Karl Weber: An interview by Bob Morris

Weber, KarlKarl Weber is a writer and editor specializing in topics from business and personal finance to politics and current affairs. Weber’s recent projects include the New York Times bestseller Creating a World Without Poverty, co-authored with Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize (2008) and its sequel, Building Social Business (2010); the New York Times number one best seller What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan (2008), which Weber edited; and three best-selling companion books to the acclaimed films, Food Inc. (2009), Waiting for Superman (2010), and Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln (2012), which Weber edited.

Weber has advised and assisted authors in a wide range of non-fiction areas, including, for example, former president Jimmy Carter, business guru Adrian Slywotzky, executive Jonathan M. Tisch, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, and the Honorable Richard Butler, the UN arms inspector inside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Weber also co-authored The Triple Bottom Line with Andrew W. Savitz (2006) and Generation We, a study of the Millennial generation and their growing impact on world affairs, with entrepreneur Eric Greenberg (2008).

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Morris: Before discussing Lincoln: A President for the Ages, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Weber: I’ve been blessed with quite a series of colleagues and mentors from whom I’ve learned a lot. Two that deserve special mention are Peter Osnos and Adrian Slywotzky. I worked under Peter when he was publisher of the Times Books imprint at Random House. I was one of the editors acquiring books for Peter, and the lessons I learned from him about how to engage audiences, how to ferret out the deeper meanings of a story, how to work creatively with authors, and how to deal with the myriad frustrations and challenges of book publishing with patience and humor are ones I rely upon to this day. As for Adrian, he is a brilliant business guru with whom I’ve collaborated on several books. He is also an amazingly creative thinker, a stickler for detail, and someone who is constantly driving himself to achieve greater depths of insight—which inspires those around him to try to do the same. And Adrian is also an unusually kind and generous man, which makes him very special in the business world of today.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Weber: My first job working on business books was at AMACOM, the publishing arm of the American Management Association. I considered it just a job like any other until one day we heard the news that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded, killing everyone on board, including a school teacher. In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the tragedy had been caused by a management and communications snafu—warnings from the engineers about the danger of launching in cold weather were ignored by executives who wanted to ensure that the shuttle would be in space at the time of President Reagan’s upcoming State of the Union address. The event made me realize that effective leadership and management are life-and-death issues, worthy of a lifetime’s study.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Weber: When I was young, I was intimidated by the more experienced people I worked with, assuming they had some secret knowledge I might never attain. I’ve come to realize the extent to which most of us in business are actually making it up as we go along! As screenwriter William Goldman says about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” He’s right! It’s a scary reality, but also, in a funny way, a reassuring one. It has made me much less timid about offering my ideas—which surprisingly often turn out to be of some small value to other people.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Weber: Thanks for asking about this—as a book writer and editor, this is a topic very close to my heart. One of the truths I keep re-discovering is how essential storytelling is as a leadership technique. I’m almost tempted to say that no one really learns, understands, or remembers anything except though the medium of a compelling story. Stories engage our emotions. They give us living human characters, like ourselves, to identify with and grow with. They provide patterns of behavior and of cause-and-effect that shape the way we view the world and guide our future choices. Facts, theories, statistics, logical analyses, rational arguments—all have their place when you’re trying to engage and inspire people. But without a great story, they’re unlikely to have much effect.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Lincoln: A President for the Ages. When and why did you decide to the project?

Weber: I’ve long been an admirer of Lincoln, whom I consider our greatest president. So when I was offered the chance to compile a companion book to the great Spielberg film, I jumped at it. It was wonderful spending several months immersed in Lincoln lore and working with many great Lincoln scholars on their contributions to the book.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Weber: “Head-snapping”?—no; the overall contours of Lincoln’s life and mind were fairly clear to me before I began work on the book. But many details and nuances got filled in with greater richness for me. For example, I learned from Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates more about how tortuous was Lincoln’s journey toward racial enlightenment—how even during the last two to three years of his life, Lincoln was evolving toward a much deeper understanding of the full humanity of African-Americans. I also gained from several of the book contributors—especially writers James Takach and Jamie Malanowski—a greater appreciation for the brilliance of Lincoln’s strategic sense and his use of timing—not just in the military sphere, but in tackling the political challenge of moving the country beyond slavery and into a new sense of unity. He continually surprised his smartest advisors by delaying crucial moves until exactly the right moment, often outmaneuvering determined opponents in the process.

Morris: Thank you. Now I wish to commend you on the brilliant selection of remarks by Lincoln that serve as head notes to introduce each chapter. As you correctly explain, they allow Lincoln to “speak for himself.”

Here’s my question: By which process did you select them and then decide where to place them?

Weber: I’m glad you enjoyed those selections from Lincoln’s writings. They’re an example of how the unplanned can sometimes lead to the greatest results. We originally hoped to include excerpts from Tony Kushner’s wonderful screenplay for Lincoln in the book, and I even selected a number of specific scenes to feature. However, it took time to get official permission to use those excerpts, and meanwhile the book had to be edited and laid out. So we needed a backup plan to fill the spaces that the movie scenes would occupy. I decided to look for excerpts from Lincoln’s writing that fit several criteria: they were historically significant; inherently interesting; well-written; and not excessively familiar. (That’s why we didn’t include the Gettysburg Address, for example.) When the permission to use the movie excerpts couldn’t be arranged in time, the Lincoln writings filled the void—and it’s obvious, in retrospect, that they are even more eloquent and moving than Kushner’s brilliant dialogue.

Morris: Let’s focus now on the film. In my opinion, in each of his previous films such as My Left Foot, Gangs of New York, The Last of the Mohicans, and There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis inhabits each character he plays. That is to say, he isn’t portraying Lincoln. He is Lincoln. What do you think?

Weber: Well, now that Day Lewis has won the Oscar for his performance as Lincoln, I suppose your judgment on this point has become the conventional wisdom, and I must say I concur. I certainly will never be able to think about Lincoln again without picturing Day Lewis and hearing the distinctive high-pitched Midwestern accent he used in the role (which by the way is firmly based on contemporary accounts of Lincoln’s speaking voice). The film is filled with wonderful performances—Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and Tommie Lee Jones and Thaddeus Stevens deserve special mention—but Day Lewis leads the way.

Morris: I don’t know about you but, until I saw the film, I had no idea how dark Lincoln’s world was during the last year of his life. Was it really that dark? Please explain.

Weber: Oh my, yes. And the reasons are very clear. Lincoln had no choice but to prosecute by far the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. He was reviled and hated by half the country and disrespected by many of the rest. He had lost two sons to illness and was afraid of losing a third on the battlefield. His wife was a deeply troubled woman who was also a significant political liability to him. And he was constantly being forced to push the limits of his legal constitutional authority simply in order to fulfill what he saw as his moral and ethical duty to the nation. To me, it’s not surprising that Lincoln should have had bad dreams (including a number in which he vividly imagined his own death) or that he was subject to fits of melancholy. What I find more surprising is that he maintained his sanity in the face of the most incredible pressures any leader of our nation has ever faced.

Morris: Of all the “spiritually and intellectually invigorating currents of Lincoln’s mind” to which you refer in your essay, which do you think is most relevant to the current political scene, especially in the federal government? Why?

Weber:It’s hard to choose just one aspect of Lincoln’s mind and spirit, because he is such a fascinating and admirable character in so many ways. But I think I would focus on the generous sense of empathy he extended to all the stakeholders in the horrible conflict over which he presided. Lincoln never succumbed to the temptation to demonize his adversaries—including the southern slaveholders who reviled him, the radical Republicans and abolitionists who distrusted him and resented his slowness to move against slavery, and the editorialists and political rivals who mocked him as a “gorilla” and a country bumpkin. He was always measured in his responses, thoughtful in his use of conciliatory language, careful to avoid burning bridges, and scrupulous about leaving adversaries a path by which they could retreat in dignity—always while firmly pursuing his own goals and values as he thought was best for the nation. I don’t know how much bipartisan success Lincoln could have achieved in today’s ultra-polarized political climate. But I do think his respectful approach would offer much more hope than the hateful, war-to-the-death attitude we find in too many quarters today.

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Karl cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The film

The book

His website

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