Why Ted Gave It Away

AS TED TURNER TELLS IT, HIS LIFE'S Thrilling new mission was revealed to him in the form of a net-worth statement. He was flying to New York City to receive an award from the United Nations Association. He was in an upbeat, summing-up mood. The evening before, he'd cheered his beloved Atlanta Braves to a come-from-behind victory. Sculptors from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum had been in, measuring him with calipers for a statue. He'll turn 60 next year, and, just that day, he'd mused aloud about the challenges of age, even for billionaires. ""You get more conservative in life,'' he'd told Atlanta business friends. ""You are not as colorful as you were when you were younger.''

For the man who colorized the movies, drab is death. But in a life of dramatic acts, what do you do for a grand exit? The answer lay in the dry document on his lap in the Cessna. On Dec. 31, 1996, his monthly financial statement read, he was worth $2.2. billion. By last week the bottom line had ballooned to $3.2 billion--a vast hunk of new wealth created by the rising price of his shares in the Time Warner media empire. The ""extra billion'' produced an epiphany, says Turner. He'd give exactly that much away--and make the largest single pledge in philanthropic history. He would help the good-works program of the United Nations, which he'd supported for years--and blow the doors off his dinner.

Which is what he did. Last Thursday, Turner electrified a midtown ballroom with the news that he would give U.N. programs $100 million a year for a decade. In the process, he set an example for--and issued a challenge to--the super-rich, as well as anyone with a healthy balance sheet. ""I'm putting every rich person in the world on notice,'' Turner crowed after he'd left the stunned UNA crowd. ""They're going to be hearing from me about giving money away. If you want to lead, you got to get out front and lead--you got to blow the horn and get out in front of the parade.'' Talking to reporters the next day, he said, ""There is no greater joy in life than giving to worthy causes.''

Ted Turner, world's leading Sister of Charity: it was an astonishing and, to some, annoying idea. This is, after all, a legendarily cold corporate tough guy who once fired his own son by telling him that he was ""toast.'' This is a guy who can't help but be self-promotional, calling Larry King to tip him off to the New York bombshell. (CNN, which Turner founded, obligingly broke the news.) This is a guy who, when you look at the fine print, isn't selling a single share of his Time Warner stock, but is merely promising to set it aside to use as collateral to fund his pledge. He'll get tax benefits, while retaining his voting power and the value of any further appreciation. As Turner himself noted, he's still at least as rich as he was on New Year's Day.

And yet Robert Edward Turner III last week was at his prescient best, a man who can sense a momentous trend and embody it with purposeful mischief and a gap-toothed salesman's grin. Turner shrewdly has ridden successive waves: the sun belt's rise, the communications revolution, the globalization of commerce, the unabashed entrepreneurialism of the 1990s. Now he's caught the next one, giving (some of) it away (following story). In the United States, people now older than 55 will ultimately control $10 trillion in assets, says Peter Karoff of the Philanthropic Initiative. ""The momentous question is, how much of that enormous sum will they give as philanthropy writ large?'' he says.

Other global rich guys have made well-advertised donations, but no one can match Turner's scruffy, all-American energy. Financier George Soros, a Turner role model and one of the world's biggest benefactors, is a shy immigrant skittish about personal publicity. Bill Gates, at 41, vows to become a Carnegie-style leader, but is still building his empire. Turner is only too happy to preach, and has the means to do it. CNN, which he founded in 1980 and sold to Time Warner last year, blankets the globe and employs thousands of journalists (including the author of this article, a NEWSWEEK staffer who appears weekly as a commentator on CNN).

Turner's pledge was news around the world, and not just on CNN. In Hong Kong, the beehive of billionaires, the move won admiration for its bold impetuousness. ""I always thought he was a very cool person,'' said Richard Li, an investor who had jousted with Turner in a business deal. ""He's one of the few tycoons not being constrained by comformity. It's absolutely spontaneous--like Turner.'' But actually, like Turner, it was both spontaneous and inevitable, a tiger's pounce on slow prey.

Turner watchers knew what others did not. ""He's been groping around for something big to do,'' said Porter Bibb, a Turner biographer. In the corporate world, Turner is a satisfied soul--which is his idea of hell. At first, media wise guys predicted that he would retire to his Montana ranch after he sold his cable properties (including CNN, TBS and TNT) and his movie studio and film archive to Time Warner. Instead, he used his PR savvy and his standing as the company's largest stockholder to shake the place to its foundations. He forced the sale of corporate jets and demanded that Warner films be offered to Turner cable before the networks. To keep his claws sharp, he attacked foes such as Rupert Murdoch. ""We're going to kick everybody's ass--starting with Murdoch,'' he said in March.

But the wise guys were also wrong when they later predicted that Turner would stage a coup. His goal was, and is, to boost the value of the stock. Turner knew that CEO Gerald Levin was wily, resilient and dedicated. Meanwhile, Time Warner's stock price had begun its steady climb, rising by 50 percent this year. The runup was fueled, ironically, by rivals. Murdoch and Gates separately decided to make heavy plays in cable. That, in turn, confirmed the value of Time Warner's vast cable holdings. In the face of such prosperity, attacking Levin would have made Turner looked ungrateful--or foolish. In fact, by pledging his stock as collateral for his gift, Turner is voicing confidence in its value.

He is, for now, one of the world's loudest and richest corporate pensioners. He's substituted motion for action, home-hopping with his wife, Jane Fonda. There's plenty of property to see: four spreads in Montana, three in New Mexico, three in South Carolina and one each in Florida, Nebraska and California, as well as Argentina. Yet, almost sadly, Ted Turner still lives above the store. The couple's legal residence is a 700-square-foot apartment atop the CNN North Tower in Atlanta. (Jane has a 300-square-foot space on the floor below, a giant closet for her clothes.) Turner's working office is in the South Tower. ""I've thought about hanging a rope in the middle of CNN Center and swinging across,'' he said the other day. ""But if it didn't work . . .''

That's how Turner views himself: as a man dangling above the chasm, always at risk. He comes by his insecurity the hard way, through a tyrannical father who beat him severely before committing suicide when Ted was 24. A manic-depressive, Turner's mood swings and suicidal tendencies were calmed a decade ago by lithium and psychotherapy. He remains on the drug and on the wagon. But his chief source of calm and comfort is Fonda, who is secure in public and protective in private. Fonda has cajoled him into reuniting with his five children by two previous marriages, watches his diet and exercise and keeps an eye on him almost round the clock. ""They have an incredible union,'' says Bibb, ""of two radical overachievers.''

Encouraged by Fonda, Turner made philanthropy an organizing principle of his life well before last week. A sailor and hunter, he's a proto-environmentalist. The Turner Family Foundation, started six years ago, is run by a former head of Greenpeace USA, and all of Turner's children are on the board. It is expected to spend $25 million next year. Turner has been concerned about issues such as global warming for years. ""Haven't you been outside lately?'' he asked a bemused Larry King. ""It's hotter than hell out there! The polar icecaps are melting. I got an island and I know that the ocean is rising, because I watched my beach get washed away.''

The United Nations was a logical choice for his new benefactions. Global thinking has been the key to his success. The more global the consciousness, the more eyeballs for CNN. At The McCallie School in Tennessee, he talked of becoming a missionary, but he says he questioned his religious faith at 17 when he watched his younger sister die of lupus. So he replaced Christian zeal with a globalist yearning for world peace, and has long believed that the United Nations is crucial to achieving it. In 1990, he said that if he ever ""lost CNN,'' he would go to work for the United Nations as a volunteer. The United States is $1.3 billion in arrears in its dues to the United Nations, a fact Turner finds outrageous. In the last year, in public and private, he's only half-jokingly offered to assume the entire debt--and then sue Congress for full compensation.

But there is an irony and a risk in the alliance. Famous for running a tight corporate ship, Turner is now boarding the leakiest of boats: the sclerotic United Nations. He and his new partner, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hope to avoid bureaucratic waste by keeping the gift separate from the regular U.N. budget. The cash will flow only to established programs that feed children, remove land mines and help refugees and the very poor. It will also support the United Nations' study of climate change. Annan told NEWSWEEK that he expects to run the fund himself. But some observers say the United Nations is incapable of fiscal discipline, and a feeding frenzy among agency heads has already begun. ""They're all smacking their lips trying to get their hands on the dough,'' says one senior U.N. official.

Turner wasn't considering such details when he had his midair vision. When he told Jane in their suite at the Waldorf, she cried, then asked if he'd called the lawyers. He did, but told her, ""I've already made up my mind.'' The suits still pleaded for a delay, but he persisted, and by Thursday had roughed out his plan. He kept his own counsel until the end. ""He told me several times, "This is too scary, I'm giving away a third of what I'm worth','' Fonda recalled to NEWSWEEK. Perhaps afraid he might flinch, he didn't reach his children in advance, or warn officials of his existing foundation.

Turner sought last-minute encouragement. At the cocktail party before his speech, he found Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, former president of Brown University and a good friend. ""Tell me,'' Turner said to Gregorian. ""You're a big fund raiser. What's the largest gift ever?'' Gregorian told him it was probably Walter Annenberg's $500 million gift to education. ""How about a billion?'' Turner then said. ""I'm going to give a billion tonight.'' Still, he seemed uncertain. ""He was building momentum,'' said Gregorian, ""testing the propellers.''

Turner achieved liftoff at 9 that night. ""He went with his heart,'' says Fonda. In Atlanta, the phone rang at the home of his daughter Laura Turner Seydel. She got word early only because her husband, Rutherford Seydel, is Turner's lawyer. ""He's not giving away my money,'' she told NEWSWEEK. ""He was always going to give his money to charity. I'm so happy he can do this while he is alive, so he can help determine where the money goes.''

Turner himself sounded ecstatic after the fact, a man who'd survived yet another trip across yet another chasm. He described how he'd recently gone through his closets and found 15 perfectly good suits to give to charity. A suit here, a billion there. ""You know, it's not easy to give up your hard-earned money,'' he said. ""But once you do, you feel really wonderful. I just hope this giving thing is contagious.'' Speaking at a college not long ago, he talked of last things. ""According to Jesus Christ, money is worthless,'' he said. ""It won't buy you anything in heaven, if there is one. It might not even get you in.'' Ted Turner seems to have concluded that he might as well travel light.

Turner's pledge catapults him to the top of the charitable heap for '97. Coming in second is supermarket heiress Kathryn Albertson, who gave $660 million to her own foundation. Other big donors from the first half of the year, as compiled by Slate: