It goes without saying that a wide gulf separates the Surrender party from the American Enterprise Institute, whose female residents offer grating lectures on the evils of feminism, therapy, and The Vagina Monologues, where Robert Bork heaps abuse on Roe v. Wade.
Lionel Tiger explains that Kovner defies labeling. “He is an interesting counter-cultural figure. He is right in the center of the culture, and he doesn’t do anything you’re supposed to do. . . . His work with Juilliard is unpolitical, unprogrammatic, selfless, and based in human joy.”
I say, “Transparent he isn’t. He never publishes his views.”
“You mean book after book, sponsoring presidential campaign after presidential campaign? Bruce had the opportunity as a graduate student to go the transparent route. And he chose to sit glumly in a taxicab rather than make pronouncements to the Harvard School of Government, which could make anyone crazy. I don’t think for Bruce there is a distinction between ideas and action.”
Kovner’s take on his activities is witty and elusive. “None of this is what I expected to do when I imagined my life in 1966, but it could have been worse,” he told his Harvard classmates. For all the charm, no one gets too intimate with the man the Post has called “the Hedge King.” Barry Moser describes Kovner as a close friend. Yet he never talks politics with his buddy (generally it’s art and girls). He produced a Bible with Kovner and toured Jerusalem with him, but apart from historical discussions of religious events, draws a blank on the question of Kovner’s religion. Says another friend, “I have never seen the Jewish-culture aspect of Bruce. I would guess that he is basically agnostic.”
Chairman Kovner, like his communist ancestors, has always had empowering visions—able to imagine configurations of the world different from today.
Some say he is humble. Tiger corrects me. “I don’t think he’s cultivated any functional modesty. When he needed a two-bedroom, he bought the ICP building on Fifth Avenue. He is not reclusive. He is not Howard Hughes. He has a large appetite for beautiful things.”
Another close associate also brought up the historic house, which was built in 1915 for Willard and Dorothy Whitney Straight. “Humble? Are you kidding, when he buys that house? Bruce is—the Fed used a word for the long bond the other day that describes Bruce. A conundrum. What is a conundrum?”
“A puzzle, a riddle.”
“That is Bruce.”
Rumors befitting a Jewish Gatsby abound with Kovner. New York Supreme Court minutes indicate that at the same time she served her husband with divorce papers in January 1998, Sarah Peter produced the affidavit of an investigator. Then Kovner bought his giant bachelor pad, and as renovations dragged on for years, including the restoration of the correct historical mortar color and bronze shutter hardware, the Times printed a neighbor’s rumor that he was providing an entire floor for his beloved dogs—which may have come out of the counterculture-style name of the limited corporation that owns the building, Three Dogs.
Some delay in construction might be laid to changes. In the year after 9/11, architects’ drawings filed with the Buildings Department were revised in one crucial respect. The big study on the fourth floor was now sheathed with “lead-lined plywood” and called a “CBR Room.” I Googled that acronym. Chemical Biological Radiation: a safe room against a dirty bomb.
Behind a shimmering façade of marble a few blocks from the White House, the American Enterprise Institute in late June hosted a forum on the Middle East with a very specific aim: to put forward a new claim for Israel’s right to hold territory in the West Bank. Two right-wing Israelis made the presentation. They were supported in their view by two former members of the Bush administration now lodged at Bruce Kovner’s D.C. hostelry, Richard Perle and Michael Rubin.
It was a typical affair at the conservative think tank. Rubin kicked off the panel by congratulating the Bush administration on its “success” in Iraq. Perle harked back to his neoconservative father figure, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State, in laying Israel’s claim to “Judea and Samaria,” as Perle put it, using biblical terms for the West Bank. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador, loudly denounced the idea that the September 11 attacks were in any way motivated by anger over American policy in the occupied territories. “It’s a myth out there that somehow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is related to the rage of radical Islam toward the West.”
The panel was a tour de force, though at times it seemed less than straightforward. “We don’t bring our disagreements to Washington; we leave them in Israel,” Gold commented to a more-liberal Israeli in the audience after leaving the stage. According to federal filings dug up by Guidestar.org, Gold is paid nearly $100,000 a year by the American Enterprise Institute.