The first time I ran across Ted Turner - or rather he ran across me - was back in the 1980s when I was serving as State Department spokesman.
One of my responsibilities was to decide which news organizations would occupy the limited number of press seats on Secretary of State George P. Shultz's plane when we traveled abroad.
CNN was then a fledgling news organization and I usually bumped it on grounds it didn't have the audience of more long-established TV networks and newspapers.
On one particularly important trip to the Middle East, I rejected CNN's bid again, and a frustrated Ted Turner went to court to get an injunction to stop our plane from leaving without CNN aboard.
He lost, but his passion about CNN's ultimate importance proved right, as we all recognize today.
Over the years I've been at the occasional lunch or dinner with Mr. Turner and found him as quixotic, as unpredictable, and eccentric as ever. But he has hewn to his passions and convictions in a remarkable way, and one of his worthwhile passions has been the United Nations, which he believes is one of mankind's great hopes.
Thus he has loyally maintained a CNN bureau at the United Nations in New York while other American news organizations have faded away.
Turner has talked up the United Nations and talked down those who denigrate it. At one luncheon I was at with him in CNN's Atlanta headquarters, he swung upon his CEO and ordered up a documentary on deadbeat nations who were not paying their United Nations dues (the most embarrassing deadbeat of all, of course, being the United States).
For this kind of support, the United Nations Correspondents' Association has honored Turner for his network's coverage of the organization. And just recently the United Nations Association lauded Turner with a Global Leadership Award.
The billion dollar surprise
It was at this event that Turner startled everybody by announcing that he was giving away a billion dollars of his fortune. But it was not too surprising, given his passion for the United Nations, that he said he would funnel it to the organization's humanitarian programs such as health, environment, children, and the removal of land mines.
The billion dollars will be parceled out over 10 years and, because of tax considerations, may end up being considerably less than a billion.
Turner has challenged other multimillionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to similarly aid such institutions as the UN, so far without notable success. But still, it is a dramatic and substantial gesture.
Alas, it may not be enough to stop the UN going the way of the old League of Nations, foundering in mid-voyage.
Though public opinion polls indicate the majority of Americans favor the United Nations and its work, Washington has been engaged in a tacky internal political squabble over its commitment to the multinational body.
To placate the extreme right-wing in a presidential election year, President Clinton last year fired a broadside against then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, eventually engineering his ouster.
Congress fired a torpedo amidships into the United Nations by freezing past dues of around $1.5 billion.
United Nations left adrift
Though Boutros-Ghali has been replaced by Kofi Annan, an astute, experienced, and likable United Nations veteran, the ship has been left adrift and unaided by the United States, wallowing in dangerous waters.
Annan has promised a program of reform and budget-cutting, but there is a limit to what any secretary-general can do.
It is from the member nations that the real motivation for reform must come.
The US Congress is holding up on paying the accumulated US debt until those reforms are in place and until the US annual assessment is substantially reduced.
By contrast, angry member-nations argue that the US must pay its debts, just as they do, and then the US can talk about change in its dues structure.
Clinton did little to break through the deadlock with a lackluster and unapplauded speech at the recent opening of this year's UN General Assembly.
Even tiny Luxembourg, a country many Americans would have difficulty pinpointing on the map of Europe, leveled a blast at the US in response.
Its foreign minister, Jacques Poos, pointed out that the 15 countries of the European Union, which collectively pay 35 percent of the United Nations budget, "have always honored their financial obligations promptly, fully, and unconditionally."
He said the failure of others to meet the obligations they undertook when they signed the UN charter "undermines the necessary sense of partnership" without which the organization cannot function effectively.
Here lies the crux.
If the United States does not fulfill its partnership obligations, the United Nations will founder. So too will much of America's credibility in the conduct of international affairs.
That is something that Ted Turner cannot fix, however noble his billion-dollar gesture.
* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served a one-year term as assistant secretary-general of the UN in 1995.