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Red, Blue and Lots of Green

John Sperling Divides America Into 'Metro' And 'Retro.' His Money's on 'Metro.'

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page C01

When you're 83 and worth $1.5 billion, you have earned the right to spend a few million on, well, whatever the heck you want.

You can drop $5 million to clone your dog Missy because, although a mutt, she was a "fabulous athlete" and "fearless," and sometimes launched herself off nearly perpendicular cliffs and emerged with her paws only slightly bloodied. You can spend $50 million on anti-aging technology because life is good and speeding by fast and why not enjoy your final decade "to the fullest"?

John Sperling and "Great Divide" co-author Suzanne Helburn discuss their theory of two Americas. Their book got some buzz from a $2 million Sperling-financed ad campaign. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Or you can dabble in politics and blow a mere $2 million running full-page newspaper ads telling the Democratic presidential candidate and his party exactly what you think they are doing wrong, which is the latest vanity project of do-I-look-like-I-care billionaire John Sperling.

The American archetype known as the rich eccentric generally ages into one of two categories: slightly kooky (Joe Firmage, the tech entrepreneur who funds alien research) or very serious (George Soros, who funds democracy in Eastern Europe and grass-roots activism in the United States). Sperling, who made his fortune by founding the private University of Phoenix, is a combination of both.

Lately in a serious phase, Sperling has been running cheeky ads in papers or on prominent Web sites: Two boxes are labeled Retro vs. Metro, with Mel Gibson, of "The Passion of the Christ," on one side, Michael Moore smiling devilishly from the other. Another pairs Tom DeLay vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton. A Humvee vs. a Toyota Prius. Oil rigs vs. windmills. George W. Bush vs. John Kerry.

Sperling's point, fleshed out in his self-published book "The Great Divide" -- he just launched a newsletter by the same name -- is not all that different from the ubiquitous metaphor of Red States vs. Blue States: America is a nation of ideological extremes, each half-trapped in its own habits and beliefs, blind to the other.

Only in Sperling's version this is no tragedy and nobody needs to reach out and make a friend. The Democrats, he argues, have "lost the retro states. It's gone, face it." Their attitude should be: Good riddance, we can eke out our majority without you.

"Retro America is made up of 25 states where low wages, subsidies, religious zealotry and social rigidity trump diversity, innovation and educational and scientific achievement," the book says. So why bother with them?

These are fighting words, a call for Democrats to stop pandering to the middle. It requires a cocksureness some in the Al Franken left have been itching for the Democratic Party to adopt anyway. If only it had some of Sperling's swagger.

"Popular causes find money everywhere; what's the point of backing them?" he once told Fast Company magazine. "When you're in the middle of a brawl your animal instincts are at their peak."

In the autumn of his life Sperling lives alone on an estate in the flats of central Phoenix. He's been married twice and has one son but has been single for nearly 40 years. By now he has discovered he's "not cohabitable," he says. "It's my nature. Whatever I'm doing I get, I guess the word is obsessed." He has no hobbies. Missy died; the cloning wasn't successful. His pet now, he says, "is my computer."

Most days he wears a black stevedore cap and a black leather jacket that makes him look as though he can't be messed with, even at his age. He called his biography, published in 2000, "Rebel With a Cause."

By now he has launched so many ventures that people make fun of that he can believably say, "It doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference what people think of me."

Sperling grew up the youngest of six children in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks during the Depression. His parents were Calvinist fundamentalists. "They didn't believe in instant damnation but pretty damned close."

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