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The Chambers Report: Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

Steve Jobs revolutionized six industries - personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing (as well as reinventing the store's role in defining a brand) - yet he was utterly incapable of purchasing furniture worthy of coexisting with an Eames or Nakashima chair in his Silicon Valley mansion.

A follower of Zen Buddhism all his life, Jobs was nevertheless the opposite of the calm contemplative; he was, instead, almost always incessantly uptight and on edge, never fully comfortable either with other people or in his own skin. The greatest business leader of his era, he was at the same time a petulant bully who frequently cried when he failed to get his way.

In the end, though, Jobs usually did get his way, and even his bitterest enemies came to accept that as a good thing, despite his near nonstop abuse of them.

Nor was modesty Jobs' strong suit, as shown by his relentless hounding of all-star biographer Walter Isaacson into penning this great biography of the Cupertino Bad Boy.

The author of monumental tomes about Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson was the easy choice of the colossally narcissistic creator/borrower/thief (Jobs often stole the ideas of others and frequently quoted Picasso's notorious dictum that "good artists copy, great artists steal" in justification) who saw himself as very much a major leaguer.

After completing this 600-page miracle of clarity and organization, the admiring biographer fully agreed, having arrived at the conclusion that history would, in fact, place Jobs "in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford" . . . the one business executive of our Age "most certain to be remembered a century from now."

But how did all this come about in a career span of only three-and-a-half decades? Not because Jobs was necessarily brighter (in the conventional sense) than everyone else. Rather than just being "exceptionally smart," he was, argues Isaacson, a "genius" . . . a man "whose imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical." He was a man whose remarkable "insights," in the words of one admirer, "come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power."

Ironically, this seemingly complex genius was, at bottom, a surprisingly uncomplicated thinker, one for whom everything was either white (his favorite color) or black, either right or wrong . . . or, to use language more typical of Jobs himself, either "insanely great" or "shit."

Jobs never saw himself as just an engineer or computer geek, but rather as an artist/designer intent on altering the planet by bridging the gap between the liberal arts and technology. His heroes were Picasso, Michelangelo, and Bob Dylan (there were 21 Dylan albums on Jobs' personal iPod), not Bill Gates, the other wunderkind born in 1955, whom the Apple King viewed as "uncreative" and far more interested in money than in the marvels of technology.

Jobs' relentless goal was the pursuit of beauty and its distillation in devices that redefined our Age precisely because of their perfection. The path to the Perfect in everything, Jobs believed, was through constant refinement and insistence on simplification. This ceaseless drive made him an intolerant monster much of the time, but it also brought magic to all that he and his "A-Team" colleagues created for a world that, by the time of Jobs' death from pancreatic cancer in October 2011, simply could not get enough of Apple's beautiful, increasingly flawless products.

Each public introduction of a new device was carefully orchestrated by Jobs himself, who in the process also became the most sensational salesman of his era. These celebrated "shows" - from the famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial called the best of all time to his iPad2 introduction six months before his death - drew increasingly manic and enthusiastic crowds of Apple fanatics, hoards of whom lined up many hours before their hero strolled alone across a nearly bare stage to dazzle them.

By the end, Steve Jobs had become a bigger rock star than his idol Dylan, his friend Bono, or even his admirers Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Rupert Murdoch. He knew everyone, and they were all continually awed by him.

If there was one essential ingredient of Jobs' achievements, it was his astonishing intensity - his seemingly super-human ability to focus on the matter at hand, to the point of demanding multitudinous tweaks to each product before its introduction and sealing each up so ingeniously that users find it impossible to take an iPhone or iPod apart in order "to fiddle with" its internal workings.

This intensity - he taught himself to stare down and intimidate absolutely anyone without blinking - could not be resisted and enabled Jobs totally to control the production of each Apple product seamlessly.

The opposite of Bill Gates in virtually every way - whose "open-ended" philosophy at Microsoft made him the world's richest man but also the object of withering contempt to his nemesis at Apple - Jobs, the ultimate control-freak (despite his protestations to the contrary), insisted that his devices be "closed," that is, entirely integrated from conception and development through production and introduction, without any invasion at all of unwelcome "shit" made by other, less creative and decidedly inferior firms.

Apple's absolute control of everything from hardware and software to content and packaging resulted in a steady stream of elegant, "tasteful" products that left everyone else's awash in the Company's beautiful wake. (One unexpected result of Isaacson's book has been to make this writer deeply contemptuous of his own pedestrian Dell computer and decidedly homely HP printer.)

Jobs' masterful, if tyrannical, leadership enabled his great Company to stand atop the technological world at the very height of the computer revolution. By the time of his death at age 56, Apple had grown in thirty years from a mere table in his parents' garage - where with Steve Wozniak he founded the firm - into the most valuable and powerful business on Earth.

His unflagging search for elegance and beauty defined even Jobs' daily "uniform" of black turtleneck (ironic, given his love of white), beltless jeans, and sneakers, but it also precluded his ever finding a sofa worthy of joining the gorgeous chairs in his house or the sleek Mercedes or Porsches in his garage.

As reported by his wife Lorene Powell, perhaps the only person capable of living intimately with her tempestuous spouse, "We spoke about furniture for eight years . . . asking, for example, what is the purpose of a sofa? . . . Every night for weeks, we argued about which washing machine to purchase." (They ultimately opted for a German product that used dramatically less water and left clothes fresher than did the more wasteful American counterparts for which Jobs had utter contempt.)

While such intense concentration on seemingly mundane matters may appear absurd to most people, it was all part of Jobs' relentless pursuit of perfection. In the end, he was worth it, argues Isaacson.

The Steve Jobs who could be an exhausting bully, who refused to allow license plates on his flashy cars and parked in handicapped parking spaces, and who constantly berated his colleagues, friends, and family was also the Steve Jobs who dramatically remade our world and left us immeasurably better off after he departed it. And he certainly chose the right biographer to present this paragon-demon to the rest of us.

*

This is a difficult review to pen because my attitudes about the book kept oscillating as I read through its often-maddening pages.

For at least half the volume I was very put off by its "sound bite" language. It reads just the way Chris Matthews talks on his TV show - non-stop, loud, lickety-split, higgly-piggly, some of this, some of that . . . essentially a tossed-together mélange of ideas and opinions tumbling out of Matthews' teeming mind.

And then there is the hero-worship that slathers over every page . . . so much so, in fact, that the reader (this reader, at any rate) runs the risk of actually admiring JFK less as he reads, rather than more, hardly the author's intention. Matthews' lack of objectivity and constant pandering to Kennedy's "greatness" threaten to cost him readers (I almost quit well before the end; a rarity for me. I read even bad books all the way through).

Yet, after a time, that same reader - if he keeps on slogging - eventually settles in and goes along for the ride, sound-bites and all. And a bumpy ride it is.

Sloppily written and sloppily edited, the book is filled with clichés, sentence fragments, hyperbole, omissions - one shocking one being no mention at all of Marilyn Monroe (who apparently slept with both Jack and his brother Bobby on the same night), and very little of Teddy Kennedy.

Of JFK's rampant dalliances - of which Jackie was always quite aware - Matthews has relatively little to say, in effect excusing them as simply forgivable minor aspects of the glowing life of the All-American Golden Boy.

After all, what would we/should we expect - spectacularly attractive, to men as well as to women (all women) - JFK was the true son of his father (though Matthews tries to deny this on many pages), also a major-league philanderer whose wife just looked the other way.

On the upside, the Kennedy story is a glorious one - the glamorous tale of a handsome, rich, extraordinarily privileged boy who went to Choate and Harvard, became a genuine war hero, sailed into politics, married the most beautiful girl in the world (by everyone's admission), charmed every person he ever met, and, as Matthews has it, saved the world just months prior to having his fame and youthful vigor embalmed forever at age 43 by an assassin's bullet in Dallas.

Chris Matthews, another handsome, famous Catholic boy, simply cannot get enough of his hero, whose myth-like saga he wants everyone to hear . . . again and again.

On the penultimate page of his gushy paean he even hints that JFK's rightful place in history should be to be hewn right up there on Mount Rushmore with Teddy, George, Abe, and Long Tom. Not everyone would agree.

-

Comments welcome.

-

Introducing Bob: Born in North Carolina, educated at Duke (BA), Yale (BD), and Brown (Ph.D). Was an English/American Studies prof at Yale and Dean in Davenport College (home of both Bushes, I regret to say), Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell, President of Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) near Baltimore for 16 years, and Provost/Dean at Trinity College of the University of Melbourne in Australia for a year-and-a-half (my favorite job).

For five years I was a senior consultant with Marts & Lundy, Inc, perhaps the premier firm helping colleges, universities, and prep schools raise money (that's what led to my job at Trinity). Speaking of money, what little I have had has been mostly spent on travel and living abroad . . . 66 countries so far, with residence in the UK (Cambridge, the world's best college town), Ireland, and Japan (in Kyoto, the world's best city), as well as Oz.

Next up, the month of August in Peru (the Amazon, Lima, Machu Picchu, Cuzco) and Ecuador (Quito, the Galapagos). Divorced, two kids . . . a daughter living in Manhattan where she is managing editor of TV Guide and a son living in the woods near Santa Cruz, head of a rock band, of course. I now live in Gainesville, Florida, half the year, and in the Coachella Valley in California the other half.

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1. From James Strong:

On both Jobs and Kennedy reviews, guilty of excellence. Need more Isaacsons and far less Matthews.



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Posted on May 30, 2012


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