Why won't Mr. Case just say he's sorry? Because he doesn't seem to think he has anything to apologize for.
Steve Case, Genius
The morning after announcing he would resign as chairman of AOL Time Warner, Steve Case was asked to feel his shareholders' pain. "In a personal sense, how badly do you feel about the almost $200 billion worth of shareholder value that has been wiped out?" asked an interviewer on CNN. Not too bad, apparently. His face expressionless, Mr. Case said: "I recognize a lot of people have bet on this company and are disappointed by the results. But it's never over till it's over."
With that platitude, Mr. Case exhibited what many see as his two great character flaws: a lack of empathy and a refusal to accept blame. But perhaps more revealing than his answer was the question. AOL Time Warner shareholders shouldn't be looking for an apology from Steve Case. He played the game brilliantly.
The deal Mr. Case struck in January 2000 made sense—financially and strategically—for his shareholders. Just two months before the stock market peaked and Internet mania ended America Online—a company not yet 15 years old, with but a single product and one-fifth the revenue of Time Warner—bought Time Warner. Where would former AOL shareholders be now if not for Time Warner's assets?
And if former Time Warner shareholders think the merger was a mistake—and many do—they'd be better off bringing their complaints to the office of Richard Parsons, chief executive of AOL Time Warner. Mr. Parsons, after all, helped negotiate the AOL deal along with his former boss Gerald Levin, who has since retired.
Of course, since the merger became official, AOL Time Warner stock has fallen by more than half, and shareholders of the combined company are disappointed. But from a strategic standpoint, the AOL Time Warner deal still makes perfect sense: the so-called digital future promoted by Mr. Case and Mr. Levin is coming to pass. The Internet is increasingly a commercial medium, and AOL Time Warner has the content—movies, magazines, cable programs and music—to make it profitable. AOL, the world's largest Internet provider, remains an ideal match for Time Warner, the world's largest media and entertainment company.
Still, in a nation where sin, confession, repentance and forgiveness are deeply ingrained in the secular culture, Mr. Case is expected to be contrite. As one of AOL Time Warner's largest institutional shareholders put it to me: "Humility always makes you more sympathetic to a person."
So why won't Mr. Case just say he's sorry? Because he doesn't seem to think he has anything to apologize for. "The promise of the merger still burns bright in my head," Case said Monday morning. He continues to believe in his shining vision of AOL Time Warner; if others don't see what he sees, it's because they're myopic, not because he made a mistake.
None of this will make Mr. Case very popular. But neither does it make him wrong. It took more than seven years before Wall Street acknowledged that the 1990 merger of Time and Warner was a success. By that measure, it may be at least five more years before Steve Case is recognized as a genius.
Nina Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is writing a book about AOL Time Warner.