The man who won Steve Jobs’ trust

Who is Walter Isaacson, and why did Jobs choose him to tell the story of his life?

Isaacson at the iPad unveiling. Photo: Michael Copeland

[NOTE: Simon & Schuster announced Sunday that the first authorized biography of Steve Jobs — iSteve: The Book of Jobs by Walter Isaacson [Since renamed Steve Jobs] — will be published in early 2012. A version of this article was posted in February 2010 before the S&S publicity machine was ready to kick into gear.]

Apple’s January 2010 iPad event was packed cheek to jowl with the famous and well-connected, from John Doerr to Al Gore. But I was still surprised see my old Time magazine editor in the middle of the action. What in the world was Walter Isaacson doing at an Apple (AAPL) event in San Francisco?

The answer came two and a half weeks later in the
New York Times
, which reported that Steve Jobs — having fought off a long list of would-be biographers over the years — had chosen Isaacson to write, with Jobs’ help, the story of his life.

The news came as no surprise to anyone who has worked with Isaacson. If there is one thread that runs through his long career in journalism and public service, it’s his talent for spotting the most influential people in any room and finding a way to get close to them.

Born into a middle-class New Orleans family in 1952, Isaacson seemed to live a charmed life.

He was educated at the prestigious Isidore Newman School, whose graduates include Michael (Liar’s Poker) Lewis and quarterback Peyton Manning. He went to Harvard and won a Rhodes Scholarship, which sent him to Oxford University. He joined Time‘s Washington bureau in 1978, where he covered the Reagan White House. At Time, where his byline appears on 218 stories, he quickly climbed the ranks, becoming editor of the Nation section, then editor of the whole back of the book (science, technology, arts, law, books, etc.) — somehow finding time on weekends to write the definitive biography of Henry Kissinger.

He became Time‘s managing editor — the magazine’s top job — in 1996. In an era of belt-tightening he managed to grow the staff and launch several high-profile projects, including the Time 100, Person of the Century, and Time‘s 75th Anniversary celebration at Radio City Music Hall, to which every living person who had ever been on the cover was invited.

Time staffers wondered what a man as ambitious as Walter would do after leaving the magazine. Rumor had it he was angling for a post in a Democratic administration — perhaps Secretary of State.

Instead, he moved into new media and public policy. He had been instrumental in putting Time on AOL (AOL) in the early 1990s, and in 1994 — before taking the reins at Time — he launched Pathfinder, a grand but ultimately doomed Time Warner (TWX) Web portal whose rise and fall was chronicled in Michael Wolff’s
Burn Rate

[UPDATE: See Wolff’s take on what kind of Jobs biography Isaacson might write here.]

After Time and Pathfinder, Isaacson spent two unhappy years as chairman of CNN before taking over the Aspen Institute, where he remains president and CEO — a post that gives him the credentials to make guest appearances on TV (most frequently on the Charlie Rose Show) and plenty of time for other projects.

In the past decade, he has accepted a long list of honorary positions. He is on the boards of Tulane University, United Airlines and the Bipartisan Policy Center. He is chairman of the board of Teach for America and vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He serves as co-chair of the U.S.-Vietnamese Dialogue on Agent Orange, and in 2007 President George W. Bush named him chairman of the U.S.-Palestinian Public-Private Partnership.

The Jobs book will be his fourth major biography. In addition to
Kissinger: A Biography
(1992) he has written
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
(2003) and
Einstein: His Life and Universe
(2007). His most recent book is
American Sketches:
Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane

According to Simon & Schuster, Apple’s CEO has given Isaacson unprecedented access — including access to his family, colleagues at Apple and a tour of his childhood home. But until Sunday’s announcement, it wasn’t clear to outsiders that the book was a sure thing. Because what Jobs gives, he can also take away.

In the early 1980s Jobs invited Michael Moritz, then Time‘s Silicon Valley reporter, to chronicle the creation of the Macintosh for the book that became
The Little Kingdom
(1984). But when Moritz reported, in Time‘s 1983 Machine of the Year cover package, the story (here) of how Jobs’ initially refused to acknowledge paternity of his first daughter, Lisa, access was abruptly cut off. Moritz had to finish the book without Apple’s cooperation. Moritz went on to become a partner at Sequoia Capital and to play a key role in funding, among other high-tech start-ups, Google (GOOG), YouTube, Yahoo (YHOO) and Cisco (CSCO).

This will not be Isaacson’s first crack at high-tech hagiography.

In 1996 he persuaded Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bill Gates to give him access for what Isaacson pitched as a shot at making Gates Time‘s Person of the Year. Gates lost out to AIDS researcher David Ho, but Isaacson’s piece ran on the cover the next week. You can read it here.

How did Walter manage to win the trust of Steve Jobs, a man whose penchant for secrecy — and his contempt for journalists — are legendary? Says Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Priscilla Painton, Isaacson’s editor and a Time alumna: “It was Walter’s idea. And you know Walter — he just worked at it.”

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[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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