In 1982 an Amarillo, Texas, oilman named T. Boone Pickens, top honcho at the Mesa Petroleum Company, threw a few high-stakes thrills into Wall Street by trying to take over an oil company twenty times bigger than his own…a classic case of a minnow trying to dine on a whale. Asked why he would risk the future of his own company to acquire a difficult, perhaps elusive giant, Pickens would only shrug and say, ‘It’s time to make a deal.’
The magazine scene in New York this summer seems antsy and acquisitive too; the big enchiladas, consulting their pocket calculators, are in a mood to cut a few deals. The T. Boone Pickens of the slick-magazine field is Mort Zuckerman, a Boston real-estate princeling who purchased the ailing Atlantic a few years back and appointed William Whitworth of The New Yorker as its editor, then caught fire with the magazine’s first big coup – William Greider’s examination of Reagan’s financial whiz-kid David Stockman and the funny-money guesswork arithmetic of the budget-making process. (Greider has since gone to Rolling Stone, where he stews ineffectually about the evils of Reaganism.) Once the David Stockman story became the talk of editorials and TV-news broadcasts, Whitworth and Zuckerman were seen as wizards who had awakened a drowsing dragon with a single poof!
Whitworth, a courtly, self-effacing editor in The New Yorker manner, has remained in the wings since the Greider scoop, but Zuckerman has gone on to become a minor celeb, squiring Nora Ephron and Arianna Stassinopoulos to parties, playing softball on the Hamptons with the vacationing literati, making fact-finding missions to Central America. Yet it would be a mistake to see Zuckerman as a vulgar upstart, crowding into the gossip columns simply to bask in the aurora of exploding flashbulbs. He’s a genial, intelligent, decent guy, who seems free of the malice that pits the New York literary scene like so many bomb-craters. Unlike Rupert Murdoch, Zuckerman seems to be on the lookout for buyable properties not to add a few new scalps to his belt, but to widen his social world – to have new prizes to invite to his parties. Compared to the power-lust and ideological crusading of a Murdoch (or, for that matter, of a Sir James Goldsmith), Zuckerman’s zeal seems rather harmless, even sweet. Hedonism can be humanizing.