Walter Isaacson has written three critically acclaimed biographies describing giants of history, men whose accomplishments included lifelong quests to understand moral will. He could have just gone to Westmont College.
Nearly 800 people braved the rain to attend the fourth annual Westmont President’s Breakfast on Friday at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. Sponsored by the Westmont Foundation, the breakfast brings the Christian liberal arts school in the Montecito foothills down into the Santa Barbara community for an engaging two hours of “conversations about things that matter.” Past speakers were historian David McCullough and journalists Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria.
This year’s speaker was Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, best-selling author, former chairman and CEO of CNN, and former editor of Time magazine. His message about character and leadership was particularly poignant, given the challenges Westmont has confronted this academic year.
It was just such acts of charity that fueled the curiosity and intellectual yearning of men as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger, the subjects of Isaacson’s biographical series. The merging of creativity and moral will gets things done, said Isaacson, citing the genius of the Declaration of Independence as a true blueprint for common ground.
“Franklin realized that being a person of great faith and of great tolerance can create a new type of nation that welcomes all to the creativity that comes from being open-minded and tolerant of everyone around you,” Isaacson said.
“Einstein believed that intellectual tolerance was necessary for scientific creativity. He saw what happens when intolerance oppresses open minds.”
Throughout his life, Einstein professed faith in God, Isaacson said. “But he didn’t believe in a personal, interventionist God,” he added. “Einstein considered the topic (God’s existence) far too vast for our limited imagination. So he was humbled by it, rather than preachy about it. He believed in a God whose spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.”
Similarly, Franklin believed that pursuit of the common good was divine. “It is better to live usefully, than to die rich,” he is said to have said.
In The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, a book he co-authored with Evan Thomas, Isaacson tells the story of the men who developed U.S. foreign policy after World War II. To combat the rising threat of communism, they created a number of enduring institutions, such as NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Another creation, the Marshall Plan, helped Europe recover from the war.
“We face the same kind of global crisis today between those who are open-minded and tolerant while holding to a deep faith and those who are close-minded and fanatical,” Isaacson said. “We have not been as creative in our generation in developing economic programs like the Marshall Plan or finding effective ways to communicate our values like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
“We have an opportunity now to merge creativity and moral will to address the challenges we face, but we need to work together and be humble and look for common ground,” he said. “Compromise doesn’t make great heroes, but it makes great democracy.
“Smart people are a dime a dozen,” he said. “What it really takes is creativity and moral will to turn a smart person into somebody who can serve communities and serve this world.”
By that measure, Westmont has more than fulfilled its obligation.
As she has throughout the life of the President’s Breakfast, Westmont Foundation board member Gerd Jordano chaired the event, which was sold out for the fourth-straight year. In addition to the South Coast’s leading citizens, the audience included actor William Baldwin, who is producing a film based on Isaacson’s book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. A tradition has been the appearance of the Westmont College Choir, which was conducted by Michael Shashberger and accompanied by Neil Di Maggio on the piano and Megan Wong on viola. Calvary Chapel pastor Ricky Ryan gave the invocation.
This year’s Gold Sponsors were Axia Merchant Services, Davies Communications, attorney David Fainer Jr., KPMG, Jo and Carl Lindros, Melchiori Cole Capital LLC, Melchiori Construction Co., Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and V3.
Table sponsors were Alfa Tech Cambridge Group, Cheryl and John Ambrecht, Anodos Group, Lauren and Stephen Baker, Business First Bank, Betsy and Bob Carlson, Community West Bank, Daketta Pacific, Damitz Brooks Nightingale Turner & Morrisset, Deckers Outdoors Corp., DJM Capital, Cynthia and Brad Frohling, D’Aun and Roy Goble, Anna and David Grotenhuis, Cathy and Jim Haslem, Penny Jenkins and Gregg Hackethal, Gerd and Pete Jordano, Jordano’s Inc., Andria and Richard Kahmann, Bobbie and John Kinnear, Kristin and Bill Loomis, Diane and Cliff Lundberg, Montecito Bank & Trust, Mullen & Henzell LLP, Northern Trust, Stephanie and Richard Ortale, Pacifica Real Estate Group, Pfeiffer Partners Architects Inc., Joyce and Ian Ritchie, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, Robyn and Steve Stong, Marcia and Tim Tremblay, Tynan Group, Alice Van de Water, Frederica and Richard Welch, Linda and Richard Whiston, and Helene and David Winter.
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