Bruce Kovner would never raise his voice in the provocative manner of that morning’s panel, but he has continually underwritten hard-right ideas, giving them legitimacy in political discourse. Lefties may dominate discussions in universities and New York dinner parties, but neocons never fade into that distance. They hang around Pennsylvania Avenue.
Kovner, over two decades, has underwritten the infrastructure the neocons have used to achieve their current prominence. On the fifth floor of the AEI building, the Project for the New American Century helped lay the ground for the Iraq war by regular statements describing Saddam Hussein as the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East. The Sun ran an editorial asserting that people protesting the Iraq war were committing treason, while AEI’s Perle and David Frum published An End to Evil, in which they argued that extreme Islam wants to dominate the world, and the U.S. faces “victory or holocaust.” The U.S. should show as little compunction about “destroying regimes” as a police sniper feels icing a hostage-taker. When George Bush was elected in 2000, Dick Cheney swept in a raft of neoconservative thinkers, many from AEI.
“Neoconservatism is a career,” says Scott McConnell, editor of American Conservative. “One thing neocons have that both other factions of conservatives and liberals don’t have is they can employ a lot of people. AEI provides a seat for the kind of mid-level intellectuals who can produce op-ed pieces. It’s 50 to 100 people with decent prose styles, or Ph.D.’s, and they form a critical mass. They help create the reality of being the dominant strain of conservatism.”
Kovner’s relationship to AEI is the same as his relationship to all his causes: lordly. He plays visionary and psychiatrist to the AEI board. “He’s brilliant,” says Perle. “He’s intellectually rigorous, balanced, and thoughtful.”
These are the same attributes that Kovner brought to Lincoln Center. Rebecca Robertson, who heads the redevelopment project, recalls that at a crucial meeting of a working group of seven arts organizations that took place some months after 9/11, Kovner said, “I know it seems like the world’s falling apart—well, there is no better time to keep your head down and plan.”
James Q. Wilson, a member of the AEI board, says that Kovner has pushed AEI to build an endowment so that scholars are more independent, so they don’t have to hunt up grants for their work. Kovner’s hedge fund manages the lion’s share of the group’s investments, which grew from $28 million to $40 million in 2003, the latest year collected by Guidestar.org.
Try to pin down Kovner’s pals on any brilliant idea that Kovner has had, and they squirt away. Though, yes, one told me that his positions on public policy were “fairly extreme.”
Kovner would never speak in the “victory or holocaust” manner that the drones in his idea factory have perfected. He has never liked the hurly-burly of politics, and money has allowed him to rise above that mess. Yet there can be no question that he supports the militarist neoconservative agenda. Last October, when George Bush’s chestnuts were in the fire, Kovner helped to pull them out. He wrote checks for $110,000 to a 527 called Softer Voices that was aimed at “security moms” in swing states. Softer Voices is led by, among others, the writer Midge Decter, the wife of Norman Podhoretz, and Nina Rosenwald, a force in the pro-Israel lobby. Kovner was its largest financial backer.
For all his reserved sagacity, Bruce Kovner has always been comfortable with radical ideas. Understanding the Kovner communists of the forties and fifties and their scene is a key to understanding the neocons and their scene. As there is today, there was talk then of cabals and fellow travelers. Both causes were heavily Jewish. The ideas of both the neoconservatives and the communists were Utopian and revolutionary. Neocons would carry the torch of democratic revolution out into the world, with scant attention paid to the disparate natures of the affected societies. Communists had a similarly inflexible global revolutionary ideology.
Chairman Kovner has always had empowering visions—able to imagine configurations of the world different from today. And under the fuzzy rabbi he’s a cold number. Daddy darkness, huddled in his safe room.
As I worked to research this story, Bruce Kovner came and went, always light on his feet. “Well, if you really mean to do this, I’ll try not to hide under a rock,” he said at the start, adding that while he wouldn’t be quoted, he might sit down with me and talk things over.
A week or two passed, and I sent him a note saying that the article was going to be about his mind, that I wished to gain a sense of his ideas and values over time. He replied ten days later: “Denial has its limits, and procrastination too, so I thought I’d better respond to your last e-mail.”