Milbank: $26 billion worth of political speech
Sheldon Adelson is rambling.
The casino mogul and big-time Republican donor is onstage at the Washington Hilton, talking about, in no particular order: his son’s college deliberations; his casinos; his new diet; the Holocaust; his business in Macau; the Spanish Inquisition; Bibi Netanyahu; diamond merchants; the importance of travel to Israel; the Nobel Prize; his youth in Boston; his interviewer’s wife. He relates an anecdote about Israeli soldiers. Seven minutes later, he tells the same anecdote again.
Many in the audience are scrolling on their smartphones. A few leave the ballroom. But most remain, listening dutifully. As well they should: Adelson paid for this microphone.
Actually, he paid for the whole organization. The 82-year-old gambling tycoon pledged $12 million this year to the group, the Israeli American Council, up from $10 million last year, according to the Forward, a Jewish newspaper. He contributes most of the funds for the group, an eight-year-old organization for Israeli expatriates, and its staff has grown to 65 from seven two years ago. Adelson himself told the gathering in Washington on Monday that “I came up with the idea for, the vision for, IAC.”
Those who favor unlimited campaign contributions like to say that “money is speech.” The problem with this arrangement is the more money you have, the more speech you get — and Adelson is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
He knows a lot about the gambling business, but he has no particular insight into politics. Yet, with the possible exception of the Koch brothers, he exerts more influence over elections than any person in America. He almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign alive by spending $15 million in 2012. (An ungrateful Gingrich later said Adelson was part of “an election process that radically favors billionaires and is discriminating against the middle class.”) This year, most of the Republican candidates for president have been wooing the billionaire to win the “Adelson primary.”
On Israel and Jewish issues, likewise, Adelson’s insights are unoriginal. But he has become one of the most influential American Jewish figures — and a leading voice for Israel hard-liners — just by throwing around a lot of cash.
His Israeli American Council bills itself as nonpartisan, but its members stand, conveniently, where the top donor stands. “There are many in this room who are already looking to January 2017 and to the inauguration of a new president,” Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the gathering as Adelson sat in the first row. There was a wave of applause.
Next on the stage were Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel, of New York, who boasted that he was one of only 25 Democrats to oppose Obama on the Iran deal. Royce accused the Obama administration of an “abdication of moral responsibility” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of “aiding and abetting” violence in the region. Engel said he is “sick and tired of this moral equivalency” preached by the administration.
Finally, it was time to hear from the big donor, introduced to the crowd as “important,” “inspiring,” “legendary,” “unparalleled,” “visionary” and “remarkable.” Adelson had parked his motorized scooter at the foot of the stage and had been receiving well-wishers at his front-row seat for the morning, but now, with one arm holding a cane and the other a security guard’s shoulder, he made his way to the stage. “It’s a huge honor to be onstage with you,” Adelson’s interviewer, Barry Shrage, gushed. “You know that you’ve been my hero from the beginning.”
What followed was a 30-minute infomercial for one of Adelson’s pet projects, the Birthright trips to Israel for American Jews. “Why is Birthright so successful?” Adelson asked. “One of the significant factors is the eight soldiers that go on every bus with 40 Birthright participants,” he answered.
Then, before departing, he piped up again: “One last thing. One of the greatest reasons for the success of Birthright. . . . The soldiers, guys and girls, go on the bus. There are eight military.”
In between, the billionaire, his hair a swirling bronze comb-over, his suit pants hiked high and his buttoned jacket stretching across his middle, held forth on all manner of topics.
“Jews . . . got into things like the diamond business,” he explained, “so if they were expelled from one country, from one district, they could take their wealth in their pockets.”
Alternatively, “they could take it in their brains,” he said. “The Jews represent two-tenths of one percent of the population of the world, but the Jews have won 28 percent of all Nobel Prizes.”
Fun facts! And here’s another: Nobody would listen to Adelson if he weren’t worth $26 billion.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.