Work in Progress

There’s a moment toward the end of Work in Progress, the new riches-to-riches autobiography by Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with cowriter Tony Schwartz, when life in the aeries of American corporate power seems blissfully, maddeningly simple.

It’s 1995, and Eisner is preparing to leave the annual July retreat for moguls thrown by banker Herbert Allen in Sun Valley, Idaho. He knows the time is right for Disney to consider buying a TV network, and, while walking back to his cottage with his wife, Jane, he bumps into CBS chairman Larry Tisch and his wife. Eisner asks Tisch if it’s true that Westinghouse is going to buy CBS; Tisch, in turn, asks the passing wife of a Chemical Bank executive if that bank has approved the deal’s financing. She says yes; Eisner asks Tisch, ”Wouldn’t you rather make the deal with us?” and Tisch’s wife says ”Yes, absolutely.”

It gets weirder. Eisner then bumps into Warren Buffett, Uberinvestor and the largest shareholder in Cap Cities/ABC, and says, ”The funniest thing just happened. I ran into Larry Tisch, and we ended up talking about our buying CBS. Unless, of course, you want to sell us Cap Cities for cash.” Buffett replies, ”Sounds good to me. Why don’t we go talk to Tom [Murphy, Cap Cities chairman] about it?… We have a date to play golf with Bill Gates.” Later, of course, Eisner closed a deal to buy Twentieth Century Fox while making lanyard key chains with Rupert Murdoch.

Okay, that last part didn’t happen (Disney ended up buying ABC instead). Nevertheless, reading Work in Progress is, at times, like taking an e-ticket ride through the world’s swankest summer camp. To his credit, Eisner seems to understand this, and that gives his book a surprisingly gracious modesty for an entry in the Iacocca-wannabe sweepstakes. But what makes Progress such a fuzzy read is that in the end Eisner doesn’t understand it enough. ”There was something extraordinary about the whole scene,” he writes about the above encounters. Not quite. That the second-largest merger in history, affecting billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, had its genesis in idle country-club banter is wholly extraordinary.

Still, this book makes it difficult to dislike Eisner the man, even for readers inherently leery of Disney’s urge to own as much of their children’s brainpans as possible (guilty as charged). For one thing, you have to admire a guy who ends his acknowledgments page with a veritable love letter to his wife. The sections on 1994, Disney’s annus horribilis — company president Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash, Eisner underwent quadruple bypass surgery, a messy war of succession ensued, and Euro Disney stunk up the continent — are remarkable for their painful detail. An earlier chapter on how Wells and Eisner were hired to run Disney in 1984 is a fascinating account of hectic boardroom machinations. And the barely veiled contempt for quisling former studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg — now running DreamWorks — is hilariously dishy (about the nicest thing Eisner can find to say is that Katzenberg had a great ability to ”ferret” out material).

Finally, though, Work in Progress illustrates the dangers of seeing life through the eyes of one massive company. It’s not just that the final chapters on Disney’s skadillion current projects smell suspiciously like an annual report. It’s in the underlying assumption — occasionally tipping into arrogance — that what’s good for Disney simply has to be good for the world. Eisner’s incomprehension at Francois Mitterrand’s refusal to attend the opening of Euro Disney is telling: ”’It’s just not my cup of tea,’ [Mitterrand] was quoted as saying the day before we opened, and then went on ignoring his country’s largest new tourist attraction.” The president of France has tastes that don’t include the Magic Kingdom? What nerve!

Such blinkered corporate faith is very good for shareholders, of course, and Eisner’s blue-sky capitalism is ultimately pretty infectious. So what if his unstated mission to brand the letter D onto the forehead of every human being on the planet is more than a tad terrifying? Work in Progress lulls you into believing that if someone has to slip us a Mickey, we should be grateful it’s Michael Eisner. B

Work in Progress
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