The Altar of Walter

Photo: AP Wide World

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

So many of us in a certain media generation (Walter is 50) have a Walter thing.This isn’t my first go at trying to explain the obsession. Walter, who briefly loomed large in the history of the Internet, is a figure in the book I wrote on the subject. In it, I tried to dissect Walter’s unique confection of classicism and opportunism, remarkable diligence and rank ambition, that is so compelling (and often infuriating) to so many of us. (As the Internet passes into kitsch, and its wildest manifestation, AOL, into farce, my book Burn Rate is becoming a musical. The composer, Paul Scott Goodman, besides writing songs for dancing CEOs and a chorus line of venture capitalists, has also written a song called “Kneeling at the Altar of Walter.”)Walter is our fantasy life: a media-business action figure. A perfect combination of vast intelligence, adroit political talents, impeccable connections, savvy publicity skills, deep reserves of corporate sucking-up abilities, and an equal facility with both high- and middlebrow sensibilities. And on top of that, he’s a good writer (his Kissinger biography—which he wrote when? At what hour of the day?—is a brilliant thing). What’s more, he can go to an endless number of parties without apparent fatigue.He has—at least up until now—accomplished that thing that is so elusive to and so sought-after by the rest of us: a perfect career. As able an organization man as he was a journalist, he made Time Inc. his own. Really, he just never made a mistake. Never got caught out. Or at least never failed to recover beautifully when he had to recover.Walter is a yuppie platonic ideal. (Walter, in fact, may be what we of a certain middle-aged media generation talk about instead of talking about girls.)

It is of no small significance to the Walter myth that he accomplished what he accomplished at Time Inc., and then Time Warner, and then AOL Time Warner—that he stayed within this fold right up until now. For one thing, these are arguably the most vicious and fraught companies that have ever existed—so to have risen for nearly 25 years there almost without setback is the feat of a remarkable career athlete; there aren’t a handful of others who have done it. For another, these companies, Time Inc. and its successors, represent, in their transformations and grandiosity and shamelessness, all of our media lives. This is, for better or worse, our company (as New York is our city). And Walter, for many of us, has been the manifestation of the most extreme demands, the most difficult contortions, of this company and this life.Of course, not everyone who shares the Walter obsession feels a sense of admiration. Indeed, how you regard Walter—as perfect example or bad example—in some sense defines your bias in our media generation: Do you accept the career itself as the art—and therefore see Walter as representing a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress figure? Or do you see careerists, of which Walter would be the highest expression—not so much Machiavelli as Eddie Haskell—as the real agents of the whole mess we’re in (these anti-careerists refer to Walter as Wally, in an effort to deprive him of his very Walterness)?But from either view, it was a stunning moment when Walter announced his departure from CNN. For the latter group, there was the possibility that some rough justice had occurred: Walter had finally been taken down by the same sort of hubris (in Walter’s case, his assumption that he could, without a hitch, move from success in magazines to success in television) that was taking down the whole of AOL Time Warner (which, as foolishly, assumed it could segue from magazines to all other media). For the former group, it was an existential moment for our Pilgrim—how would he finally deal with failure?

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

In the Walter-got-his-comeuppance view, he is seen as part of the purge that has so far taken the careers of Jerry Levin, Bob Pittman, and, the day before Walter’s exit, Steve Case. In this Kremlinology, Walter is former AOL Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin’s creation. A decade ago, Levin, searching for someone to help him with his inexpert technological hankerings, vaulted the also inexpert Walter out of the ranks of Time’s many senior editors and brought him to the hallowed thirty-fourth floor and a big office suite and into the new role of editor of new media. Walter led the effort to create Pathfinder—history’s first razzle-dazzle Website—and, not insignificantly, was most responsible for the Internet’s becoming, with Time’s imprimatur, an advertising-driven medium (if you connect the fateful dots, this dream of selling advertising is what ultimately brought AOL down). Then, just before Pathfinder flopped, Walter was whisked back to Time, where he was made managing editor and where, arguably, he saved the idea of the news magazine—by exchanging worldly hard news for domesticated soft news (TOO MUCH HOMEWORK!). Then, just before the great nineties ad boom expired, Walter was promoted to Time Inc. editorial director—one step from the Henry Grunwald Time Inc. editor-in-chief job that, nobody doubted, he was born to have.At which point the AOL deal happened. Walter aligned himself squarely with Levin and with AOL’s Bob Pittman. Early on, he tried to become the editorial director of the combined new-media–old-media operation. When that didn’t work out, he took the possibly even grander job of CNN chairman. This is a hard job in any circumstance, but it’s an impossible job when the guys who put you in the job themselves get ousted. Walter, in other words, when the stakes were as high as they get, finally played a bad hand.

But let me give another scenario—one that credits Walter with a little more Walterness.Because he is someone with unlimited ambition, and because he is a corporate loyalist, he has always followed the ever-morphing identity of his company. If Time Inc. had somehow stayed Time Inc., Walter, I am sure, would have become, in fact, a greater Henry Grunwald than Henry Grunwald. But when the company adopted this other vision—platforms, pipes, technology—Walter was there. An ambitious person accepts the rules of the game—or, if not the rules, at least accepts the game. What’s more, this is Walter’s métier: a greater intellectual construct, more and more powerful people, ever-more complex systems of rationalizations. Why would he want to resist it?He understood that the magazine business, journalism, and, in the end, even the thirty-fourth floor were limiting him.So television—an unavoidable step.

In some sense, I think Walter knew he would fail, or at least not succeed, at the CNN job. I’m sure he understood that the reason he got the job was that everybody else knew there was almost no chance of success. That the job fell to him because the geniuses at AOL Time Warner had gotten rid of everyone at CNN who had theretofore made it a success.That left Walter reporting to WB auteur Jamie Kellner (surely not Walter’s idea of a genius), working in Atlanta (even though there is no more Manhattan creature than New Orleans–born Walter), competing with Fox (as unseemly a competition as he has ever been in), and hiring Connie Chung (who Walter can’t have thought was anything other than ridiculous).Still. If you understand, as Walter does, that the world—our world—has changed irrevocably (for better or worse), that journalism (or being a journalist) is a sidelined occupation, that, if you want to be a contender, you have to break through to the other side of the diversified media-and-entertainment business, you do what Walter did.But Walter, unlike so many others he has had to suffer recently, is no fool. If he got out of new media because it was doomed, and got out of magazines because they were in trouble, and got out of journalism itself because it was so over with, he was, likewise, getting out of CNN now (and just before a war, at that) because it was hopeless, and, as the ultimate brush-off, out of AOL Time Warner because there was just no longer any advantage in being associated with it.Trust me, if Walter is going, AOL Time Warner is gone.

On the one hand, you have the structure of the media business caving in, like colonial rule, or communism, or an aging monarchy. But on the other hand, you have the continuing career moves of some of the greatest careerists in history: The week Walter announced he was leaving CNN, his good friend and Bronxville neighbor Andy Lack announced he was leaving the presidency of NBC to run Sony Music.So take note: Walter, by taking over the Aspen Institute (where, as it happens, Jerry Levin sits on the board), is getting out of the media business.The well-endowed Aspen Institute, a think tank for liberal internationalists, which has been in minor eclipse, will now rise to great new prominence by virtue of Walter’s publicity talents.It will provide Walter, in Washington and New York (rather than actually in Aspen, where the institute merely maintains a bucolic meeting place), with a platform from which to say startlingly reasonable and immensely intelligent things (I have been in many meetings with Walter, and he is somehow always the most reasonable and intelligent person in the meeting) about the unreasonable state of the world. And, of course, he will get great press.He will host innumerable cocktail parties—which are, in many ways, his real medium.He will find a solvable conflict and broker at the Aspen retreat a big peace in the world (in the meetings that Walter runs, everyone leaves agreeing with Walter—and believing he agrees with them).And when the Democrats emerge from what are shaping up to be their long wilderness years, there will be, I promise you, one inevitable secretary of State.Walter.

The Altar of Walter