- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

By Ted Turner
Grand Central Publishing, $30, 448 pages

If I had been writing Ted Turner’s biography (or better still, directing his life as a movie), I would have made Chapter 14 of this book into the prologue.

In a scene reminiscent of the romantic seafaring stories of Joseph Conrad, Mr. Turner’s character is defined. The year is 1979. The launch of CNN is months away, poised to challenge television’s Big Three — without enough capital to see it through or manpower to keep it going round-the-clock. Mr. Turner and his crew of champion sailors have gathered for Fastnet, a 605-mile race off England’s coast. Unpredictably, on the third night, a storm overcomes them. Conditions are rough, visibility poor. Thirty-five foot waves crash against The Tenacious, rocking them dangerously leeward, at times knocking them flat. During the small hours of the morning, when the storm is at its height, Mr. Turner takes the helm. His father once told him, “You are in control of your own situation until you give up. Do not panic or you will die.” Unbeknownst to the world, 19 other yachtsmen have already perished at sea. Members of Mr. Turner’s crew, huddled together, cold and wet, locked in their safety-harnesses, watch as their skipper, squinting against the howling wind and rain, safely navigates their boat to victory. “The harder it got, the better he was,” recalls a crew member. “I think it was his finest moment.”

This one sentence encapsulates Mr. Turner’s life and is the overriding theme of this remarkable and entertaining book. We see him as a 24-year-old son in Atlanta, saving his father’s billboard company from being taken over after his suicide; at the early days of TBS, when he was peeling the stamps off incoming mail and reusing them; finally being on top of an empire that included CNN, Headline News, Turner Classic Movies, the Cartoon Network, and the Turner Foundation.

Although Mr. Turner is one of the richest men in the world and the largest landowner in the United States, running throughout “Call Me Ted” is another theme: That money should never be the be-all end goal. Adventure, more than wealth, has been his prime motivator, in launching CNN and Turner Classic Movies; buying the Atlanta Braves; winning the World Cup. He became a world-class champion-skipper and won America’s Cup. He faced the challenges of wide-ranging environmental initiatives in his efforts to save the buffalo, the wolves of Yellowstone and the honeybee. Mr. Turner has suffused each of these accomplishments with his own sense of wonderment and enthusiasm.

Philanthropy plays a big role in his life and has given him more satisfaction than his business ventures. He is amazed at how little others of wealth don’t spread it around. His $1 billion gift to the United Nations, an organization he had always admired and wanted to help, came about after he realized that the amount represented just nine months of his stock earnings.

And then there are the ventures that he intentionally pursued despite the losing fiscal outcome. During the 1980s, at the height of worsening relations between the United States and the USSR, when the USSR boycotted the Olympics, he invented the Goodwill Games, just to bring athletes together and foster better relations.

Co-author Bill Burke, an experienced media executive, has brought Mr. Turner’s personality to the fore while keeping himself in the background. You can almost hear Mr. Turner’s famous drawl; many will be charmed by the self-deprecating humor. There are those who, upon first meeting Mr. Turner, were convinced “he was nuts.” On the surface, Mr. Turner’s ideas may seem deceptively simple, but as fellow “wild optimist” Bill Gates recognizes, what initially seems “weird” later proves to be the most obvious thing in the world.

Yet, like the memoirs of many iconoclasts before him (H.L. Mencken comes to mind), flashes of candor are negated by omission: What is most painful is largely left unsaid. As Mr. Turner admits, “Purgatory for me would be spending twenty-four hours with nothing to do but to be alone with my thoughts.” As such, modern readers, accustomed to the self-absorbed purging of celebrity confessionals, will be puzzled by Mr. Turner’s lack of self-analysis.

But must we always be so harshly judgmental? To his credit, Mr. Turner is open about the bare facts of his life: His unhappy childhood and being abandoned at a boarding school at the age of 4; his complex relationship with his father, Ed; the death of his sister; his failures: “I was better in business and sailing than I was in marriage.” Interspersed are “Ted Stories,” first-person commentary (some hilarious) from colleagues, children, rivals and ex-wives. Jane Fonda’s tender assessment of her ex-husband’s psyche is the most psychologically astute. “The things that allow certain people to become super achievers,” she observes, “are the exact opposite qualities that allow them to have successful relationships.” In a departure from the behavior of many another tycoon, Mr. Turner speaks of his five children with respect and love, and it is obvious they revere him as well. “Whether it’s his kids or employees,” observes his son, “he makes you want to be better.” And — have fun in the process.

Young entrepreneurs should study this book. Much can be learned from Mr. Turner’s firsthand accounts on how to identify opportunities and strategies and to recognize and surround yourself with a winning team; how to treat partners, clients and workers and run a corporate culture where everyone works together, not in separate fiefdoms. The importance of honesty, integrity and hard work is emphasized again and again. So is a sense of fairness. When, at AOL-Time-Warner, Mr. Turner saw how much money was being spent at higher corporate levels while laying off a $30,000-a-year employee, he demanded executives sell off the million-dollar oil paintings in their boardroom offices. While the rest of the world castigated bogeymen Fidel Castro and Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Turner sought diplomacy. Mr. Turner is not without controversy. He has been called “the Mouth of the South.” Yet there is no doubt that outspoken nonconformists are not only refreshing to have in society, but necessary.

As the book progresses, there is lingering sadness. He is alarmed about the “tabloidization” of the news business. There is his sober account of missed business opportunities, whether it was starting a financial news network (accomplished by CNBC), or not merging with Mr. Gates and deciding to partner with Time-Warner instead. The story of the catastrophic AOL/Time-Warner deal is tragic. As Mr. Turner puts it, all his life he has worked hard to overcome obstacles, always by playing the rules, doing so with honor and integrity. To be associated with a company accused of dishonest behaviors “left me disappointed and angry.” He lost 80 percent of his wealth and ultimately CNN, the very network he had built. During the same period, he also went through his divorce from Miss Fonda and lost his granddaughter to a rare disease.

Not one to be defeated, Mr. Turner has focused his resources and energies on three main issues: Prevention of nuclear annihilation, contending with the world’s population growth and climate change. He says solar power will offer “one of the greatest business opportunities in history.” Generation O, take heed: “If I were a young person starting out in business today, this is where I’d be placing my efforts.”

Mr. Turner has filled his life with passion and adventure, much like the old-time MGM movies he loves. At age 70, he remains a quintessential American hero: contagiously alive, radiating an enthusiastic “can-do” energy that continues to inspire so many here in the United States and abroad.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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