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George Soros: odd man out at the billionaire's club

Published April 18, 2004

Billionaire George Soros is my hero.

I'm not used to looking up to rich people as a rule. You know, getting a camel through the eye of a needle and all. But the 73-year-old retired hedge fund operator who is the 28th richest person in the world, with an estimated worth of $7-billion, is like no other really rich guy I know. Soros has used his fortune to seed democracy around the world.

By giving away nearly $5-billion globally, much of it to grass-roots organizations throughout the former Soviet bloc, the Hungarian-born Soros - who barely survived the Nazis and Soviets as a teenager - has helped raise voices for freedom in teetering democracies. The groups he funds shore up respect for minority rights, individual freedom and self-determination in countries that are in danger of reverting to authoritarianism and repression. Soros is even credited with playing a key role in the ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, by underwriting the student group, Otpor, that organized the opposition.

But rather than be lionized as a man who, like a modern-day Moses, opens societies and leads people out of their enslavement to the state, Soros is the villain du jour on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and other conservative forums. The National Republican Senatorial Committee declared him a "left-wing radical" pushing an "extremist agenda on America," Fox television host Bill O'Reilly denounced him as "one far out character" and the Wall Street Journal accused him of angling to become "the biggest bankroller in Democratic politics."

Soros is getting all this unflattering attention because he supports a freedom agenda at home as well as abroad.

While most progressive funders put money into services for the poor and disabled - acting to patch the threadbare social safety net - Soros invests more like conservative givers: in research, thinkers and efforts to change public policy. He puts money into the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization promoting the sensible reform of the nation's drug laws. His Open Society Institute provides grants to numerous organizations promoting equal rights for homosexuals, including efforts to defeat a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. His giving has helped put state voter initiatives on the ballot to legalize medical marijuana and divert first-time drug offenders to treatment rather than jail; and his money has worked to defend legalized doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon.

Rather than being "far out," a number of the initiatives he sponsored passed by wide majorities.

But what is really making America's right wing nutty is Soros' targeting of President George W. Bush for defeat. Soros has a pretty good nose for tyrants and he smells one in Bush. "America under Bush is a danger to the world," he says, and he has pledged $10-million to America Coming Together and $2.5-million to to effect "regime change" at home, as MoveOn snappily puts it.

This has Republicans steamed. They think everyone with a deep pocket outside Hollywood should be one of theirs. How dare Soros not be supportive of the Bush tax cuts that will make him and his ilk even richer. How dare he not want to continue Bush's push toward the dismantlement of environmental protections and fair wage-and-hour laws, all to the good of big business. He's violating club rules.

All this conservative stomping of feet makes it seem as though Soros' money is distorting the public debate, when in truth it is the hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by the right that is doing so. Soros' dollars in the United States are a pittance compared to what is given to plant conservative ideas on the national radar. A new report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a nonprofit group that monitors charitable giving, finds that sustained and massive contributions by right-wing foundations to advance a conservative political agenda are having their desired impact. While liberal and centrist foundations tend to give money for direct services to the poor, the report says that givers on the right home in on making the political landscape friendlier to their views.

Between 1999-2001, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found, conservative foundations gave away $254-million in public policy grants. The money is used to nurture a range of organizations all existing to promote a conservative agenda. Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation provide right-wing scholars who package positions for use by Republican lawmakers. Conservative periodicals and broadcasters are underwritten to spread the word. Advocacy groups, such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, are funded to lobby Washington and generate grass-roots support. It is all coordinated to promote conservatism on every front.

Forget Soros. Richard Mellon Scaife, who has been called the "financial archangel" for the "intellectual underpinnings" of the conservative movement, has directed over $340-million into right-wing causes in the last 30 years. And how about the Coors family - remember Contra beer? - a major supporter of endeavors by Pat Robertson, Paul Weyrich, co-creator of the Moral Majority, and Schlafly. There are many more deep-pocket givers here than on Soros' side.

Soros is a lightning rod because he doesn't toe the rich-guy right-wing line. But a world without him would be a much more intolerant and oppressive place. If there is a heaven, he's one of the few billionaires getting in.

[Last modified April 18, 2004, 01:35:47]

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