The recent bombs sent to Soros from Florida, the verbal attacks, threats and conspiracy theories about George Soros reminded me of the opportunity I had to meet him 14 years ago when he was just emerging as an important and controversial force in national politics. Tellingly, I Googled the 2004 story and found a (dead) link to it on a the site of a prominent anti-Semitic, white nationalist web site.
A cursory Internet search paints quite the picture of "billionaire America-hater" George Soros.
He marches "to the tune of Karl Marx" and is staging a "coup" against President Bush. He is the Democratic party's "Daddy Warbucks of drugs and death."
And by the way, "Satan lives in George Soros."
This Dr. No of the presidential campaign strolled into his office conference room last week, 32 floors above Central Park, wearing a tentative smile and, under his blazer, a checked shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Courtly and reserved, he wasted little time making clear why he granted the interview.
"Tell who I really am," he said, removing gold-rimmed glasses. "The distortion is so profound that just to confront it with the facts would be useful."
The facts, though, can seem contradictory.
Soros has spent millions to encourage campaign finance reform to curb the influence of big money. Now he is throwing his wealth through a gaping loophole in the very law he helped pass.
He already has given at least $12.6-million to Democratic groups working to beat Bush in Florida and other battleground states. Which explains the Internet venom from Bush allies painting him as a lefty extremist.
"By virtue of him being one of the largest donors in presidential campaign history, he has purchased the Democratic Party," said Yier Shi of the Republican National Committee.
At 74, Soros is one of the world's richest people, worth an estimated $7-billion, thanks to his knack for spotting global and economic trends before others. Considered one of the century's greatest financial wizards, he places massive bets on hunches about fluctuations in global markets.
In the same way he speculated on financial markets, Soros has bet on societies, spending billions to undercut communist regimes and promote democracy.
Now he's placing huge money on the campaign market – betting against Bush.
To understand his spite for the Bush administration, he says, you have to go back 60 years, to Nazi- and communist-occupied Hungary.
He was born George Schwartz in Budapest in 1930. The family changed its name to the less Jewish-sounding Soros when he was 6.
His father, Tivadar Soros, saw the Nazi threat before many of his peers. Even as "No Jews Allowed" signs went up and pro-Nazi Hungary passed laws limiting Jewish business ownership, many Hungarian Jews failed to see what loomed.
When the Germans arrived in Budapest, 14-year-old George Soros worked for the Jewish Council, delivering summonses for Jewish lawyers to register with the government, a first step toward deportation and eventual death. Ultimately some 70 percent of Hungarian Jews would be killed.
Soros briefly wore the required Star of David before his father obtained false, Christian identities for family members, whom he separately hid throughout the area.
"I lived under false names. Survived. Father helped people escape. It's a big experience," Soros said, his accent still thickly Hungarian.
The Russians liberated Hungary early in 1945, but the Soros family soon saw the implications of the Iron Curtain – another repressive government was taking control. Tivadar wanted his family to leave Hungary.
At 17, George moved to London and wound up at the prestigious London School of Economics. A professor there, Karl Popper, transfixed Soros with his "open society" philosophy.
"The concept of open society is based on the recognition that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth," Soros explained. "Those who think they do have to impose their will on the people by force or by repression."
Soros moved to New York in 1956 and became a U.S. citizen in 1961. He more or less fell into the investment business, thanks to his knack for making money from shifts in currencies and international stock indexes.
Far from a buy-and-hold investor, Soros' specialty was quick, massive bets on global market fluctuations. For decades, wealthy people who invested with him earned average annual returns of more than 30 percent.
“As Borg is to tennis, Jack Nicklaus is to golf, and Fred Astaire is to tap dancing, so is George Soros to money management,” Institutional Investor wrote of Soros in 1981, declaring him “the world’s greatest money manager.”
In 1992, Soros decided the value of the British pound was headed for a fall. He bet $10-billion on that calculation. In a single day, he pocketed more than $1-billion. He was dubbed "the man who broke the Bank of England."
The investor who assiduously avoided publicity working in the arcane arena of global finance now embraced the attention. Soros was ready, as he put it, to "come out of the closet."
Imagine waking up with unlimited money. Would you buy mansions? Private islands? Pump it into cancer research?
Soros decided to change the world.
Loaded beyond most people's imagination, Soros had found a new passion years earlier.
"It was a kind of midlife crisis," he said. "I was making a lot of money at great personal cost. Running a hedge fund the way I was doing it was very risky. Tremendous tension. And what was the point?
"That's when I decided what I want to do with my money, that I really care about this idea of an open society and I set up a foundation. That gave me a new lease on trying to make money because I had a good use for it."
With his passion for open societies, an understanding of geopolitics and more money to spend than most governments, Soros decided he single-handedly could accomplish dramatic good in repressed countries.
He helped Poland's Solidarity movement, dissidents in Eastern Europe and apartheid opponents in South Africa. He did it quietly, wary of hurting opportunities in countries still under authoritarian governments. By the time his British pound killing made him an international celebrity, he was ready to speak up.
"I felt at that time it would give me a platform to advocate my views," said Soros, who has since written eight books about his financial and social philosophies.
In the former Soviet Union, Soros spent $100-million on new textbooks, libraries, and teacher training to move the country beyond "Marxist-Leninist dogma." He rebuilt an entire municipal water filtration system and restored electrical power to hospitals when Sarajevo, Bosnia, was under siege in 1992.
As Morton Abramowitz, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, quipped in 1995, "He's the only man in the U.S. who has his own foreign policy – and can implement it."
In the mid 1990s, he turned his attention to controversial domestic issues in America. He funded organizations that questioned the effectiveness of antidrug policies and advocated liberalizing drug laws. He put money into groups that examined "the culture of dying" and promoted death with dignity laws.
There is irony in Soros' philanthropy, which costs him about $450-million a year. One of the most successful and ruthless speculators in what he calls the "amoral" system of global capitalism now acts like the social conscience of the world.
Longtime friends brush off the inevitable skepticism about Soros' motives.
"George has been consistent, I can say personally, for 20 years. His main concern has been for open society, fighting extremes, fighting for freedom and fighting for moderation," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
“This is not self-promotion, in my opinion. This is not some tricky inside maneuver to get market advantage. This is George Soros trying to improve the world, and few people in our lifetime have the track record George Soros has accomplishing that.”
Soros' philanthropic spending – nearly $5-billion to date – puts him in league with Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. He doesn't care to be likened to Rockefeller, who he said pursued philanthropy for public relations. Carnegie might be more comparable, having built libraries and promoted reading for long-term good.
"His thinking is very similar to mine," Soros said. "I think his writing is very trite, and I hope that mine is not as trite as his.
"But it probably is."
Not long after Baghdad fell and President Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier bedecked with a "Mission Accomplished" banner, Soros summoned some of the brightest minds of the Democratic Party to his sprawling home in Southampton, New York.
Many deep-pocketed Democratic donors and fundraisers were despondent about their prospects for unseating a wartime President. Soros wanted to hear their plan to beat Bush.
Among those who attended were Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily's List, a group that tries to elect female Democrats, and Steve Rosenthal, an organizing legend within the AFL-CIO.
They had teamed to create America Coming Together, which under new campaign finance restrictions could accept unlimited donations to mobilize Democratic voters so long as they work separately from the national party and Democratic nominee.
They told Soros they thought they could raise enough money to operate ACT in five to seven hotly contested states.
“George Soros listened to the presentations about the campaign and the environment and said very little throughout the entire day,” Rosenthal recalled. “He didn’t feel he needed to speak up and show how smart he was.”
He finally put in his two cents. If ACT could raise matching money, he would commit $10-million to expand the effort. So would Peter Lewis, an insurance executive from Ohio.
Soros said he wanted to take the fight to 17 battleground states that two consultants he had independently hired said would decide the election.
"It just made sense," Soros said. "You've got 17 states which are the battleground states, and if you do battle in all 17 you have a better chance than if you only do it in five."
The shot in the arm from Soros and Lewis was, as intended, catalytic. An operation budgeted for about $25-million nationwide soon jumped to $125-million.
In his recently published book, The Bubble of American Supremacy, Soros explained his newfound partisanship. "I used to be rather balanced between the two main parties, seeing some good and some bad in each and leaning only slightly toward the Democrats," he wrote.
"Certainly I did not used to consider it a matter of life or death which party won the elections. I do now."
He likened America's place in the world to the kind of boom and bust cycle he capitalized on in the global markets. Much as the artificially inflated tech stock bubble finally burst, Soros contends Bush's "extremist ideology" that led to a misguided military attack on Iraq threatens America's position.
"To interpret it that our military power gives us the right to impose our will on the world is a false interpretation," he said last week. "It is not acceptable to the rest of the world. You can't use power that way. And it is directly against the principles and values that have made America great and that have made me want to come to America and live here."
His philosophy and personal experience with Nazism and communism feed his agitation over the Bush administration.
"It's a threat to open society – not only because of the threat to civil liberties but mainly because of the suppression of the political process, which is essential to democracy," he said.
"In other words, after Sept. 11, Bush declared that it's unpatriotic to criticize him. The Democrats and everybody else subscribed to that, accepted it. So for about 18 months, the critical process was suspended, and because of that suspension Bush could get us into the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses because the political process was suspended."
He's careful to draw this distinction: "I'm not as passionate about being a Democrat as I am about opposing Bush. Facetiously, I would be ready to become a moderate Republican after Bush is defeated. What we need most of all in this country is to recapture the Republican Party from the extreme right wing."
The Manhattan offices of Soros Fund Management are sleek and modern: metal stairs, slate floors, frosted glass doors and pale wood walls unadorned with artwork. Well aware that some of his prior statements have provided fodder for Republican attacks, Soros measured his words.
He doesn't hate Bush, he said, but passionately opposes his agenda, which "has been captured by a bunch of extremists."
What about Democrats decrying the outsourcing of jobs overseas? The globalist tempered his disagreement. "There are benefits to it," he said, turning the question to Bush's record on jobs.
"Globalization creates jobs and loses jobs. It is the role of an administration to foster new job creation and adjustment. And Bush, by cutting taxes, failed to stimulate job creation. Making the top 1 percent richer does not create jobs," he said, offering a bleak prognosis for the national and world economy in the coming year.
"The economy is keeling over, because everything has been done to pump it up for the second and third quarters. And it is inevitable that afterward, in '05, it would be less strong than before. And then the rise of the price of oil has put a monkey wrench in it."
The attacks and scathing depictions of Soros as a lefty extremist bother him. A lot.
"I have a set of ideas on open society, which is the opposite of an extremist position. I am passionately opposed to extremism of all kinds – of the belief that you're in direct contact with God or you have an ideology like the communists did that you know what's best for the world."
He says he fully understands that he's become a lightning rod, so much so that Republican fundraising pitches constantly invoke his name.
"They try to paint me as an eccentric billionaire," he said. "The effort is well justified because it dismisses the substance of my criticism. It discourages others opposed to Bush by showing what can be done to someone who sticks his neck out. And it helps a great deal in raising funds for the Republican Party. I think I've probably raised more money for the Republicans than I have for the Democrats."
He has committed about $15-million to independently operating Democratic groups, including ACT and MoveOn.org. He has not ruled out spending more, but does not envision a dramatic increase.
He said he wants people to know who he really is. What would that be?
"When I was given an honorary doctorate at Oxford, they asked me how would I like to be described. I said, "As a financial, philanthropic and philosophical speculator.' They never used it."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or [email protected]sptimes.com. Information from Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire by Michael Kaufman was used in this report.
ON CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM:
"I don't consider it a helpful development that so much money has been channeled to (independent political groups). I don't think it's helpful to the process. . . . This is my general rule, and it also applies to the financial markets: I play by the rules, but at the same time I recognize that the rules are imperfect and in need of improvement."
ON BEING DEMONIZED BY SOME CONSERVATIVE CRITICS:
"There's an ability to distort information, which is to me truly stunning. You have 1984 with the Minister of Truth, but there you had the ministry controlling all the outlets. Here you do have a genuinely pluralistic media, and nevertheless the same kinds of distortions are possible."
ON WHETHER HE GIVES MONEY TO PANHANDLERS:
"No. I'm more interested in systemic reform than making myself feel good. Doing good and feeling good are two different things. Doing good is even more difficult than making money."
ON THE 2000 CONTESTED FLORIDA ELECTION:
"It was very disturbing, and I am very much afraid that there will be a repetition of that in 2004. The idea of having electronic voting without a paper trail, without the possibility of a recount, is, I think, unacceptable."
+ $115-million after the fall of the Soviet Union to support Russian science and reduce the temptation of scientists who had lost state support to sell their skills to dangerous interests.
+ $50-million to the Emma Lazarus Fund, to combat discrimination against legal immigrants in the United States.
+ $125-million since 1997 to the After School Corporation, for after-school programs.
+ $250-million in 2001 to fund and endow the Central European University, with its main campus in Budapest, Hungary.
+ $100-million to liberate education in the former Soviet Union from Marxist-Leninist dogma by buying new textbooks, training teachers and operating libraries.
+ $30-million to divide large public high schools in New York City into smaller, more manageable ones.
+ $110-million over the past decade to Step by Step, an early childhood development program in 29 countries.
+ $50-million in 1992 for aid to the besieged Bosnian city of Sarajevo, including construction of a municipal water filtration system and restoration of electric power to the city's hospitals.
+ $45-million from 1994 through 2003 for the Project on Death in America, which issued grants for the study of bereavement and end-of-life care, with a goal of "transforming the culture of death in the United States."