A Man Out of Time

Ted Turner now leads a quieter life, but his philanthropic quirks remain fascinating

There was a time, and it wasn’t very long ago, when Ted Turner was America’s most famous living philanthropist. One gets the sense from this new “authorized biography” that, at age 75, he has mixed feelings about the current state of his public profile.

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Turner’s reputation for flair in promotion (and self-promotion) is well deserved, but his record of achievement and innovation really is quite remarkable. Turner’s father shot himself in 1963, leaving 24-year-old Ted in charge of the family’s billboard business. Demonstrating an innate gift for marketing, Turner expanded the business throughout the Southeast, buying up radio stations and eventually a sleepy, low-rated UHF station in Atlanta. He brilliantly seized an opportunity to make his channel available to nascent cable systems via satellite. Then he doubled down with the insight that in the emerging world of unlimited channels, content would be king. He bought the Atlanta Braves and Hawks sports teams, World Championship Wrestling, and the MGM library of old movies, TV shows, and cartoons, and cross-marketed them all on his various channels. He founded CNN, TNT, the Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies, which debuted by broadcasting his favorite film, Gone with the Wind (Turner’s signature mustache is allegedly an homage to Clark Gable). During this period he also found time to become a world-class sailor, successfully defending the America’s Cup in 1977 and winning the notorious Fastnet race of 1979, in which 15 sailors died.

Turner did all this while raising five children (an oddity given that one of his deepest policy passions is population control), dabbling in international diplomacy, starting the Goodwill Games, wooing Jane Fonda, and amassing the then-largest personal real estate empire in America. Whew. There’s a mountain of interesting material here—and there have been a number of books written about it, including a pretty good one just a few years ago by Turner himself. But that is not what this book is about; not directly, anyway. This book is focused on Turner’s philanthropic vision and what he is trying to do to “save a troubled planet.”

From Randian to rancher

Last Stand was written by Todd Wilkinson, a journalist and conservation author who, according to the book’s promotional materials, “has covered Ted Turner’s life since 1992.” Turner gave Wilkinson unprecedented personal access and was disarmingly candid with him about aspects of his childhood, private life, and recent soul-searching. The portrait of Ted Turner that emerges feels authentic, and the reader gets a better sense for Turner’s motivations and psychology from this book than from anything that has come before.

And what is his philosophy? Turner can start off by telling you what it isn’t: “Long ago, when I was a young man reeling from my father’s suicide, I embraced the ‘me-first’ ideology of Ayn Rand…. [But] Rand was wrong, dead wrong, and it is precisely that kind of twisted logic that has sown division in our world.” Throughout the book, “Ayn Rand” serves as shorthand for what Turner views as unfettered greed and capitalist rapine. “I’ve come to realize capitalism isn’t the problem,” he says, but “how we practice capitalism.”

“Some have described me as a lefty,” he says, but he is “also” pro-business, citing as evidence that he has lectured at business schools, regularly attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and is a member of the trade organizations to which his various business interests belong. Turner invokes “freedom and liberty and private property rights,” and he demonstrably believes in the power of “private enterprise. I think it’s more effective, more efficient, and makes things happen faster than government bureaucracies can.”

A prime example comes at one of the intersections of Turner’s philanthropy, personal interests, and business: bison. One out of every nine bison on earth today (never call them “buffalo” in front of Ted), ranges on his land. Starting with a childhood fascination, bison have become, along with wolves, “Turner’s totem creatures,” Wilkinson says.

When Turner first started buying up land in Montana and replacing cattle with bison, locals had a number of dire and derisive predictions: Turner was just a dilettante and would be gone soon, his bison business would go bust, he would wind up either crassly developing his properties or turning them into boutique “ranchettes” for his family’s fancy friends.

But Turner has proven the critics wrong. More than a mere romantic evocation of the Old West, it turns out that bison have some important advantages over cattle, both nutritionally and environmentally. They are hardier animals, needing far less supervision and human intervention. Their meat is leaner in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein. Ever the savvy marketer, Turner invited Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey out to his ranch to host episodes of their shows, which touted the virtues of his product. As a result, Turner has been a market-maker for bison meat, which is now sold nationally by Whole Foods and at Ted’s Montana Grill, the popular chain of 44 restaurants Turner founded as an effort to encourage husbandry of the animal.

A wonderfully illustrative Turner anecdote is that when he first bought the iconic Flying D ranch in Montana, he sought to “re-wild” the land and help the bison by tearing down all the fences on its 170 square miles. An even better Turner anecdote is that a few years later when he realized things weren’t working as planned, he had some of those same fences put back up. As he describes his own phenomenally successful career, “In large part I just winged the course that brought me here and adapted as more information became available.”

But the most salient philanthropic aspect of Turner’s bison and re-wilding adventure is this: He is doing it on his own. It’s his land. That leaves him free to experiment and tinker and follow his own vision. As he said in defending the rights of a neighboring rival who was developing his land in what Turner considered environmentally unsound ways, “It’s his land. He paid for it fair and square.” Though, being Ted Turner, he added, “but we’ll see who’s still here in a couple years and who proves to be smarter.”

We are the world

Not that he would admit to it, but the urge to “show up” those he perceives as ignorant probably played into the motivation for Turner’s most famous charitable donation: his stunning pledge to donate $1 billion to the United Nations.

The U.N. gift, whose final payment is scheduled to be made in 2014 according to Wilkinson, epitomizes Turner: a bold, quixotic, seat-of-his-pants decision; yielding a PR coup; riddled with early errors that then got corrected; execution entrusted to a liberal establishment figure (Tim Wirth); with a massive contradiction at the heart of the gesture (maverick entrepreneur hands over much of his life’s work to wasteful international bureaucracy).

Here was one of those moments where Turner, so often genuinely ahead of his time, was anachronistically behind it. The U.N., to him, was not the morass of inefficiency, dysfunction, and torpor that it seemed to many in 1998, but still a symbol of progress and internationalist hope. “If civilization is going to remain intact another one hundred or one thousand years, Turner steadfastly believes, there is nothing that can replace the vital, galvanizing role of the U.N.,” writes Wilkinson. The book relentlessly champions this gift, and catalogues many of the good things that have come from it. Turner is vituperative to critics, reducing them all to straw men who are for “pulling out of the U.N. …and going alone in the world.” A central component of Turner’s United Nations Foundation is to mount vigorous media and public defenses of the institution itself. Turner is still fighting this fight, snapping at anti-U.N. “idiots” and “Neanderthals”—“When I hear people like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann holding forth on international policy, you have to laugh.”

But the occasional rant or outburst aside, the Ted Turner of this book, though still frenetically peripatetic and driven, seems mellowed, perhaps even chastened. Turner talks of being haunted by the notion of dying rich, miserable, misunderstood, and alone, like Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of another of his favorite movies, Citizen Kane (the rights to which Turner also acquired in the MGM deal). And he has softened on religion; he now allows, for the first time in his adult life, that he might not be an atheist anymore.

Nabob’s nadir

Though he waxes sentimental about Rosebud, arguably Turner’s cultural touchstone is the main character in a television cartoon that he himself created: “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”  This was a real show that ran on TBS in the 1990s. Captain Planet is a powerful superhero (his only vulnerability is pollution), who flies around the world leading his eco-team (they fly in a solar-powered vehicle, of course) to combat evil polluters on behalf of the earth spirit Gaia (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg). The villains, bearing names like Hoggish Greedly, are voiced by Meg Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, Sting, James Coburn, Martin Sheen, and Ed Asner. Who but Ted Turner could have concocted such a program, had the means to broadcast it around the world, and rounded up A-list talent to star in it?

At the turn of the 21st century, Turner appeared a colossus. As the largest shareholder of Time Warner Turner, the AOL deal and tech-stock bubble inflated Turner’s wealth into the stratosphere. He was worth more than $10 billion at the market peak. According to Wilkinson, “there was talk that Nelson Mandela had him in mind for a special assignment to try and bring reconciliation of the two Koreas” (a task demanding a superhero for sure). But 2001 was truly annus horribilis for Turner. As Wilkinson describes, when the bubble burst, Turner lost more money than almost any man in history. The implosion of AOL Time Warner cost him about $8 billion, and he rode the stock all the way down, lest he send a public signal of no confidence in his own baby. But it was his own confidence that was being tested as never before, and not just by the market.

His marriage to Jane Fonda was dissolving (among other things, she wanted to live in two homes, not 28). The book’s treatment of this episode is intimate but not tabloidy, and ties together with some of the emotional scars from Turner’s upbringing. That summer a granddaughter died, followed closely by the World Trade Center attack. Turner’s great escape had always been work—but at Time Warner he had become unwelcome even in the institutions he had built, like TBS and especially CNN. His title was executive vice president, but he had no real responsibilities or power, and felt he had been bamboozled by Gerald Levin and Steve Case. He got paid $1 million a year but quickly realized they wanted him to “do nothing” and shut up—not exactly his strong suit. At one point he contemplated suicide.

He felt duped at not having power, and vexed by the ruination of the grandiose visions of philanthropy he had so recently entertained. One of his comeback plans was to fulfill a lifelong ambition and buy one of the three broadcast television networks. Wilkinson records Turner’s thoughts: “Imagine, he mused, if he could bring the following talent pool to one channel: Walter Cronkite, Charlie Rose and Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, Diane Sawyer, Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt, Oprah Winfrey, Catherine Crier, the entire ‘60 Minutes’ news team, and of course former colleagues from CNN.”

“It would have been the antithesis of FOX News,” says Turner. “Imagine applying that kind of human capital and the might of television to uniting America in the spirit of cooperation and sacrifice that existed during World War II rather than dividing the country for ratings’ sake or using TV as a propaganda arm of a political party.”

Throughout the book, FOX News competes with Ayn Rand for the role of principal bad guy, repeatedly popping up in unexpected places like cartoon villains. Turner has on more than one occasion offered to publicly fight his arch nemesis, Rupert Murdoch. This book, however, contains the surprising revelation that Turner has in fact hosted Murdoch as a guest out at his ranch. Might there be an aspect of professional wrestling, long a staple of Turner’s TBS, to this legendary public feud?

Until the very end

The book offers a lengthy and mostly interesting treatment of Turner’s other charitable endeavors. He has done valuable and unglamorous work in attempting to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. This is a grave problem that many philanthropists would look the other way from, considering it “government’s job.” Turner, though, has dedicated serious money (nine figures) plus his own time to getting people to take seriously the danger of terrorists detonating a bomb in a place like New York City.

Unsurprisingly, alternative fuels are a hobbyhorse, as is biodiversity. One of the themes that emerges from this book is the notion that, frustrated with the wider world, Turner has increasingly focused on his own world, the sprawling archipelago of ranches and open spaces that he is returning to nature. After bison, his current animal passion is prairie dogs. Long considered a nuisance by neighboring farmers and ranchers, Turner sees prairie dogs as another essential creature to re-wilding the West and is enthusiastic about the massive breeding project on his lands. One of the pleasures of great wealth is the ability to make important people pretend to care about your hobbies, and Turner is a salesman for prairie dogs. “A string of Nobel Prize winners—Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, Kofi Annan or Jimmy Carter…has been regaled with tales about the prairie dog frontier. Turner says he would gladly give any American president…a tour,” Wilkinson writes. He quotes Kofi Annan saying: “Ted can tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the prairie dog.”

A pivotal moment in Turner’s life came when he was with his mentor and substitute father figure Jacques Cousteau aboard a ship on the Amazon in 1980. Cousteau lamented that the environmental problems facing the world at the time—“nuclear catastrophe, resource depletion and scarcity linked to consumption, and exploding population growth—might be insurmountable.” Worry over each became embedded deep in Turner’s soul.

Happily, in the 33 years since then, all three of those imminent “apocalypses” have retreated, addressed by forces and dynamics not foreseen at the time. None of that new reality, though, has given Ted Turner the slightest pause in his quest to save the planet. 

Tom Riley is a contributing editor to Philanthropy.