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On the Line by Larry Kahaner (Warner: $18.95; 327 pp., illustrated)

June 01, 1986|Warren G. Bennis | Bennis is co-author of "Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge" (Harper & Row)

"Bill McGowan walked into the most important meeting of his life." That's actually the first sentence of Larry Kahaner's "docudrama" about how, according to the book's subtitle, "the men of MCI took on AT&T, risked everything and won!" That opening line is also my nominee for the Bulwer-Lytton Society's award for the worst cliche in the first line of a book, an award named after the First Baron Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, an English novelist of the 19th Century whose characterizations were as exaggerated and unreal as his style.

That first line also turns out to be a literary biopsy of the entire book from which a diagnosis of its failings becomes immediately and painfully obvious. What Kahaner set out to do was to tell the story--one of the most exciting business stories of this or any other century--of how MCI's chief executive, William G. McGowan, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, took on AT&T, broke Ma Bell's 100-year-old monopoly, sparked a telecommunications revolution that affected not only business but society at large and catapulted MCI from a fledgling company to one that last year earned $113 million on $2.5 billion in revenues, roughly 12 times the 1980 figure. This is a story about a company that traded its stock for 24 cents in 1974 and at its peak, in 1983 reached a high of more than $27.

That's a story worth telling and telling well since both AT&T and MCI were playing for mortal stakes. AT&T, the world's largest company, acting on too many occasions like a dyslexic Goliath, did everything in its power to "choke off" MCI (as one AT&T top executive put it) or, as I prefer to put it, to reach out and crush someone.

Instead of that story, however, what we get in "On the Line" is a People magazine series of epiphanies that transmogrifies an enormously significant event and some remarkable people into a cartoon strip that might be called "Romancing the Phone."

Here's what I mean by "Romancing." Kahaner is describing a "short sabbatical" McGowan took with his brother, Joe, a priest from Scranton: "Occasionally, they would stop along the road long enough for McGowan to point out a microwave tower to Joe and explain what it was. He told him about the coming 'Information Age' and how communications would play a vital role but only if there were no restraints, only if there were competition with the Bell System. He talked about how AT&T ignored the computer industry, small users, and others who needed special communications services." Kahaner converts a brotherly conversation into a sitcom TV dialogue between Pat O'Brien and a youngish Don Ameche. "By the trip's end, McGowan didn't have to tell Joe about his decision on MCI. Joe knew just by looking at him that he had made up his mind."

It is even more fascinating, as one reads on, to examine how other folks make up their minds, particularly when it came to joining MCI. McGowan was able to hire Ken Cox as his chief of regulatory affairs, according to Kahaner, because Richard Nixon hated the Washington Post. (Cox, a Democrat and sitting member of the Federal Communications Commission, suspected that he would not be reappointed by Nixon.) What the connection is between Nixon's hatred of the Washington Post and Cox's employment prospects remains obscure.

McGowan was a "no frills" kind of guy because of his experience in show business. "He saw movie makers pay $120 for custom-made jeans for cowboy actors while they could have bought a good pair for $19. He would always ask the producers, 'How can you tell the difference on the screen?' And the producers would always answer 'That's not important. These people are actors.' . . . McGowan said that if he ever had his own company, he wouldn't pay for trappings that didn't matter." After which, the author presents us with one of his favorite writing gambits, the History in the Making pronouncement: "McGowan didn't know it at the time . . . but the lesson of the high-priced jeans . . . would play a prominent role in the running of MCI." In other pronouncements, we learn that Howard Crane joined MCI because of Babe Ruth; while Nate Kantor did so because he once saw "The West Point Story" on TV. And perhaps the most pivotal event in MCI's history was a "forgotten overcoat." If McGowan's early partner hadn't forgotten his overcoat, MCI could never have happened.

What you won't get from this book is a thorough and thick description of the structure of the telecommunications industry or the true nature of MCI's enemy, AT&T. Nor will you learn much about the current situation facing MCI, how its price advantage is now only 5% to 15%, down from as much as 40% five years ago. You won't gain much understanding, either, of the real culture of MCI once Kahaner is through mythicizing McGowan and company. "On the Line" is a telephone industry cartoon. Which reminds me that Snoopy was once a contender of the Bulwer-Lytton Award. His entry was "It was a dark and rainy night . . . . "

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