The philanthropist billionaire George Soros is a fiend to Republicans and an awkward ally to Democrats. The immediate cause of Soros’s unpopularity is his funding of the left-wing organization MoveOn.org.
It was not always thus. When the Berlin Wall fell, Soros was a hero across the board. He had funded and worked with groups opposed to the Soviet Union in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Soros was the embodiment of the American Dream: a Hungarian refugee who had amassed a fortune, estimated at $8 billion, through currency speculation. He had used his wealth aggressively to oppose communism and to support democratic initiatives around the globe. He was not your ordinary billionaire liberal: Soros put his money where his mouth was.
At the time of his acclaim, I met Soros. He was the most unpretentious, modest man-of-means I have ever met.
I was running a series of conferences on landmine detection and removal, and Soros had put money into some non-governmental organizations seeking to eradicate landmines in Africa and Asia. A colleague of mine suggested that I invite Soros to speak. I did not think he would have the time, but he agreed willingly.
The conference was held in a suburban Virginia hotel, a short distance from Washington, D.C. I waited by the entrance for Soros, examining every luxury automobile that pulled up. Soros emerged alone from a dilapidated Washington taxi, paid the fare and entered the hotel. He appeared disheveled, in need of a shave and a fresh suit.
At the lunch, I arranged for him to sit at a special table with some of the young people from the NGOs. He was fascinated by their idealism and their field work.
The problem with clearing landmines is that there is no technology that will remove all of them in a given area. Technologies vary from the crude—driving animals across a field—to advance sensor devices.
One American de-mining technology involved mounting a sensor under a helicopter, avoiding interference from its rotors. Soros asked me whether this device worked. I said I did not know, but I could introduce him to the inventor, who was attending the conference. Soros said, “Don’t do that. He’ll say it works 100-percent. Let’s ask somebody else.”
So it was that Soros met a U.S. Army officer working in the field. This expert said that it was unlikely that the device could detect all the mines in a given area, making it no better than any of the other technologies in use. (The problem with clearing 90 percent of the landmines in a given area is that it gives farmers and children a false sense of security.)
Public speaking is not one of Soros’s great talents–his English is heavily accented and his delivery is conversational. When he went to the podium, he referred to the young people doing field work, praising their bravery and commitment. Then Soros said that he really should not have been invited to speak. “I am not a big player in this effort,” he said. “I only give $4 million a year to humanitarian landmine clearance because there is no technology for 100-percent removal of landmines.”
When it came to question time, Soros was asked how much money he would give if there were a 100-percent removal technology. “I would write a check for $100 million in the morning,” Soros said. A great silence fell on the room.
Soros’s political problems derive from the multitude of his causes. He has differentiated himself from other liberal billionaires, like Bill Gates and Steven Rattner, by supporting non-establishment political groups, such as MoveOn.org. Missed in the furor over MoveOn, is the fact that Soros continues to support democratic endeavors around the world, and has been a massive force for establishing democratic institutions in the former Soviet satellites.
After he escaped Hungary, Soros worked as a railway porter and a waiter in England to finance his attendance at the London School of Economics. It was there that he fell under the influence of Karl Popper, the open society guru. Since his accumulation of vast wealth, Soros has made open society his own philosophy. He defines it as free markets, democracy and social balance.
Soros’s critics have painted him as some kind of international fiend; a world government man who is, to boot, an atheist and a proponent of legalized drugs. The former House speaker, Dennis Hastert, went so far as to imply that Soros’s wealth came from world government conspirators. Soros has not behaved the way billionaires are supposed to. Instead of enjoying social status, global recognition, and discreetly sending checks to good causes, he has chosen to get his hands dirty. The Irish financier, Peter Sutherland, now chairman of British Petroleum, once told me that Soros was not easy to work with; that he micromanaged projects, including one in Africa in which both men were involved.
Soros, now 77, is minting enemies as fast as he once minted money. I might take issue with some of his stands, but I remember him as one of the humblest of men. After his speech at my conference, I offered to drive him back to Washington. “No, no,” he said. “They have taxis outside. I will just take one.” And he did.