Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Lunch With George

The Faithful Correspondent writes of her lunch with George Soros at the University of Toledo.

Well, the event today was fruitful as much for our learning about the “real” George Soros – an unimposing, smallish fellow (no Svbig, you understand) with a sad face and low-key delivery – as for hearing in person what we’ve read in his two-page advertisements in the Times. I learned in the question time after the private luncheon we attended that his dream of bringing democracy to Russia and East Germany has become sadly tarnished in the Putin era and that his hope of making a difference is fading. The objections to his appearance voiced by the University board brought repercussions in the form of low turn-out due to depressed pre-visit publicity and angry letters not only from board members, but from supporters who threatened to withdraw money from the school. Still, the President of the University, Dan Johnson, was there throughout and rightfully so, as were a few of the board members along with the largest contributor to the school since the death of Harold McMaster last year. A university should be a place where all voices are heard and for Republican trustees to howl about giving a forum to a man of such idealism reminds me that Democrats are nicer than Republicans.

The audience in the Alumni Hall smallish auditorium was less than 300, a mix of professors and business people plus the usual Democratic suspects – the mayor, the chairman of the Port Authority, the head of the party, a Hungarian state representative – Peter Ujvagi, who presented Mr. Soros with a copy of the speech Kossuth had made to the Ohio legislature in 1858 – “governnment of the people, by the people and for the people” which Lincoln lifted and used in a more elegant speech 4 years later. There were a few Bush/Cheney sign holders and at one point during the Q&A a woman pushed forward, grabbing the mic to harangue Mr. Soros about disloyalty to “our troops”. Sheila Nicholson told me that she was a regular rabble rouser who was kicked out of a city council meeting earlier in the year. But by and large it was a quiet and polite affair. No protesters outside, few supporters with signs inside. The thing to keep in mind is the the Soros effort focuses on www.moveon.org and A.C.T. so, being a 527, must keep a legal distance from the Kerry campaign. Mr. Soros emphasizes that he doesn’t speak for John Kerry, but his opinions mesh with those of the candidate very closely. The owner of the Toledo Blade, JR Block, attended, as well as the Managing Editor, Tom Walton. Perennial candidate, Carty Finkbeiner, looking tanned, trim and ready to run again was also there, seated close by mover-and-shaker and our host, Pat Nicholson.

George Soros is a bearer of democracy for all peoples all over the world having poured money into South Africa over 20 years ago and more recently Russia. And as Mayor Jack Ford, said in his introduction, “He walks the walk as well as talk the talk.” Soros said he has never worked for a political candidate, but he feels this election to be so vital not only for America, but for the world – the economic policies of the administration threaten world-wide financial stability – that he, having long ago retired from business, is making this effort and investing in the push to get out the vote. He wanted us to understand that democracy must come from the citizens. It can’t be imposed by military force. He believes the reasons to attack Afghanistan were valid though the job was muffed by our failure to finish it. Afghanistan’s principal crop is again opium and the Taliban lurk next door ready to return.

The adventure in Iraq, where we are busily building military bases thus adding to the perception that we’re occupiers, will be causing us to be mired in this quagmire for years. It has weakened our armed forces’ ability to respond to other threats and will require us to impose conscription soon. And along with all this good news, the nuclear proliferation where again we dropped the ball years ago now adds, beyond North Korea and Iran, other smaller states – Brazil, for example has the bomb – to hurry into nuclear development in order to forestall invasion by a United States bent on preemptive attack. In other words, owning the bomb protects a country from the USA. (!)

Lunch was a small, private affair in the dining room of Alumni Hall. After lunch Mr. Soros answered questions ranging from what is your financial advice today? (“I’m bearish even in the long term because of the trade deficit and our own government’s deficit. There will be a small temporary uptick if Bush is reelected, but that’s all.”) to what should we do about Cuba and Haiti? (“I can’t take on Cuba, but it’s counterintuitive to continue the embargo.”). To me a most interesting question came from Phineas Anderson, headmaster of Maumee Valley Country Day School. Phin reminded Mr. Soros that the Soros fund had provided plane fare for the children of Russian parents participating in a student exchange that Phin had started, the first ever in this country, while he was headmaster of a private school in Phoenix. Sometime during the Reagan administration Phin approached some anti-nuclear activists who were bound for Russia, to carry with them drawings done by children in his school and give them to the head of a school in the Soviet Union. Eventually an exchange of drawings began and grew by timid steps into a student exchange. Phin applied to the Soros Foundation for money to assist poor Russian children in getting to America. When the Reagan administration thought a people-to-people exchange would be a good idea, they found that one had already started – Phin’s – so enlarging on it was simple. Anyway, after lunch Phineas stood up to remind Mr. Soros of this and to ask if he could spare the time today to visit MVCDS and meet the 350 children there who would love to connect a face to the gift. George was happy to comply and in fact, it might have been a happy relief from the depression he must feel about how his life-long effort to lift up the world is being thwarted.

We have had some memorable experiences in this, our Year Of Activism, and this was one of the most poignant and interesting.