From Watergate to Disney: Powerhouse speakers conclude Book Fest

Hannah Levitan and Lindsay Ruhl

On Saturday, a roster of prominent authors, Oscar nominees, diplomats and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists transformed Tulane University’s campus into a literary extravaganza for the third and final day of the New Orleans Book Festival.

Panel topics ranged from Disney storytelling and the power of country music to one college dropout’s journey to exposing the Watergate scandal. 

Leslie Iwerks is an Oscar and Emmy nominated director and producer, whose works include “The Imagineering Story,” “The Pixar Story” and “Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table.” In “Imagineering Story,” Iwerks tells the story of illustrators, graphic designers, architects and engineers working behind the scenes to create the Disney magic.

Iwerks is the granddaughter of Ub Iwerks, the original designer and creator and Mickey Mouse who worked closely with Walt Disney. Her father Don Iwerks followed in his footsteps, becoming a Disney legend and Oscar winner for his work with Disney.

“My background is basically I grew up behind the scenes of Disney,” Iwerks said. “My grandfather and father were very much into the camera systems and technology and taking photos all the time. [My grandfather] was Walt’s right hand guy.”

Now, she owns her own company, Iwerks & Co., which produces documentaries covering environmental and social impact as well as entertainment-based stories. Iwerks is currently working on covering the 100th anniversary of Warner Brothers, which contains interviews from Clint Eastwood, Oprah, Ellen, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, George Clooney and more.

“At the end of the day, this is an amazing company that when you look at the history of many major corporations, that lineage and that legacy and the business thrive and all the themes that continue to permeate through the generation through the decades is still there,” Iwerks said. 

In a later discussion moderated by Julia Barton, vice president and executive editor of Pushkin Industries, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell spoke on his career switch to audio storytelling. “Rather than have a midlife crisis, I decided to do a midlife change,” Gladwell said. “Audio storytelling turned out to be this magical thing that I knew nothing about.”

Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, guides listeners on his journey through “the overlooked and the misunderstood.” Gladwell talked about the thought process behind one of his favorite episodes, “King of Tears.” 

“The idea for the show was, I was trying to figure out what living human being has made more people cry than anyone else. I thought for a while that it was the guy who wrote all those English movies, Curtis, who wrote ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral,’ … but then I realized no, it had to be a country music writer.”

After sifting through the genre’s tearjerkers, Gladwell concluded Bobby Braddock’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was the saddest country song of all time. Gladwell played several soundbites from the episode before recording an unedited episode of Revisionist History on the stage of McAlister. 

Just down McAlister Place, investigative reporter Carl Bernstein spoke on his humble beginnings as a 16-year-old in the newsroom. 

Bernstein began writing for the now-defunct Washington Star before even graduating high school. His book, “Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom” chronicles Bernstein’s past as a delinquent teenager entering the journalism industry at a pivotal moment in politics: the 1960 presidential election. 

“The book is really about this kid, while still before his senior year of high school, … gets the greatest seat in the country at this amazing time in our history,” Bernstein said. “While John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were running for president against each other, I was there from 1960 to ’65 … Pretty much everything I know about … journalism and life came from this incredible experience with the amazing tutors who were the greatest newspaper people of their day.” 

Little did Bernstein know that only a decade later he and colleague Bob Woodward would uncover one of America’s most groundbreaking political scandals. 

In an interview with The Hullabaloo, Bernstein shared his advice for aspiring journalists: “I think the most important thing really is a question of being a good listener.” Bernstein said he believes reporters tend to assume the story’s outcome. “They think they know what the story is before they’ve done the reporting. We all have a preconceived notion of what a story might be when we start. I haven’t ever done a major story where the story has turned out to be consistent with my preconceived notions.” 

Lastly, journalist Kara Swisher sat down with Walter Isaacson, author, journalist and Tulane history professor. He has previously written biographies on Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin. Isaacson is currently shadowing and writing a biography on Elon Musk.

“He’s doing two of the most interesting things you could possibly do,” Isaacson said. “He’s bringing us into the era of sustainable energy, electric and battery storage. He has been able to send humans into orbit and bring us into a new era of space exploration. This is the most interesting person around.”

Isaacson said he got in touch with Musk through a mutual friend. He believes he has had more access to Musk than anyone else today.

“I said, ‘Here’s the way I want to do it: I don’t want to just write a biography based on 10 interviews; I just want to shadow you the whole time,’” Isaacson said. “I want to be in every meeting. I want to watch you walk up and down the assembly line.”

Swisher said Musk is an “enormous narcissist” with “a little problem with impulse control.” 

“I don’t appreciate someone Tweeting homophobic, misogynist and other things, racially insensitive things, continually,” Swisher said. 

While Isaacson recognizes Musk’s accomplishments, he also sees his limitations.

“Elon Musk does not have intuitively the empathy gene to care that much whether the person in front of him likes him,” Isaacson said. “He’s just a rough character when it comes down to it.” 

When asked to compare Jobs to Musk, Isaacson said the most surprising thing about Musk is the amount of time he spends on the assembly line. Swisher said she thinks that Jobs would abhor Musk. 

“He’s not driven by narcissism. I don’t think he’s driven by money,” Isaacson said. “But I do agree with you, he doesn’t have more impulse control than most people we know.”

The second annual Book Fest gathered some of the most innovative minds in literature, journalism and technology to share their wisdom with the next generation of writers and innovators. 

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