that it showed the U.S. government forcing Twitter executives to do things. Even though I do think Twitter’s suppressed, a little bit too much, the range of speech. But what I feel is not that the government violated and tried to suppress it, but that the Twitter executives went along willingly, day after day, banning people per request. And I thought that was a bad act. I mean, not a great thing that the previous Twitter management did, and I’m kind of glad it all got exposed. But it was as you say.
Swisher: Do you think he’s let too many people back on and is not moderating correctly, which is leading to the ad falloff, for example?
Isaacson: I think the ad falloff is because it’s become more controversial. I’m not sure … He has a thing about freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.
Swisher: That’s not his. That’s an old, old —
Isaacson: No, I know.
Swisher: By the way. I love when he takes credit for it, but it’s not true.
Isaacson: Well, okay. I’ll give whoever credit for it.
Swisher: Years ago.
Isaacson: Letting more people on doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is when he amplifies the people, or likes or engages with the people who engage with people who are antisemitic or white supremacist or whatever. I don’t think Musk is that way. I’m not even sure you should keep Donald. I don’t think you should keep Donald Trump off. But if there are people saying bad things, I think the big problem is he’s kind of engaging with them and letting them be amplified in reach.
Swisher: In letting them, he’s amplifying himself. All right. Having spent two years with Elon, would you let this man have access to your brain via Neuralink? Would you hand him your personal emotion for an everything app?
Isaacson: I’m not as big of a privacy … I mean, let’s leave it aside, it being Elon.
Swisher: No, I don’t want to leave aside.
Isaacson: Okay. Well, I don’t think Elon’s going to be sitting there saying “Here’s what Walter spent money on last night.” I’m like my daughter and her generation, I’m not as much of a privacy … I mean, I love privacy. I just meant, I’m not worried about people having some access to my data as long as I can turn it off.
Swisher: All right. Okay, last one. Do you think there’s ever a time Elon wasn’t trying to manipulate you during the interviews? Was that a difficult thing? He’s very persuasive.
Isaacson: It was pretty odd that he almost did not seem to … or at times, did not even seem aware of my presence. I know you’re going to think that’s weird, but I’d be sitting there, he’d be doing things that I wouldn’t do in front of my wife. I wouldn’t do in front of myself.
Swisher: Tell me what.
Isaacson: Oh, reaming people out, saying weird things. I worried about the Heisenberg principle that by observing things I would affect the things, and I was stunned and people around him were stunned. They said, “We thought if you were around it would affect him, but it hasn’t.”
Swisher: So you were just a fly on the wall. All right, let me ask you, I have only three more questions. Who does Elon really listen to? You mentioned open-loop warning when he’s behaving badly that his brother does. Who do you consider his actual advisers who, let me just say, are not bought and paid for?
Isaacson: Yeah, the open-loop warning is interesting, because there’s an agreement amongst friends and brothers and other people that when you go really bad — and this starts in 2018 — you think there’s been kind of wackiness?
Swisher: No, I remember 2018.
Isaacson: Yeah, 2018. Pedo tweet, take private, smoking dope on Joe Rogan. And that’s when his brother Kimball uses the phrase they use, which is “open-loop warning” — which means you don’t have a feedback loop.
Swisher: He’s looping, yeah.
Isaacson: You’re shooting off something and it’s not an iterative feedback loop. The people who have that ability with him are Antonio Gracias, who’s been there since the very beginning.
Swisher: On the board.
Isaacson: And has tried to take his phone and put it in the hotel safe and punch in a code so he couldn’t tweet at night and says, “You’ve got to stop doing things.” Kimbal, but I’ll also say he doesn’t have enough. There aren’t enough people to give him negative feedback, and he sometimes cuts them off, cuts Kimbal off in the book for months on end. So obviously being more open to negative feedback and restraining influences would be —
Swisher: So just two people?
Isaacson: You would add to the mix if you could.
Swisher: You were mentioning just two people. All right. Where will he be in 30 years?
Isaacson: Well, I can throw —
Swisher: Okay, who else?
Isaacson: Well, they’re a crowd that you’re not particularly fond of that’s like, David Sachs.
Swisher: So you think they have an influence on him?
Isaacson: I don’t think David Sachs is in any way controlling his thinking. Musk does that.
Swisher: No, an influence, that’s all.
Isaacson: But he talks to him a lot, and I could … I think Ken Howery, but I also think his … Well, Grimes, sometimes, or Shivon. He has people around him. But I’m agreeing with you. Look, I got a lot of people around me who every time I go on a podcast like yours, listen to it and say, “Man, you shouldn’t have said that.” Or, “For God’s sake, don’t …” I get a lot of feedback. I don’t think that he gets as much.
Swisher: No, he doesn’t get very much at all. Where do you think he’ll be in 30 years when he’s as old as Biden? I’m thinking Howard Hughes.
Isaacson: Howard Hughes. He keeps pushing all of his chips back in, and there’s going to be explosions. There’s going to be debris that falls, just like there was in 2008 when he blows up his first three rockets. Just like there was in 2017, 2018, when he goes through the hell that’s described in the book.
I think certain things will flame out and blow up. If you ask me my prediction on the first, I think that the platform now known as X will be a payments platform, will have content creators putting stuff up, but will be an environment that advertisers don’t want to be in, and it’s going to be a mess. But every week —
Swisher: What about him personally?
Isaacson: Oh, I think he’s been through these things before. He’s been through 2008, he’s been through 2018. He relishes storm and drama.
Swisher: So no evolvement of this. That you saw with Jobs, you certainly saw him maturing. So no evolvement?
Isaacson: Yeah, although when Jobs came back from the liver transplant, read that chapter again. It was like, they thought he was going to be mellow, but he wasn’t mellow. But he was still … Will Musk mellow? The one-word answer? No.
Swisher: No. Okay. Did you ever hear him apologize to anyone for an outburst during that time you were with him?
Isaacson: No. In fact, it’s particularly interesting in the book, because I go … I mean, you say, “Do you check with other people?” I circled back so many times in the book. He reams out a guy named Andy at Starbucks, Lucas on the finance team, or whatever. So I circle back, and at one point he promotes Andy, after he’s, like, really reamed him out. Likewise Milan Kovač, who does autopilot and Optimus the robot — just reams him out. And both of them, and there are a couple more in the book, I say: “All right. Did he?” And I’m there, and I’m going, “Holy shit.” And so I say to Milan, and I say to Andy, “Did he ever apologize?” Both of them said, “The odd thing is, he was promoting me. He was very nice to me later.”
And I finally said to him, “Do you remember when?” And he kind of looks at me blankly as if he doesn’t even quite remember it.
Swisher: Oh no. Come on. He’s 52, he’s a man, he’s an adult. “Doesn’t remember it”? Come on.
Isaacson: I think there are things he does when he gets into his zone of a dark mood in which, when he comes out later, he thinks, That wasn’t personal, that wasn’t me, it’s just me giving honest feedback, and his mind moves to other things. I’m not apologizing. I’m not saying it’s good.
Swisher: It’s called “seek therapy” — is what it is.
Isaacson: You asked me, “Does he ever apologize to these people?” I’m telling you, no, he didn’t.
Swisher: He doesn’t. That’s happened to me. He wrote me a bunch of mean emails and then was like, “Why don’t we talk?” I was like, “You wrote me a bunch of mean emails.”
Isaacson: You see? Okay. And do you think that he’s going to apologize? No.
Swisher: Walter, I think there’s two kinds of people. People who lie, which he does quite a bit. And people who lie to themselves, which he does almost all the time. That’s what I think.
Isaacson: Yeah. And in the book I think you’ll see more complexity in that.
Swisher: All right, there’s two lines I want to talk to you about. It’s my last two questions. The last line of your book, where you said, “Sometimes they’re crazy ones,” but then you say, “Crazy enough to change the world.” And I’m saying, “Walter, you cannot have it two ways,” but you did. Why did you end it like that?
Isaacson: You have a good criticism that sometimes I try to have it two ways, and I guess the plea I will cop is I actually believe that he’s crazy, that he’s messed up — it’s a problem. But why the hell can’t Boeing have a communication system? Why can’t it get out? What is it about him? I mean, he is changing the world, whether you like it or not.
Swisher: I got it. I have said this over and over again.
Isaacson: And you’ve said it over and over. He brought us, more than any single individual, into the era of electric vehicles, in the era of space travel, in the era of internet and outer space. So it is true that his craziness did help lead him to change the world.
Swisher: Did it? Maybe it hindered him. Anyway, we can argue about it, but let me say, fast cars, rockets, women, blowing things up with no repercussions whatsoever. Would you trade places with him?
Isaacson: Oh God, no. No, no. Look, I had a happy childhood. Nobody’s ever going to write my biography, but I grew up in New Orleans, a magical place, with two parents who were the kindest people I ever knew. I tend to be congenitally suited to being the detached observer who’s a storyteller. As you heard me say in New Orleans a year ago, I had a mentor, Walker Percy, the great novelist. His picture is sort of back there, if you can see it.
Swisher: I’m aware of Walter Percy.
Isaacson: And he said, “There are two types of people coming out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers.”
Swisher: Yes, I’ve heard you tell this story.
Isaacson: “For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller, the world’s got too many preachers.” I know I’m not a person in the arena. I know I’m not going to send up a rocket.
Swisher: Last question. What impact does writing the Elon biography, or some people say, a hagiography — someone called it that to me, as some have called it …
Isaacson: No, no, no. I’m not going to let you get away with that.
Swisher: All right, I’m not going to say it.
Isaacson: You’re forcing that off on somebody else’s opinion.
Swisher: You’re right. Unfair.
Isaacson: Okay, thank you.
Swisher: I think you were far too nice to him. What impact does the Elon biography have on the Walter Isaacson legacy?
Isaacson: Look, if I had cared about my legacy, I would’ve taken a less controversial character. There are going to be people who say, “You took a totally controversial person,” and as you just said, it is not hagiography but that I was too nice to him. This ain’t going to help. And there are people who think I was too mean to him. Maybe next time I do a book I’m going to go into the Wayback Machine and do somebody who’s beautiful and dead.
Swisher: Yes, I was just going to suggest. I was like, “Walter, if I have one piece of advice: dead.”
Isaacson: I’ll probably do it, but I did not do this book … I kind of stumbled into this book. I wasn’t really planning to, and it kind of happened. I did not do this book because it would enhance my legacy. I did it because, “Whoa, this is …” Well, I first did it — because he hadn’t even thought about buying Twitter. I said, “Man, the guy’s shooting off rockets, doing electric cars. I love technology. Do the book.”
I think in the end there’ll be a lot of people who say I was far too nice to him. There’ll be people who say, “Oh, you were mean and you didn’t understand his greatness.” If I wanted to have a less controversial impact on my career, there’s 10,000 people I could have picked other than Elon Musk to have written about.
Swisher: Howard Hughes. I hear he’s dead.
Isaacson: Bill Gates. Jeff Bezos.
Swisher: Edison was an asshole. No, do not do live people. Stop. You can’t. They’re not done yet.
Isaacson: In this podcast, we’ve done four different instances where you’ve given me advice and I’ve actually taken it. Because I’m not an open-loop. I get feedback.
Swisher: Okay, good. Dead.
Isaacson: I think I’ll promise you. Not sure, but I’ll promise you the next one will be somebody who’s been dead for at least a century.
Swisher: Anyone dead, Walter, please, for the love of God. Anyway, I really appreciate it.
Isaacson: Love you.
Swisher: You’ve been a very good sport about this.
Isaacson: And do remember, when your Burn Book comes out, I get to turn the table.
Swisher: You can track, you can burn me as much as you want.
Isaacson: No, I get to get you onstage.
Swisher: You know what? It’s funny. It’s actually funny. It’s tough, but it’s very funny, so I think you’ll enjoy it. But we’ll see. You can tell me honestly.
Isaacson: I can’t wait.
Swisher: And I will take your honest feedback completely, and I’m fine if you don’t like it, fine if you do. As long as I sell books, as you know.
Isaacson: No, and here’s another thing I don’t believe. I don’t believe you’re happy only if it sells books.
Swisher: I don’t care.
Isaacson: I think you’re going to want to make sure that people, maybe not me, but people like me kind of say, “All right, that was pretty good. I like that.”
Swisher: Yeah, that is correct.
Isaacson: You got more of an ego than you have a pocketbook.
Swisher: Oh, are you kidding? Are you kidding? I have an enormous ego and I’m also … I don’t know if I’m a narcissist, but I’m an egomaniac. Anyway, Walter, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, 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 Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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