GQ Icon: Ted Turner
GQ Icon: Ted Turner
Did Ted Turner just call the conflict in Iraq "Rupert's war"? Yeah, he went there
By Wil S. Hylton
Photograph by Jeff Riedel
At 68, Ted Turner doesn't have much left to prove. He has more money than God (okay, close: $2 billion), he's given away even more than he has (including $1 billion to the United Nations), he owns more land than anyone else in America (as much acreage as Delaware and Rhode Island combined), he's taken a legendary loser of a baseball team to a World Series victory, founded CNN and the Goodwill Games, and even skippered a winning boat in the America's Cup. But as Ted might say, So, what about it? Sitting in his Atlanta office recently—an eerily modest place with fluorescent lights and worn area rugs—he talked about why everything he's done so far is trivial, and how much work there is left to do: How the United States is turning into an imperial menace, how the Christian idea of heaven is all backward, how the odds of human survival aren't good, and how the only real enemy we have is ourselves—or anyway, certainly not those thin, healthy, fun-loving North Koreans. Despite repeated warnings from Turner's publicist that he should not be asked about the war, the president, or anything else potentially "negative"—lest the interviewer, who was also instructed to cover any tattoos and refrain from using "foul language," be summarily excused—Turner seemed to relish nothing more than the subjects that his own publicist had banished, extending the interview three times to lash out at the idiocy of conservatives, the greed of his fellow billionaires, and the warmongering ways of his nemesis Rupert Murdoch. And when the publicist attempted one too many times to intervene, Turner even indulged in a little foul language of his own.…
Ted, that's why we love you.
GQ: I think it's four hours.
PUBLICIST: Forty-five minutes.
First question: How has America changed in the past fifty years?
There have been huge changes. Probably more than all the rest of history combined. You have a world population that's more than doubled, with all the inherent stresses on the environment. That's the root cause of the continuing conflict in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq. It's the case all over the world. Two billion people all over the world live on less than $2 a day, in absolute, abject poverty, and the overcrowding and overpopulation leads to desperation. That's the cause of terrorism. So we have a whole new set of challenges caused by depleting our environmental capital.
How do you think America is responding to those challenges?
Terrible. And I've been caught up in it, too. It's fun having whole-house air-conditioning, and three or four cars, and the good life. It's fun taking a 4,000-pound car to take a 180-pound person to get a quarter-pound hamburger. It's kind of crazy when you think about it, but that's the American lifestyle. Totally unsustainable. But we can still have a good life by being more environmentally friendly. You can be just as happy driving a Toyota Prius hybrid.
How do you change people's minds about what makes them happy?
This is one of the problems with democracy. We gonna see how well democracy is preparing us for the long-term future. Most election cycles in most of the world are about four years. In some places, like our Senate, it's six years. And in others, like our House, it's two years. But four is about average. And that's one reason our electrical grid is in such bad shape—because it will take twenty years to replace the grid. Our roads are crumbling, our bridges are dangerous, and our dams… If something can't get fixed on a four-year time frame, it doesn't get fixed. So we have got to figure out a way to get things done on a longer timeline. Global warming is not something we can solve in four years.
We still have some senators who say global warming isn't a problem at all. That it's "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
That's Inhofe? The idiot who doesn't think it's real?
Yeah. And he was the head of the environment committee.
Hey, there are some people who still think the world is flat. You know, you can't let a few nuts set your policy. We've got to get smart guys to set the policy. The question is, are the Smarts going to prevail over the Dumbs? We can't afford to make any more big dumb moves.
Because life on earth is at stake. The sad thing about destroying the environment is that we're going to take the rest of life with us. The bluebirds will be gone, and the elephants will be gone, and the tigers will be gone, and the pandas will be gone. I don't like the idea of losing pandas or crocodiles or alligators. I just…you know, I think they're cool. I like snakes. I like hummingbirds. There's nothing on earth I don't like. Frogs. Salamanders. The bunnies, the giraffes, the hippopotamuses. They deserve to have a planet. And it's pretty simple what we have to do. We have to put an emphasis on the quality of our lives and de-emphasize the quantity. The average person can figure that out. Maybe Senator Inhofe can't.
Do you ever worry that it's too late?
The human situation overall is in the seventh inning, and humanity is down by two runs. The game is in danger of being lost, but it's not over. The odds are against us. We're really in a hole. We are really in a hole. And unfortunately, a lot of people don't even think about it. They're too busy with the iPod or playing electronic games with their thumbs. But if I thought the situation was totally hopeless, I couldn't go on.
Are you worried about more conventional threats, like Al Qaeda, North Korea, Iran?
No. I'm much more worried about our nuclear arsenal than theirs. Iran, at best, can get a few nuclear weapons. We have tens of thousands. We have to get rid of them.
Do you really think we'd be safer without nuclear weapons?
Absolutely. That's what I'm working on. You know, Reagan and Gorbachev came close at Reykjavík. They shook hands on it, and then the generals talked them out of it.
But what happens if we and Russia disarm and North Korea doesn't?
We've got to have everyone agree to it. All the countries in the world have to agree to it. But we've already agreed! We've already signed the nuclear-nonproliferation treaty. Have you read the language? I've got a copy right here. I happen to keep a copy in my wallet. It's very short. Here's what it says. It was July 1, 1968. "Each of the parties to the treaty," and I'm quoting, "undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and on nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament, under strict and effective international control." We signed that. Russia signed it. China signed it. Britain signed it. The five members of the Security Council. And all still have their nuclear weapons! But that doesn't mean we can't change. For thousands of years, women nowhere in the world had the vote. And now over half the women in the world have the vote. We had slavery for thousands of years, and then, in a very brief period of time, we abolished slavery all over the world. Don't tell me we can't do it.
But there are still places where women don't have the vote.
And places where there's slavery.
And if there remained places with one or two nuclear bombs…
One nuclear bomb is not going to destroy humanity. It's the large arsenals that will. We can't stop the possibility that one will be used, but we can sure stop the possibility that tens of thousands will be used. I mean, losing one city would be a catastrophe. But if we don't go to nuclear disarmament, sooner or later a terrorist will get hold of one. This is the greatest danger that we face.
Okay, on the subject of nukes, what do you think about missile defense?
I understand what Putin is saying: "Please! Just listen to me! We consider it unfriendly to put these missiles between Russia and Europe. You say you're putting them between Iran and Europe, but we see them as being there to stop our missiles. You're throwing the balance of power out of balance! Now we've got to spend billions of dollars to build a similar missile-defense system, which we don't want to do.…" And for what? Why don't we just get rid of the weapons? That's the cheap way to do it. And the damned missile-defense shield doesn't work, anyway. These missiles come in at 10,000 miles an hour! You're gonna try and hit them with another missile? I'm supposed to sleep at night knowing that's the system to keep me safe? We can't even keep airlines in the air! We lose an airliner every week somewhere in the world! Don't tell me those things are safe! I happen to know they're not!
You're also opposed to the Iraq war.
I've become very antiwar. I don't think the way to accomplish things is to bomb people. All that does is make them angry. That causes insurgent movements and so forth. It's easy to start wars, hard to stop them.
I know that you think Fox News helped fan the flames of this war.
Well, they did. This is Rupert's war.
What about in a place like Darfur? Do you see a role for peacekeepers there?
I don't know. I really don't know. But if you mean the United States, we're never going to have troops there. Out of 100,000 U.N. peacekeepers all over the world, there are virtually no U.S. soldiers. They're all from Bangladesh and Pakistan, where they need a job really bad. Our soldiers, we only send them in where they're under U.S. command. Of course, that works out well, because if the United States were running it, it would cost ten times as much. That's why we have a $500 billion military budget, larger than all the rest of the world combined. And we can't defeat the insurgents in Iraq, and they have no budget at all. We've got all these aircraft carriers—they're totally worthless in Iraq! We've got all these tanks and all this expensive military stuff, and it's useless. The insurgents are smart, and they've moved into the suburbs, and they fight in people's houses, and we can't go in and just carpet bomb and drop napalm all over the grandmothers and little kids and shopkeepers. So we've got to send our soldiers in there, and it's one soldier with a rifle against another. Our technological advantage has been negated.
Are we doing okay?
Well, I normally spend two hours—
Well, we can go on. This is important.
TURNER: Awwh, yeah, the photo shoot. We don't need a whole lot of photos. We can do the photo shoot in five minutes, easy. [to his assistant] Debbie, what time is it now?
DEBBIE: It's ten fifteen.
TURNER: What time are we scheduled to do the photo shoot?
PUBLICIST: Ten fifteen.
TURNER: That's now, isn't it? Let's push it back twenty minutes.
PUBLICIST: But the thing is—
TURNER: The photo is only gonna take five minutes. Call now and tell them that's all we'll give them.
TURNER: And that gives us twenty more minutes here.
Do you think we can win in Iraq?
No. Because we're gonna want to go home. We already want to go home, and it's only been four years. In Vietnam we stayed eighteen years, but we've never been in a situation like that. Usually, wars don't last but four years. The First World War, the Second World War, the Civil War. After four years, everybody's sick of it and wants to go home. They're sick of fighting. And we're not the only ones. The same thing happened to Russia in Afghanistan. Because the guys with the home-court advantage win. If the Iraqis were in Washington, we'd be fighting. We'd have an incentive to get them out, just like they have an incentive to get us out. The days of empire are over. India sat there for fifty or a hundred years and let the British exploit them. Not anymore!
Do you think we're becoming an empire?
We are an empire. And it's very unpopular. We've got military troops in some sixty countries around the world. What for? It's crazy! It's costing us a fortune, and most of them are just sitting there doing nothing, like our 18,000 troops in South Korea.
We've got a lot of guys in Germany, too.
Yeah! For what? Is Germany about to rebel? Germany's way ahead of us! They're ahead of us on global warming. I don't think they have any troops in Iraq, do they? I mean, they're smart as whips. They learned their lesson in World War II, that war is not the way to go. You know, the superpowers of tomorrow are not going to be the military powers of today. They're going to be the countries that have invested the most in education, in health care, in science and technology. We're going to be sitting here with these aircraft carriers—we just sent an extra one over to the Gulf to intimidate the Iranians! The Iranians don't intimidate! They're like the Vietnamese and the Iraqis. You want to start a war with them? They'll still be fighting in fifty years! They believe if they die in warfare, they get forty virgins in heaven. The Christians don't get that! We have more incentive to live, because we don't know what we're getting, you know? Our idea of heaven is lots of hymns, and theirs is lots of sex! The risk-reward thing is skewed the wrong way.
TURNER: ALL RIGHT! SHUT UP!
PUBLICIST: So move on to other topics.
TURNER: I DON'T NEED YOU FOR THAT! YOU'RE JUST AN OLD PUSSY! YOU'RE JUST AN OLD PUSSY! YOU'RE JUST A LITTLE MOTHER HEN. [in falsetto] "WE'VE GOTTA DO THIS! WE'VE GOTTA DO THAT!" [back to regular voice] THIS IS IMPORTANT! THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT!
Okay, go ahead.
You've traveled to a lot of these countries we're talking about.
Oh yeah, I've been almost everywhere. I've been to over sixty countries.
What was North Korea like?
I had a great time there! I was there last year. They were nice to me. There weren't a lot of fat people walking around. They were all thin. And being thin is healthier than being fat.
It sounds like a scary place, though.
I went out to the DMZ, and I had a real good time. I was there trying to convince both North Korea and South Korea that the DMZ should be turned into a peace park and World Heritage site. It's like 490 square miles between the two countries, and nobody's been in there in fifty years. So all the trees have grown back, and thousands of cranes from Asia spend the winter there. And on the north side there's a million North Korean troops, and on the south side there's a million South Korean troops. They've been there ever since the cease-fire was signed; the war is officially still going on. There's 18,000 American troops that have been sitting there for fifty years, costing us billions of dollars, just sitting there. Along with a million South Koreans. Waiting for the North to attack! And the North is waiting for the South to attack! It's crazy! It's time to call this war off. How about a peace treaty?
You don't see North Korea as a threat?
Awwh! Their economy is not as big as Cleveland, Ohio! Does Cleveland, Ohio, pose a threat to the U.S.?
Who's our biggest threat, then? Do we have any foreign enemies?
We don't have enemies. Our enemy would be a mistake or an accident. Something that would cause the United States or Russia to launch their nuclear arsenal. Which would result in the immediate launching of the other's.
And you worry about that more than any rogue state?
Awwh, yes. A full-scale nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia would end life on earth within an afternoon. It might take a few months for the radioactivity to spread around the earth on the wind currents and kill everybody, but it would. The soot and the dirt. It would be dark for two years. And we would die. Everybody.
Don't you think life could be preserved in a nuclear winter?
What, go out into space? No. You can't swim away from it or walk away from it—there isn't even a civil defense anymore, because we realized there's no use. Back in the early days of the Cold War, before the missiles, when we had the bombers, it was going to take a couple hours before they reached their destination, because the bombers only go 600 miles per hour. But missiles go 10,000 miles an hour. So they get here in less than thirty minutes. Less than thirty minutes from Russia to the U.S. And India and Pakistan are less than a minute away from each other. They don't even have a minute response time! So if India gets the word that Pakistan has launched their missiles, they don't even have a minute to decide how to respond! We've painted ourselves into an absolutely crazy corner. The weapons are so destructive that we can't even use them. I mean, what good are they if you can't use them? Nobody wants to end civilization! Maybe Hitler would, but Putin and Bush aren't even close to being in a class with him. They would like to continue to live, I think.
Do you intend to focus on policy and philanthropy from now on?
I think it would be a good idea. What else are you going to do with billions and billions of dollars? You can't really spend it intelligently. [Oracle founder] Larry Ellison tries hard. He won't give it away, and he built himself a 500-foot yacht. It's bigger than most ocean liners. It's got a massive crew on it. And he's sitting up there with maybe one couple as guests. Four people being waited on by a hundred. It's the equivalent of a 200,000-square-foot house. That's awful big. What do you do with that? You and your wife rattling around in a forty-bedroom house? Is that fun?
It's not easy giving away billions of dollars.
No, and I don't call it giving it away. I consider what I'm doing with my money making an investment in the future of humanity and in the environment.
With your philanthropy and investments that didn't work out, you've lost a big chunk of money in the past few years.
Well, yeah! I lost 80 percent of my wealth and then gave away over half of the rest. So I'm a man of modest means now. But if you budget carefully and watch your expenditures, you can get by on a couple billion dollars. You know, you don't have to have twenty billion. You can squeeze by with a couple billion.
Yeah, but you can do it.
Do you think about mortality?
What do you think?
I think I'm gonna miss it. I've already decided what I want on my tombstone: I HAVE NOTHING MORE TO SAY.
That'll be a shame.
I don't know. Depends on whom you ask. Some people might think it's wonderful.
What about on the spiritual side of mortality—do you believe in heaven?
I'm not overly concerned about it.
Do you think you've been lucky or blessed in any way?
There had to be a lot of luck. If you were unlucky, you'd be born a mosquito. Or a mouse. What can a mouse do? I got all the luck in my family. My sister died when she was 17, after a lengthy illness. My father killed himself when he was 53. He had depression. My father used to say, "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, the mind of man can achieve." That's why I know that we can get rid of nuclear weapons. A lot of people that are really into this don't think it's possible. But CNN was impossible. I've done the impossible many times. The word does not exist for me. I've got a lot of signal flags in my flag bag, but there's not a white one in there. I don't know what surrender means. I'm gonna keep fighting until the day I die, and I might keep on fighting afterward—depends on where I am.