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Patt Morrison Asks

Nicolas Berggruen: Change agent

With a world of things needing fixing, why billionaire Nicolas Berggruen has made California his mission.

January 08, 2011|Patt Morrison

Nicolas Berggruen is the kind of man who, like the White Queen in Wonderland, not only can believe six impossible things before breakfast but has the means and the drive to nudge them into reality. The descriptor "billionaire" is invariably attached to his name, as are the famous facts that he is "homeless" by choice -- no house, just an art collection in storage and a jet to get him from hotel to hotel on his point-to-point work for Berggruen Holdings, his private investment company, and for the other, civic-minded causes that take up his time and his money.

There might be no more impossible cause to believe in right now than California's. Yet Berggruen's think tank, the Berggruen Institute, is putting $20 million into the Think Long Committee for California, trying to help the state (and then the country) "break out of the gridlock that is leading us from an era of promise to a trajectory of demise," according to the institute's website.

At the committee's first meeting in October, the lions of California business and policy -- Willie Brown, Eli Broad, Condoleezza Rice, Gray Davis, Gerald Parsky -- sat down together to commit to some fierce and fearless gestalting about California's problems. Berggruen the patron, a fan of Confucius and chocolate, suggests all things are still possible in this best of all possible states.

With a world of things needing fixing, why choose California?

California is a place of invention, a place of courage, a place of vision, a place of the future. People who made California what it is were willing to take risks, think outside convention and build. California has something which not every place in the world has: It has what I would call a sunny side, and I don't mean just physically, but the sunny side is a future. California's worth saving, to put it bluntly. California has a great history, will have a great history. Other places in the world, including other places in America, I don't think have that, unfortunately. California, even with the troubles that it has today, has this window into our future.

But it also has problems of its own making.

You've had [former Gov.] Gray Davis trying to do things; you had Schwarzenegger, who I think was well intended. [But] it's very difficult to get anything done, because the structure is so difficult. So California is in trouble -- not just short-term financial trouble but also structural trouble. Anybody you talk to almost -- left, right, nonpartisan -- says the place needs reforms. I think people want reforms, and they're willing to go beyond the partisan.

You have personal reasons for caring about California.

I spend a lot of time in California, more than any other place probably in the world. My father came to California in the early '30s. He studied at Berkeley and then became a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. He met his first wife, and they had two children, my brother and sister, who live in California. I came to America for the first time [when] I was in my teens. I came to L.A. and San Francisco and New York, and I always said that someday I would be here. I was living in Paris, which is a very beautiful, very wonderful place, but a tight place as a city, a tight place culturally. Its people are very brilliant, thoughtful, the place functions, but it's a historical place in some ways, like a big museum. California is sort of the opposite -- it has history, it has enormous charm, but there's so much new and such an influx of new talent that California is fresh. When I saw all this sunshine [for the first time], the palm trees, the people, the openness -- very vibrant, very seductive. I still love it. When I'm here, I'm really happy.

If you're in Paris, you fit in with Paris. Here you want to create a new version of California that suits you.

California is morphing every day and people are open to change. California is, I think, a bellwether state, and if reforms are done here, they'll have a big influence. If it's happening in California, the country will take note and maybe it'll help that change. And frankly California will have an influence on the world. In China or Paris or South America or Africa, anyplace -- you talk about California, people light up. It's still a place of dreams.

What do you get out of this? The satisfaction of seeing California work properly?

Bottom line, yes. I've had a business career which luckily has been good to me, and I've been thinking, "What do I do to use whatever energy I have, and other resources, to put them toward the highest and best use?" I wish I was a great writer or a great journalist or a great scientist or a great artist; I'm not. So I've seen what's happening around the world, a huge correlation between good countries and good government, and a culture that allows good government. You need a combination. Governments can change and address issues, so I thought, [this is] where I can be the most effective, the most helpful.

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