- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

Like him or not, Ted Turner is an American original, and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta

is a good choice to kick off what the publisher claims is a new genre: “the business book as literature.” Mr. Auletta conducted some 20 hours of taped interviews with his biographic subject for MediaMan:TedTurner’sImprobableEmpire (W.W. Norton/Atlas, $22.95, 205 pages), plus hours more with his family members and business associates. The result is a very readable, compact account of the restless, impulsive man that the author likes to refer to as Zorba the Greek.

Ted Turner spent his youth rebelling against his overbearing father, but when he was kicked out of Brown University in his junior year for various infractions, he ended up back home, working in his father’s billboard business. After his father committed suicide in 1963, Ted began the quest to build a television empire that could compete with the networks. He started buying small radio stations and went heavily into debt buying TV outlets as they became available. By recognizing the market that could be reached by satellites, Mr. Turner turned his Atlanta channel 17 into a national cable network, Turner Broadcasting System, and offered the programming — sports, cartoons, old movies — that the cable industry desperately needed.

In 1980 Mr. Turner became more serious and, with much fanfare, established the first all-news network, CNN. Its business anchor, Lou Dobbs, told Mr. Auletta of his concern that Mr. Turner was more eccentric than visionary, until he got to know him. “He felt the networks were treating the audience like idiots,” Mr. Dobbs said of Mr. Turner. “He said what I wanted to hear.”

It was some years before CNN turned a profit, but as NBC’s CEO Robert Wright said in acknowledging Mr. Turner’s vision, “We all look at the same picture, but Ted sees what you don’t see. And after he sees it, it becomes obvious to everyone.” In Mr. Auletta’s words, “Turner saw that technology had made possible a twenty-four-hour network of live news, or could transform a local into a national superstation… .Of course, he did more than see opportunity, he seized it.” CNN’s performance during the Gulf War of 1991 took the network to new heights.

The latter half of the book details the merger with Time Warner in 1996, and the subsequent merger, in 2000, with AOL, after which Mr. Turner was sidelined in a “reorganization.” Bigger did not prove to be better, and Mr. Turner, the single largest individual shareholder, saw much of his fortune evaporate. Now, according to ex-wife no. 3, Jane Fonda, “He has been severely, hauntingly traumatized. He always thinks something is about to be pulled out from him. He has no belief in permanency and stability. It’s one reason why I’m not with him.”

Other insights from “Media Man:” Ted Turner is America’s largest individual landowner; his 22 properties together are “the rough equivalent of Delaware and Rhode Island.” He says he never stays in one place longer than five consecutive days.

He says he has watched “Citizen Kane” 100 times. He calls most women in his life “honey,” which may be a good idea, considering the turnover. He has engaged in serial marriage, supplemented by serial affairs, all his adult life.

One reason he and Jane Fonda divorced is that she became a born-again Christian without consulting him, “because he would have talked me out of it,” she says. “He’s a debating champion.”

His main ambition now is to win a Nobel prize, presumably for his donation of $1 billion to the United Nations. As one friend of Mr. Turner’s told Mr. Auletta, “He’s a mixture of a genius and a jackass. I think Ted could have run for president of the United States — if there were not the jackass side.”

• • •

Poet Walt Whitman was a different sort of American original. Although he is recognized as a trailblazing poet for having based most of his verse on free-flowing, prose-like lines, Whitman has not always been recognized as our first important urban poet, drawing inspiration from the streets of New York and Washington.

In a short biography (WaltWhitman, Oxford, $17.95, 152 pages), Whitman scholar David S. Reynolds describes his subject’s upbringing in Brooklyn and his beginnings as a journalist around New York. In his spare time Whitman sauntered about the metropolis, riding ferries and omnibuses, and attending the opera and the theater.

Whitman’s breakthrough as a poet came in 1855 with the publication of “Leaves of Grass.” In Mr. Reynolds’ words, “His liberation of the poetic line from formal rhythm and rhyme was a landmark event with which all poets since have had to come to terms.”

“Leaves of Grass” impressed some important critics. Emerson famously wrote Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” — a letter that Whitman shamelessly employed to promote his book. But many were put off by the poet’s self-indulgent eroticism and undisciplined ramblings. Initial sales were disappointing.

By the late 1850s the poet was part of the counterculture. The author writes, “He now dressed like a bohemian artist, with shaggy hair and a gray beard, and wearing a striped calico jacket over a red flannel shirt and coarse overalls.” Mr. Reynolds does not question the conventional wisdom that Whitman was homosexual although he notes that “Passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was common in pre-Civil War America.”

In 1862, the second year of the Civil War, Whitman went to Washington in search of a brother who had been wounded in Virginia. After finding his brother, he decided to remain in Washington, where he found employment as a government clerk. He devoted much of his time to succoring the wounded in various hospitals.

Whitman was immediately attracted to Abraham Lincoln, and Mr. Reynolds believes that, although they were never introduced, Whitman may have observed the president as many as 30 times. He writes, “Whitman’s intense response to Lincoln was deeply personal; Lincoln embodied everything that the 1855 persona of ‘Leaves of Grass’ had hoped to be. He was democratic, charitable, firm, moderate, and folksy.” In the end, Lincoln would inspire two of Whitman’s most accessible poems, “Oh Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Although Whitman thought of himself as the embodiment of democratic optimism, his political thinking in some areas was very conservative. He fully embraced the racism of his day, disparaging blacks and predicting their eventual extinction as a result of natural selection.

But the better of Whitman’s poems remain fresh, personal, and inclusive. In 1860 he wrote in “To a Common Prostitute,”

“Be composed — be at ease with me — I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature, Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Virginia.

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