After the opening-night performance of Tosca at the Met this spring, a handful of people found their way through a side door of the hall to the narrow corridor that leads backstage. One or two held flowers; a couple were in eveningwear. They were headed for the dressing rooms to congratulate soprano Maria Guleghina, who had just thrown herself from the castle wall. A guard with a clipboard barred the way, checking off names. Everyone passed through, till he came to a bearish figure, a tall, large-boned man with a big head topped by a shock of uncombed silver hair. Yet there was nothing indelicate about him, and if he was not elegant, there was discernment in his smallish light eyes and dark peaked eyebrows.
His name wasn’t on the list. The large opera lover repeated it a couple of times—“Kovner”—and even spelled it, but the guard shook his head. There was no help for him. And with a hop of the eyebrows, the pleasant expression never leaving his face, Kovner said thank-you and good night, then turned away, disappearing with his group of friends.
If no one knows anything about Bruce Kovner, it is because he likes it that way. Yet the unassuming manner is camouflage for one of the most powerful people in the country, culturally, financially, and politically. Kovner, 60 years old and divorced, manages the largest hedge fund in the world and every year ratchets higher on the Forbes list of the richest Americans (most recently, 106). Wealth has granted him influence in the fields that he finds most interesting: high culture and public policy. As chairman of Juilliard and vice-chairman of Lincoln Center, he is spearheading the project to redevelop West 65th Street, to turn Lincoln Center “inside out.” He has said he will throw in $25 million or so of his own to kick-start the construction. Meantime, across the park, for his private delectation, he bought the former International Center of Photography mansion on Fifth Avenue and 94th Street for $17 million and over five years has spent upwards of $10 million remaking the historic brick mansion into a single-family residence, with a two-story bedroom, a media room, a book vault in the basement to house his collection of rare European illustrated books, eighteen water closets, and one bidet.
As Kovner makes his way through the city, so does he consume the nation. He’s a neoconservative godfather. He is among the backers of the Manhattan Institute and the fledgling right-wing daily the New York Sun.
Most important, Kovner is chairman of the American Enterprise Institute. The right-wing think tank has supplied the government with the most powerful ideas in foreign policy in a generation, a vision of a supremely idealistic and militaristic American empire that must carry democracy out from its shores by force and begin by remaking the Middle East. In a speech at AEI, George W. Bush thanked the tank for supplying him more brains than any other organization, nearly twenty, including Dick Cheney, who is said to be close to Kovner, and John Bolton, the fireman’s son who wants to raise his voice in the corridors of the United Nations. As well as many of the architects of America’s Iraq policy, from Richard Perle to David Frum to Michael Rubin to David Wurmser. When these men (and at least one woman, Lynne Cheney) have not worked for Bush, they have found a prominent platform a few blocks away in the sleek AEI building. This is perhaps Bruce Kovner’s signal (and shared) achievement: to underwrite what had been extreme ideas and bring them into mainstream discourse.
“No one has ever developed the machinery that can drive the approach to public policy that the right has—a strategic, disciplined approach to policy formation,” says Rob Stein, founder of the Democracy Alliance, who is trying to create such a network on the other side. “I think Bruce has certain values but not a detailed agenda,” says Robert Samuelson, the Newsweek and Washington Post columnist who has known Kovner since college. “My impression is that he believes it is healthy for the country to have people who crudely share his values in the dialogue. He is doing this for very good reasons. He is not self-interested, except maybe psychologically.”
Now and then, Kovner’s spending is directly political; last year, he spent a lot to reelect President Bush. But his main interest has been quietly strategic: the idea factory. “Bruce is an intellectual. He understands the world of ideas,” says Norman Podhoretz, the legendary editor of Commentary, who gave Kovner his start as a writer. “He would have been supremely well qualified to be an active member of that [academic] world had circumstances moved him in that direction. And what distinguishes him from most intellectuals is that he is also brilliant.”