Friday, May 20, 2011

My Link to Newt

The presidential campaign season is heating up with its never ending quest for votes preceded by its more sordid side, its never ending dual quest for donors and dollars.

Last week’s edition of The Jewish Week asked, “Will Gingrich Bomb With Jewish Republicans?” The consensus answer was, yes. Despite his unwavering support of Israel, Newt Gingrich has too much baggage to appeal to most Jewish voters who see his domestic agenda as repugnant to their more progressive positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights, and entitlement programs.

Accordingly, Gingrich can expect little financial support from GOP Jews. Except from one deep-pocketed fellow, noted The Jewish Week. Namely, “gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson.” Forbes ranked Adelson the thirteenth wealthiest American, with $14.7 billion in net worth.

Gingrich’s week has been less than spectacular for a kickoff of a presidential run, but I’m not here to bury his candidacy. Rather, my attention is focused on Adelson.

I first met Shelly Adelson about 25 years ago. At the time he headed up The Interface Group which produced COMDEX, the computer industry’s biggest exposition, attracting some 100,000 conventioneers to Las Vegas. COMDEX was run as a closed operation. With rare exception, attendees booked their plane and hotel reservations through COMDEX. The turnkey program was a big moneymaker.

With a convention system structured around Las Vegas in place, Interface cast about for another conference theme. It discovered the National Housewares Manufacturers Association had recently scrapped its July show, opting for just one big expo a year, in January, in Chicago. Adelson et al decided to pounce on the opportunity to outmuscle the housewares association. It proposed a show in Las Vegas in August.

To jumpstart his idea, Adelson came a-courting to our offices in New York. Together with Chain Store Age General Merchandise Trends, of which I was editor and publisher, our three other merchandising publications were important media for anyone who wanted to reach housewares industry influentials, both at the retailer and vendor levels. Adelson came down from his Boston headquarters to gain our support.

He could hardly have been less accommodating. Instead of listening to our ideas, he told us how he would upend the industry, how buyers and sellers would flock to Las Vegas regardless of how hot the town could be in August. By the end of the meeting, our two camps were as divided as the North and South after Lincoln’s election.

The show was a disaster. Though scheduled to run three days, exhibitors started tearing down their booths in the middle of the second day, a violation of every standard at any trade show. They could hardly be blamed, for there was virtually no retailer traffic. No one wanted to come to Las Vegas in 110 degree heat.

I didn’t really care as Gilda had joined me for her first trip to Las Vegas. When the vendors started folding up their tents, they also started selling floor samples. We bought a 12-inch heavy metal skillet we’re still using today, a constant reminder of Adelson’s flaming out in the sun.

Of course, Adelson took it all in stride, never held another housewares show, subsequently sold COMDEX and parlayed the proceeds into casino holdings in Vegas and around the globe. He’s also become quite a philanthropist. Among his many endowments is the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Israel, headed up by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and prisoner, Israeli politician, human rights activist and author.

About three years ago I was leafing through a magazine on Jewish philanthropists when I came across a picture of an “unidentified man” with Edelson and his wife at a gala honoring them for their support of the Adelson Institute. I couldn’t contain my cheekiness so I sent an email to the editor alerting him to his twin error—not only did he fail to recognize and identify the world famous Sharansky, but he also double-dissed him by not knowing that Sharansky was the head of the institute. Yes, I know that was bad form. But really, how could the editor of a Jewish magazine not know Natan Sharansky, one of the seminal Jewish figures of the last 30 years of the 20th Century?