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Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson
Snapshots From Hell: The Making of an MBA
ISBN: 9780446517867
Snapshots From Hell: The Making of an MBA
Mr. Robinson discussed his recent book Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an M.B.A., published by Warner Books. The book deals with the author's experiences during his first year at the Stanford School of Business. He described himself as a "poet," or a business student with little quantitative background. He also discussed his experiences as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan prior to attending Stanford.
Snapshots From Hell: The Making of an MBA
Program Air Date: December 18, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter Robinson, author of "Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA," what's this book about?
PETER ROBINSON, AUTHOR, "SNAPSHOTS FROM HELL: THE MAKING OF AN MBA": The book is about my experience at Stanford Business School, primarily the first year, which was, for me, the most hellish year. I should explain, I suppose, the title, "Snapshots from Hell." In business school terms, I was a poet. That was the phrase for people like me, who had almost no quantitative background. I, in fact, had demonstrated for several years before going to business school an inability to balance my own checkbook -- as against kids who were whizzes at mathematics, had spent time in investment banks or consulting firms, or who had engineering degrees. And one evening during fall term, when I was just snowed under with calculus -- microeconomics -- one quantitative problem after another in my schoolwork -- I just got up from the business school library and walked to the bookstore on campus, trying to find some books that had words in them instead of numbers, just to go back to something I understood. And I wandered around, found myself in the classics section, and happened to pick up Dante and flipped to the Canto in which Dante is looking up at the Gates of Hell and he sees “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” and I thought, “That's me. I'm a poet in hell.” So that's the notion, "Snapshots from Hell."
LAMB:Where are you right now?
CARO: I am now at the Hoover Institution, which, funnily enough, is about 80 yards away from the Stanford Business School. The Hoover Institution is a think tank on the Stanford University campus.
LAMB:One of the things you do at the beginning of the book is open up with a scene in the Oval Office or close by the Oval Office. What was that?
CARO: Well, immediately before going to business school, I was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House. I spent a total of six years in the Reagan White House, a year and a half writing for then-Vice President Bush and four and a half years writing for President Reagan. And on my last day in the White House, I went over to say goodbye to President Reagan, and he said, “Now where is it that you're going?” And I said, “Stanford Business School, Mr. President.” And the President said, “Stanford. Well, you be careful. The faculty out there is a little left-leaning.” And then the President said -- but I should get in touch with his friend, Milton Friedman, who was also at Stanford, was at the Hoover Institution, and, “Milton will keep you on the straight and narrow.” So that was my little farewell send-off with the President.
LAMB:What was it like working for him?
CARO: For President Reagan? Oh, well, you have to separate out two components. One component was political, and I loved Ronald Reagan. I revere Ronald Reagan to this day. I believed in what he believed in and thought that he was fighting a good fight and wanted to fight it with him. Even if I didn't have that set of political dispositions, I think that, as a writer, I would still have loved working for him. He was a very fine writer himself. This doesn't come through in most press accounts, but he was, in fact, a fine writer himself. He didn't, as President, have time to do much of his own writing. He did do editing. His edits were always beautiful.

But he was one of these people for whom, no matter how good you thought your text was and no matter how vividly you could picture the President delivering the speech -- and incidentally, all of the Reagan writers were good -- reasonably good -- mimics of Ronald Reagan, because the last thing you did before sending a speech off to him was to read it in his voice, to see if there was anything in there that didn't sound quite like him. So we could all say, “Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House.” But he would always make it better. He was just so terribly good. Also, his range was enormous. He could be high and solemn; he could be low and folksy; he could give a joke, come back for a second laugh, get a third laugh. He was just wonderful. So I loved working for Ronald Reagan.
LAMB:And you wrote the speech, “Tear Down This Wall”?
CARO: That's right. The correct formulation is to say that I worked with the President on the speech, which is actually -- substantially, I wrote it, but it's still true to say that I worked with the President on it, in the first place because he edited it and in the second place because I was writing into themes that he himself had enunciated for, by then, the 20, 25 years of his public life. I'll tell you a story about that speech. I included the passage: “Mr. Gorbachev, if you seek liberalism -- liberalization -- come here to Berlin, Mr. Gorbachev. Tear down this wall.” The draft went to the President. The next day, I and several others had a meeting with the President, and I explained to the President, after he had made several remarks that, depending on the weather conditions, his speech in Berlin would be picked up certainly throughout Eastern Germany and maybe even as far as Moscow by radio. Was there anything he wanted to say to the people behind the Iron Curtain? And the President said, “Well, that wall has to come down. That passage about tearing down the wall -- that's what I want to say.”

Fine. Simple as that. For the next couple of weeks, there was open warfare because the National Security Council and -- certain people in the State Department objected to the passage. It was Reagan being an anti-Communist cowboy. One fellow said, on the National Security Council, “That wall is never going to come down in anytime that we can foresee, and so it's simply raising false hopes to have the President go to Berlin and say to Berliners, “Mr. Gorbachev, come here and tear down this wall.'” But the President, in his gentle way, had said he wanted the passage in, and so the passage did stay in since -- only Ronald Reagan would have insisted on that.

The footnote to that little story is that, a couple of weeks after the President gave the speech, I was having lunch in the White House mess -- big round table -- and somebody came in and sat next to me. And I realized it was the staffer from the National Security Council who had fought the speech most viciously, and so I kind of cringed. And he turned to me and he said, “Well, Peter, it looks as though our speech was a big success.” I thought, “This is interesting.” And he told me that the intelligence services had picked up cable traffic between Moscow and East Berlin -- Gorbachev, in effect, telling Honecker to start trying to figure out ways to increase the flow of people across the Berlin Wall. So it was the first indication that Moscow didn't really like that Berlin Wall. And this NSC staffer who had fought the speech beforehand said, “Well, of course, you know, each new generation of Soviet leaders has to be reminded what a public-relations disaster the wall is.” Anyhow, that was Ronald Reagan's speech, because Ronald Reagan made it possible. But I worked on it with him.
LAMB:In your book, you also talk about going back to see the President after he's out of office in Los Angeles?
CARO: That's right. This was, oh, maybe six, eight months or so after I had gone to business school and he had gone into retirement in Los Angeles. I visited him in his offices at the top of the Fox building in Los Angeles on the Avenue of the Stars -- marvelous street names in Los Angeles. And we chatted for a moment, and the President said, “Did you see the paper this morning?” And I had seen the paper, and there were two Reagan stories on the front page. One was -- the headline was, “Saw Risk of Impeachment, Meese Says,” and the other headline was something like “Star Wars Oversold by Reagan Administration, Cheney Says.” And the President said, “I just don't understand it.” I said, “Mr. President, neither do I.”

And then the President said, “How could a judge decide the outcome of a sporting event?” And, of course, my gears were slipping. I didn't know what he was talking about at first. Then I realized he wasn't talking about these front-page stories that were attacking his record and related to his administration. He was talking about the front page of the sports section, where the America's Cup had been taken away from the American team, which had raced a kind of catamaran, and given to the New Zealand team. Finally, I figured this out, and the President said, “Well, at least it wasn't a judge I appointed.” So that, to me, was Ronald Reagan all over because he had gone from being the most powerful man in the world for eight years right back to being just about as ordinary an American as a former President can be. When he looked at the newspaper, the first thing he read was the sports pages.
LAMB:You know, people that don't like him would conclude from this story that, “Yeah. Again, you're proving that he was totally detached and really didn't run the country, and didn't really care about all the policy matters and stuff.”
CARO: Oh, well, there are all kinds of answers to that, of course, but I suppose the simplest and most concise answer is that, during the eight years Ronald Reagan was President, we had economic growth so substantial that we, in effect, added the full economy of West Germany to our own economy. That many new jobs were created, that many new goods and services began to be produced. That's on the economic side. And on the foreign affairs side, it seems to me incontestable -- it is contestable to say that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War single-handed. But I think it is incontestable that some combination of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the Pope, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa -- at a minimum, Ronald Reagan played a prominent part among the actors who did end and, I would say win, the Cold War. So the record -- I think what we should all do is just wait for Edmund Morris' biography of Reagan. Morris is a very fine writer and a very fine historian, and I have no doubt that that book will demonstrate that Ronald Reagan was making the crucial policy decisions in the White House. But even that aside, even if somebody assumed that Ronald Reagan took the Oath of Office and then went into hibernation, had an eight-year nap, well, may God send us more napping Presidents.
LAMB:By the way, when's that biography coming?
CARO: You know, I'm not sure. The last I heard was that it's -- Morris is nearly completed with it and that the publication date would be something like 18 months or two years from now. I have to say I'm not certain.
LAMB:Where's home for you, originally?
CARO: Originally? Upstate New York, Vestal, which is a town outside Binghamton. And if you haven't heard of Binghamton, I can't help you because Binghamton isn't close to much. It's 200 miles northwest of New York City and 60 miles south of Ithaca and 70 miles north of Scranton. That's where I grew up.
LAMB:What were your parents doing when you grew up?
CARO: My dad worked for once-mighty IBM. I have to tell you that, for me, growing up in an IBM family, seeing IBM humbled is just -- that's almost as striking an event for me as seeing the Soviet Union come to an end. My dad worked at IBM. My mom was a painter -- painted portraits. And my father, in fact -- his chief talent was artistic. He took early retirement to devote himself entirely to his art, to painting.
LAMB:Where did you go to college?
CARO: I went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
CARO: Interesting. I'm not completely certain why. I interviewed at a number of places and just liked Dartmouth best. My father accuses me of not wanting to go to Cornell because Cornell was too close to home, and there may be something to that. I did like the idea of going far away, but I visited Dartmouth -- I should say my father and I visited Dartmouth. He took a whole weekend to drive me all the way up to New Hampshire, and I just fell in love with the place.
LAMB:You know, outsiders like myself looking at Dartmouth, we always keep reading stories about the conservative newspaper that was started there and the politically correct institution and all that. What is Dartmouth? And how much of that did you go through? What year did you get out, by the way?
CARO: I graduated from Dartmouth in 1979, receding into dim prehistory now. Dartmouth was -- I was there at what turns out to have been a transitional period in Dartmouth's life. My class -- Dartmouth had -- it seems to me that it was something like five or six years before that Dartmouth first admitted women. Among the Ivy League colleges, Dartmouth was either the last or one of the last to admit women. Dartmouth's character was conservative -- not necessarily in the political sense -- but it was all-male, it was rugged, it was stuck in the woods. Even when I was there, it was a long drive to Boston. I mean, the big town was White River Junction, Vermont. If you wanted to get out of Hanover, New Hampshire, and go someplace, you went to White River. So it was all men. And when I was there, it was still substantially an all-male institution. In my class, there were seven times as many men as women, or boys as girls -- no, better stick with “men as women” That's more politically correct. And the political correct stuff was just starting to hit. Things happened slower at Dartmouth than everywhere else.
LAMB:How much of your philosophy of politics was started there?
CARO: Oh, a huge amount. A huge amount. I had several professors, one in particular, Jeff Hart, who is columnist and a senior editor at National Review magazine. Jeff Hart was my professor at Dartmouth and, in all kinds of ways, my mentor. I really owe my intellectual life to Jeff Hart. Jeff was conservative, and I was a student journalist. The Review -- The Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper -- was founded, actually, the year after I left Dartmouth, but I was the editorial page editor of the Daily D, the standard student newspaper, and had a lot of fun writing essentially conservative newspaper columns, which would cause the lid to come off. People would scream and shout and so forth. I did something that was especially provocative. I invited -- you remember William Loeb, who was the editor of the Manchester Union Leader and who wrote all kinds of inflammatory -- he was the Rush Limbaugh and then some of his day. And I gave him a guest spot, had him write a guest column for the Daily Dartmouth, which caused some -- it's hard to imagine why anybody else would care about it, but it was -- in our little teapot, it was a big tempest.
LAMB:Where'd you go from there?
CARO: I went to Oxford from there, to Christ Church, which is one of the colleges at Oxford, and I studied PPE -- philosophy, politics and economics -- just as did President Clinton, although at a different college at Oxford. I should admit that I dropped the philosophy part of the triad -- I just studied politics and economics -- for the really very bad reason -- I wouldn't have let myse -- if I had I been my own father and known what I was doing at Oxford, I wouldn't have let myself do it. My philosophy don was, shall we say, an inebriate. He liked to drink. And my first tutorial with him, which took place at something like nine in the morning -- he had a heavy English accent, no fault of his own. He was English, after all. But I walked in and there was an empty bottle tipped over by the side of his chair, and he'd started a second bottle of wine. And he said something that sounded about like ...
LAMB:What time of day is this?
CARO: This is about nine or 10 in the morning. And he said -- I can tell this story because I'm quite certain he's been taken to a better world by now. He said, “Ah, Robinson, existentialism, Wittgenstein -- what do you think of that, eh?” And I had no idea what he was talking about and just felt I would be eaten alive if I stayed with him, so I quietly dropped that, but ...
LAMB:So you never had any more of those sessions?
CARO: No, I never had any more of those sessions. I had that one session with him and thought that would -- and then I went out and looked at some exams. The Oxford system is you don't take any tests, you receive no grades until exam week, at the end of your entire period of time, which in my case would have been two full years. Then I'd sit a week worth of exams. So I went and looked at previous years' exams in philosophy, and the kinds of questions that got asked also made me quite certain that I would be eaten alive. One question was, “Could you turn into a porpoise?” A question, I suppose, about human identity. Could a human being still retain his identity if he were an ape or a fish or -- interesting, I suppose, but not to me. And another question was, “In what ways, if at all” -- and it's the “if at all” that's makes this one exquisite -- “In what ways, if at all, is time like a river?” And I thought, “This is not for me.”
LAMB:What was the purpose of all this?
CARO: Of going to Oxford?
LAMB:No -- well, what's the purpose of this kind of education? I mean, did you come out better than when you went in?
CARO: You came out -- “better than when you went in”? Well, that's an interesting question. That's certainly not the way that -- I mean, you see, Brian, the fact that you asked that question shows that you haven't quite grasped the point of an Oxford education, I guess.
CARO: You would be examining first things in life. You would be removed from -- two or three years from the crass world of making and getting, which I wrote this book about, and be permitted to dwell upon, to think about the higher things in life, I guess. That's the underlying idea, at least to the philosophy aspect of the Oxford education.
LAMB:Did you change your philosophy of anything after your Oxford experience?
CARO: Not really, I'm sorry to say. I went through -- oh, I did slightly change my -- I spent two years studying there and then a third year I rented a cottage -- a 500-year-old cottage, immensely romantic setting, right on the edge of the Thames on what's called the Port Meadow outside Oxford, and sat down to write a brilliant novel. And at the end of that year, I was flat broke and had written a manuscript that even I couldn't stand to read. So Oxford did change me in that it made me recognize that I could not be an artiste all my life. But as to my underlying philosophy -- I suppose it did give me a little appreciation for the finer things in life that I, as a coarse ape, just graduated from Dartmouth, that most apish of schools, had not previously had. I can remember one Oxford man -- again, a journalist, Anthony Lejeune, who also writes for National Review -- I got to know him while I was at Oxford. He was an Oxford man himself. And he said, “Really, the point of Oxford was to teach young gentlemen” -- “gentlemen,” of course, is the operative word here -- “that the most important place to wear one's dinner jacket is in the midst of the jungle.” That is to say Oxford is just this kind of oasis of civilization. And I must say, in some ways, after Oxford, all the rest of the world is a little bit of a disappointment. That maybe is the essential aspect of an Oxford education.
LAMB:What year did you get out of Oxford?
CARO: I got out of Oxford -- I took my degree in 1981 and then I fiddled around writing a novel for another year, so I left Oxford in 1982.
LAMB:When did you come to the White House?
CARO: I went to the White House directly -- by which I mean on the same flight -- from England. At the end of my year in Oxford, my third and final year, I was, as I say, flat broke. I'd written an appalling hunk of manuscript and just didn't know what to do with myself. Jeff Hart and several others, including William Buckley -- Bill Buckley, to this day, pays attention to student journalists and spots people who write for the Yale Daily News or the Dartmouth Review and sends them notes of encouragement, so forth. I had actually gotten to know -- I should say he deigned to get to know me a little bit when I was a student. Jeff Hart and Bill Buckley -- and Pat Buchanan I had also gotten to know a little bit through Jeff Hart -- they all wrote back. I wrote and said, “What should I do with myself?” And they all wrote back and said, “You like writing and politics. Go to Washington and try to be a speechwriter.” And Bill Buckley suggested that I get in touch with his son, Christopher, who was then George Bush's speechwriter.

So I flew to Washington. And I walked through the door of the Old Executive Office Building, introduced myself to Christopher, thinking, “If I can get a job writing speeches for the postmaster, I'll be happy and lucky.” And Christopher told me that he was one week away from leaving his job as speechwriter to Vice President Bush. His replacement, who had been lined up for several months, had just fallen through, and maybe we could work something out. Turns out, of course, that Christopher was leaving, and speechwriting is miserably hard and generally thankless work, so nobody else on the Vice President's staff wanted to do it. And, in fact, two weeks after arriving in Washington, I started work as speechwriter for the Vice President of the United States.
LAMB:How long did you work for him?
CARO: I worked for him for a year and a half.
LAMB:What'd you think of him?
CARO: Of George Bush? Delightful man, sound, in my judgment -- here I am, commenting on a former President of the United States -- sound on policy. The marvelous thing about working for a Vice President, as opposed to a President, which I then went on to do, is that the -- part of this is George Bush's personality, but a vice President's staff is small. There were a total of something under 60 people, and a number of those were answering his mail. So the people the Vice President actually dealt with day in and day out -- his secretary, of course, his press secretary, his speechwriter -- I was one of the people who actually dealt with him. And he's just fun to be around -- informal, funny, friendly. I could call him during the day, he would call me, and he was just a pleasure -- just a pleasure to be with.
LAMB:Back to the book which we have not talked much about, that's "Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA."
CARO: Thank you. I say “thank you” because I asked my editor, Jamie Rabbitt Warner, how I should conduct myself on this show, and she said, “Relax, enjoy yourself and mention the title every three minutes.” So ...
LAMB:What's this on the cover?
CARO: That is a snapshot of Rodin's “Thinker,” which is a statue in front of the library at Stanford University. Now Rodin's “Thinker” is appropriate, although for a slightly obscure reason. Rodin sculpted “The Thinker” for a part of a larger series entitled "The Gates of Hell." And on the cover of my book, Rodin is wearing Day-Glo sunglasses. That picture was used in my Stanford Business School yearbook.
LAMB:Now in the President's office today, Mr. Clinton -- there is a Rodin statue, “The Thinker.”
CARO: Is it wearing Day-Glo sunglasses?
LAMB:He went to Oxford, too.
CARO: Right.
LAMB:Do you two have anything in common?
CARO: So far as I know, aside from going to Oxford, we do not. I don't think he voted for Ronald Reagan, which might be the other thing but, no, I don't think so. I don't play saxophone.
LAMB:What year did you have to decide to go do something else?
CARO: Well, I suppose -- as the Reagan administration wound to an end, I had an opportunity to join Vice President Bush's campaign for President, so I suppose -- in a sense, I could have stayed in Washington now, but the deadline I set for myself was simply the end of the Reagan administration. Since that was ending in January and school started in the early -- I had to decide, basically, in 1987, make up my mind.
LAMB:And why did you decide to get an MBA? And what is it?
CARO: Oh, MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. That is the name of the degree. Why did I decide to get one? Because it was the only -- I was in a pickle and it was the best way out that I could think of. I really was in a pickle in that, although I was having a marvelous time at the White House and, as I said, I loved working for Ronald Reagan, I needed a job afterwards. And I had spent six years in the White House, most of the 1980s. Good friends had gone on to law school, gone on to business school, gotten established in journalism, and I had gotten established as his Presidential speechwriter, and there's just not much of a market for them. I thought about going to law school; read, in fact, Scott Turow's book, "One L," which helped to persuade me that law school was not for me.
CARO: This is a matter of temperament. I don't mean to denigrate lawyers -- actually, I suppose I do mean to denigrate lawyers to some extent. There are people who are born to be lawyers, but there are also people who simply drift into it. In my judgment, for me personally, it was too far removed from the fundamental act of being productive. I may be hearing from my friends who are lawyers. But the lawyers are the guys who keep the rules and handle the documentation. They're not the ones who are actually engaged in the fundamental activities. That's a pretty pompous -- that's for me. That's what I thought it would feel that way to me.
LAMB:Back to MBA.
CARO: OK. Business school -- during my time in the White House, I had written lots of speeches on the importance of enterprise, free markets and so forth, and actually become quite interested in business -- sat there during the 1980s, as the economy grew and added several hundred thousand jobs each month -- much more effective anti-poverty program than any government program could be. And I just became fascinated by the world of business. At the same time -- this is an important part of it -- friends of mine -- several friends, in particular -- had gone to business school -- a couple of them had gone to Stanford Business School -- and were out there during the 1980s being bankers and consultants and seemed to be having marvelous, stimulating lives, and they were also making a goodly amount of coin, which was impressive to me as I sat in the White House on a government salary. It got my attention.
LAMB:How long is an MBA?
CARO: Two years.
LAMB:And what year did you actually start?
CARO: Got there in 1988, got out in 1990.
LAMB:And why Stanford -- Stanford over all the other schools? And we are sitting in a studio in San Francisco, and that's far away from Vestal, New York, and Oxford and Washington and Hanover, New Hampshire.
CARO: What's today's date? October -- late in the autumn. And we'll go out after taping the show and it'll be beautifully sunny, warm because we're in California. I wish I had some high, noble reason for wanting to go to Stanford, but the fact is I just wanted to live in California for a time.
LAMB:President Reagan said that this school's full of liberals?
CARO: True. And I assumed that by going to the business school I would be going to a kind of sheltered haven. It sort of seemed to me that anybody who went to business school would not be liberal. It turned out I was wrong about that, that many of my classmates -- well, there was a poll in 1988 of my classmates, and Dukakis, who was running against Bush at the time, of course, won by a huge margin, something like 2-to-1. And so ...
LAMB:You talked about -- in the book -- and we're jumping way ahead here -- but Mr. Dukakis came to visit the class.
CARO: Yes, he did, and he was greeted as -- you couldn't imagine -- if Gandhi had come back to life, you couldn't imagine a more worshipful reception than was given to the then-defeated Presidential candidate, still governor of Massachusetts.
LAMB:But you had a professor that said, “Give these guys 10 years and they'll change.”
CARO: That's right. I was a little older than most of my classmates. I was 31 when I went into business school and the average age was 27 or so, and -- I've given this a lot of thought. I couldn't -- at first I was absolutely baffled about why my classmates tended to be politically liberal -- not that they're not entitled to their opinion, but it surprised me. And one of my professors helped to explain this to me and I kind of thought this through on my own. They felt that they had stumbled into almost a form of inherited wealth. They were all fantastically talented. I'll say this about Stanford Business School. My classmates are the most uniformly talented group of people I've ever been part of.
LAMB:How many in the class?
CARO: Three hundred and thirty-three.
LAMB:And you said that 332 graduated?
CARO: Three hundred and thirty-two graduated. At one point during the two-year program, one among us decided that he'd made a mistake and went home.
LAMB:Do they give you grades?
CARO: Do they give us grades? They do. Stanford places great emphasis on fostering a sense of collegiality and cooperation, as against certain other business schools which are very competitive. So Stanford, some time ago, sometime before I got there, abolished standard grades -- A, B, C, D, E -- and replaced it with a pass-fail system, which has since proliferated. By the time I got there, it had proliferated to the point at which it was a kind of absurdity, I thought, because P meant you passed; U, for unsatisfactory, meant that you failed. However, to distinguish between those who passed well and passed poorly, there was also a P-plus and a P-minus. And to give some opportunity to recognize those who had done a really good job in a class, there was also an H for high or distinction. So instead of A, B, C, D, E, you go -- or A, B, C, D, F, you got H, P-plus, P, P-minus and U, which, I guess as the lawyers would say, is a distinction without a difference.
LAMB:Where is Stanford?
CARO: Stanford is 30 miles or so south of where we are now. We're in San Francisco; Stanford is in Palo Alto, 30 miles south on the San Francisco peninsula.
LAMB:Is it a public or private school?
CARO: It is a private institution.
LAMB:Have any idea how many total enrollment there is in the whole school?
CARO: It's about 11,000 or 12,000, about evenly split between undergraduates and graduates.
LAMB:Who's it named after?
CARO: It is named after Governor -- governor of California -- Leland Stanford, who was one of the builders of the transcontinental railroad and who lived about two miles from here on Nob Hill in a big mansion, which has since been brought down. Now there's a hotel there called the Stanford Park Hotel.
LAMB:You say that you now are at the Hoover Institution?
CARO: That's right.
LAMB:Named after?
CARO: Named after Herbert Hoover.
LAMB:What is an institution named after Herbert Hoover doing at a liberal institution named after Leland Stanford?
CARO: It was not always thus. Herbert Hoover graduated in the first graduating class from Stanford University and loved Stanford all his life -- in fact, was the founder, in 1925, of the Stanford Business School. I may get my dates a little bit wrong here, but Hoover spent a certain amount of his own money gathering documents from the first World War -- everything from posters -- the sort of German version of “Uncle Sam wants you” -- “Uncle Fritz,” or whoever, “wants you” -- to important archival documents from various government deliberations. His feeling was that he wanted to preserve these for historians, and if warfare were studied, ways to avoid war -- in a nutshell, this was the idea -- ways to avoid war might be able to be discovered. So the Hoover -- he founded the Hoover Institution, which has a vast archives dealing with the 20th century, with all the social and political and economic upheavals of the 20th century. There are also what are called resident fellows in the fields of politics, economics, several historians at the Hoover Institution.
LAMB:How many people are at the Hoover Institution?
CARO: The Hoover Institution employs a total of a couple of hundred. There's a library staff, there are about 80 resident fellows -- Milton Friedman is there; Edward Teller is there. And so it's split between the resident fellows, who pursue their own work, and this considerable 20th century, let's call it, archives collection.
LAMB:Now you go into a lot of detail in your book about the classwork and the MBA schedule and the teachers and all that, but I want to, again, jump to the end and ask you: When you got out and it was time to get a job, how did you go about it?
CARO: Between my first and second year I had taken a typical MBA summer job. I spent 10 weeks working for an investment bank in New York called Dillon, Read.
LAMB:By the way, who's Dillon and who's Read?
CARO: Dillon was -- you know, I don't know who Read was. Dillon was, as I recall, Douglas Dillon Sr. -- anyway, the Dillons were a prominent family who founded the bank in New York.
LAMB:Was he the Secretary of the Treasury at the time?
CARO: No, that I think was his son. That was Douglas Dillon. As I recall, it was -- Douglas Dillon was the son of the founder of the bank. He was ...
LAMB:In the Johnson administration.
CARO: That's correct, I think.
LAMB:You're probably not that old, but that's...
CARO: OK. You're sure of that, Brian?
LAMB:No, I'm sure I'm sure I'm old enough to ...
CARO: You're sure you're old enough?
LAMB:Yes, I am.
CARO: Fine. I don't remember who the Dillons and the Reads were. That was before my ...
LAMB:What did they do? What did Dillon, Read do?
CARO: What did Dillon, Read do? Dillon, Read did deals. If you were a wealthy investor and you had an interest in buying Brooks Brothers or the Safeway chain of supermarkets -- you would hire Dillon, Read. Analysts -- I was for 10 weeks an analyst -- would analyze the history of the company, the financial structure of the company, try to figure out the price you ought to pay, try to figure out a strategy for purchasing the company. That was a big chunk of what Dillon, Read did. It also had a -- a trading arm, a small trading floor, so ...
LAMB:You did this work between your ...
CARO: No, I was -- -- that's right, between my first and second year. And although it was an entree into investment banking, which, goodness knows, was the best shot I was ever likely to have at getting rich, it bored me. It was highly quantitative, highly analytical, quite far removed from the world of ideas and words with which I was most comfortable. And so when I went back for my second year, I thought, “I don't want to be a banker. How on earth can I combine my interests, my White House experience and so forth with this MBA degree?” And I decided that media -- that was where people dealt with words and ideas for a living -- that's what I should go into. Now quite why it didn't occur to me to get in touch with you and ask you for a job, I don't know.
LAMB:Because you wanted to make money.
CARO: Oh, is that it? OK. And so Bill Buckley was a friend of Robert Maxwell, the British media baron, and Bill was kind enough to write a letter of introduction to Maxwell on my behalf. Actually, a business school classmate's father did business with Rupert Murdoch and was kind enough to write a letter to Rupert Murdoch on my behalf. And then a classmate was dating Steve Jobs and has since become Mrs. Steve Jobs, Laurene Jobs, who's delightful and lives in Palo Alto. In fact, I ran into her at the nursery school yesterday as we were dropping -- she, her little son, I my little daughter -- off. I met Steve through Laurene, and Steve said, “You know, you should come interview with me. I think there's something we might like ...”
LAMB:Who's Steve Jobs?
CARO: Steve Jobs -- that's right -- at his company ...
LAMB:Who is he?
CARO: Who is Steve Jobs? Steve Jobs is the founder, in 1977, of Apple Computer Company. Steve is really one of the three or four most important people in the history of high technology. He and a couple of others virtually invented the personal computer. Apple flourished, Steve flourished and then -- 1985, I think, is the date when Steve left Apple. Maybe it had been a year or two -- in any event, in the middle 1980s, Steve Jobs left Apple. There's some dispute about whether he was pushed or jumped. It wasn't a completely happy set of circumstances, his leaving Apple. Apparently there was a feeling that they wanted to move out the entrepreneurial Steve Jobs and bring in more professional, seasoned management -- is the argument that was put forward. Steve then founded NeXT Computer Company.
CARO: N-E-X-T. Correct.
LAMB:For those who may just have joined us, you're -- what year are we right now?
CARO: We are now in 1990.
LAMB:And in 1990 you've got your Dartmouth degree, your Oxford degree and your speechwriting under your belt from both the Reagan White House and the George Bush vice presidency.
CARO: Right.
LAMB:Your MBA is finished at Stanford.
CARO: Just about to finish. I was still at business school. Right.
LAMB:Are you single?
CARO: Single, yes, although in love -- wildly in love with a woman I since have been fortunate enough to marry. And I had to make some money because I knew I wanted to marry her -- marry Adida -- and start a family.
LAMB:And here you are with an opportunity to go see Robert Maxwell, Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch.
CARO: Correct.
LAMB:What happened?
CARO: You would think, wouldn't you, that there's got to be a happy ending to that story?
LAMB:Are you excited about this at this point?
CARO: Thrilled. I thought the world was really coming my way. I had an interview -- in fact, two interviews with Robert Maxwell, although I thought that was over-long treatment so I didn't describe it in full in the book, but I'll crunch it down for you here. I met him in New York, and he had a suite at the top of the Helmsley Palace Hotel, which was the biggest hotel suite I have ever seen. I buzzed at the door and a little man came, opened the door, in a suit. It was a butler, a real butler, and he bowed to me from the head and said, “Good afternoon, sir.” And then a huge voice from around -- “Ah, that would be Robinson. Show him in. Show him in.” And this gigantic man -- Maxwell must have weighed 300 pounds if he weighed an ounce -- came padding around the corner in khaki trousers and a checked shirt and bare feet.

He motioned me in, and I was now in a room that was two stories high. A curving staircase went up to the right, and off to the left was a kind of two-story bank of windows looking out on the Manhattan skyline with a grand piano, and if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had come high-stepping down those stairs, it wouldn't have seemed out of place to me at all. Maxwell was -- I had been warned that he was abrasive, he was difficult, he liked to humiliate people. He was, in fact, during that half-hour or so, absolutely charming, wanted to know all about me, where was I from, and we just chatted. He asked me the question you had just asked, was I single? And I answered it the way I'd answered you. I said, “Yes, I am, but I'm in love.” He says, “Ah, Robinson, do it the way I did it: seven children, one wife,” which I thought was endearing. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Well, I would not be averse to continuing this discussion. You must come to see us in London. See so-and-so and she will make the arrangements.” So ...
LAMB:By the way, how big was his company? And he died in what year?
CARO: He died in 1990 -- was it 1990? Late '91? Early '92?
LAMB:So this is '90 and in '91 he ...
CARO: He had just bought -- a couple of years before he had -- the answer is the company was very big. He had properties -- he had Pergamon Press in Britain, he owned media properties in France, elsewhere in Europe, and he had just bought the Macmillan Publishing Company in this country. So he was a major presence on the media scene, no doubt about that. I flew to London and I saw the other side of Robert Maxwell. I arrived and his secretary said, “Mr. Maxwell wants you to spend some time with his assistant” -- and so I did. And the assistant ...
LAMB:Name's Wilkes? Is that his real name?
CARO: No, that's not his real name. I think probably ...
LAMB:Why did you change the name?
CARO: Oh, I thought it would be a little unkind. Robert Maxwell was a difficult enough man to deal with, and so I felt some sympathy for this fellow. He was American and I was the one who was in need of a job, but he was trying very hard to sell me. He said, “Oh, Maxwell is -- he's a genius. This company is growing. What would you like to do here?” He just asked me what I would like to do. And then it was clear he kind of would give me any job I asked for, and it suddenly clicked that Maxwell must have told this person to hire me no matter what. As we were talking, the windows started to shake -- huge “whoop, whoop, whoop” sound -- and this fellow said to me, “Well, the helicopter's landing. He's here. We'll give him five minutes and go up and see the great man.” Waited five minutes; upstairs we went in the elevator. And there -- the anteroom or hallway outside Maxwell's office was this sort of cavernous place with a huge Maxwell logo, which was a map of the world with a gigantic M imprinted on it. And I noticed in the carpet -- this logo was repeated all through the carpet, stretching off into -- sort of into the distance. And the secretary said, “He's waiting for you.” So this fellow, Wilkes, as I call him in the book, opened the door. Just a gigantic room again -- tall windows looking out on the London skyline, Maxwell seated at a desk, and he stands up and he's wearing an electric blue suit, a hot pink bow tie, a bright blue shirt. He comes padding over to us. “Mr Robinson” -- shakes my hand -- “take a seat,” and he motions to a kind of conference table.
LAMB:No, you missed the hair.
CARO: Oh, right. Exactly. And his hair -- I'm sensitive to this. I'm getting gray myself now. His hair was absolutely jet black -- shoe-polish black -- as were his eyebrows. And it was so black that it occurred to me -- I think it had to occur to everybody who had anything to do with him -- it absolutely had to be dyed hair. He was just a huge, bizarre, colorful figure. And my first impression was this kind of circus bear. And Maxwell turned to the fellow I had been dealing with and he said, “Well, what are we going to do with this young man?” And Wilkes said, “Well, Mr. Maxwell, Peter and I have been talking about his career” -- of course, not true. We hadn't been talking in any serious way at all. And he spins out this story about how I should start with the media group -- or the television group -- and after a year or two I could be running a chunk of the business on my own. I thought, this sounds remarkably good -- in fact, surreal. It can't be that good.
LAMB:You're how old in 1990?
CARO: I was now 33 years old with not a whit of business experience. And Maxwell listens to this, and pauses for a moment and he says, “No. Wrong use to make of Robinson entirely.” Then he said that I would be his personal assistant. Maxwell said, “For example, this weekend I am flying to Moscow. Mr. Wilkes will accompany me. When Robinson joins the company, he will accompany me instead. He will sit in on the meetings, take notes -- notes on the negotiations -- return to the firm, and tell you and others what actions need to be taken as a result of the decisions I have reached.” This is almost exactly the way he talked. And this fellow turned ashen. Suddenly not only was I being brought into the company, I was, in effect, being made his superior.

And tried to object and Maxwell said, “No, no, no. Negotiate a starting date with Mr. Robinson and a salary. If he wants to join the firm, good, and if he doesn't,” waved his hand again. And just then the secretary walked in and said it was -- Ariel Sharon was on the line for Maxwell. So he got up and walked back to his desk and I heard him say, “Eric, how is the weather in Tel Aviv?” as we then went out of the office. Now he had flown me to London and he had spoken exactly five words to me: “Robinson, take a seat,” and then discussed me as though I was a kind of side of beef hanging in a shop window, and I decided that whole experience was just a little bit too bizarre.
LAMB:But what was the reaction on the part of Mr. Wilkes?
CARO: Oh, Mr. Wilkes -- we got out and down the hallway we went, and he kind of called me over to an alcove and he said, “You don't want this job. You don't want this job. Why don't you say it right now: ‘I don't want this job.’ Go ahead, say it.”
LAMB:Did he really ask you to say it?
CARO: Yes, he did. He said, “Maxwell is a madman.” I mean, he took back everything he had told me half an hour before. “Personal assistant -- he'll leave you on a runway in Moscow.” And I had subsequently found out stories -- someone was hired for a similar position by Maxwell, given a two-year contract, and Maxwell fired her the first day, gave her two years' salary, but said he didn't want to see her again. So he was just very mercurial. That was my experience with Robert Maxwell.
LAMB:By the way, the Maxwell estate turned out to be -- what? -- bankrupt?
CARO: I don't know that it's ever been decided clearly and for certain. What happened was that Maxwell -- it became clear that he was facing huge debts and it also began to become clear that he had effectively stolen about a billion dollars from his company's pension funds to pay off debts elsewhere in the corporate structure. And he retired to his huge yacht and one night -- it's still a little bit unclear, but it now seems as though he jumped into the ocean. He either fell into the sea or jumped into the sea, and that was the end of Robert Maxwell.
LAMB:Steve Jobs.
CARO: Steve Jobs -- completely different kind of event. The company is in Redwood City. I drove ...
LAMB:Out here.
CARO: Out here. That's right. I drove 15 minutes from the Stanford campus. And Maxwell -- everything's kind of elaborate and 1930s movie set in feel. Steve Jobs -- the NeXT company headquarters -- there's a kind of Zen cleanliness about it -- everything is quiet, well-lighted, gray carpet, beige walls.
LAMB:By the way, how old was he in 1990?
CARO: Steve is a year and a half or so older than I am, so in 1990 -- I was 30 -- what was I? -- 32 or 33? He was 34 or 35 years old. He's a young man. And he met me in a black turtleneck and jeans and sneakers, and here he was, the computer titan and the founder of the company. He and I went out for dinner. Again, we had a nice conversation, very, very pleasant. He's very intense. There's an intensity about Steve, but he's, to my mind, an entirely likeable guy -- never mentioned the job. Then he arranged for me to go back to NeXT and meet some of his people. So a receptionist seated me in a conference room with a can of Pepsi and I then met a stream of Steve's senior staff, beginning with the personnel director, who told me what the job was about.

And he said, “We've been having trouble with Steve -- hard to get his attention when we need him to get to come to meetings.” It was clear they were frustrated with him because he was off doing all kinds of things, and they said, “He only has a secretary. He doesn't have a chief of staff, somebody who can just manage his time and make him show up when we need him to come to a meeting.” In fact, he told me the story that Ross Perot, who was a major investor in NeXT, had called the day before, asked for Steve, Steve's secretary looked in Steve's office, saw Steve eating lunch at his desk, and told Ross Perot that Steve was unavailable. And Ross Perot had then called someone else in the company and just raised Texas hell, I guess. He said, “When I call Steve Jobs and want him on the phone, he ought to get on the phone.”

OK. So what happened was that I heard this story from one after another of Steve's senior staff. They loved him, they were devoted to him personally, had no doubt about the importance of this new company that they were building in the world of high technology, but were immensely frustrated in dealing with Steve. And my job was to solve their problems, give Steve to them whenever they wanted him. But from Steve's point of view, I got the feeling that my job was to keep his senior staff at bay and give him the time he needed. Well, much as I liked them all and impressed as I was by that company, it just struck me that was a job no human being could do, least of all little me, who, again, at that point in life, had no whit of business experience.
LAMB:Rubert Murdoch.
CARO: Rupert Murdoch -- New York City, 8:00 in the morning, shown to see Mr. Murdoch, who already looked as though he'd put in a full day's work, which, I learned later, is not quite true but almost. He does start very, very early. He had one shirttail out, his hair looked mussed up. Hhe shook my hand. I can't really do an Australian accent, but it's kind of, “Good to meet ya, mate,” that kind of thing. Then he had to take a phone call. And then he came back, sat down opposite me and said, “Well, I've looked at your resume, and we'd love to have you here at the company,” and he said it with an Australian accent. I couldn't quite figure out for a second what he'd said.

And finally, I realized he'd offered me a job. I said, “Well, thank you very much.” He said, “I'd be tempted to make you my personal assistant,” and my heart sank. I thought, “Oh, no, back into the Maxwell problem.” “But,” he said, “I think that would be a disservice to you. I'd like you to come here and learn the company, and I'm hiring some young people to learn various aspects of the company, and in 10, 15 years they'll move up into management positions.” It all seemed very, very plausible to me. And then at the end he said, “By the way, I understand you've also talked to Robert Maxwell. Go to work for anybody else other than me if you want to, but don't go to work for Robert Maxwell. He chews people up and spits them out, and I've seen it again and again.” So that seemed to me the sanest alternative, and I went to work for Rupert Murdoch.
LAMB:Doing what?
CARO: The idea was that the first thing I needed was training in television, so he put me at WNYW, which is the Fox Television affiliate in New York City, in the news division -- as opposed to the entertainment side of the TV station. And I went out and shot stories, shot and produced Fox-style TV stories.
CARO: Meaning -- I'll give you an example. There was one -- it was kind of consumer affairs -- standing up for the consumer. There was a family in Brooklyn that had paid some kind of fly-by-night construction company to come in and do repairs on their home, and the construction company had come in and ripped out walls and then not shown up the second day, just disappeared. So Mr. Robinson and the camera guy went out there and talked to the -- it was awful, but it was great TV. We've got cockroaches crawling across the walls and the people broke down into tears, and it was heartrending but, of course, in the TV world, we said, “Great. Tears, cockroaches -- wow. That's wonderful!” And then we went out to New Jersey. Somehow or other -- I can't quite remember how -- we found the fellow who was listed on some court document as President of the company that had done this in the neighborhood in Brooklyn.

And again, that was great TV because we did a stakeout. We waited for him. And he came driving up in his Cadillac. Already we knew we had great TV, because the neighborhood in Brooklyn was poor; now we were in a wealthy neighborhood in New Jersey and the villain himself comes driving up in a fat, old Cadillac. And he got out and did exactly what you shouldn't do on TV, of course, which is lose his temper with the reporter -- screamed and shouted -- marvelous stuff.

That's the kind of thing I did.
LAMB:Why did you leave Mr. Murdoch?
CARO: I left Mr. Murdoch not of my own choosing. I was fired. With my marvelous sense of timing, I joined Rupert Murdoch in 1990, which was the only bad year that that brilliant entrepreneur has had in his entire life. I went -- it's worse than that. I went to business school in 1988. I thought the '80s would go on. I thought the '80s would last into the '90s. But, of course, the '80s ended at the end of the '80s. Recession hits in 1990. I did manage to get hired by Rupert Murdoch. He left me at the TV station because he essentially forgot about me. His company was suddenly -- I started working in -- I got married in September. I started work in October. About two weeks after I started work, we learned that my wife, Adida, was pregnant. A couple weeks after that, the first story appears in The Wall Street Journal that Murdoch's empire is in financial trouble. He's going to have trouble covering his debt payments. Worse news about Murdoch keeps growing. Mr. Murdoch himself sort of simply disappears from headquarters because now he's living on a plane, dealing with bankers in London -- he shows up in New York to deal with his bankers, goes back to Sydney, Australia, to deal with those bankers. He's just simply trying to straighten things out with the bankers. And then he begins closing operations, laying people off, and at the end of 10 or 11 months, somebody, somewhere, on some line item saw “Mr. Robinson.” “What is he doing?” And out I went six weeks after my daughter was born -- six weeks after our first child was born.
LAMB:How's the MBA looking to you at that point?
CARO: At that point? The MBA was as useful as a hole in the head. I just ...
LAMB:What did it cost you?
CARO: It cost me two years of my life -- and so you have to assess some kind of number. If I hadn't stayed at the White House, I'd have taken a job and I would have made some kind of money during those two years. I don't know how much. And then the tuition, room, board and so forth was about -- little under $20,000 a year. So it's about $40,000 outlay, plus foregone income of who knows quite how much I would have made. But it was and remains an expensive undertaking.
LAMB:If you had it to do over again, would you go for the MBA?
CARO: I probably would. I probably would. I've gone back to being a writer. At the Hoover Institution, I write about politics and business. The MBA equipped me to understand and write about a fascinating field of endeavor: business. Out here in California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay area, biotechnology, technology of all kinds -- we now have the -- the big thing up here is entertainment -- quite a few people moving up from Hollywood to try to use technology to produce entertainment. Fascinating stuff going on around here, and the MBA equips me to write about that. But at the time I and a number of my classmates graduated, some of my classmates had trouble finding jobs, others of them got jobs and, like me, were fired. So it was as though I had spent the entire 1980s in the cabana putting on my swimsuit, and finally came out, did a big, beautiful swan dive off the diving board and managed to hit the swimming pool just as the last gurgle of water was going down the drain. The timing was appalling and it was -- there's no doubt it was very rough, getting fired and having a new baby at the same time.
LAMB:Any more politics for you?
CARO: For me? Oh, well, not for a long time. We just had our third child 15 days ago and I need to hunker down, write some more books -- do some baby-raising for a few years anyway.
LAMB:Next book?
CARO: Next book? I have a couple of books in mind. I'm sketching out a novel, which will be set on a trading floor in New York, and I'm also planning to write a book on software and education. What I'd like to do -- well, my notion is to do a kind of new version of Tracy Kidder. Tracy Kidder in 1980 wrote "The Soul of a New Machine," and he sat with and wrote about a development team at a computer company as they designed and produced a minicomputer. Now it's a decade and a half later. The action in technology is not hardware but software, and the end users are not technical people, as they were in 1980, but many computers are now going into the homes. So what I want to do is find one of these companies out here and join a team as they develop software for children, buy a computer for my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and write about how my daughte handles the computer, how a development team -- these teams are all fascinating groups of people, because it's quite typical to have somebody with a doctorate in education. You then have several technonerds who understand how to program software. And then all these teams these days also have somebody with Hollywood background.
LAMB:Mr. Robinson's book looks like this. The title is "Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA" at Stanford. Peter Robinson, our guest. Thank you for joining us.
CARO: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.