George Soros, one of the world's richest men, has given away nearly $5 billion to promote democracy in the former Soviet bloc, Africa and Asia. Now he has a new project: defeating President Bush.
"It is the central focus of my life," Soros said, his blue eyes settled on an unseen target. The 2004 presidential race, he said in an interview, is "a matter of life and death."
Soros, who has financed efforts to promote open societies in more than 50 countries around the world, is bringing the fight home, he said. On Monday, he and a partner committed up to $5 million to MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group, bringing to $15.5 million the total of his personal contributions to oust Bush.
Overnight, Soros, 74, has become the major financial player of the left. He has elicited cries of foul play from the right. And with a tight nod, he pledged: "If necessary, I would give more money."
"America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros said. Then he smiled: "And I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is."
Soros believes that a "supremacist ideology" guides this White House. He hears echoes in its rhetoric of his childhood in occupied Hungary. "When I hear Bush say, 'You're either with us or against us,' it reminds me of the Germans." It conjures up memories, he said, of Nazi slogans on the walls, Der Feind Hort mit ("The enemy is listening"). "My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me," he said in a soft Hungarian accent.
Soros's contributions are filling a gap in Democratic Party finances that opened after the restrictions in the 2002 McCain-Feingold law took effect. In the past, political parties paid a large share of television and get-out-the-vote costs with unregulated "soft money" contributions from corporations, unions and rich individuals. The parties are now barred from accepting such money. But non-party groups in both camps are stepping in, accepting soft money and taking over voter mobilization.
"It's incredibly ironic that George Soros is trying to create a more open society by using an unregulated, under-the-radar-screen, shadowy, soft-money group to do it," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson said. "George Soros has purchased the Democratic Party."
In past election cycles, Soros contributed relatively modest sums. In 2000, his aide said, he gave $122,000, mostly to Democratic causes and candidates. But recently, Soros has grown alarmed at the influence of neoconservatives, whom he calls "a bunch of extremists guided by a crude form of social Darwinism."
Neoconservatives, Soros said, are exploiting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a preexisting agenda of preemptive war and world dominion. "Bush feels that on September 11th he was anointed by God," Soros said. "He's leading the U.S. and the world toward a vicious circle of escalating violence."
Soros said he had been waking at 3 a.m., his thoughts shaking him "like an alarm clock." Sitting in his robe, he wrote his ideas down, longhand, on a stack of pads. In January, PublicAffairs will publish them as a book, "The Bubble of American Supremacy" (an excerpt appears in December's Atlantic Monthly). In it, he argues for a collective approach to security, increased foreign aid and "preventive action."
"It would be too immodest for a private person to set himself up against the president," he said. "But it is, in fact" -- he chuckled -- "the Soros Doctorine."
His campaign began last summer with the help of Morton H. Halperin, a liberal think tank veteran. Soros invited Democratic strategists to his house in Southampton, Long Island, including Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta, Jeremy Rosner, Robert Boorstin and Carl Pope.
They discussed the coming election. Standing on the back deck, the evening sun angling into their eyes, Soros took aside Steve Rosenthal, CEO of the liberal activist group America Coming Together (ACT), and Ellen Malcolm, its president. They were proposing to mobilize voters in 17 battleground states. Soros told them he would give ACT $10 million.
Asked about his moment in the sun, Rosenthal deadpanned: "We were disappointed. We thought a guy like George Soros could do more." Then he laughed. "No, kidding! It was thrilling."
Malcolm: "It was like getting his Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
"They were ready to kiss me," Soros quipped.
Before coffee the next morning, his friend Peter Lewis, chairman of the Progressive Corp., had pledged $10 million to ACT. Rob Glaser, founder and CEO of RealNetworks, promised $2 million. Rob McKay, president of the McKay Family Foundation, gave $1 million and benefactors Lewis and Dorothy Cullman committed $500,000.
Soros also promised up to $3 million to Podesta's new think tank, the Center for American Progress.
Soros will continue to recruit wealthy donors for his campaign. Having put a lot of money into the war of ideas around the world, he has learned that "money buys talent; you can advocate more effectively."
At his home in Westchester, N.Y., he raised $115,000 for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. He also supports Democratic presidential contenders Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.).
In an effort to limit Soros's influence, the RNC sent a letter to Dean Monday, asking him to request that ACT and similar organizations follow the McCain-Feingold restrictions limiting individual contributions to $2,000.
The RNC is not the only group irked by Soros. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which promotes changes in campaign finance, has benefited from Soros's grants over the years. Soros has backed altering campaign finance, an aide said, donating close to $18 million over the past seven years.
"There's some irony, given the supporting role he played in helping to end the soft money system," Wertheimer said. "I'm sorry that Mr. Soros has decided to put so much money into a political effort to defeat a candidate. We will be watchdogging him closely."
An aide said Soros welcomes the scrutiny. Soros has become as rich as he has, the aide said, because he has a preternatural instinct for a good deal.
Asked whether he would trade his $7 billion fortune to unseat Bush, Soros opened his mouth. Then he closed it. The proposal hung in the air: Would he become poor to beat Bush?
He said, "If someone guaranteed it."