Sheldon Adelson sat at the end of a sweeping boardroom table in an office in his Las Vegas hotel, the Venetian. Earlier that week, he had described himself as “basically a social liberal” in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. His comments quickly drew criticism from both the left and right; The Huffington Post called him a “low-information billionaire,” and he was blasted by the right-wing anti-immigration activists. But Adelson seemed unfazed.
“I got a call from a friend of mine who went to a Republican thing yesterday,” he told me. “They said, ‘Well Adelson’s got it right. He’s got it right.’ What’s wrong admitting that some of the social issues are those which Republicans should adopt?”
As for the critics, Adelson was dismissive: “What right do they have to criticize me? They don’t know me at all.”
For someone whose name and face were a regular staple of the election coverage, the public does have many misconceptions about Adelson. His liberal social views rarely received media attention during the campaign season, though he’s certainly never hidden them.
“See that paper on the wall?” he asked, gesturing toward a poster with rows of names on it. “That is a list of some of the scientists that we give a lot of money to conduct collaborative medical research, including stem cell research. What’s wrong if I help stem cell research? I’m all in favor. And if somebody wants to have an abortion, let them have an abortion,” he said.
Adelson wouldn’t be the first high-profile Republican to suggest the party should soften (or at least downplay) its position on social issues. But as the seventh richest man in America and the biggest campaign donor in political history, Adelson could have much more influence over the direction of the GOP than any of these other internal critics. According to the Wall Street Journal, he spent over $100 million on the last election, and has no compunction about spending more. “To me, it’s not a lot of money,” he said.
Adelson has not said whether he will use his influence to try to change the GOP internally. But he does believe social issues cost the Republicans the last election.
“If we took a softer stance on those several issues, social issues, that I referred to, then I think that we would have won the most recent election,” he said. “I think people got the impression that Republicans didn’t care about certain groups of people.”
“They talked about Mitt Romney and said that he can’t identify with poor people. I can identify with poor people because I was one of them,” he added.
Adelson also breaks with Republicans on health care and immigration. He said he opposes Obamacare, but he does “believe in a socialized medicine system” like the one in Israel.
On immigration, he supports a path to citizenship with some sort of community service requirement.
“We have to find a way for them to earn citizenship,” he said. “I think they got to pay something for it. Not in money…people have suggested serving in the military, community service.”
If Adelson does decide to take a larger role in influencing GOP policy, the upcoming immigration reform debate could be his first opportunity. As a child of immigrants, the issue appears to hold a lot of personal significance for him.
“I was a poor person. My parents were uneducated. My parents were immigrants,” Adelson said. “All of the things that are under consideration today, I was part of.”
Adelson was born during the Great Depression in Dorchester, Massachusetts. His father had fled from Lithuania in 1912. Adelson recalled his father telling him as a child: “You just remember, Sheldon, the United States of America is the greatest country God ever created. Don’t you ever forget that.”
I asked him what he thought about accusations that he is more loyal to Israel than the U.S., an anti-Semitic smear that proliferated during the election.
“Listen, I live here. I don’t live there,” he said. “My wife is Israeli, my children carry Israeli passports, but I don’t. And what right do critics have to make any comment about who I’m loyal to?”
He continued: “Israel is also one of the greatest nations on Earth…Israel is a melting pot for Jewish people like the United States is a melting pot for people who want to leave other countries. You can’t have another country like that? That’s OK.”
Adelson and his wife are both veterans. She served in the Israeli Defense Force, and he served in the U.S. military during the Korean war. They also contribute to veterans organizations, and six years ago began sponsoring a regular Las Vegas trip for wounded soldiers through the Armed Forces Foundation (my trip to Vegas to cover the event was sponsored by this program).
Adelson said he decided to start the trip after sitting next to a wounded soldier at a veterans event in Washington. Once the gala was over, he said he wanted to find a way to thank the wounded personally.
“Last time we had people coming from the [Brooke Army Medical Center] from San Antonio, that their faces…their bodies were so badly burned it was difficult to look at them, you know? And nobody ever says thank you to them,” he said.
“It tears your heart out. You wonder how people can carry on.”
Adelson has struggled with his own health issues. He suffers from a condition that makes walking and using his hands difficult.
“Look, I have neuropathy. And all four of my limbs are affected by neuropathy,” he said. “On the motor side my thumb and my forefinger can’t operate. I can’t tie my shoe laces.”
“There are a lot of things I can’t do,” he continued. “But I’m thanking God that’s all I got. How can these people get along without fingers, without hands? Without legs? And all because they wanted to volunteer to fight to save our freedoms.”