Bob Iger's 'The Ride of a Lifetime': Book Review

Bob Iger Ride of a Lifetime - H - 2019
Penguin Random House
A book as lean as Iger himself, but not as muscular.

The Disney CEO largely opts for diplomacy rather than disclosure in his new memoir.

In January 2005, Bob Iger thought he was having a heart attack. Deep into a months-long war of attrition as he sought to win the top job at Disney — and right in the middle of a Clippers game — “my skin began to feel clammy,” he writes. “My chest tightened, and I felt short of breath. Both of my parents had suffered heart attacks at fifty. I was fifty-four at the time and I knew the symptoms.”

Trying not to scare his 6-year-old son, Iger told him he had stomach trouble and they left for home. “There was a driving rainstorm in L.A. that afternoon, and I was barely able to see the road,” he continues. “My heart felt like it was getting squeezed by a fist inside my chest. I knew it was foolish to be behind the wheel with my son in the backseat, and I worried that I’d made a terrible mistake. In the moment, though, I could only think that I needed to get home. I pulled into our driveway, Max jumped out of the car, and I immediately phoned my internist, Dennis Evangelatos, then called a friend who came and drove me to Dennis’s house. Dennis knew me well and he was aware of the stress I’d been under. He checked my vital signs, then looked me square in the eye and said, ‘You’re having a classic anxiety attack, Bob. You have to get some rest.’”

That story offers a rare glimpse at the extraordinary stress that goes hand in hand with the perks of being a Hollywood oligarch. Alas, it’s one of the few truly intimate and revealing moments in Iger’s new book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, a work that’s not so much a memoir as a digest of his business life as the spectacularly successful leader of the world’s most powerful media company, forever guided by the principle executive Roone Arledge taught him: Innovate or die.

Few reading this review will lack familiarity with Iger’s singular accomplishments at Disney, where he was the driving force behind the acquisitions of Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel and, more recently, Fox — though equally few will realize just how much each of these involved a leap in the dark, an imaginative triple axel that would have merited a gold medal if there were such a thing as a Wall Street Olympics.

Ride of a Lifetime is at its best when exposing the thinking (and a smidgen of the drama) behind these deals, all of which look inspired in hindsight but involved persuading colleagues, acquisition targets and even the Disney board of their rightness — when it was no sure thing that Iger would end up on the winning side. The fact that he won so often and so gloriously is proof positive of an unrivaled business acumen and skill.

But if you want to understand Iger the man, you’ll hit a wall. He’s as careful in what he reveals (and doesn’t) as one might expect of a person so self-disciplined he rises at 4:15 each morning and works out seven days a week. Is it surprising, then, that he’s written a book as lean as himself, if not quite as muscular?

We learn that he started his work-life with part-time jobs, including as a school janitor during the summer, cleaning the gum off a thousand desks at age 15; that his stay-at-home mom was “warm and loving” (possibly the most one-dimensional characterization in the history of autobiography); and that his intermittently employed father, a graduate of the Wharton School, was too volatile to hold a job for long or scale the corporate mountain that his son would climb with the grace of an Edmund Hillary.

More importantly, we discover that Iger senior (we’re never told his first name and he doesn’t appear in the book’s index) had vertiginous mood swings thanks to his bipolar disorder, for which he received various treatments including electroshock therapy. It’s a stunning revelation, and one can only imagine the devastating effect this must have had on the young Iger, the extraordinary turmoil and profound anguish it caused. Claiming “I don’t carry much pain,” he adds: “I never felt threatened by his moods, but I was acutely aware of his dark side and felt sad for him.”

If the inner Iger remains hidden, the good news is that his business thinking does not. Clearly and articulately, he chronicles his stations of the cross on his road to the top — along the way being abused by a superior (who, in answer to one question, flashed his penis at him) and being told by a supremely tactless Jeffrey Katzenberg that he should ditch the industry in order to rehabilitate his image.

We learn how he left an early job as a weatherman to become a junior staffer at ABC in 1974; went on to become ABC Entertainment president in 1989 and network president soon after; chose to stay with the company once Disney bought it in 1995; and finally arrived at the fateful moment when Michael Eisner agreed, under pressure, to resign as CEO — and Iger ascended to the throne.

Much has been made of the book’s greatest revelation: how George Lucas felt betrayed by Iger and his colleagues after Disney bought the filmmaker’s company for just over $4 billion in 2012 and cooked up a series of Star Wars movies using their own recipes rather than the filmmaker’s.

“Just prior to the global release, Kathy [Kennedy, head of Lucasfilm] screened The Force Awakens for George,” writes Iger. “He didn’t hide his disappointment. ‘There’s nothing new,’ he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, ‘There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward.’ He wasn’t wrong.”

When the executive asked Lucas not to go public with his objections (though he’d effectively handcuffed him by inserting a non-disparagement clause in his buy-out contract), Lucas assured him: “I’m going to be a big shareholder of the Walt Disney Company. Why would I disparage you or anything you do? You have to trust me.” He then went on the Charlie Rose show and bemoaned the sale of his “children” to “white slavers,” a jaw-dropping instance of corporate assassination, though one it’s hard not to sympathize with, given Disney’s ham-fisted retooling of his franchise. Mellody Hobson (then Lucas’ fiancee), sent Iger “an apologetic email, explaining how difficult this had all been for him,” writes the CEO. “Then George called me. ‘I was out of line,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have said it like that. I was trying to explain how hard it is to let things go.’”

It’s a fascinating insight into the complexities of dealing with an iconic brand, not to mention an icon, even if you’re the most powerful media executive alive. Just as all politics is local, it seems, so all business is personal — the great takeaway from this slender volume.

Almost as intriguing is Iger’s account of his conversation with Steve Jobs in the hours leading up to Disney’s announcement that it had bought Pixar. Eisner had created such a serious rupture with the Pixar/Apple founder that the companies’ relationship seemed doomed, but Iger was clever enough to woo Jobs directly and became one of his close friends.

Just as Disney was about to break the news of its acquisition, he writes: “Steve found me and pulled me aside. ‘Let’s take a walk,’ he said. … We walked for a while and then sat on a bench in the middle of Pixar’s beautiful, manicured grounds. Steve put his arm behind me, which was a nice, unexpected gesture. He then said, ‘I’m going to tell you something that only Laurene’ — his wife — ‘and my doctors know.’ He asked me for complete confidentiality, and then he told me that his cancer had returned. … ‘I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,’ he said. ‘I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.’”

Iger looked at his watch. It was 12.30 p.m. — only half an hour before the deal was to be announced. Should he pull out? Ask for more time? Tell his colleagues? These were (and are) the kinds of consequential dilemmas that CEOs face and, in this case, Iger’s decision to move ahead, whatever the fallout, proved miraculous: The purchase restored Disney’s preeminence in the field that mattered most to its history and identity, animation.

Readers will be surprised at how human (and at times picayune) the background to massive deal-making can be. In trying to acquire Marvel, Iger couldn’t track down the company’s elusive leader, Ike Perlmutter. In buying Fox, an agreement was made over a glass of wine at Rupert Murdoch’s vineyard. These are terrific, personal touches, and one can only wish Iger had included more.

Instead, he has largely opted for diplomacy, as one might expect of a man who toyed with a run for the presidency. He is understated in presenting the nightmare he must have endured when Michael Ovitz was named Disney president (and Eisner’s heir-apparent) in 1995, claiming “I felt a moment of disappointment” and adding “I now have a cordial relationship with [him],” perhaps the only person in the entire studio who does. He praises Eisner as a mentor, even though Eisner tried to undercut his Pixar deal, insisting on revealing his qualms directly to the board even though he was no longer CEO, the sort of brazen confrontation that might have made Iger an enemy for life. He goes into minimal detail about the sexual harassment charges that led to animation chief John Lasseter’s exit, mentioning, rather mysteriously, that he'd “spoken to John about it some years back” (but did nothing?) and adding: “[Studio chief] Alan Horn and I met with John in November of [2017], and together we agreed that the best course was for him to take a six-month leave to reflect on his behavior and give us time to assess the situation.” Several conversations later, “he and I reached the conclusion that a complete exit from Disney was wise.”

Nor does Iger say anything significant about the fiasco he faced with a studio in freefall under Rich Ross, who’d greenlit two of the biggest bombs in history, The Lone Ranger and John Carter, a disastrous run that might have warranted a whole chapter. He mentions Ross as one of his “big personnel mistakes” but never goes into the back-and-forth leading to his firing.

What about Iger’s reluctance to name his own successor? Or his public demotion of the man he’d positioned to replace him, Tom Staggs? Or the backlash he faced when word spread of the abysmal pay for Disneyland employees? None of these matters surfaces here, which is a shame, because they would have made riveting reading.

Half-truths may not be the same as lies, but they leave one longing for what's left unsaid, the full story behind both the failures and successes, the frustrations and joys. Perhaps Iger’s not the man to write it. He may just be too modest, too decent and too private ever to take us on that roller-coaster ride — but it’s the sort of ride he’d have insisted on if this were a Disneyland attraction.