[19 November 2008]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Ted Turner has always had a singular rhetorical style: Open mouth. Let ‘er rip.
The Philadelphia-based World Affairs Council got a taste of that recently when Turner was invited to address it. At various junctures, Turner said, “Our public education system is a joke,” “The military-industrial complex runs this country,” and “I don’t think Bush is a bad person; he’s just real dumb.”
These are not the opinions of a typical billionaire. But then, this broadcasting pioneer has always been an outspoken iconoclast.
So it’s a little surprising that his just-published autobiography, “Call Me Ted,” is so restrained.
Early on, Turner, who turned 70 on Nov, 19, reveals his ambitions as a younger man: “I used to tell people I wanted to become the world’s greatest sailor, businessman and lover all at the same time.”
Only two of these passions are addressed in “Call Me Ted.” The book contains chapters upon chapters about his maritime adventures (he won the America’s Cup in 1977) and on his business ventures (he founded CNN in 1980).
Oh, he cops to being a wildman in the boardroom, detailing meetings in which he either got down on all fours or jumped up on the desk. But there is no discussion of the bedroom.
In her 2005 autobiography “My Life So Far,” Jane Fonda, Turner’s third wife, attributes their 2001 divorce to his philandering.
“Call Me Ted” skirts that issue entirely, relating only that the split wasn’t caused, as sometimes speculated, by Fonda’s born-again conversion.
Conversationally, Turner has admitted (recently to Morley Safer on “60 Minutes”) that he has always had problems with monogamy. In recent years, he seems to have adopted the Hugh Hefner approach to relationships: If one is good, a harem is better.
On his trip to Philadelphia, he is accompanied by one of his companions, Elizabeth Dewberry, a petite blond playwright who sits at his elbow the entire time. Just before he takes the stage to address the council, the two share a tube of lip balm.
If you read “Call Me Ted,” you’d swear this notorious rake was nothing but a workaholic Mike Brady.
Turner’s reluctance to delve into personal matters was a challenge for Bill Burke, who co-wrote the book.
“One of the reasons he’s had the drive and success he’s had is that he does not dwell on the past,” says Burke, a former president of TBS, the flagship of Turner’s cable empire, and brother of Comcast chief operating officer Stephen B. Burke.
“He had a very difficult childhood, experienced very deep tragedies early on. Getting him to talk about his sister’s death (at 17 from lupus) and talk about his father’s suicide (in 1953) and really get into that was tough.”
The years have taken a toll on this manic maverick, in no small part because of the diminishment of his fortune. After merging his company with Time Warner in 1996, Turner became the majority shareholder in the media giant. Then in 2000, AOL bought the conglomerate. The Internet bubble burst soon afterward, stock prices plunged, and Turner began hemorrhaging money.
“Over the past two and a half years my net worth had gone from nearly $10 billion down to about $2 billion,” he writes in “Call Me Ted.” “To put this in perspective, I lost nearly $8 billion in thirty months. That means that, on average, my net worth dropped by about $67 million “per week,” or nearly $10 million “per day, every day, for two and a half years.”
In an interview before the Philadelphia luncheon, Turner is characteristically voluble. Asked to share the secret to his success, he says, “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”
Although his clear blue eyes still burn, sorrow has chiseled his face. He admits to suffering from anxiety for the last several years.
“I developed it during the time I had a bad year,” he says. “I can’t remember which it was, but I lost my job, I lost my fortune, I lost my wife, and I lost a grandchild all in the same year. That’s enough to give you anxiety, right?
“I worry a lot,” he continues. “I tell my friends that you don’t need to worry. I’m worrying for you.”
Until you stick a microphone in front of him. Then Ted Turner, as always, is speaking only for himself.
Let ‘er rip.