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Red, Blue and Lots of Green

When he was 10, one of the preachers looked at him with pale blue eyes and asked, "Son, are you saved?" Sperling looked deep into himself and knew that he wasn't, that "I was going straight to Hell," he recalls. At 16, he knew he would do something sinful, and "I dared God to strike me dead." He lived. "That was it. That freed me from religion right there."

There are other such moments in Sperling's biography that in retrospect look like bait to Republicans. For example, he says the only bright spot in his childhood was the day his father died. He rolled around in the grass giggling. "I could hardly contain my joy."

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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"I learned nothing from my childhood," he writes. "Except that it's a mean world out there and you've got to bite and scratch to get by." Sperling's political awakening began at 18 when he joined the Merchant Marine. The ships were full of intellectuals escaping the Depression. They were Trotskyites who came with their libraries, Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

Sperling soaked up their endless discussions and subversive temperament. The GI Bill sent him to Reed College in Oregon and graduate school at University of California at Berkeley, where he studied English, history, philosophy and economics. Both places he remembers as an "intellectual feast," with people up all night debating.

He became a professor of history at Ohio State but got tired of academia's "passivity," the parties with "lousy wine and tuna and macaroni casseroles." He moved to San Jose State to head the faculty union and led a disastrous strike. After the dare to God, this turned out to be his second moment of liberation by terror.

"It was a searing learning experience. When you're a total pariah, when 1,200 faculty members have lost their jobs because of you and only two or three will even speak to you, it teaches you to be indifferent to disapproval."

At this point, Sperling was free to become the kind of person his lefty union self had always considered the enemy -- a businessman. The transformation is one the business press loves to dote on: a poor boy with no financial training hits upon an idea everyone laughs at and makes himself drippingly rich.

In 1972, Sperling was running a series of workshops at San Jose State to prepare police officers and teachers to work with juvenile delinquents. This gave him the idea of starting a permanent, for-profit institution for adults who wanted to finish college or expand their careers. Academia laughed at the University of Phoenix, called it McUniversity, a diploma mill. It's now the largest private university in the United States, and when the company went public in 1994, it made him his fortune.

Then, like many rich men, Sperling decided to give back, and thus begins his eccentric phase. One day in 1997 he and his friend Lou Hawthorne were having breakfast and talking about Dolly, the cloned sheep. Sperling looked over at his beloved Missy lying contentedly on the floor and joked, "Hey, we should clone Missy." Then seconds later, "Hey, we should clone Missy," no longer joking, and he set Hawthorne on a mission.

Hawthorne found a team of willing scientists at Texas A&M. They recorded their progress on a Web site filled with Missy lore -- her luminous coat, the story of her saving a drowning dog, how she once was clocked at 35 miles per hour, how it was rumored she had coyote in her.

Sperling always claimed he was immune to the ridicule that he would spend millions to clone a pet. Yet he kept his identity a secret, revealing it only when the scientists had a breakthrough. Dogs turned out to be too difficult, but they managed a cat, nicknamed CC for Copy Cat.

The success led to a slew of investments in cutting-edge plant and animal biotechnology. One company specializes in cloning pets, the other farm animals. A third aims to perfect salt-tolerant crops. All embody the trademark Sperling blend of messianic and practical.

Sperling's next obsession was anti-aging technology. To explain his interest, Sperling draws a graph of the relationship between health and age. The line rises and rises until it reaches age 80, and then plummets into "awful health. Why should we end our lives like that?" he asks. Instead, we should live in "optimal health" and then die. (Sperling wakes up at 5:30 each day, takes long walks, works all day and looks 10 years younger than he is.)

A company he founded runs an "optimal health" clinic in Arizona, where clients pay $4,500 to undergo a battery of tests and receive detailed medical, dietary and exercise plans. It also funds research into hormone replacement therapy.

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