"I've never fired anybody," Al Neuharth says. "Oh, I've moved people around, to make the best use of their talents, and, sure, some have quit on me. But I've never fired anybody."
The self-avowed S.O.B. (but a lovable one, he hastens to add) joined Gannett in 1963 and retired as CEO on his 65th birthday in 1989. Neuharth might have asked the board of directors to waive the mandatory retirement age; successful CEOs usually do. Instead, he retired with five years of eligibility left, as he had said he would do when he first took over Gannett 15 years earlier.
He left behind one of the greatest successes in the history of either business or journalism. Gannett grew from a relatively small, insignificant newspaper chain to a large media empire under Neuharth's stewardship. And its crown jewel, USA Today, is Neuharth's greatest creation.
These days, Neuharth is running the talk show and interview circuit, plugging his new book, Confessions of an S.O.B., and defending the notion that "Only cream and S.O.B.s rise to the top." But that doesn't stop him from writing, "Living proof that nice guys can get to the top, too!" when he autographs my copy of his book.
Confessions is more than just Neuharth's own version of his life. His ex-wives and children each get chapters to tell their side of the Al Neuharth story. Lori Wilson, wife number two (1973–1982), writes: "Al Neuharth is a snake. He's cold-blooded. He's sneaky and slithers around and sheds his old skin as he grows…He's like a stalking animal. Once you're his target, professionally or personally, he'll do whatever it takes to get you. You might as well roll over and enjoy it…Al discards. He forgets you, writes you off as if you don't exist anymore. He never looks back. The past is history. He cares only about the future."
Loretta Neuharth, wife number one (1946–72), also damns Neuharth and praises him. And both get what no author ever gives those whom he's cast aside—an uncensored slot, ample in length, to air their grievances, unanswered by their former husband, in his own book. The S.O.B. plays fair.
If marriage to Neuharth is a mixed blessing, what is it like to work for him? An old buddy of mine, for four years a star columnist at USA Today, laughed when I recounted Neuharth's straight-faced answer—yes—when I asked whether the staff, like the boss, goes first class. I also asked Neuharth whether any USA Today writers make $70,000 annually. Not all, of course, he said, but some. My pal harrumphed at that.
But clearly, Neuharth himself did go first class: a $17-million Gulfstream IV jet (equipped with typewriters, television sets, and a shower) to fly him wherever he went and limousines at every destination. When Neuharth left Gannett, he took a $5-million retirement bonus and a weekly column in USA Today. On his wrist, he wears a gold watch to make all others look like Swatches and on his finger, a jeweled ring that would shame the gaudiest pimp.
Living well suits Al Neuharth. He doesn't look a day over 50 as he sits hunched over my microphone, giving answers shorter than the typical USA Today paragraph. He has an I-dare-you smile on his face as he throws out his terse responses to my questions.
He is irresistible, in person and in print. "No-fun bosses make even good jobs dull," he emphasizes. Oh, the naysayers often thought their boss was crawling out on a limb. When Neuharth started USA Today, some pointed to it as proof of how crazy he was; there was no way to overcome all the obstacles facing the paper. Neuharth was indeed crazy.
Like a fox.
He is also high-spirited. He emphasizes having fun throughout his book. He never ever worries, he claims. Instead, he throws himself joyously into each new project. "When I'm involved in something, I want to touch it, hold it, massage it. When the boss puts his hands on something, everyone knows it's important." But when everything has been set up and things are running smoothly, "I step away and let others do the job." He used to drive his employees crazy, he says, being more hands-on than most bosses and then more hands-off.
He loves winning. A favorite biblical quotation is Psalms 72:9, "His enemies shall lick the dust." While his enemies licked dust, Neuharth marched to the top, "taking one smart step at a time. Managing, maneuvering, manipulating [my] way from one stepping stone to the next."
Who's in the way? Other S.O.B.s, of course. Some have what you want; others want what you have. Some can be stepped around gracefully; others must be stepped on. He liked best dealing with S.O.B.s who are likable and who enjoy the fight. But "when niceness alone doesn't work, a little nastiness must be applied. The right mix is the only sure way to the top." Again, he quotes from the Bible (1 Peter 58): "Be vigilant, because your adversary, the Devil, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."
But Confessions isn't just the story of Neuharth's rise to the top. The boss who did more than any other in publishing to integrate his company's staff—Gannett has the highest percentage of minorities and women in executive and reporting positions of any media conglomerate—sees opportunity everywhere in the USA. (Not America, he would caution. America refers to both continents; the USA is our country.) But he also finds a lack of will to maximize those opportunities.
He bemoans the complacency that he sees all around him. "We've lost some of the drive that made the USA great," he tells me. "We need leadership in government, in business, in education, and we're not getting it. And our tax structure is becoming a disincentive to success. Oh, I don't mind paying higher taxes, which usually means I've been making more money, but there's a point where a lot of people just stop striving since the taxes more or less punish them for succeeding."
Sure, many people will dismiss Confessions as McEgo and bristle at his dismissals of various people, places, newspapers, and ideas. They will focus on advice such as "Eat only when you're hungry. Drink only when you're thirsty. Sleep only when you're tired. Screw only when you're horny." They'll say Neuharth probably whipped up the book on a slow weekend.
But these people miss the point of Neuharth's message. Confessions is a call for leadership. Neuharth urges each of us to accept no limit imposed on us by others. In short, he, like Ayn Rand, advocates a sort of enlightened selfishness. Confessions of an S.O.B. is a laugh a page, a gossipmonger's dream come true, but it is also a serious, sober call to arms. It's joyful, shrewd and uncompromising. It would be foolish to ignore the book or the man.
Contributing editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host and a film critic for the Tab newspaper chain in Boston. He's trying hard to be a lovable S.O.B.