In our book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I told the story of George Soros. Soros was born a Hungarian Jew to a family that managed through its wealth and its wile to survive the Second World War. After being educated in England and the United States, Soros settled in the latter, where he went on make a fortune in financial markets. In time he established his primary philanthropy, the Open Society Foundation, which today is the second largest private charitable foundation in the United States.
Leaders like Soros, who lust for legacy – who long, effectively lifelong, to leave an imprint that is permanent – risk being disappointed. In most cases they are not. Usually, their vision is buttressed by enormous resources, sometimes including great wealth, which enabled the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, to perform wonders in the field of health care.
Soros though has been a gambler. He gambled with his money, and he gambled on what he would do with his money. His billions, he decided years ago, would be spent on trying to make the world a better place not medically but politically. Not according to the rules of science, but the rules of human nature. In short, Soros gambled on the proposition that his money could contribute significantly to transforming societies, especially those in East Europe, from authoritarianism to liberalism. From fascism and communism to democracy.
I never met Soros. But I think I can assume it has been a heartbreak for him to see countries such as his own native Hungary move from the center straight back to the right, the far right. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power for over a decade, moved steadily and swiftly toward establishing a jingoistic dictatorship. Moreover, he had the unmitigated gall to attack Soros personally. The right-wing prime minister shamelessly branded the left-leaning liberal an all-powerful globalist and money-hungry Jew. A money-hungry Jew who plotted to flood Hungary with Muslim immigrants, and to undermine its Christian heritage.
Soros is now 91. He is unlikely to live long enough to see the pendulum again swing, from the right back safely and securely to the center. This explains in good part the announcement just made by the Open Society Foundation that it was transforming, that “the nature of many [of its] partnerships will shift.” To be clear, the Foundation has supported countless causes in addition to the one here described, not only abroad but at home, in the United States. But no doubt what Soros most wanted in his life was to see Europe democratic and liberal, not only West Europe but East Europe. Into this quest he poured himself as well as his money. But it was not to be – at least not in his lifetime.
Under intense pressure from Orban’s government, in 2018 the Open Society Foundation was obliged to close its office in Budapest. An ironic, painful coda to the legacy of a leader who lusted and lost.