As I was reading the excerpts and reports of George Tenet's new book, I was reminded of a dinner I went to recently where I got to listen to Václav Havel, the playwright, former Czech president, prisoner, and human rights activist. He said that there were two types of people he had dealt with over the years: those with the soul of a collaborationist and those who were comfortable defying authority. He was obviously in the latter category, and he was speaking of a European archbishop who had collaborated with the communists.
George Tenet's woes, it seems to me, come from the very natural instinct to please rather than tell uncomfortable truths to those in authority. Watching Bill Moyers's show on how the media failed to question the march to the war in Iraq, I reflected on how I, likewise, when I was at CNN, was too willing to accept what those in authority were telling me. And reading Bob Dallek's new book on Nixon and Kissinger, I was reminded how Kissinger, someone I once wrote about, was too willing to cater to and collaborate with the darker impulses of Nixon.
It's not always possible nor even a good thing to be defiant of authority, as I sometimes try to explain to my daughter. Yet Havel's distinction seems, each day, to become more relevant to me as I watch folks like Tenet try to explain themselves. I think, in contrast, of a person like Brent Scowcroft, who repeatedly had the intellectual honesty to say publicly and privately when he disagreed with his former protégés in the Bush Administration, even at the cost of being excluded from the inner circle.
A rebellious willingness to defy authority is what I think most characterized Albert Einstein, my most recent biography subject. You see it in his politics, as he becomes the sole dissenter among the academic elite in Berlin to oppose German militarism during World War I and later to oppose the Nazis, communists, and then McCarthyites when he moved to America. In all cases, it was because he felt people should not be compelled to cater to authority. Likewise in his personal life; even as a young kid, he gets asked to leave school because his attitude is undermining authority, and as a yound patent examiner he learned to question every premise in front of him. And in his science, Einstein's triumphs came from questioning the received wisdom about space and time and gravity that was handed down from Newton.
Not everyone is an Einstein, and many people who repeatedly defy authority are cranks rather than heroes. On the other hand, Havel is right to draw an interesting distinction between people like Einstein and people whose laudable respect for authority spills over into an overeagerness to cater to power.
Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, is the former managing editor of Time and chairman of CNN and the author of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. His Einstein biography is available at amazon.com.