The Critics

Sumner Redstone and the rules of the corporate memoir.

1.

In the early nineteen-nineties, Sumner Redstone, the head of Viacom, wanted to merge his company with Paramount Communications. The problem was that the chairman of Paramount, Martin Davis, was being difficult. As Redstone recounts in his new autobiography, “A Passion to Win” (Simon & Schuster; $26), he and Davis would meet at, say, a charitable function, and Davis would make it sound as if the deal were imminent. Then, abruptly, he would back away. According to Redstone, Davis was a ditherer, a complicated and emotionally cold man who couldn’t bear to part with his company. Yet, somehow in the course of their dealings, Redstone writes, he and Davis developed a “mutual respect and fond friendship.” They became, he says a page later, “friends” who “enjoyed each other’s company and were developing a close working rapport,” and who had, he tells us two pages after that, “a great affection for each other.” The turning point in the talks comes when Davis and Redstone have dinner in a dining room at Morgan Stanley, and Redstone is once more struck by how Davis “had a genuine affection for me.” When the two have dinner again, this time at Redstone’s suite in the Carlyle Hotel, Davis looks out over the spectacular lights of nighttime Manhattan and says, “You know, Sumner, when this deal gets done, they’ll build a big statue of you in the middle of Central Park and I’ll be forgotten.” “No, Martin,” Redstone replies. “They’ll build statues of both of us and I will be looking up to you in admiration.” Davis laughs. “It was just the right touch,” Redstone reports, and one can almost imagine him at that point throwing a brawny forearm around Davis’s shoulders and giving him a manly squeeze.

2.

“A Passion to Win,” which Redstone wrote with Peter Knobler, is an account of a man’s rise to the top of a multibillion-dollar media empire. It is the tale of the complex negotiations, blinding flashes of insight, and lengthy dinners at exclusive Manhattan hotels which created the colossus that is Viacom. But mostly it is a story about the value of friendship, about how very, very powerful tycoons like Redstone have the surprising ability to transcend their own egos and see each other, eye to eye, as human beings.

For instance, Gerald Levin, the head of Time Warner, might look like a rival of Redstone’s. Not at all. He is, Redstone tells us, “a very close friend.” Redstone says that he and Sherry Lansing, who heads Paramount Pictures, a division of Viacom, “are not just business associates, we are extremely close friends.” So, too, with Geraldine Laybourne, who used to head Viacom’s Nickelodeon division. “We were not just business associates,” he writes, in the plainspoken manner that is his trademark. “We were friends.” The singer Tony Bennett was one of Redstone’s idols for years, and then one day Redstone’s employees threw him a surprise birthday party and there was Bennett, who had come thousands of miles to sing a song. “Now,” Redstone says proudly, “he is my friend.” The producer Bob Evans? “A good friend.” Aaron Spelling? “One of my closest friends.” Bill and Hillary? “I have come to know and like the Clintons.” Redstone’s great friend Martin Davis warned him once about Barry Diller: “Don’t trust him. He’s got too big an ego.” But Redstone disagreed. “Barry Diller and I were extremely friendly,” he says. Ted Kennedy he met years ago, at a get-together of business executives. Everyone else was flattering Kennedy. Not so Redstone. A true friend is never disingenuous. As he recalls, he said to Kennedy,

“Look, I don’t want to disagree with everybody, but, Senator, the problem is that you believe . . . that you can solve any problem by just throwing money at it. It doesn’t work that way.”

Conversation ceased, glances were exchanged. Everyone was appalled. Then Senator Kennedy said: “Sumner’s right.” . . . After that, Senator Kennedy called me regularly when he came to Boston and we developed a lasting friendship.

You might think that Redstone simply becomes friends with anyone he meets who is rich or famous. This is not the case. Once, Redstone was invited to dinner at the office of Robert Maxwell, the British press baron. It was no small matter, since Redstone is one of those moguls for whom dinner has enormous symbolic importance–it is the crucible in which friendships are forged. But Maxwell didn’t show up until halfway through the meal: not a friend. On another occasion, Redstone hires a highly touted executive away from the retailing giant Wal-Mart to run his Blockbuster division, and then learns that the man is eating dinner alone in his hotel dining room and isn’t inviting his fellow-executives to join him. Dinner alone? Redstone was worried. That was not friendly behavior. The executive, needless to say, was not long for Viacom.

What Redstone likes most in a friend is someone who reminds him of himself. “I respected Malone for having started with nothing and rising to become chairman of the very successful Tele-Communications, Inc.,” Redstone writes of John Malone, the billionaire cable titan. “I had admired Kerkorian’s success over the years,” he says of Kirk Kerkorian, the billionaire corporate raider. “He started with nothing, and I have a special affection for people who start with nothing and create empires. . . . Today Kirk Kerkorian and I are friends.” (They are so friendly, in fact, that they recently had a meal together at Spago.) Of his first meeting with John Antioco, whom Redstone would later hire to run Blockbuster–replacing the executive who ate dinner alone–Redstone writes, “We hit it off immediately. . . . He had come from humble beginnings, which I empathized with.” Soon, the two men are dining together. Look at my life, Redstone seems to marvel again and again in “A Passion to Win.” You think you see a hard-nosed mogul, selflessly wringing the last dollar out of megadeals on behalf of his shareholders. But inside that mogul beats a heart of warmth and compassion. Ever wonder how Redstone was able to pull off his recent mammoth merger with CBS? He happens to have lunch with the CBS chief, Mel Karmazin, in an exclusive Viacom corporate dining room, and discovers that he and Karmazin are kindred spirits. “Both of us had started with nothing,” Redstone writes, “and ended up in control of major corporations.” Can you believe it?

3.

In 1984, Lee Iacocca, the chairman of the resurgent Chrysler Corporation, published his autobiography, “Iacocca,” with the writer William Novak. It was a charming book, in which Ia-cocca came across as a homespun, no-nonsense man of the people, and it sold more copies than any other business book in history. This was good news for Iacocca, because it made him a household name. But it was bad news for the rest of us, because it meant that an entire class of C.E.O.s promptly signed up ghostwriters and turned out memoirs designed to portray themselves as homespun, no-nonsense men of the people.

“Iacocca” began with a brief, dramatic prologue, in which he described his last day at Ford, where he had worked his entire life. He had just been fired by Henry Ford II, and it was a time of great personal crisis. “Before I left the house,” he wrote, establishing the conflict between him and Henry Ford that would serve as the narrative engine of the book, “I kissed my wife, Mary, and my two daughters, Kathi and Lia. . . . Even today, their pain is what stays with me. It’s like the lioness and her cubs. If the hunter knows what’s good for him, he will leave the little ones alone. Henry Ford made my kids suffer, and for that I’ll never forgive him.” Now every C.E.O. book begins with a short, dramatic prologue, in which the author describes a day of great personal crisis that is intended to serve as the narrative engine of the book. In “Work in Progress,” by Michael Eisner, Disney’s C.E.O., it’s the day he suffered chest pains at the Herb Allen conference in Sun Valley: “I spent much of dinner at Herb Allen’s talking to Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchorman, who told me a long story about fly-fishing with his friend Robert Redford. . . . The pain in my arms returned.” In “A Passion to Win,” it’s the day Redstone clung to a ledge during a fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel, in Boston, eventually suffering third-degree burns over forty-five per cent of his body: “The pain was excruciating but I refused to let go. That way was death.”

Iacocca followed the dramatic prologue with a chapter on his humble origins. It opens, “Nicola Iacocca, my father, arrived in this country in 1902 at the age of twelve–poor, alone, and scared.” Now every C.E.O. has humble origins. Then Iacocca spoke of an early mentor, a gruff, no-nonsense man who instilled lessons that guide him still. His name was Charlie Beacham, and he was “the kind of guy you’d charge up the hill for even though you knew very well you could get killed in the process. He had the rare gift of being tough and generous at the same time.” Sure enough, everywhere now there are gruff, no-nonsense men instilling lessons that guide C.E.O.s to this day. (“Nobbe, who was in his sixties, was a stern disciplinarian and a tough guy who didn’t take crap from anyone,” writes the former Scott Paper and Sunbeam C.E.O. Al Dunlap, in his book “Mean Business.” “He was always chewing me out. . . . Still, Nobbe rapidly won my undying respect and admiration because he wore his bastardness like a well-earned badge of honor.”)

The legacy of “Iacocca” wouldn’t matter so much if most C.E.O.s were, in fact, homespun men of the people who had gruff mentors, humble beginnings, and searing personal crises that shaped their lives and careers. But they aren’t. Redstone’s attempt to play the humble-beginnings card, for instance, is compromised by the fact that he didn’t exactly have humble beginnings. Although his earliest years were spent in a tenement, his family’s fortunes rapidly improved. He went to Harvard and Harvard Law School. His father was a highly successful businessman, and it was his father’s company that served as the basis for the Viacom empire. (Just why Redstone continues to think that he comes from nothing, under the circumstances, is an interesting case study in the psychology of success: perhaps, if you are worth many billions, an upper-middle-class upbringing simply feels like nothing.) Eisner’s personal crisis ends with him driving himself to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles–one of the best hospitals in the world–where he is immediately met by not one but two cardiologists, who take him to a third cardiologist, who tells Eisner that the procedure he is about to undergo, an angiogram, a common surgical procedure, is ninety-eight per cent safe. In “On the Firing Line,” the former Apple C.E.O. Gil Amelio’s day of personal crisis is triggered merely by walking down the halls of his new company: “In each of the offices near mine toiled some key executive I was just coming to know, wrestling with problems that would only gradually be revealed to me. I wondered what caged alligators they would let loose at me on some future date.” Dunlap, meanwhile, tells us that one of his first acts as C.E.O. of Scott Paper was, in an orgy of unpretentiousness, to throw out the bookshelves in his office and replace them with Aboriginal paintings from Australia: “To me, the paintings made a lot more sense. They showed people who had to survive by their wits, people who couldn’t call out for room service.” Among Dunlap’s gruff mentors was the Australian multimillionaire Kerry Packer, and one day, while playing tennis with Packer, Dunlap has a personal crisis. He pops a tendon. Packer rushes over, picks him up, and carries him to a lounge chair. “This was not only a wealthy man and a man who had political power, this was a physically powerful man,” Dunlap reports. “In the end,” he adds, taking Iacocca’s lioness and Amelio’s alligators to the next level, “Kerry and I split because we were just too similar. We were like two strong-willed, dominant animals who hunted together and brought down the biggest prey, but, when not hunting, fought each other.” It is hard to read passages like these and not shudder at the prospect of the General Electric chairman Jack Welch’s upcoming memoir, for which Warner Books paid a seven-milliondollar advance. Who will be tapped as the gruff mentor? What was Welch’s career-altering personal crisis? What wild-animal metaphors will he employ? (“As I looked around the room, I felt like a young wildebeest being surveyed by a group of older and larger–but less nimble–wildebeests, whose superior market share and penetration of the herd were no match for my greater hunger, born of my impoverished middle-class upbringing in the jungles of suburban Boston.”)

The shame of it is that many of these books could have been fascinating. Scattered throughout Eisner’s “Work in Progress,” for example, are numerous hints about how wonderfully weird and obsessive Eisner is. He hears that Universal is thinking of building a rival theme park four miles from Disney in Orlando, and he and his assistant climb the fence at the Universal construction site at three in the morning to check on its progress. He sneaks into performances of the musical “Beauty and the Beast” in Los Angeles at least a dozen times, and when the stage version of “The Lion King” has its first tryout, in Minneapolis, he flies there from Los Angeles half a dozen times during the course of one summer to give his “notes.” When he is thinking of building Euro Disney, outside Paris, he is told that it takes half an hour to travel by Métro from the Arc de Triomphe to the end of the line, six miles from the Disney site. Eisner gets on the Métro to see for himself. He sets his watch. It takes twenty-five minutes.

By the end of the book, the truth is spilling out from under the breezy façade: Eisner is a compulsive, detail-oriented control freak. That fact, of course, says a lot about why Disney is successful. But you cannot escape the sense, while reading “Work in Progress,” that you weren’t supposed to reach that conclusion–that the bit about climbing the fence was supposed to be evidence of Eisner’s boyish enthusiasm, and the bit about seeing “Beauty and the Beast” a dozen times was supposed to make it look as if he just loved the theatre. This is the sorry state of C.E.O. memoirs in the post-Iacocca era. It’s only when they fail at their intended task that they truly succeed.

4.

“A Passion to Win” ought to have been a terrific book, because Redstone has a terrific story to tell. He graduated from Boston Latin High School with the highest grade-point average in the school’s three-hundred-year history. During the war, he was a cryptographer, part of the team that successfully cracked Japanese military and diplomatic codes. After the war, he had a brilliant career as a litigator, arguing a case before the Supreme Court. The mobster Bugsy Siegel once offered him a job. Then Redstone took over his father’s business, and, through a series of breathtaking acquisitions–Viacom, Paramount Communications, Blockbuster, and then CBS–turned himself, in the space of twenty years, into one of the richest men in the world.

What links all these successes, it becomes clear, is a very particular and subtle intelligence. Here, in one of the book’s best passages, is Redstone’s description of his dealings with Wayne Huizenga, the man from whom he bought Blockbuster. Huizenga, he writes, put together his empire by buying out local video stores around the country:

He and his Blockbuster associates would swoop in on some video guy who saw money for his store dangling from Huizenga’s pockets. When negotiations came to an impasse, rather than say, “We have a problem with the proposal,” and make a counteroffer, he would say, “Sorry we couldn’t do a deal. Good luck to you,” shake the guy’s hand, pull on the leather coat and head for the elevator.

Seeing the deal about to fall apart, the video operator, who only moments before was seeing dollar signs, would run after him. “Wait, don’t go. Come back. Let’s talk about it.” Huizenga hadn’t hit the down button. He had been waiting. That’s how he got his concessions.

When Redstone was negotiating for Blockbuster, Huizenga pulled the same stunt. It would be 2 a.m., Redstone says, and Huizenga would put on his coat and head for the exit. But Redstone was wise to him:

Huizenga would get to the elevator and no one would run after him. One time he waited there for fifteen minutes before it dawned on him that we weren’t going to chase him. He got to his car. Nothing.

He would soon find some excuse to call–he left papers in our office–waiting for us to say, “Why don’t you come back.” Still, nothing. Once he was literally on his plane, perhaps even circling the neighborhood, when he phoned and said he had to be back in New York for a Merrill Lynch dinner anyway and maybe we could get together.

Redstone has a great intuitive grasp of people. He understood immediately that Huizenga was simply a bully. This kind of insight is hardly rare among people who make their living at the negotiating table. It’s the skill of the poker player. But poker is a game of manipulation and exploitation–and Redstone doesn’t seem to manipulate or exploit. He persuades and seduces: he would concede that your straight flush beat his three of a kind, but then, over a very long dinner at Spago, he would develop such a rapport with you that you’d willingly split the pot with him. It’s no accident that, of Paramount’s many suitors, Redstone won the day, because he realized that what Martin Davis needed was the assurance of friendship: he needed to hear about the two statues in Central Park, one gazing in admiration at the other. Redstone’s peculiar gift also explains why he seems to have ended up as “friends” with so many of the people with whom he’s done business. In Redstone’s eyes, these people really are his friends. At the moment when he looked into Davis’s eyes that night at the Carlyle, he absolutely believed they had a special bond–and, more important, he made Davis believe it, too. Redstone’s heart happily follows his mind, and that’s a powerful gift for someone whose success depends on the serial seduction of takeover targets.

Most of us, needless to say, don’t think of friendships this way. Our hearts don’t always follow our minds; they go off in crazy directions, and we develop loyalties that make no functional sense. But there’s little of that fuzziness in Redstone’s world, and perhaps that’s why “A Passion to Win” is sometimes so chilling. A picture runs in the Post, Redstone tells us, that shows him walking down a street in Paris with “a beautiful woman.” Phyllis, his wife of fifty-two years, files for divorce. The news hits him “like a bullet,” he says. “I could not believe that she wanted to end it.” It takes him only a few sentences, though, to recover from his wounds. “Of course, divorce settlement or no, my interest in Viacom’s parent company, National Amusements, had been structured in such a way that events in Phyllis’s and my personal life would not affect the ownership, control or management of Viacom,” he assures us. Redstone says that he considered Frank Biondi, his longtime deputy at Viacom, “my friend.” But one day he decides to get rid of Biondi, and immediately the gibes and cheap shots appear. Biondi is lazy. Biondi cannot negotiate deals. Biondi is not C.E.O. material. “Frank took the news calmly, almost as if he expected it,” Redstone writes of the firing. “But I was shocked to learn that the first person he called was not his wife, but his lawyer to determine his rights under his contract. We were prepared to honor his contract to the fullest, so that was not an issue, but I found this implicit statement of his priorities to be revealing.” What kind of person says this about a friend? Redstone aligns his passions with his interests, and when his interests change, so do his friendships.

At the very end of “A Passion to Win,” Redstone recounts Viacom’s merger with CBS. The deal meant that the network’s C.E.O., Mel Karmazin, would come aboard as chief operating officer of Viacom. But that in turn meant that two of Redstone’s most trusted executives, Tom Dooley and Philippe Dauman, would have to give up their posts as deputy chairmen. Redstone says that he was “shocked” when he was told this. Dooley and Dauman were not just business associates; they were his “close friends.” Redstone says that he could not accept this, that there was “no way” he could agree to the deal if it meant losing his deputies. At this point, though, we simply don’t believe him–we don’t believe that someone as smart as Redstone wouldn’t have realized this going into the deal with CBS, and we don’t believe that Redstone’s entirely instrumental friendships could possibly stand in the way of his getting bigger and richer. “A Passion to Win” would have told us much more about Redstone, and about business, if it had confronted this fact and tried to make sense of it. But Redstone is a supremely unself-conscious man, and that trait, which has served him so well in the business world, is fatal in an author. Karmazin comes. Dauman and Dooley go. Redstone moves blithely on to make new best friends.