George Soros Discusses Efforts to Spread Democracy

Billionaire and philanthropist George Soros spent $27 million during the last presidential election to try to get George W. Bush out of office. But he and the president agree on at least one thing: spreading democracy. Host Steve Inskeep talks to Soros about his goal of building a civil society.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The billionaire George Soros is considering his next moves after spending a piece of his fortune on last year's presidential campaign.

Mr. GEORGE SOROS (Philanthropist): I mean, I saw it very clearly that I ought to oppose President Bush. It was clear to me that that's the best thing I could do. Now that he's been re-elected, exactly how to get America back to its founding values, it's not so clear.

INSKEEP: George Soros sat down for a talk in New York City at the investment firm that made him rich. A single word in silver letters hangs behind the reception desk, the founder's last name. He's a Hungarian native who lived through the Holocaust and went on to become a currency speculator. Now he's spending his fortune on philanthropy, dispensing $400 million last year alone. What requires some explanation is that Soros shares a goal with the president he tried so hard to defeat, the spread of democracy.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: When demonstrators forced a change of government in Ukraine, George Soros was there or rather his money was. Branches of Soros' Open Society Institute have worked with opposition groups in authoritarian countries. His many other causes include educational programs from Central Asia to central Baltimore.

Unidentified Man: Because it's your case, that's your question to answer.

INSKEEP: Just last week, inner-city students in a Soros-funded debate program discussed assistance to refugees.

Unidentified Student #1: If where they used to live is still blown up and bombed down, we basically want to throw them back in front of a bullet?

Unidentified Students #2: That's what we're arguing, that the US has made a commitment. Why should they be able to slack and, you know, let all these lives be lost?

INSKEEP: The sponsor of that discussion once told a biographer that he wanted to be the conscience of the world.

Mr. SOROS: Yes, I did say that and actually I stand by it. I think the world very much needs a conscience, not me personally, but I want my foundation network to be the conscience of the world, to support civil society that is critical of the state and of the government.

Mr. MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN (Biographer): It wasn't vanity speaking entirely.

INSKEEP: That's the biographer, Michael T. Kaufman.

Mr. KAUFMAN: He's not a blowhard, but there is vanity in the man. There's no question he wants to signify. He let me know once that he would gladly give up his entire fortune if he could write a work of philosophy that would exist for a thousand years. I mean, his ambitions are not small.

INSKEEP: Kaufman says Soros has realized some of his ambitions, though he failed last year in his goal of defeating President Bush. He spent $27 million on a variety of efforts including commercials. In the conference room where we met, a windowsill held 11 books, a Soros critique of the Bush administration as translated into 11 languages. He's been described as the only private citizen with his own foreign policy.

Mr. SOROS: I'm, you know, thrilled to see the president embrace the spreading of democracy. I'm worried about it because I think he's going about it the wrong way. It has to be the citizens who are standing up for certain principles, and then I feel good about helping them. That's a somewhat different approach than, for instance, imposing democracy by military means.

INSKEEP: Although at the same time, it does seem that there are occasions in which your policy, if we can call it that, and the US government's policy seem to be the same. And, in fact, you seem to be working together. It's my understanding that in...

Mr. SOROS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Uzbekistan, the Open Society Institute was actually receiving grants from the US State Department and spending millions of dollars of US government money on various programs.

Mr. SOROS: That is correct.

INSKEEP: This may surprise a lot of people who are aware of your public opposition to the Bush administration.

Mr. SOROS: Yes, but after all, the Open Society Foundation has the same objectives as the State Department, except we concentrate more on promoting democracy than the State Department. On the other hand, there's also quite a vocal political group that is out to persecute me personally and indirectly the foundations.

INSKEEP: George Soros is not entirely comfortable in the spotlight he turned on himself. Because of his spending in last year's election, he faces regular criticism on conservative television. A conservative newspaper recently gave him a new label based on a court case.

Mr. SOROS: They're now beginning to call me convicted inside trader George Soros.

INSKEEP: Soros calls that wording unfair since he is appealing that French court ruling from a case dating back to the 1980s. Still, a Republican congressman is happy to mention it.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican): Mr. Soros was convicted in a French court for insider trading.

INSKEEP: Eric Cantor is a leading House Republican and he accuses Soros of underwriting a radical agenda.

Rep. CANTOR: Mr. Soros harbors ideas that are far outside the mainstream of America: drug legalization, assisted suicide, needle exchanges, voting rights of felons. The list just goes on.

INSKEEP: That list has a measure of truth. Soros does, for example, support needle exchanges for drug users and the use of medical marijuana. He contends that other claims are oversimplified and add up to a distortion.

Mr. SOROS: Because I consider myself a mainstream American of Hungarian origin, but the way I'm depicted is some kind of an extremist that is a traitor to America and American values and so on which is when I'm actually here to preserve those values.

INSKEEP: Soros argues that since the September 11 attacks, the values he supports abroad are being eroded at home. He says he wants to encourage the kind of political debate in which people actually learn from each other.

Mr. SOROS: President Bush simply rejects the idea that he may be wrong. Now he's profoundly religious and I think that religion is very much part of an open society, but that kind of religion, when you feel that you've been anointed by God, that I think is a danger.

INSKEEP: And yet you can make a case that while denying error publicly, this administration has repeatedly reversed course, changed tactics in places like Iraq, even if they're not willing to admit it publicly for political reasons.

Mr. SOROS: Absolutely. You're absolutely right, and there's been some very noticeable shifts and I welcome them. I don't condemn everything that President Bush does as wrong, but I know that I may be wrong and he won't acknowledge that.

INSKEEP: You feel that it's important to admit the possibility that you're wrong why? So you can learn from your mistakes?

Mr. SOROS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Was your involvement in the 2004 election a mistake?

Mr. SOROS: No. I think it was absolutely the right thing. I think I raised important issues and I will continue to raise those issues.

INSKEEP: The people who advocate campaign finance reform will argue that the evil, if you want to call it that, is that one person or one small group of people should not be able to contribute so much money that it distorts the system.

Mr. SOROS: I was torn on that issue.

INSKEEP: Why were you torn?

Mr. SOROS: Because discussions should be based on the merit of the discussion, not on the amount of money you put behind paid advertisements, but there was a tremendous disparity about the amount of money that President Bush had to the Democratic opposition. And by taking the stance that I did, it helped to balance the money.

INSKEEP: Can we assume that you will be involved in the next election or the election after that and trying to be more effective next time?

Mr. SOROS: Yes. But, you see, I would like to get away from party politics. I can't help being in a partisan position. I won't renounce it, but my ambition would be to be less partisan because one of the troubles that everything has been politicized, this us against them, and they are not right. It doesn't make us right.

INSKEEP: After spreading his millions through so many nations, George Soros says the fight that matters to him now is here. He argues that Americans have to restore civility to their own democracy if they want to set an example to the world.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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