When Bill McGowan decided to take on Ma Bell in 1974, no one quite expected that he'd win except the people who knew him. Among friends and colleagues, McGowan was notoriously determined, wily, and sure that he was right. And so, his decision to fight AT&T's efforts to keep his company, MCI, from offering long distance service. At the time, AT&T was a monopoly, and its lawyers and chairman, John D. deButts, argued that this was a good thing, a "natural" development also, good for consumers. Without such control, deButts submitted, clients would face a "degradation of service and higher cost." McGowan made the opposite case, that more choices meant better service, that competition led to better efficiency and lower costs.
His story is mapped out in Sarah Holt's documentary, Long Distance Warrior, premiering on PBS' World Channel on 13 September. The film offers a portrait of McGowan by way of his life story -- series of episodes illustrated in photos and footage, as well as interviews with relatives (including his widow Sue Gin McGowan), lawyers, and associates. Everyone is impressed by his gumption, ingenuity, and stubbornness: a working class kid who became a self-made millionaire and venture capitalist, he's described here as "in a sense, the American Dream." An inveterate salesman who made a lot of money but never seemed to care much about it, except as it seemed a measure of his skills, McGowan is presented here as a regular guy who brought down the corporate bullies at AT&T.
Yes, he was hard-drinking and a chain-smoker, and yes, sometimes he was "robbing Peter to pay Paul" to keep MCI afloat during the long lawsuit years, but he was also savvy and amiable. The film shows him in archival interviews and making speeches to shareholders, funny, convincing, and self-deprecating when it helped to look that way. MCI's lead counsel Chester Kamin underscores his decency and vision as well: "We asked the jury," he says, "'Do we want to lie in a country where the powerful just become more powerful or do we want to live in a country where someone can come in with a new idea and have a chance to succeed?'" Looking at it now, that battle and its outcome -- the breakup of the monopoly -- seem almost quaint. Monopolies, conglomerates, and "the powerful becoming more powerful" are the order of the current day. The film reminds you this wasn't always the case.