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Walter Issacson on the life and times of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; Simon & Schuster; July 4, 2003; $30.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; Simon & Schuster; July 4, 2003; $30.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A biography hitting the bookstores this week shines new light on one of the more famous and more misunderstood of America's Founding Fathers. The author is former TIME magazine and CNN executive Walter Isaacson. His subject is the writer, philosopher and scientist Benjamin Franklin.

The book, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, takes an in-depth look at how the man considered one of the greatest and most accomplished of American founders helped define the kind of society America would become.

I talked with Isaacson this week about the book and what Franklin might think of America today.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Walter Isaacson, it's Benjamin Franklin, and you put in the title, "An American Life." Why did you do that?

WALTER ISAACSON: He is so quintessentially American. But also, everything he did helped create what we are. His homespun humor, his ingenuity, his sort of urban industriousness. Everything we are as a nation you can sort of derive that to Benjamin Franklin, I think,

WOODRUFF: He is so much than the man the schoolchildren see in their history textbooks -- layers and layers of complexity. How did you even know where to begin with Benjamin Franklin?

ISAACSON: Well, you know, at first we have that maxim-spouting old codger saying, "A penny saved is a penny earned," and the guy he created in his autobiography. And what you have to rescue him from [is] that schoolbook mythology of the old codger with those maxims, doing kites in the rain, because he was reinventing himself all the time. But you read all of his letters and you read the diaries he did and all the things he accomplished in his life and you see a very, you know, multilayered person. It's absolutely fascinating.

WOODRUFF: You mentioned the maxims. He is associated with "Poor Richard's Almanac" and all those aphorisms that we could all recite.

ISAACSON: Early to bed and early to....By the way, he was never early to bed, early to rise.

WOODRUFF: He was up late every night.

ISAACSON: What he was trying to do was get the industrious tradesmen, the leather aprons, the shopkeepers, the people he really believed in, the middle class, to become virtuous citizens because he believed we should have a democracy based on the values of the middle class. So he was preaching a little to the middle class to say, "Become industrious."

WOODRUFF: But how -- and yet, he was somebody who loved the company of the elite. He loved the company of the well-to-do and he went off to Europe for the longest time. He was in London. He was in Paris. Is that consistent?

ISAACSON: Sort of. He never loved the aristocracy, and throughout his life he referred to himself as "Ben Franklin, printer" and he never wore all those powdered wigs and finally when he goes to France, he's wearing this coonskin fur cap to try to be the natural soul. So he always emphasizes, as he gets older and older, that he was just a shopkeeper, not a person of the elite.

WOODRUFF: Some people have the idea that he was this very moral, almost prudish, kind of person. But he wasn't that at all.

ISAACSON: Well, he was moral. But boy, he was not prudish. I mean, he had all sorts of wonderful girlfriends, especially two lady friends in Paris, when he was ambassador there.... And he used to even play chess in the bathtub with one of them.

So he was not in any way prudish like a John Adams, but he did believe in basic values, upon which this country has to be founded.

WOODRUFF: A moral man, you say, an icon to everybody and certainly 200 years later. But he wasn't very nice to people in his own family.

ISAACSON: Well, he had a very practical relationship with his wife. She hated to travel and he loved to travel. She stayed home in Philadelphia and never left Philadelphia . He was away most for their marriage. But they had a strong affection for each other.

The really interesting soap opera involves his son, his illegitimate son -- stays loyal to the England during the revolution, stays loyal to the king. They split up and there was a battle, a tug of war for Temple Franklin, the grandson, William's own son. And, of course, Ben Franklin, ends up winning the affection of Temple Franklin.

WOODRUFF: Last question. If Ben Franklin were to somehow come back to life today, how would he -- what would he think and how would he fit in?

ISAACSON: He would love America because it's based on the pluralism and religious tolerance that he thought should be at the core of what America stands for.

What he would hate is the divisiveness, partisanship. He felt that we should all be reasonable, pragmatic and compromise, and he was very much against partisan disputes. So I think he would generally be happy because this concept of a middle class democracy, not only endured, it thrived.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 4 pm ET.

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