The featured book in the Karl Rove Reading Room here at the Stately Manor is Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. Deservedly, it is #1 on the New York Times best-seller lists, both in hard-cover and -- fittingly -- its e-book incarnation. It is a chronicle of how one baby boomer "dented the universe" by driving the best and the brightest to "think different."
Steve Jobs has much to say to those of us in a Wisconsin trying to undo the present and to a nation debating whether the future lies in private enterprise or more government statism.
Too fiercely independent to march in anyone's parade, Steve Jobs personalized technology by marrying style and functionality, art and commerce. He defined "creative destruction."
The Apple II, introduced in 1977, replaced the toys preceding it (the Atari and Commodore, for instance) to put a real computer in homes and schools. Five years later, Jobs was 27 years old and dating the folk singer Joan Baez, then 41 and once the lover of Steve's musical idol, Bob Dylan, another man who never stopped inventing himself. Joanie said she was giving her son a typewriter.
"A typewriter?" Jobs asked. He was then developing a revolutionary personal computer with a graphic interface called the Macintosh -- like the company itself, an homage to the apple orchard commune he had worked.
Your humble squire has few heroes but Steve Jobs is on the list. He bought the first of his four Macs in 1985 (pictured: the Mac Plus), a year after their introduction, and subscribed to MacWorld and MacUser magazines.
It is well known that Steve Jobs was given up for adoption. When he found his birth mother, a native of Green Bay, he thanked her for not aborting him. She met Jobs' biological father, a native of Syria, at UW-Madison. Less reported, his adoptive father, a blue-collar man named Paul Reinhold Jobs, was born on a dairy farm in Germantown, just north of Milwaukee.
Steve was a child of the counter-culture -- a college drop out who dropped acid. Practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Beatle fanboy, reader of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, vegetarian (more accurately, a "fruitarian" -- again, the Apple) -- he was a walking contradiction. His geeky partner from the garage days, Steve Wozniak, wanted to give their technology away. Instead, Jobs sealed it in a consumer-friendly package and harnessed the profit motive to spur continuous innovation.
Create or die
The man was worth billions of dollars but did not live for money. So obsessed was Jobs with quality in all things, he sat on the bare wood floor rather than surround himself with inferior furnishings. Finally married with children, he agonized over choosing the correct washer-drier. If he gave to charity it has not been recorded. Yet, Steve Jobs' contribution to a better world likely will trump anything Bill Gates' charities achieve.
The man thought in binary code; something was either insanely great or "total (excrement)." He literally pulled the plug on the computers of programmers who were not working on his team and told them to follow him. Jobs fought to keep the best people, recognizing Apple's chief asset was its brainpower. There were no union stewards to gum up the process.
The man had no use for consumer focus groups. He would create things they didn't know they wanted. iPods, anyone?
A rock star in a geek world, Jobs flew a pirate flag over the building where his Macintosh team labored -- a rebel from within. He was kicked out of his own company in a boardroom putsch in 1985, then went on to start Pixar and the Toy Story movie franchise. (It was during this interregnum that the Stately Manor received its second Mac -- and least favorite -- the Performa.)
At his restoration in 1997 Jobs addressed the workforce wearing sneakers and his iconic black turtleneck sweater.
"OK, tell me what's wrong with this place," he demanded.
There were some murmurings but Jobs cut them off. "It's the products!" he answered. "So what's wrong with the products?" [More murmuring.] "The products suck!" he shouted. "There's no sex in them anymore!"
He proposed a strategem to boost the price of Apple stock in order to retain the best employees. Jobs erupted when the board of directors said they would study the proposal for two months. "Are you nuts!":
"Guys, if you don't want to do this, I'm not coming back on Monday. Because I've got thousands of key decisions to make that are far more difficult than this. ... So if you can't do this, I'm out of here."
Instead, he got the board of directors (all but two) to step down.
Jobs jettisoned the confusing and performance-plagued glut of models he inherited in favor of just four models -- including the gumdrop shaped, translucent candy-colored iMac G3 (our third computer, with the hockey puck mouse) that restored Apple's magic. There followed a flood of game-changing products: the Intel Core Duo-chipped, flat-screen Intel iMac (my current), the iPod, iPhone, the iTunes on-line music store, the iPad and more. His greatest achievement, Jobs himself told Issacson, is the culture of creativity that he hoped would survive him.
When GM and Chrysler were seeking a government bailout a Wall Street Journal columnist proposed that Steve Jobs take over one or both. He cared about Style and function. In that, he was a soul mate of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose image Apple used in his "think different" advertising campaign along with John and Yoko's -- Yoko herself handing him the photo.
Jobs supported Barack Obama's election and then tried to explain entrepreneurship to the president, without success:
He described how easy it was to build a factory in China and said that it was almost impossible to do so these days in America, largely because of regulations and unnecessary costs.
Jobs also attacked America's education system, saying that it was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform. Teachers should be treated as professionals he said not as industrial assembly line workers. Principals should be able to hire and fire them based on how good they were. Schools should be staying open until at least 6 p.m and in session 11 months of the year.
I thought of Steve Jobs as the teachers unions and their out-of-state allies (note Ann of Althouse's photo of the Teamsters truck) rallied around the state Capitol Saturday.
They represent two visions of America: one the quintessentially American saga of risk and innovation -- the drive to create something that people want to purchase.
The darker, flip side demands government coercion to choke off the daring ideas of reformers like Kaleem Caire and preserve the status quo of stifling work rules, unaccountability, and generous retirement pensions.
One rewards success in the marketplace, the other rewards failure.