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A wealth of criticism

Philanthropist Soros writes that the Bush camp reminds him of the Nazi regime.

July 29, 2006|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

GEORGE SOROS, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor whose fortune is matched only by his philanthropy, pioneered a kind of self-styled approach to global reform that made him, in the words of the Carnegie Endowment's Morton Abramowitz, "the only private citizen who had his own foreign policy."

With no sluggish bureaucracy to answer to, he rose to prominence with stunningly practical bequests delivered in a timely manner. There was his $50-million donation to the besieged citizens of Sarajevo in 1993 that financed a water plant so that women did not need to rely on the public wells where Serbian snipers picked them off with ease. There was his pro-democracy support in the Soviet Bloc, for Poland's Solidarity movement and for Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, who would become that country's post-Communist president.

Soros has given away about $5 billion since he embarked on this citizen-policymaker approach in the 1970s, a sum that approaches the $7.2-billion estimate of his net wealth by Forbes in 2004. That put him in the league of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie and has made him a perennial Nobel nominee.

Today, Soros, 75, has company. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put that couple at the forefront of global health issues -- they just contributed $287 million for the development of an AIDS vaccine with the help of a recent $31-billion bequest from Warren Buffett. And in 1997, Ted Turner made a $1-billion pledge to the United Nations to help bail it out.

But Soros still distinguishes himself with the staggering multiplicity of his projects: He spent $125 million on after-school programs in New York City. He has helped distribute Xerox machines to facilitate the exchange of information in former Soviet satellites and supported efforts to curb violence against women.

Now, Soros has raised eyebrows with his most recent sally into American political culture by drawing comparisons in his new book between the Bush administration and communist and Nazi governments.

In "The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror," Soros recalls that when he "heard President Bush say, 'Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,' " in the wake of 9/11, "I was reminded of Nazi propaganda.

"Indeed, the Bush Administration has been able to improve on the techniques used by the Nazi and the Communist propaganda machines by drawing on the innovations of the advertising and marketing industries."

On a recent day, Soros was not quite backing down.

"You don't have a Karl Marx, you only have a Karl Rove who has been successful in creating a coalition of fundamentalists," he began, sitting in a conference room high above Manhattan, framed by a view of New York's Central Park, in a striped blue cotton shirt and khakis, his manner affable and relaxed.

However, he added, "we are an established democracy.... The policies and tactics employed by the Bush administration do not pose a threat to open society." Heavy-handed government in America today, he said, manifests itself in the undue extension of executive powers and the dismissal of critics as unpatriotic. That, in his view, "is the most significant similarity with the Nazi and communist regimes."

But he acknowledged that -- even at a time when the government has engaged in secret wiretapping, hustled prisoners off to secret jails around the world and is holding terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without trial -- more than a few people might consider such comparisons a stretch.

"It's very dicey, because people consider it somewhat shocking," Soros said. "It's really questionable whether I'm doing the right thing in being outspoken.... It may be that I pushed it too far."

It's not that Soros can't take the heat. Chris Blackhurst wrote in the Evening Standard of London this year that Soros is "reviled by the right as a 'left-wing radical' (it really is a term of abuse over there)." Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) called Soros "pro-marijuana" because of Soros' advocacy of decriminalizing the drug (Soros also favors clean needle programs). A Republican spokesman, Jim Dyke, called him the "Daddy Warbucks" of the Democratic Party when he spent $27.5 million to try to beat Bush in 2004. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert once falsely speculated to Fox TV that Soros might get his money from "drug groups." Fox's Bill O'Reilly reportedly ranted, nonsensically, that Soros "wants abortion even out of the womb." Vicious anti-Semitic smears blink out from the Internet.

At the moment, Soros said, "I'm not all that comfortable" serving as a lightning rod. "I accept it. I'm in a position where I can take it. But I don't enjoy it. I have too many enemies. And that becomes counterproductive.... Taking on too many causes, I create a kind of echo chamber, and it works against me."

Soros views the attacks on him partly as an inevitable consequence of the issues he has tackled -- a dizzying array that makes a perusal of his website,, seem like a trip around the world.

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