The elusive enigma of George Soros

February 24, 2002|By Steve Lovelady | By Steve Lovelady,Special to the Sun

Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, by Michael T. Kaufman. Alfred A. Knopf. 328 pages. $27.50.

As the Enron Corp. unfolds before our astonished eyes as little more than a bubble of air and paper-shuffling that somehow made its way to No. 7 on Fortune magazine's list of the nation's 500 largest corporations ... and as Osama bin Laden, a child of enormous capitalist wealth, flits away from the combined forces and intelligence of Western civilization, which he wishes devoutly to destroy ... one wonders: Where, in the clamor and babble of commentary on these two defining phenomena of our times, is George Soros?

And what would he have to say?

Soros, now 72, stepped away from the world stage two years ago, and began throttling down the global multibillion-dollar giveaways to struggling efforts at democracy that had become his trademark. He hasn't said much since, which may be just as well, since, even at the height of his powers, he was neither eloquent nor articulate.

But two things seem likely: First, he, perhaps alone among us, grasps quite well, and probably at a glance, the illusions of wealth that Enron created with now-you-see-it-now-you-don't accounting and asset swaps.

After all, Soros made one of the world's great fortunes by making calculated but enormous bets on currency shifts that essentially played the middle against both ends. (Had you invested $10,000 with Soros in 1969, it would have morphed to $35 million by 1999.)

Second, he may even feel a twinge of identification with, mixed with repulsion at, the elusive bin Laden, who, like Soros, uses the fruits of capitalism to attempt to impose his own world order.

How Soros came to be Soros, perhaps the premier philanthropist since Andrew Carnegie, is the principal question asked by Michael Kaufman's new biography, a hybrid which was written with Soros' "cooperation" but without his "authorization." Kaufman doesn't know, and his half-hearted stabs at armchair psychoanalysis lack conviction. But he has strung together a chronological thread of anecdotes so astonishing that it almost doesn't matter to the reader.

Kaufman, a former New York Times correspondent, is no writer -- and that doesn't matter either; what carries this book is the tale itself. Consider: An indifferent student, young Soros hides from first the Nazis, then the Russians, during and after World War II; makes his way from Hungary to London, and puts in time at the London School of Economics, where he reveals himself to be a slow reader, inept at math and at loose ends as to how to make a living; immigrates to the United States and Wall Street; vows to himself to build a fortune of $500,000 within five years with the philosophy of "invest first, investigate later," exceeds his goal, keeps at it, within 25 years is being hailed as "the world's greatest money manager"; and then sets out, quietly and systematically, to give away that money in the promotion of "open societies" worldwide.

Along the way, he nearly breaks the Bank of England speculating against the pound; cautions the world against the dangers of the very unfettered free markets he exploited to build his stake; gives away billions based on dinner conversations; and comes to think of himself as a one-man Marshall Plan for nations emerging shakily from communism.

He also infuriates financial traditionalists and established governments alike, with grandiose statements -- usually uttered in a flat, almost deadpan conversational manner -- such as: "My goal is to become the conscience of the world." And "there is plenty of money for waging war, and there is absolutely no money for waging peace."

As Kaufman notes, it remains to be seen if Soros' efforts -- to bring the remnants of the Evil Empire that was worldwide communism into the 21st century and to create "open societies" that span the globe -- will endure. Or whether, as once was said of Mikhail Gorbachev, even Soros with all his wealth and all his good intentions in the end merely ripped off the blackened leaves of a cabbage that is, after all, still rotting at the core.

But there is this to be said for him: of all the world's handful of men who are wealthier than most nations, he was, and is, the only one trying. For that alone, Kaufman's plodding tale is worth the read.

Steve Lovelady is a former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and editor-at-large for Time Inc., the publisher of Fortune, Time and Sports Illustrated.

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