Reading Ted Turner’s Aura
He’s the Kind of Guy You Should Have a Beer With to Understand
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
As is true of most of you, I don’t know Ted Turner personally. I know him by his public image, and that has been shaped by comments he has made over the years. I did, though, have a chat with him recently when he was in Livingston, an encounter that showed me another side of the guy.
Before our brief talk, I had heard comments reported and read a letter to the editor criticizing the fact that Turner was invited to be Grand Marshal of Livingston’s parade. And so be it—every public figure gets rotten apples thrown at him from time to time. I get them myself, and I’m just the guy who publishes the local rag. Yet I am not the person someone who doesn’t know me thinks I am, and I’ve had that sense about Ted Turner—though it’s hard to dismiss some of the things he has said in the past.
“The United States has got some of the dumbest people in the world,” he once said. Asked what he would tell Polish-born Pope John Paul II, a stern opponent of birth control, Turner said he would tell the Pontiff the joke about Polish soldiers clearing land mines with their feet, implying Poles, and the Pope, were stupid. He may have topped that, though, when he said China had set a good example with it’s population control policy (limiting families, by brute force, to one child).
Another quote though puts the others in context. “I don’t have any idea what I’m going to say,” he said. “I say what comes to my mind.”
Turner finally showed up that day last month in Livingston. Parade watchers spotted him with his horse by the sidewalk on 2nd Street and approached him. These were not paparazzi hoping to hawk images to supermarket tabloids, just folks who had brought cameras along, yet it was as if a dozen Japanese tourists in Yellowstone Park had stumbled upon wildlife at the side of the road. People surrounded the guy, no words, just photo taking, while Ted and his lady friend posed politely for the onlookers. You have to wonder what that’s like, being an object to photograph, yet the couple dealt with the situation graciously.
I guess Ted Turner expects such attention, but to me it was quite strange, even impolite. Nobody said anything, not Hello, Mr. Turner, nice to see you—may I take your picture? They just began clicking away like he was roadside elk.
Soon, folks did ask to have their photos taken with Ted, and a few chatted with him the way one might over a beer at a bar. That was nice to see. All the while Turner was engaging, relaxed, and good natured.
I saw my chance to approach him, told by his office in Atlanta that I might at that time). I introduced myself as being with a local newspaper, then asked a few questions. I asked him how he felt about presiding as Grand Marshal of the parade, if it was the highlight of his career, and playing along he said, absolutely, absolutely. We talked a bit about his attire, and if he had considered wearing rhinestones, in that Like a Rhinestone Cowboy was the theme of the parade. He said he had chosen instead the black western style shirt he was wearing (with sequin buffalo designs) and asked if I thought it was tasteful, turning around to show me the buffalo studded on his back. I told him he looked good. It was all light banter, as it should have been that festive day. I didn’t ask him about population control, or even bison ranching (see page 9 for that). And he responded repeatedly by saying the first thing that popped into his head.
What I recall most was the look in his eyes. You can kinda’ see it in the photo above. Even with all the sound bites seized upon over the years by media types eager for a story (about comments he has made), that look said more to me about Ted Turner than all I have heard about him since he arrived on the national scene. His eyes telegraphed volumes, conveying that he is essenti-ally (by my estimation through this admittedly brief encounter) an overgrown kid who likes people, who says what he thinks without much thought, and acts for good or ill on impulses. This is not to imply immaturity (he’s 70), but spontaneity. Evidence of this might be that he came to Livingston to ride in a small town parade (why bother, except for the fun?). In a TV interview aired this year on Fox, what’s more, rather than providing sound bites he revealed that the things he says that stir up so much controversy are not deeply held thoughts, merely ideas that pop into his mind. Paraphrasing Turner, when asked about great issues of our times on O’Reilly, he said I don’t know, Bill, maybe I’m wrong. That’s just my opinion. I haven’t really given it that much thought. Now imagine that same personality type as an extremely hard working and visionary entrepreneur, with people hanging on his every word, and that’s Ted Turner.
I know Turner rubs some the wrong way (many simply resent wealth), but I like the man. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with, even though I disagree with things he says and find them odd. In fact, I find him odd, but he’s not boring, and he’s someone who achieved vast wealth then with a stroke of his pen gave much of it away.
“Over a three year period,” he said, “I gave away half of what I had. To be honest, my hands shook as I signed it away. I knew I was taking myself out of the race to be the richest man in the world.”
Here’s another Turnerism that reveals something about the man— “I didn't get here for my acting,” he quipped, “...but I love show business.” And then there’s my favorite, one entrepreneurs who read this paper should take to heart: Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise.