Steve Case and Jerry Levin: Look on Our Works, Ye Mighty and Despair (About the AOL-Time Warner Merger, That Is, a Decade Later)
Since both former AOL CEO Steve Case and former Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin played such conflicting roles in my 2003 book–“There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL-Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future”–it was odd to see the pair together on the same television set yesterday morning on CNBC.
But there they were–both looking very fit, I might add–with Case as a guest co-host and Levin as his more peaceful self.
They were on the cable network to jawbone about the disaster that was the AOL-Time Warner merger on the occasion of the deal’s 10th anniversary, since CNBC is airing a piece tomorrow night called “Marriage from Hell: The Breakup of AOL Time Warner.”
Actually, that purple title underplays just how bad it got for the doomed union.
In fact, except for the first crazy hug when the megadeal was announced in January 2000, the time they served as the combined company’s chairman (Case) and CEO (Levin) was pretty much fraught and the tensions between the pair intense.
Today, though, it is apparently sweetness and light between them, especially according to Levin, who has moved far away from his cerebral, New York, slick corporate-shark mode–which was very much in evidence when I first met him–to a man who now helps troubled high achievers find their inner happiness in Southern California at a holistic clinic called Moonview Sanctuary.
(I saw that unusual transformation up close too, spurred by the delayed impact of the tragic murder of his son, which came just as Levin was ousted.)
In fact, the now more heartfelt Levin even called the merger “some kind of transcendent concept,” although he quickly acknowledged that “I presided over the worst deal of the century, apparently.”
Levin did, and so quickly apologized for the whole mess. “I’m really very sorry about the pain and suffering and loss that was caused,” he said, although there are some at both companies who don’t believe him to this day.
Levin used that feel-good terminology to describe the merger’s failure: “Even though the stock was up at the time, there was a lot of tension, and I didn’t deal with the psychology with enough compassion. It’s a little hard to exercise compassion, connection, and love when the market is very unforgiving as it was at that time.”
And without even a raised eyebrow, Case–who has not changed his calm, aloof mode since I first met him in the early 1990s in the Washington, D.C. area–backed Levin up about the lack of execution in the deal.
Now, of course, AOL (AOL) has been spun out from Time Warner (TWX), and what the pair wrought is almost completely gone.
Or, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about the “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair” statue of the great ruler Ozymandias: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Well, at least Case and Levin are still standing, and this interview with them, lasting just over 22 minutes, is very worthwhile.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that the now-bearded Levin, for all the hippyish bromides–such as “Management is a humanist art”–is still as sharp as a tack in many ways, with some pretty decent observations about the Web and its players, for all his supposed beachy abandonment of it.
Check out the video: