Call it a billionaire's luck, or maybe his wizardry: Not five minutes after George Soros warned ominously at the National Press Club yesterday of an impending Republican smear campaign against him, it materialized.
There at the back of the room a tall man carrying an enormous manila envelope stealthily handed out statements from Republican spokesman Jim Dyke describing Soros as, among other things, "the Daddy Warbucks of the Democratic Party," soft on drug dealers, someone whose latest crusade is a sure sign of the Democrats' late-stage "desperation."
Thus the world's most successful investor turned antiwar activist launched his month-long, 12-city tour against Bush and the war in Iraq, the usual stream of insults and innuendo trailing behind him.
"I'm not a politician," Soros says in his gentle Hungarian-accented voice, when asked if he has any advice for John Kerry in the debates. But in fact Soros has placed himself in the thick of this election for more than a year.
To date he's donated more than $15 million to liberal activist groups including MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, with the express purpose of ousting the president. In his latest venture he plans to spend more than $2 million speaking in swing states and running ads in major newspapers, spreading the message that the war in Iraq has done "untold damage" to the United States.
"If I could contribute to repudiating Bush's policies it would be the greatest good deed I could do for the world," says the philanthropist who has spent billions promoting democracy all over the world.
Soros has repeatedly talked about Bush's popularity as if it were one of the many inflated currencies he's bet against: as something illusory, an Internet stock, a bubble he could pop if he threw enough money at it.
Now the anticipated moment for Bush to bust has arrived. But with only 34 days to go, the president has a solid lead in the polls. Was it a wise investment, Soros is asked, and one can only say he hedged, by adopting the romantic pose of the underdog.
In the world of ideas success is measured differently, he says, citing a quote from the Russian liberal thinker Sergei Kovaylov: "All my life I've fought for losing causes."
"But please, don't use that as your headline," he adds.
Soros opened his speech before about 100 reporters yesterday, many of them foreign, by asking the obvious question -- "Why should anybody listen to me?" -- and then pretending that it was not because he was one of the world's richest men but because of his "rather unusual background." He made most of his money speculating in foreign currencies.
Soros, 74, grew up Jewish in occupied Hungary. He survived the Holocaust because his father changed his family's identity. Then he got a taste of communism before coming in his twenties to the United States, a country he chose "because I value freedom and democracy," he says, and the place that made him one of the richest men in the world.
In his speeches and his writing, Soros backs the left's standard criticism of the war: that Bush took advantage of 9/11 to "further his own agenda"; that, seized with a mistaken vision of military omnipotence, he launched the country into a "vicious cycle of escalating violence."
But what really gets Soros going is what he calls Bush's "intimidation tactics," his attitude that "you are with us or with the terrorists" -- a way of stifling dissent that Soros recognizes from his youth.
"I find the Bush campaign quite reprehensible," he says. "Instead of discussing issues, they attack people who espouse those issues. It reminds me of my childhood, when you were discussing something with the communists and they say you're a bourgeois capitalist so what you say doesn't count. There has to be some respect for the truth."
Soros himself has gotten a taste of the attacks. In a Fox News interview this summer, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), when asked where Soros got his money, speculated: "You know, I don't know where George Soros gets his money. I don't know where -- if it comes from overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from." He went on to explain that because Soros advocates drug legalization, "he's got a lot of ancillary interests out there."
Soros has become a regular target on the rant end of the political dialogue, where Ann Coulter talks about whether Al Gore has lost his mind and who's worse, Michael Moore or Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly called him "a real sleazoid" with political views "as far left as you can get without moving to Havana." Soros "wants abortion even out of the womb," he said. Tony Blankley of the Washington Times called him a "Jew who figured out a way to survive the Holocaust" and a "robber baron, a pirate capitalist . . . a reckless man."
Then there was radio host Michael Savage, who devoted an hour in June to: "Billionaire George Goebbels Soros," referring to Hitler's propaganda minister. "A money changer in the temple of truth," Savage called him, a "dangerous crazy man."
You get the point.
But Soros, who has worked against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, is not intimidated by radio chatter. In his efforts to promote democracy in the former Soviet bloc, Soros showed he had a naturally subversive temperament, once flooding Romania with photocopy machines when the government there limited access to them.
Fighting Bush, he gives as good as he gets. He's compared the president's attitude to Nazi slogans and George Orwell's "Animal Farm." He's called the neoconservatives who guide Bush's foreign policy a "bunch of extremists guided by a crude form of social Darwinism."
Yesterday, though, Soros seemed more frustrated than combative. At several points he listed Bush's "lies," distortions that were so perfectly obvious to him, and yet, he complained, why didn't everyone see them?
"There must be something wrong with us if we believe it," he says in exasperation with his placid, adopted nation. "I want to shout from the rooftops: 'Wake up, America. Don't you realize that we are being misled?'
"My wish is that Bush were rejected in a landslide," he says with the frustration of someone used to winning his bets. "But that's not in the cards right now."