ABOUT TWO-THIRDS of the way through
Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way we learn that the author was a member of Ted Turner's 20-man crew aboard the 61-foot yacht Tenacious in the Fastnet Race of 1979. During its course, a wild storm struck. Only 90 boats of the 303 starters survived hurricane-force winds and 30-foot waves, while 25 were abandoned. One hundred and sixty sailors had to be plucked from the Irish Sea; 15 more drowned. Turner and the Tenacious fought their way through, and won. That story seems to serve as a metaphor for life with Robert Edward Turner III. It's a giddy, corkscrewing, blind ride, tongue-lashed and tempest-tossed, through the perilous unknown--exhilarating and even rewarding, but only if you survive.
Christian Williams has not tried to produce a simple paean to the captain, his captain. By intent this is an "objective" portrayal of the man behind Cable News Network; the program-pirating impresario of Atlanta's Channel 17; the America's Cup winner; the owner of the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks; the cougar who has clawed the networks, the FCC and Bowie Kuhn; the movie-star-handsome millionaire who quotes Horatius at the Bridge to his drunken salts at a victory dinner; the onetime classics major at Brown who sees himself as Alexander the Great and is, at 41, looking for new worlds to conquer. . . .
But there! The paragraph is getting out of hand. It is hard to be "objective" about a kaleidoscopic object/subject like Turner. Williams' narrative, too, is blown on a fitful course by Turnerian gusts. But if Williams sat down to the keyboard to write a straightforward business biography of the media magnate, the essential Turner would escape his net. The real Turner is only manifest in motion, like a spinning disk that turns dots of pigment into concentric colored rings.
So we get Turner chewing tobacco and spitting profanity. Turner descending on advertising executives to solicit business, scattering endearments like "jerk," "cluck" and "dummy" about, and then cooing: "You guys . . . got to like me a little, right?" Turner flying tourist class everywhere, but saying of a boat he covets: "It would only cost a couple mil." Turner greeting surprised Braves batters at the plate after a homer. Turner as a young Coast Guard swab jockey, racing through work details so fast that the CPO was reduced to pleading with him to go down to his bunk and read for a while. Turner buying gold heavily at $270 an ounce, against all expert advice, and cashing in when it hits the stratosphere. Turner in random, staccato sequence.
Yet there is a basic story line underneath, the rise of a maverick in a fluid industry. Turner's father was a billboard magnate who shot himself in a fit of depression in 1963. Twenty- four-year-old Ted was unpromising heir material. He had resisted the efforts of military schools to tame him, been kicked out of college for drinking and womanizing, was shakily married. But he shed his playboy image faster than Prince Hal--or "Willie" Hearst in the 1890s. Turner Senior had sold off his company just before his suicide. All that remained was to complete the paperwork and bank the proceeds. Instead, the bereaved son--with no resources--bought the business back in a pyrotechnic few weeks of relentless high-pressure, brassy imposture, and fiscal somersaults.
Subsequently he bought and redeemed a failing radio station in Chattanooga, then got into television through the acquisition of faltering Channel 17, in Atlanta, which he pushed to the top with programs that he chose in his own fashion--"no committees, no studies, no bull." Just his hunches and his growing knowledge of the TV market in which the broadcasters sell the tube-junkies to the advertisers; in which the basic commodity is, in fact, us.
For Turner as Alexander the march towards India began with the advent, in the 1970s, of communications satellites that bounce TV signals from 22,000 miles in space over a continents-wide "footprint." Thanks to them, independent stations like Channel 17 could send programs from anywhere to anywhere, without reliance on microwave relay stations or landlines, both of which had been sewed up by the major networks, who, in Turner's scheme of things, represent the Persian Empire. Turner took them on by buying and retransmitting syndicated programs developed for them, and by sending locally originated material (like Braves games) into far-off areas that they considered closed preserves. When they counterattacked through an FCC proposal to make retransmission without the originators' consent illegal, Turner's testimony helped to defeat the idea in Congress.
From the networks' point of view such a consent requirement is no more objectionable than copyright, a mere safeguard against the stealing or devaluation of a product. But Turner cast himself in the anti-monopolists' role, opening the way for independent stations to multiply and provide viewers a wider choice of what to see. Given the national conviction that TV is a God-given right, he proved to be on the winning side, and the networks are now coming to terms with the cable revolution by trying to join it. The story is not yet finished, however. The stakes are still high, the outcome not clearly predictable.
So Turner marches on in his jeans-and-Guccis armor of the champion of individualism. He is a bizarre, quick-silvery figure in a corporate world where board chairmen look grayly at the world through a confining latticework of computer printouts and research reports. Whether he will survive forever or, like business mavericks before him, end up broke and on the outside, is a good question. He remains a plunger, to whom long-range plans and cash reserves are chains and goads; such executives fly high and fall far.
In Williams' portrait there are hints of a dark side to Turner--hints which may have been imprudently left undeveloped. The man spouts a simple-minded Social Darwinism. There's a touch of cruelty in the way he uses his associates. His wife, to an outside eye, appears long- suffering. One senses a trail of nervous-breakdown victims bobbing in his wake. And yet-- there's a poignant moment in the book when Turner asks someone: "Wouldn't you really rather be Ted Turner?" and, without waiting for reply, answers: "You're right; it's a lot of fun, but it ain't as easy as it looks."
No doubt it ain't. But the fun is there, and you can't help sharing it in this lively portrait of a tycoon who is part avalanche, part mountebank, and, come to think of it, as impulsive, tyrannical and attractive as the original Alexander himself.