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Turner in 2000: You Won't Be Bored

Politics: If Jesse 'The Body' can be governor, why can't Barbarella be first lady?

November 17, 1998|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University

Ted Turner for president? That's what the New Yorker says. Could Turner--founder and owner of networks, studios, and sports teams, winner of the America's Cup yacht race, Mr. Jane Fonda, the man who pledged to give the United Nations $1 billion and still ranks 15th on the Forbes 400, with a net worth of $5 billion--really be interested in the White House?

On Nov. 6, Turner received the World Citizenship Award from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based group that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons. After his speech, writer Anne Louise Bardach reports, Turner told a huddle of fat cats, "I am very serious about running for president."

Turner was born an American citizen and he's over 35--he turns 60 on Thursday--so nothing in the Constitution prohibits him from throwing his hat in the ring. Turner surely recalls that another brash billionaire, Ross Perot, who announced his presidential candidacy on CNN, was running ahead of the two major-party candidates in the polls for a while in 1992. And just this month, Jesse "The Body" Ventura won the governorship of Minnesota as an independent outsider.

So, is it Turner's turn? Reached for comment in Atlanta, CNN publicist Phillip Evans read the following statement: "At this time, Mr. Turner has no plans to run for office." That doesn't exactly slam the door shut. According to James H. Lake, who was Ronald Reagan's press secretary in his 1976, 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns, "That sounds like a guy who's running for office. . . . It sounds to me like a trial balloon from Turner."

Full disclosure here: I'm a contributing analyst for the Fox News Channel, which is owned by the News Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. CNN and Fox are not only rivals in the cable news business, but Turner is open in his scorn for Murdoch; he once compared him to Adolf Hitler and even challenged him to a boxing match.

That said, let me tell you what I really think of Ted Turner: I hope he runs. With the Monica Lewinsky affair petering out and the prospect of the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination going to Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush--nice fellows, but nary a good scandal between them, at least not yet--there's a serious news hole to fill.

Not every potential presidential candidate comes with nicknames such as "The Mouth of the South" and "Captain Outrageous." Indeed, most don't say, as Turner did, that Christianity is "a religion for losers." Or that the "Star Spangled Banner" should be replaced with a less "warlike" anthem. Or who volunteered, in the wake of the Heaven's Gate suicides, that "there are already too many people in this world. If a few crazy people want to get rid of themselves, it's a good thing."

Is this a promising start for a White House wannabe? The conventional answer might be no, but the purveyors of conventional wisdom have been looking distinctly unwise lately. So could Turner really be for real? Reached for comment and context after her scoop, the New Yorker's Bardach said simply, "Why not? Clinton has made the presidency scandal-proof."

Today, the legal and perceptual inhibitions that once prevented plutocrats from using their own money to run for office have effectively been eliminated. So while some tycoons such as Al Checchi, who spent $40 million or so to finish third in the California Democratic gubernatorial primary, have spectacularly crashed and burned, many others, including '96 presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, have spent themselves into credibility.

Today, the parties are weak, spin is strong and message is strongest of all. If Turner could weave his own life story (bouncing back from his father's suicide, he built a global empire and then developed a social conscience and an environmental consciousness) into a compelling stump speech, he could prove irresistible to a broad group of Americans. And if he were willing to spend his fortune to trumpet that message, who knows? But this much I do know: A Turner run would be the best political story since cigars and semen-stained dresses.

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