Ted Turner admits to having "foot-in-the-mouth disease." For a good deal of his adult life, he has made headlines for his controversial remarks, although in recent years, he has cast a lower profile. Now Turner is back, appearing on "60 Minutes" and "The Late Show With David Letterman" to promote his memoir "Call Me Ted," a look at his life that chronicles his rise from billboard businessman to cable visionary to philanthropist.
"This reminds me of the days when CNN was young and everybody wanted to interview me all over the world," Turner said before taking the stage Tuesday night at USC's Bovard Auditorium. He playfully scolded students to call him 'Ted' and even recited Shakespeare.
During the event, which took the form of an interview conducted by Geoffrey Cowan, director of USC Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership, Turner discussed key objectives with which he's involved, including reducing usage of coal and oil and working with the United Nations on nuclear disarmament. Other goals include improving relations between India and Pakistan, fighting for equal rights worldwide, helping people affected by malaria and stabilizing global populations.
"Nobody wants to die so why have we built this system to kill each other?" he said to about 800 in attendance.
Before he addressed the crowd, Turner, in a room backstage, brushed aside notions he would ever run for president -- "I'm too old" -- while offering his thoughts on why electing a septuagenarian president would have been a bad idea.
"The president of the United States shouldn't be over 70 because you get so forgetful," Turner said. "There's the button right by the president's bed that launches all the nuclear weapons. [ John McCain] might have pushed it thinking it was a bell captain or something . . . room service."
When it comes to the current economic crisis, Turner was much less ironic. Indeed, he said, he hopes the $700-billion bailout proves successful.
"I think what happened is all our fault because we went into debt too much," he explained. "We kept . . . borrowing more and more money until we borrowed more than we were worth. You can do that for a while, but you can't do that forever. You can lose everything."
Turner would know.
Married and divorced three times -- most notably to movie star and activist Jane Fonda -- and the father of five children, he revolutionized television in the 1980s when he launched CNN, the first 24-hour cable news network, out of a renovated country club in Atlanta.
In the process, he purchased the Atlanta Braves, successfully defended the America's Cup in 1977 and served as the hot-tempered vice chair at Time Warner from 1996 to 2003. Four years later, he was out, after Time Warner's merger with America Online Inc. -- a union he described as a "disaster." (He lost billions of dollars.)
"If we would have waited a year or two and done a deal with Google, that would have been good," Turner said. "Those Google guys are amazing."
His advice to the audience at Tuesday's event: "You get ahead by looking ahead. If you want to get rich, go into clean alternative energy options."
As to why he's now decided to "put it all down in paper," Turner was blunt.
"I was approaching 70 years old," he said, "and I was starting to become a little forgetful and I thought I ought to do it while I still can remember some things. There were some lessons I've learned that I wanted to share."
These days, the Cincinnati native has traded big business for philanthropy. He pledged $1 billion to the United Nations Foundation in 1997. Four years later, he launched the Nuclear Threat Initiative to strengthen global security. In 2002 he opened the environmentally conscious chain restaurant, Ted's Montana Grill.
He's also the largest individual landowner in the U.S., with two million acres across 12 states. And he owns nearly 50,000 bison.
After his appearance at USC, Turner was preparing for a trip to San Francisco, where he would do more interviews on, of all days, his 70th birthday.
"It's the same old thing," he said. "People used to criticize the reruns on [TBS], but life is just like one big rerun anyway."
Villarreal is a Times staff writer.