September 27, 2023
At Isakson's book party, they love Walter but are afraid of Elon Musk

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If you write a book but no one throws you a book party, does it matter? Not in Washington.

Sunday night’s party was for Walter Isaacson, the best-selling biographer and darling of this city’s intellectuals, and his new 688-page opus, “Elon Musk.” An intimate group of 165 A-list friends and fans – David Rubenstein, Nancy Pelosi, Roger Sant, Steve Ricchetti, Steve and Jean Case, Sharon Rockefeller, David Axelrod, Kara Swisher, Bob Barnett and Don Graham, just to name a few – Gathered in the magnificent Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery.

Isaacson is fascinated by geniuses – Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci – but this is his first biography of someone at the center of current events. His friends love Walter as much as they fear Musk, and the party combines enthusiastic admiration about the controversial technological megalomaniac with a kind of existential dread. “This book can make you sad and happy in some ways,” Rubenstein, the billionaire philanthropist and president of the Kennedy Center, told guests. “It may disappoint you, because when you read it, you realize how much more Elon Musk has achieved in his life than most people. …However, it can actually make you happy, in the sense that you realize that you don’t have the mental anguish, torture, and complex personality that he has.

Root of Unease: Can you trust that a billionaire with daddy issues, a superhero complex, and unbridled power will do the right thing? The book has already divided reviewers, calling it a brilliant and necessary dive into the mind of one of the most influential individuals of the 21st century – or an apology for Musk’s arrogance and excesses.

The book came out last week, and Isaacson has already issued a clarification regarding Musk’s use of his Starlink technology in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Isakson, who spent two years reporting and researching Musk’s life, wrote that he disabled the satellite system over Crimea on the eve of the Ukrainian attack; Musk argues that he should have stopped it a long time ago. Isaacson said that future editions of the book will reflect Musk’s version of events.

Elon Musk’s biographer admits his mistake for war in Ukraine

But the fact that Musk, a private citizen, played a key role in a foreign war is the bigger issue. The minds behind Tesla and SpaceX appeared on Capitol Hill last week to share his thoughts on artificial intelligence. He is the owner of X (formerly Twitter), and posts his opinions to a global audience almost daily. Like many billionaires, Musk has channeled his business success into unshakable beliefs on hundreds of other topics. Literally and figuratively, this driverless car is on the road, and no one knows if it’s safe or not.

Axios co-founder Mike Allen said at the party, “A biographer’s and reader’s dream is to know in real time what one of the most fascinating, consequential people on Earth is thinking.” “Walter captured that as only Walter can.”

Eric Motley, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, said, “Walter is telling the story of an incredible mind that gave us the electric car and fueled our own space exploration.” “I think Musk is, in many ways, an iteration of a long series of innovation and creativity that we will fully appreciate the opportunities, challenges and ironies as time progresses.”

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Motley co-hosted the party with Rubenstein, interim Washington Post CEO Patty Stonecipher, Michael Kinsley, Sally Quinn, Donna Brazile and Evan and Ossie Thomas. When Isakson was at Time magazine, Quinn, a friend of his, called him “a good old Southern boy.” …He’s always had a talent for making people disarm and charming.” Everything he touched, she said, ”turned to gold.”

After specialty cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the best man of the hour took the stage for brief remarks.

Isaacson said he was drawn to his subject by Musk’s innovation and risk-taking with electric cars and space exploration. Early in Isakson’s reporting, Musk bought Twitter, and the stakes increased. “He is a man who is addicted to drama,” the author explained. “He’s always looking to make more plays and stir things up.”

Isaacson sees Musk as a Shakespearean character full of contradictions: “In this day and age, we always have hot takes. We call somebody a hero, we call them a villain, … everybody gets declared a devil or a saint.” Isaacson said the urge is to focus on Musk’s dark sides — but that’s a mistake. Will happen. “You have to remember – like a lot of people you know, including some of the people in this room – that the dark and light strings are intertwined and sometimes you can’t separate them without destroying the whole fabric. Can’t take it out.”

Review: Elon Musk has his demons. Walter Isaacson does his best to analyze them.

Isaacson acknowledged that the multi-billionaire has more power than he should, but he praised the transfer of some Starlink technology to the US military. “I think he understood that this is really what the government should do. I think it would be better if there were 10 other companies that could put rockets into orbit, that could make communications satellites, that could make electric vehicles.

Each guest left the party with a signed copy of the biography, allowing them – as Rubenstein joked – to see if their name was included in the index. Another grand Washington party in the books, if you will.

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