Good reading for the holidays: Christmas shopping? The perfect gift may be as close as the nearest bookstore – Book Review

Ted Kreiter

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson 590 pages, Simon & Schuster, $30

After completing his first draft of the Declaration of Independence on June 21, 1776, Thomas Jefferson sent the document down the street to let Benjamin Franklin have a look. What happened next is described by Walter Isaacson in his new book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.

“Franklin made only a few changes…. The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable’ and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.'”

That single edit, Isaacson notes, turned the historic assertion of man’s inalienable rights from a vaguely religious one into one of firm rationality. It changed the whole tenor of the document.

But then Isaacson goes on to explain where Franklin got the idea in the first place.

He borrowed the notion of self-evident truths from his great friend David Hume, the Scottish philosopher whose theory, known as “Hume’s fork,” distinguished between “synthetic truths” that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia’) and “analytic truths” that are self-evident by virtue of reason (such as “All bachelors are unmarried” or The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees. “Or “All men are created equal”).

Through such asides, made possible only by copious research of his subject, Isaacson brings forth one of the clearer and more accurate, as well as perhaps the most entertaining, biography of Franklin since the founding father’s own autobiography some 200 years ago.

Just as we are pleased at Franklin’s incisive editing of Jefferson’s Declaration, so are we also grateful that some of his ideas never saw the light of day (the wild turkey instead of the bald eagle as the national emblem, for example, or Franklin’s proposals at the Constitutional Convention for a unicameral legislature, an executive council instead of a president, and no salaries for officeholders-all politely ignored by the other delegates). Franklin would not have minded that his ideas were overridden, for as Isaacson makes clear, he was perhaps the most dedicated to democracy and to compromise of all the founding fathers, and the foremost to espouse the dignity of the working tradesman and entrepreneur.

A genius and polymath, Franklin worked in many fields: politics, business, diplomacy, statecraft, science, and publishing, among others. His greatest gift may have been an immense curiosity and a creative imagination, which he focused on matters both large and small. (Some accused him of being trifling.) One example: as a member of the Pennsylvania militia, which he had helped to create, Franklin suggested that large, vicious dogs be used as scouts. But they would have to wear muzzles, he added (as if thinking out loud), so they would not give away the militia’s presence, should they go barking after squirrels.

Franklin genuinely believed that pointing out the way to moral goodness can be useful, but he also knew his own weaknesses were as great as anyone else’s. Once, overcome by his own pride–a feeling he admits he had to fight off all his life–Franklin had his militia regiment parade up Philadelphia’s main street and fire their cannons. The report of the guns. He later noted for posterity. broke some of the Leyden jars of the electrical apparatus in his house. What it did to the neighbors’ china was never reported. But Franklin soon resigned his commission.

Another revelation from Isaacson’s book is that Franklin was far more crafty and mischievous (in a good-natured way) than he is commonly given credit for. He could not resist using his enormous wit to castigate his enemies, as well as to chide himself.

A case in point is his Poor Richard’ s Almanack, which Isaacson notes is known more today for its folksy proverbs meant for “conveying instruction among the common folk” than for the hilarious inside Jokes Franklin perpetrated in its pages. The fictional publisher of the almanac, Richard Saunders (and his nagging wife, Bridget), was borrowed from a real Richard Saunders who had been a noted almanac writer in England in the previous century.

While he played up his intentions of instructing and improving his readers through the Almanack, Franklin openly conveyed through Richard the real motivation behind the publication, which was to make money. Almanacs were cash cows for printers in Franklin’s day, and he only started up Poor Richard in 1733 when the writers of the two almanacs he was already printing had taken their work elsewhere.

In Poor Richard, Isaacson writes, Franklin “ginned up a running feud with his rival [almanac publisher] Titan Leeds by predicting and later fabricating his death,” It was a prank Franklin borrowed from the Irish writer Jonathan Swift, and it worked. Leeds took the bait and responded in his next almanac (after the date of his predicted death) by calling Franklin a “conceited scribbler” and “a fool and a liar.” Franklin countered that Leeds must indeed be dead and his new almanac being printed by someone else, since Leeds “was too well bred to use any man so indecently and scurrilously, and moreover his esteem and affection for me was extraordinary.”

The next year Franklin continued the ridicule of the “deceased” publisher. “‘Tis plain to everyone that reads his last two almanacks,” he wrote, “no man living would or could write such stuff.” When Leeds actually did die in 1738, Isaacson reports. Franklin continued the prank by printing a letter from Leeds’ ghost, admitting that he had really died at the time Franklin had predicted and making his own prediction that another of Franklin’s almanac rivals, John Jerman, would convert to Catholicism, thus engendering a new feud for his Poor Richard audience to savor.

Franklin would never know the far reaching effect his Almanack and his autobiography would have upon the world, their impact perhaps rivaling that of his famous inventions. His ethic lauding personal responsibility became the motivation for many a subsequent self-made man. Issacson notes that Franklin’s Autobiography “was the one book that Davy Crockett carried with him to his death at the Alamo” and that industrialist Thomas Mellon regarded reading Franklin’s Autobiography as “the turning point” of his life.

Meanwhile, Poor Richard’s maxims and aphorisms, although they may have inspired millions, also offered ample fodder for good-natured ribbing from humorists down through the years. In an especially delightful Jibe, Mark Twain charged Franklin’s maxims with having ruined the lives of generations of “otherwise happy boys,”

And Franklin no doubt would have loved Twain’s Joke. After all, he was the one who cracked the famous pun at the most serious moment in American history.

After penning his signature on the Declaration of Independence at the formal signing of August 2, 1776, John Hancock stated: “There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together.”

“Yes,” Franklin chimed in. “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

In the beginning of his book, Walter Isaacson states, “The most interesting thing Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself,” This book, perhaps more so than others, clearly demonstrates how profoundly that “most interesting” invention has affected all of our lives.

Put the Moose on the Table: Lessons in Leadership From a CEO’s Journey Through Business and Life by Randall Tobias, 280 pages, Indiana University Press, $24.95

What does it take to be an outstanding manager and communicator? Randall L. Tobias ought to know. At age 39 he became the youngest senior officer in the history of the world’s largest corporation, AT&T. In 1993, Tobias accepted the post of President and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, a foremost American pharmaceutical maker. His hiring came on the heels of a traumatic event for the company, the ousting by the board of directors of the popular former CEO Vaughn Bryson.

When Tobias left his job as Vice Chairman of AT&T and arrived for work at Lilly, he half expected to be met by “an angry mob.” But what he encountered was actually worse. Another calamity had befallen the company the day after he accepted the job. For the first time in history, a Lilly drug trial had been stopped. A promising new drug had turned deadly. Everyone was waiting and watching to see how this new CEO from the world of telephones would handle an unprecedented corporate emergency. The following is Tobias’ account of his first day on the job excerpted from his book, Put the Moose on the Table.

Almost immediately upon my arrival in the executive suite, I was informed that “the meeting” was about to get under way.

As I began the long walk from the doorway of the executive conference room to the one remaining empty seat at the head of the table-a distance I later calculated to be all of ten feet-all eyes from the two dozen or so in attendance moved in the tracking, collective stare found often at tennis matches and funerals. The mood in the room felt considerably more like that of the latter. As I established eye contact with those in the packed room, the first words out of my mouth struck me almost instantly as being charged with far more irony than I had intended: “Good morning. For those who don’t know me, I’m Randy Tobias…. “

I informed the group that I regretted having to meet under such doleful circumstances and that I was there principally to listen and observe. I asked them to proceed with the meeting as they would normally have done.

Rebecca Kendall, an admirer of Bryson’s, was in attendance that morning as the lawyer directly responsible for the legal issues. Years later, she shared the thoughts that were going through her mind at that moment: ‘The circumstances under which Randy became Chairman and CEO were pretty incredible and traumatic for this organization. There were many, many people who had strong feelings about it. So I was thinking to myself. ‘We’ll see what this guy is made of, because I bet none of his telephones ever killed anybody!'”

I’m confident hers was a shared sentiment.

The meeting got under way with the medical people outlining what was known and what was not. This was an extremely unusual circumstance for the company. In fact, of those in attendance who had worked for the company for their entire careers, no one could recall an incident of this magnitude ever occurring before in a clinical trial. Something like this just didn’t happen.

From time to time when the discussion got bogged down with technical language, Dr. Mel Perleman, who was chairing the meeting, was very gracious about taking the time to help me understand the broad strokes of what was going on. After the medical and scientific presentations, after the lawyers had their say and the public-relations people noted their concerns, and after Dr. Perleman summarized what had been decided and the assignments that had been made, all eyes, once again, found their way to the head of the table.

It was a great deal to digest. I was sure I didn’t begin to understand all of the inner workings and all of the implications of what had gone wrong in this trial. But from experience, I knew I didn’t necessarily have to have all the right answers. Rather, as the new leader, it was now incumbent on me to ask the right questions and to set the right tone. When I walked into the room that morning, there was one issue in particular that had leaped ahead of all others in my mind. And even in light of everything just described, it was still the issue I was focused on.

“I would like to thank everyone who presented this morning for all you’re doing to deal professionally with this extremely serious matter,” I began. “I trust you’ll proceed to handle all of this just as you would have done before I arrived, and that’s exactly what I want you to do. I’ll want to talk further with some of you in order to better understand the issues, but for now, I would like to express Just one point of view….

Was the “hatchet man’s” bottom line-oriented management philosophy about to emerge? A hush came over the room.

“I want to be sure we are focused on doing the most we can for these patients and their families,” I said. “Certainly I want to understand the potential legal and financial exposure that could result from this situation. But the patients are our top priority. I would like their well being to be the driver of our decisions, first and foremost. We must center our actions around how we can best address the needs and interests of these patients. We need to make arrangements to fly their, families to the NIH immediately, if that’s what they want. We need to express our intention to pick up the bills for all expenses incurred as a result of their illness. We need to communicate, in short, our desire to help in any way we can. Not only because we have a responsibility to do those things, but more importantly, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Without consciously realizing it, I had delivered my first speech as Eli Lilly and Company’s new leader. The theme was one I would continue to emphasize until I would eventually step down five and a half years later. Success in corporate America, especially in a changing environment, begins and ends with a company’s commitment to treating all of the people it touches with respect. Success in corporate America begins with leading by example and doing what’s right.

Over the years, everyone in that room had heard about or known about corporate executives trying to dodge potentially explosive situations such as this one by making sweeping suggestions about the company’s values and then handing the matter over to others in the company to make the issue quietly disappear. That was not the way the people in this room wanted to practice their values. And neither did I.

I suspect it was not only what I said that morning that seemed to engender the trust of all involved but also what was left unsaid. In the simple gesture of doing what my experience had taught me was the only logical path, I was instinctively moving the company past the potential trapdoors-the easy ways out-but recognized the importance of truly walking the talk.

I had survived my first hours on the job, pretty much unscathed.

The Older the Fiddle the Better the Tune by Willard Scott and Friends 213 pages, Hyperion, $22.95

Dr. Bernie Siegel once asked a 93-year-old patient suffering from gallstones and cancer what she was afraid of. She paused for a few moments and then answered, “Driving on the parkway at night.”

This anecdote from Willard Scott’s new book, The Older the Fiddle, the Better the Tune, shows how preconceived notions about aging can be-well, just wrong. What people actually feel about being old can be surprisingly refreshing. And that is what makes Scott’s book appealing.

The veteran “Today” weatherman, himself a card-carrying senior at age 69, finds that growing older is better than he’d imagined. “The two best times of life are arguably childhood and being older,” he states, and many seniors are ready to second that motion, including a U.S. president, a psychic medium, and a host of older celebrities who contributed to this book.

What is clear from the beginning is that aging does have special perks; it’s just that they may not be so obvious to the younger generation or even to seniors themselves, unless somebody points them out. Consider former president George H. W. Bush’s take on the little memory lapses known as ‘senior” moments: “I forget a lot of stuff now, but so what? It is kind of fun to always look for my glasses. (I can now hide my own Easter eggs.)”

Or former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s positive spin on his age-related medical problems: “My arteries are hard enough so that I don’t have migraine headaches anymore. My spine is pretty well ankylosed with osteoarthritis and that means 1 don’t have lower back pain anymore.’

According to Yogi Berra, being an old coot gives you another important perk: a license to be contrary. “You don’t have to take any guff from anyone,” he states. “If you don’t really want to do something, you don’t have to. Unless your wife says it’s real important.”

And while age still doesn’t get the respect it deserves in our society, there is a detectable degree of deference that some people find appealing.

“People tell you, ‘You look great,’ no matter how you look,” enthuses comedienne Phyllis Diller, 85.

One of the greatest things about old age is that the stereotypes about aging don’t really fit. As W. Somerset Maugham once observed: “When I was young I was amazed at Plutarch’s statement that the elder Cato began at the age of 80 to learn Greek. I am amazed no longer. Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long.” So getting older really means getting better, but if you’d rather not watch yourself in the process, singer Andy Williams has some advice: “Don’t get glasses. When your body starts falling apart, so does your eyesight, so when you look in the mirror in the morning, you still look pretty good.”

But perhaps television personality Hugh Downs should have the last word: “A genuine, noticeable increase in quality living comes with age,” he says. “The majestic wheel of the day takes on a beauty that you took for granted in the hectic heat of young and prime years. The young are too busy to enjoy… and too loosely wrapped to develop and fine-tune an esthetic sense that finds beauty in every vista, every meal, every drink, every well-written book, and every bar of good music. These come with age.

“The poet Robert Browning wrote: ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,’ a sentence I thought was errant nonsense when I first read it. But I was young. And I was wrong.

“Browning was right.” And so, we might add, is Willard Scott.

Other Books We Recommend

Lessons I Learned in the Dark: Steps to Walking by Faith. Not by Sight by Jennifer Rothschild

Blind singing artist Jennifer Rothschild’s humorous and insightful account of how her faith in God helped her to find joy in her life and to overcome her disappointments. 224 pages, Multnomah Publishers, Inc., Paperback $22.95

Benjamin Franklin Book of Recipes by Hilaire Dubourcq

For Benjamin Franklin buffs, a unique collection of recipes from Franklin’s time, including his search for the secret of Parmesan cheese and his personal recipe for Milk Punch. The book includes anecdotes and rarely glimpsed Franklin correspondence. Part of the proceeds from the book go to restoring 36 Craven Street in London, the only surviving house in the world once lived in by Franklin. 192 pages, FlyFizzi Publishing, London, $25

Leadership Lessons

1. “Leadership is about far more than producing results through one’s own initiatives-it’s about producing results through others.”

2. “Leaders almost always think out of the box. They listen, observe, share ideas, and shamelessly borrow from the experiences of others.”

3. “A leader pursues continuous learning and fosters a learning environment.”

4. “A leader is constantly on the lookout for innovative ideas-particularly in unlikely places.”

5. “A leader inspires confidence and trust and consistently displays the highest ethical standards.”

6. “When I hear corporate leaders refer to values and culture as ‘soft issues,’ I wonder what they regard as being ‘hard.’ In my experience, cultural beliefs are the heart and soul of all business matters.”

7. “Organizations that are run on shaky ethics and questionable practices are destined to find themselves in hot water. There is no way they can ‘communicate’ themselves out of trouble.”

8. “Bad news does not improve with age.”

9. “Adding more people to the task at hand is not always the answer to getting a job done more quickly or more efficiently or more effectively. You can put only so many men into a manhole at one time.”

10. “A predisposition for using committees to make decisions by consensus means that decisions are often compromises rather than hard choices. It also means that no one is really accountable. Building a consensus to Support a decision is an important leadership responsibility. Making decisions by consensus is not.”

11. “In the corporate world, success and praise from the financial community has a shelf life about as long as that of a gallon of milk.”

“When I am asked how I became a successful CEO, my response is disappointingly simple. I always thought it was important to do my best to be ready when opportunity knocked. And then I always tried to answer the door!”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Betty Crocker Tackles Diabetes: Carbohydrates are down for the count with new diabetic recipes the whole family can enjoy

Betty Crocker Tackles Diabetes: Carbohydrates are down for the count with new diabetic recipes the whole family can enjoy Betty Crocker’s…

Off on a toot – Post Scripts

Off on a toot – Post Scripts – Poem Barbara Albright Off on a Toot Some motorists, I think, Seem to think they were bo…

O, Canada! Where low drug prices are costly to your health; should we strangle American scientific talent, which has given the world its most effective and innovative pharmaceuticals?

O, Canada! Where low drug prices are costly to your health; should we strangle American scientific talent, which has given the world its most ef…

A program of brain-boosting exercises and carefully adjusted drug treatment can help patients live more successfully with this as-yet-incurable disease

Dealing with Alzheimer’s: a program of brain-boosting exercises and carefully adjusted drug treatment can help patients live more successfully w…