What is it about octogenarian presidents of CBS that seem to assume that the power to run a television network confers immortality? In 1990, Christopher Buckley reviewed Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of William S. Paley, and wrote:
“WHY do I have to die?” the aging William S. Paley repeatedly asks of a somewhat helpless friend toward the end of Sally Bedell Smith’s fascinating and exhaustive biography of the man who built the Columbia Broadcasting System. At this point, having kept company with Mr. Paley’s ego for more than 600 pages, no reader is likely to be surprised at the old solipsist for having posed such a bizarre question, and so unphilosophically at that. If CBS’s corporate logo was its famous “eye,” Mr. Paley’s innermost being (“soul” seems not quite the right word) bore the indelible stamp of an “I.” The friend “could give no answer except to reassure him that his mother had lived into her nineties.” The reply was possibly ironic, as it was Mr. Paley’s cold and unloving mother, Goldie, who by shunning her young son had forced him to turn to the larger world for constant, indeed unremitting, affirmation.
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TO the end of his career, Mr. Paley remained a desperately insecure man: jealous of his wife’s affection for her son from her first marriage; jealous of Frank Stanton, whom he disastrously hounded from CBS, thereby insuring the ensuing succession of catastrophes that have made the network now, as Mr. Stanton put it perfectly, “just another company with dirty carpets.” Lear-like, Mr. Paley ultimately subverted and ruined CBS, the thing he loved above all else — besides himself — driving out Mr. Stanton’s successors, undermining the company by leaking unfavorable reports about them to the press, meddling in programming even though his quondam powers had by now left him, fretting obsessively about his perks, his private jet, his helicopter, his office, unable to let go; gobbling down experimental, supposedly life-prolonging protein pills every half-hour, gorging on supposedly restorative cucumbers, unable to let go, even of life. For Bill Paley, “Why do I have to die?” was the perfectly logical question.
But as it must to all men, death came to William Samuel Paley on October 26, 1990, at age 89. But note the echos of Paley’s famous existential question in this quote uttered by his latest successor, age 85:
“I DON’T want to die. I love what I’m doing. I love Viacom. I love CBS. And so I don’t want to die. I have a will to live. The same will to win that I’ve always had. And, I’m gonna fight death as long as I can. I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else” – Sumner Redstone on CNBC’s “Business Nation.”
Ask not for whom the station identification tolls for…