October 4, 2023

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

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

Isaacson has a fascination with geniuses — Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci — but this is his first biography of someone at the white-hot center of current events. His friends love Walter as much as they fear Musk, and the party combined rapturous praise with a kind of existential dread about the controversial tech megalomaniac. The book “can depress you and make you happy, in some ways,” Rubenstein, billionaire philanthropist and chair of the Kennedy Center, told the guests. “It can depress you, because when you read it, you realize how much Elon Musk has accomplished in his life compared to most people. … It can actually make you happy, though, in the sense that you realize you don’t have the mental anguish and tortures and complicated personality he has.”

The crux of the unease: Can you trust that a mercurial multibillionaire with daddy issues, a superhero complex and unfettered power will do the right thing? The book has already divided reviewers, who call it a brilliant and essential dive into the mind of one of the 21st century’s most influential men — or an apologia for Musk’s arrogance and excesses.

The book came out last week, and Isaacson has already issued a clarification concerning Musk’s use of his Starlink technology in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Isaacson, who spent two years reporting and researching Musk’s life, wrote that he disabled the satellite system over Crimea on the eve of a Ukrainian offensive; Musk contends that he shut it down much earlier. Isaacson said future editions of the book will reflect Musk’s version of events.

Elon Musk biographer concedes flaw in account of war in Ukraine

But the fact that Musk, a private citizen, played a crucial role in a foreign war is the bigger issue. The mind behind Tesla and SpaceX appeared on Capitol Hill last week to share his views on artificial intelligence. He owns X, formerly Twitter, and posts his opinions to a global audience almost daily. Like so many billionaires, Musk has extrapolated 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 whether it’s safe.

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

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

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Motley co-hosted the party with Rubenstein, interim Washington Post CEO Patty Stonesifer, Michael Kinsley, Sally Quinn, Donna Brazile, and Evan and Oscie Thomas. Quinn, a friend from back when Isaacson was at Time magazine, called him a “good old Southern boy. … He’s always had this talent for disarming and charming people.” Everything he’s touched, she said, “turned to gold.”

After specialty cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the 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 the electric car and space exploration. Early in Isaacson’s reporting, Musk bought Twitter, and the stakes spiked. “He’s a person who’s a drama addict,” the author explained. “He’s always looking to push more drama and stir things up.”

Isaacson views Musk as a Shakespearean character filled with contradictions: “In this day and age, we always have hot takes. We call somebody a hero, we call them a villain, … everybody gets demonized or canonized.” Isaacson said the urge is to focus on Musk’s darker sides — but that would be a mistake. “You’re going to have to remember — like a lot of people you know, including some in this room — that the dark and the light strands are interwoven and sometimes you can’t pull them out without destroying the whole fabric.”

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

Isaacson conceded that the multibillionaire has more power than he probably should, but praised the transfer of some of the Starlink technology to the U.S. military. “I think he understood that’s really something government should do. I do think it would be better if there were 10 other companies that could get rockets into orbit, that could do communication satellites, that could make electric vehicles.”

Every guest left the party with a signed copy of the biography, which allowed them — as Rubenstein joked — to see whether their name was included in the index. Another grand Washington party in the books, if you will.

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