Steve Jobs Biographer Walter Isaacson on the Apple CEO's Polarizing Persona

Walter Isaacson talks to "Nightline's" Bill Weir about Apple mastermind.

ByABC News
October 21, 2011, 4:14 PM

Oct. 23, 2011 — -- Steve Jobs, in the eyes of his biographer Walter Isaacson, could almost have been two people -- a tough businessman with the temperament of an artist, a sometimes-cruel executive who also cried easily, an exacting innovator with a messy personal life.

"He wanted perfection," said Isaacson in an interview with "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir." "And it was like a Picasso. It was either perfect or it was worthless. And so that was his main temperament, which caused him to be, at times, very prickly, very tough on people. He could yell and scream. But he's also awesomely charismatic and building the most insanely great machine in the world."

In "Steve Jobs," Isaacson describes a driven man, given up as an infant for adoption, a college dropout who had a child out of wedlock and became fascinated by Zen Buddhism -- but also had overwhelming success at an early age with the first Apple computers. He ended up, in the year before cancer finally claimed him, lecturing President Obama about making America more business-friendly.

"You know, one of these things that happened in the '60s and '70s was this confluence of, sort of, a counter-culture with computer culture," Isaacson said. "And at first, you know, people in the counter-culture looked upon computers as being something that the IBM and Pentagon and the power structure had.

"But this is what sort of Steve represented, was this notion that you could be part of the counter-culture, you could drop acid, but also enjoy the beauty of technology."

Jobs said his adoptive parents were very loving, but he searched for his biological family. For years he denied having had a daughter, Lisa, but in the meantime he named a computer after her.

Isaacson said Jobs often sought out father figures in his career, then fought them. Work colleagues tried to persuade the young millionaire Jobs to shower and wear shoes to the office.

Only after he had been badly wounded, forced out of Apple in 1985 and then brought back a decade later, did he become the disciplined technological titan who brought out the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

"You know, he's a very emotional guy," said Isaacson, talking about Jobs in the present tense. "And there are many times, even in our conversations just sitting around at his house with him, where tears come to his eyes. Tears come to his eyes when he's talking about the beauty of what they designed for the Macintosh.

"So one of the things that struck me the most," Isaacson said, "is how deeply emotional he is, which is why he makes emotional connections very strongly with people."

He certainly wanted Apple to connect with people emotionally, which is why its machines had sensuous curves, intuitive controls and bright colors. But he could be merciless in his rants at co-workers and competitors -- "willing to go thermonuclear war" against Google when he thought his one-time friends there were copying the iPhone with their Android software.

A tough man, but often a persuasive one. Isaacson talked about the "reality distortion field" around Jobs, the uncanny power he had to make people think he was right and make things go his way.

In the end, he found it didn't always work. In 2003, he was first diagnosed with cancer and delayed surgery while he tried herbal remedies, acupuncture and treatments he found on the Internet.

Isaacson writes that Jobs' wife, Laurene, was exasperated and increasingly desperate.

"He said that, in retrospect, he's sorry," Isaacson said. "He said that he didn't want his body to be opened up. He said that he regrets, you know, waiting so long.

"A lot of people wait before they have an operation. I just think that he has such belief in his power of magical thinking that, in this case, it failed him."