The Taming of Ted Turner

Forget about those legendary tales of excess. Taking the biggest risk of his life, Turner confronted the dark legacy of his father and prevailed.

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For the past six years, Turner has made a public career of saving the planet. In 1985 he founded the Better World Society, which petered out late last fall but until then was meant to educate people about pollution, hunger and the arms race by producing documentaries. His heroes used to be Alexander the Great and Napoleon; now they are Martin Luther King and Gandhi. He used to talk about war as an efficient way to weed out the weak members of society; in 1986, to promote world peace, he staged the Goodwill Games in Moscow, on which he lost $26 million, and staged them again last year in Seattle, losing an additional $44 million. And everywhere he goes -- including a November press conference on next June's Earth Summit held in a Manhattan studio decorated with a Christmas tree made of fallen twigs and soy-based-ink ribbons -- he preaches salvation. "If we don't make the right choice after we have all the information, then we don't deserve to live," he told members of People for the American Way, a liberal organization that awarded him its Spirit of Liberty prize in November. "I don't think that's the case, but it's going to be real close."

Turner may sound like a modern Cassandra, but it is possible to detect in his quest the messianic reflex that overcomes people with big checkbooks and egos to match. He invented the Turner Tomorrow Awards to inspire writers the world over to write about "positive solutions to global problems," but the contest this year degenerated into a spat over who should get the $500,000 prize. He has issued what some are calling the Ted Commandments, a list of 10 voluntary initiatives that would make the world a better place. (It includes "I promise to have no more than two children" -- a belated pledge, since he has five.) He has told intimates he hopes to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. "Ted is the great 'I am,' and anybody he comes in contact with is a means to an end -- his end," says Wussler, who remains on good terms with his former boss. Others are convinced Turner's latest ambition is the purest expression so far of the hero complex he developed as a child while devouring history books. "The culmination of his life would be if our country gets into such a crisis that there is an outcry that Ted take over and save us all," says former associate Hogan. "He carries that dream around every day."

It is also possible to see Turner's global pursuits as an elaborate attempt to heal from the first two traumas of his life. When he was 20 and she was three years younger, his sister Mary Jane died of a severe form of lupus erythematosus, a disease that causes the body to make antibodies against its own tissues. Until he saw her degenerate during five horrible years, Turner had been a practicing Christian. At 17 he even planned to be a missionary. But the loss of his sister killed his faith in God. While Turner never recovered that faith, he has found a way to recover his proselytizing impulses as an apostle of peace and preservation. "It's almost like a religious fervor," he says.

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