From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: How Michael Eisner learned the arts and crafts of hardball.
Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By JUDY BACHRACH
QUICK! WHO AMONG THE hundreds of top executives you've read about comes off, hands-down, the most duplicitous? The biggest back-stabber? The all-around weirdest, most insecure, unrepentant creep?
Tall order, I realize, given the lively competition. But this onetime corporate king is sporting no ankle bracelet. Here's a hint as to who he is, straight from the lips of entertainment mogul Dave Geffen, who, some years ago, said of our executive: "Michael is a liar. And anyone who has dealt with him--genuinely dealt with him--knows he is a liar. . . . He suffers when anyone else shares the credit." The problem, Geffen told journalist Robert Sam Anson, was that this deceptive, ungenerous CEO suffered from "character flaws" so huge they could only be attributable to something "very, very damaged in his background."
Now, from the former Disney chieftain Michael Eisner--yes, it is he of whom Geffen was speaking--comes an actual book about this background. Only it isn't an autobiographical examination of the "very, very damaged" childhood that was postulated, but an Eisner ode to his own youthful summers, which were, he suggests, the delightful making of him. This book is called Camp. It is full of overnight treks, unsettling "lake smells," and sagacity gleaned from sweat; and although there aren't many such reminiscences that are remotely bearable (I am thinking here, for example, of my husband's), it is reportedly the firm conviction of Warner Books that Michael's summer days are so matchless as to be the fodder of bestsellerdom.
And perhaps, given the nature of our camper, they are, indeed, singular. On the cover we can see one small Eisner fist clutching an oar, and above it a pair of eyes that are, even then, small and pebble-hard. What could the art department have been thinking?
Certainly the book has sincerity on its side, and also enjoys, at just under 200 pages, the virtue of brevity. It is a tribute to the molding skills of a Vermont camp called Keewaydin, which is still extant and still all-boys. It is also stuffed with the usual accoutrements of bug-afflicted venues: campfires, canoes, wigwams, basketballs, and alleged Indian names for camp directors, as well as the local girls' camp (the latter is called--I have to mention this--"Songadeewin," which Eisner swears means "Literally . . . strong of heart"). All the stuff, in short, that makes you long for a motel, a remote control, and a Magic Fingers bed.
Nonetheless, the book does contain an extraordinary passage--in fact, the only one that actually identifies Eisner as something other than a happy camper: "In my business life," he writes, "I've learned that the group is much better as a whole than any of the individuals separately. Working in business can be another canoe trip. That said, subscribing to this virtue in the business world often meets resistance. How does one work in a team and 'help the other fellow' when so much else is fueled by jealousy, envy, and greed? Do money and competitiveness create the environment to ignore or even deceive the other fellow?"
Gosh, Mike, that is certainly a conundrum. Especially when you consider that "HELP THE OTHER FELLOW" is "motto number one at Camp Keewaydin." It is inscribed on a plaque! Yes, in caps! (On the other hand, BE A FAIR WINNER and BE A GOOD LOSER are tied, as Eisner's former Disney employees ought to know, at number two.)
Speaking of "the other fellow," let's say that you're another Mike--super-agent Mike Ovitz, to be exact, who, for over 30 years, was Eisner's best friend until he made the mistake of accepting Eisner's offer to become his second-in-command at Disney--and in honor of your 50th birthday Eisner is throwing you some Songadeewin lavish party. Would it surprise you to learn that, at the same time Eisner is polishing the silverware and promising to "keep our friendship intact" and to "say and write only glowing things," he is, in fact, plotting to unload you from the um . . . canoe trip? That he's concluded he has his victim so neatly by the throat that Mike 2 is really nothing more than a "wounded animal in a corner"? That so anxious is he to dump this wounded animal, he is willing to fork over $140 million to Mike 2 after just one year on the job--which certainly turned Disney shareholders into Fabulous Losers?
But that sum is chump change, as James Stewart observed in Disney War, compared to what the Mouse House had to pay Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was head of Disney's motion picture divisions until ousted by Eisner.
"I think I hate the little midget," was Eisner's judgment of his ex-subordinate--a remark surely at odds with Michael's rueful but tender reflections on page 61: "Just as it is at Keewaydin, the challenge in business is to foster an enthusiastic atmosphere of teamwork that becomes self-reinforcing.
"It's tough, though. The world is not camp--and that's too bad."
Hmmm. I'm not sure I agree with Michael here. In fact, the more one thinks about camp, the more reminiscent it is of life in all its raw and disagreeable variety. Surely some of Eisner's oddities are directly traceable to his youth. And quite a bit of his speech, as well as his pique, bear the singe of the campfire. As far as he was concerned, Eisner told his biographer in one really peculiar turn of phrase, he was Disney's biggest cheerleader and Katzenberg merely the tip of his "pom-pom." As for Katzenberg's insistence on being paid off after his ouster: "I don't care what he thinks, I am not going to pay him any of the money."
Two hundred eighty million dollars later, an enriched Katzenberg could be said to have written the book on how to BE A GOOD LOSER . . . definitely a guy deserving of his own plaque among the pines. And he didn't even have to learn how to clean up at Camp Keewaydin.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.