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"?
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."
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."
"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.
At the same time, Sperling was using a more traditional vehicle for societal transformation: politics, his old love from college. Starting in 1994 Sperling joined forces with Soros to fund a dozen state ballot initiatives to change drug laws, especially those governing marijuana possession.
After the 2002 election, discouraged by the drubbing the Democrats received, he called some old friends from academia and his ballot activism. Suzanne Helburn, a University of Colorado professor and expert on child care, Samuel George, a political consultant, John Morris, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, and Carl Hunt, a consultant specializing in public utilities, were invited to a retreat in Cozumel. Together they plotted the outline for "The Great Divide," which they all co-wrote.
This is his entourage on his $2 million road trip to sell the idea. As they gather in a hotel room at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, the atmosphere is less PowerPoint than teacher's lounge. They joke about who was more of a hippie back then, tease "John" affectionately about changing his bedpan. Sperling doesn't act like a bossy billionaire. He lets George and Helburn do most of the talking and gets his own water, fiddling with what he calls the "new-fangled" bottle.
The book compiles statistics to paint a stark difference between the two sides. Retro states have a higher percentage of Christian fundamentalists who believe the end times will happen in their lifetime, who are "hostile to science." Their economies, based on oil, gas, large-scale farming, low-wage manufacturing and military installations, depend heavily on subsidies. They receive much more from the federal government than they pay in taxes.
The Metro states, meanwhile, are the "economic engine of America," thriving on financial services and information industries.
"Think of it this way. They have Wal-Mart, we have Neiman Marcus," says George, half joking.
But that kind of comparison is exactly what the Republicans seize on. "We would say it reflects the liberal elite of the John Kerry campaign," says Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
It's a criticism echoed by historian Joel Kotkin, who argued in an essay published in The Washington Post that Sperling's prescription exacerbates the worst cartoon of Kerry and the Democrats by appealing to the urban elitist side of the Democratic Party, hip high-tech executives and Hollywood moguls, what Kotkin calls "a new social elite."
But Sperling responds that he is actually a New Deal Democrat who wants to bring the party back to its roots. "No one could call me a narrow-class elitist," he says. "I framed it in a way FDR would. It's about the jobless, single women who have had the safety net yanked out from under them. It's about half of young black men in the criminal justice system. There are horrors all around us and the Democratic Party does not seem to see that."
He argues there are six states that voted for Bush in 2000 that could be turned -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia -- if the Democrats stressed the right themes, namely women's issues, health care and job protection. Sperling is working with pollster Celinda Lake to do some post-election analysis and plans to keep the Great Divide project running for five years.
John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, argues that Sperling's data is intriguing but his approach is doomed. "It would be a hard sell to convince Americans that we should just forget about retro America," he says. Sperling's proposal is a "mirror image of Karl Rove. It embraces wedge politics and just tries to get you to 51 percent. And it just seems inconceivable Kerry would run a political strategy based on that."
The wavering polls have Sperling on edge. Ask how he feels about the election and Sperling is not his usual swaggering, itching-for-a-fight self.
"Tentative" is the best he can manage. "It's possible he could win."