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Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin book

Ben Franklin, unbound

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

Isaacson says Benjamin Franklin taught lessons of tolerance.

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start quoteI think that [Benjamin Franklin] felt very strongly in foreign policy in this world, that you needed to at least show some humility, especially when you were strong.end quote
-- Walter Isaacson

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It can be tough being a founding father these days.

But Benjamin Franklin still stands tall among that group -- scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and a personal life that reads a little bit like a soap opera.

"Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" is a new biography by Walter Isaacson. The former chairman of CNN and former managing editor at Time magazine joined CNN anchor Heidi Collins on Tuesday morning to talk about his book.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: So nice to have you here, Walter. So why Benjamin Franklin? What made you want to write about him?

WALTER ISAACSON, AUTHOR, "BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE": It's good to be back here at CNN. Thank you. I was looking at the diplomats of that period, because I was interested in foreign policy, and he was America's greatest diplomat, by far. He was sort of able to do that balance of power of diplomacy during the Revolution, but also assert American ideals. And I became interested in him as a media mogul. He was in the media business, and he had franchised newspapers, and print shops and publishing empires across the colonies, and he even created the American postal service to tie it all together so he would have a distribution system. So he sort of did everything. And it's been about 12 years I've been reading and working on this thing, and every year I became more and more fascinated by a different aspect of his character.

COLLINS: Because there were so many different facets to him?

ISAACSON: Yes, you know, you peel away one layer, and there's another. He kind of reinvented himself all the time, too, so you'd always have to peel away the layers. He put on little disguises half the time. If you read the autobiography, it's a little tricky there, because he's pretending to be the -- just the penny saved is a penny earned type shopkeeper values. But there's a lot more to him than that.

COLLINS: He was actually a very warm kind of person, I think that you write many times, that he would wink every now and then. He would be the kind of guy that you could sit down in the bar with and get to know.

ISAACSON: You know, unlike the other founders, you feel the other founders were all made of marble. This guy is made of flesh, you know. He's a real guy. And by looking at him, we can sort of see our own reflection. He was ambitious, he was upwardly mobile, he was striving, an entrepreneur, he was very much a part of an information age, and so for better or worse, you know, sometimes you can see our own values reflected in his character.

COLLINS: In fact, you know, you bring up an interesting point about what a diplomat he was. I'm curious to know what you think after the research that you have done, Benjamin Franklin would think today of some of the different conflicts that we were in, in particular, our relationship with France now after what happened in the war in Iraq. And also, the Middle East.

Ben Franklin, unbound

ISAACSON: Well, you know, Franklin once did his list of virtues -- the virtues that a good tradesman, a diplomat was supposed to have. He was so proud of them, he showed them around to a friend. And the friend was a Quaker, and said "You missed one." And he said, "What's that?" ... "Humility. You're a little bit too proud. You need to put humility on your list." And Franklin said, "I was never perfect at acquiring the virtue of humility, but I was good at acquiring the pretense of it. I could fake it very well." And that's what it really took, because if you acquire the pretense of humility, it's almost like having a real humility, because you scale yourself back. I think that he felt very strongly in foreign policy in this world, that you needed to at least show some humility, especially when you were strong. And I know that President Bush said that over and over again during his campaign.

I think now that, after the war in Iraq, and the problems we've had with France, what Franklin would do now is show a little bit more humility and help repair the breach.

COLLINS: You mentioned he didn't feel he was perfect. A lot of ladies thought he was pretty perfect. Some people would be interested to know that he actually never married his wife. This was a common-law marriage, and he had many other acquaintances with women, right?

ISAACSON: Well, yes, he had a wonderful partnership with Deborah Read, his common-law wife. It was a common-law marriage, because she had been married before and her previous husband sort of disappeared, and they were worried about bigamy charges, so they never really got married.

She didn't like to travel. She stayed on Market Street in Philadelphia her entire life, never spent a night away from Market Street in Philadelphia. Franklin for 15 of the 17 years of their marriage was traveling in England and in France and stuff. He loved to travel. And everywhere he went, be it London or Paris, he tended to replicate a domestic arrangement, not necessarily a sexual one, but he would sort of have a domestic partner, and a woman, and family and stuff, and he would board with them.

COLLINS: What do you most admire about him after everything that you have read?

ISAACSON: The virtue of tolerance, which I think is the most important virtue we need in the 21st century. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration, he had a great line, "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable." And Franklin crossed out "sacred and undeniable" and put, "We hold these truths to be self evident." [Franklin] said we need to be a very tolerant nation in which our rights are based on reason, not based on religion, and I think in this century, we have to be tolerant of all religions and all tribes, and that was the thing that Benjamin Franklin taught us.

COLLINS: All right, well interested to read the book. It's is a little bit thick, but we'll get through it.

ISAACSON: I didn't have time to write a short one.

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