Richard Reeves

Ted Turner, an Authentic American

NEW YORK -- Ted Turner, arguably the greatest American of his generation, came to New York last Wednesday to celebrate the loss of most of his fortune and the $1 billion he dedicated to the United Nations before it was too late for him and for the world organization. As always, his heart was on his sleeve and his foot was in his mouth.

He was amazing. It was a patriotic pleasure to see the wide eyes and hear the small gasps of diplomats and cautious U.N. officials as this wild man, this American, seemingly said anything that came into his head at a formal luncheon in the delegates' dining room. This in a venue noted for murmuring.

"I really haven't prepared anything," Turner said in the pre-lunch mingling. "Good," said Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," who was preparing a segment on Turner and has listened to enough set pieces in his time. "Good," said Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, who is completing a short biography on the man. They knew what was coming: All-American stream of consciousness.

Actually, Turner had already been outrageous enough to satisfy most of the local press. In a news conference, he laughed about how much money he had lost in the precipitous decline and fall of the stock of AOL Time Warner, the stumbling giant that had absorbed his baby, CNN: "I went from no money to a pile of money, just as big as the World Trade Center. Then -- just like the World Trade Center -- poof, it was gone. Overnight."

Tsk, tsk, not sensitive. During the speech, he said the United Nations should get out of New York as quick as it can -- "Come to Atlanta," he said, plugging his hometown -- because New York is always a target. "I'm leaving here right after this lunch," he said and laughed again.

Turner can say whatever he wants because of what he has done. In creating Cable News Network in 1980, he changed the way the world worked. In pledging $1 billion to the United Nations five years ago, he probably saved the U.N. He shamed the United States into paying its bills to the organization created by Americans in a time when we were less arrogant and more generous. And he set a pattern for philanthropy that mocked the new, greedy rich who saw money as more of a Forbes 400 scorecard than a tool. Most notably, as Turner mocked him, Bill Gates suddenly discovered that money had more uses than just building big houses.

The lunch was a celebration of that gift, of which $581 million has been delivered to date. That entitled Turner to tell his story again. He sounded like a kid, although he is 64 years old now. He had the crowd laughing -- no small thing around here -- as he told of trying to think of what to talk about when he gave a speech in 1997 to the United Nations Association, an American group that raises somewhat smaller amounts of money.

He decided he should come not to praise but to give. He wanted to make a splash, so he made the amount irresistible: 1 billion big ones, one-third of his money at the time. "You can't do that," he was told by lawyers; the United Nations could take money only from states. He says he thought he might buy an island and make it a state. "The State of Confusion" was the name he chose. Finally, he discovered that the way to do it was to set up two foundations -- The United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund -- that allocate money to support U.N. projects around the world.

Among the opinions he offered during lunch were these: "There was never that much difference between capitalism and socialism -- I have fun with my commie buddies -- neither of them is perfect by any means." ... "As long as you're talking and yelling and screaming in a room, you're not fighting and killing." ... "Killing people never works -- and it's inhuman. We should get away from it."

And then he ended, more or less, by saying:

"We have to protect the environment. We have to educate our children. Women have to be equal to men. Make it to the next level." ... "I came in late one night with one of my wives; I've had several. I was feeling good, had a couple of drinks, and said, 'I really love you, honey.' She said, "That doesn't mean squat. You love everybody.' And it's true. I do love everybody. I do. I do.'"

"Is he always like this?" asked the ambassador to my right.

"Sometimes he's harder to understand," I said. "We call it 'authentic.' Ted Turner is authentic."

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