WASHINGTON -- Timothy Wirth says he is trying to save the world, and he may actually have the money to do it.
The former senator from Colorado was tapped last fall by Ted Turner to carry out a task no one ever expects to be handed: Decide how best to spend someone else's $1 billion -- and then spend it. The only restriction is that the cash must help attack some of the world's daunting afflictions, such as overpopulation and disease.
When Turner, the media guru who founded CNN and is vice chairman of Time Warner Inc., announced in September that he was dedicating the money to a variety of United Nations causes, skeptics labeled him impulsive, quixotic, even downright loony.
To Wirth, however, it represented an irresistible opportunity to put words into action. And since then, Wirth, Turner's longtime friend and fellow visionary, has been working feverishly in Washington.
"They say 'You're nuts giving a billion dollars,' " Wirth says in his Dupont Circle office. "Well, Ted Turner wears his heart on his sleeve. He's a great idealist. He just wanted to do it, and we're going to try and make it happen."
Wirth has enlisted a staff that will grow to about 30, has opened offices in Washington and New York and is leading the United Nations Foundation that Turner created to designate which U.N. programs will receive Turner's funding.
In May, just eight months after Turner's announcement, the first donation, of $22 million, went out to a plethora of programs, including one to aid reproductive health in Bolivia, and another to fight childhood vitamin deficiency in Nigeria. Plans are to disperse money at a rate of $100 million a year; the next announcement is scheduled for September.
The frenetic pace, Wirth says, has shown the world that the foundation's multinational board of directors has no intention of dithering.
"I've always worked very hard my entire life, but this is the hardest thing I've ever done," Wirth says, and he looks weary as he stretches his angular 6-foot-5-inch frame back in his chair for an intense yawn. "In the Senate, you vote on something at 10 o'clock, go home and go to bed. You win or lose, but you're not responsible."
Wirth and his wife, Wren Winslow, a Baltimore native and head of her family's Winslow Foundation, which donates money for environmental causes, went to dinner with their longtime friends, Turner and wife Jane Fonda, in Washington last fall. During the meal, Turner offered Wirth the job.
It has been a rocky but rewarding road so far, Wirth says, rubbing bloodshot eyes. When you are sitting on a billion bucks, one of the great challenges is trying to funnel money where it will mean the most, while saying "no" -- with a smile and an explanation -- to the majority of requesters.
Most of the first $22 million went to programs that seek to stall population growth and promote the health of women and children. The first installment reflected the foundation's decision concentrate on three areas -- climate change, reproductive health and education among adolescent girls and the eradication of childhood disease.
A few critics questioned the foundation's funding choices. Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, said in May that she felt slighted that her programs received no help, especially given that refugee assistance had been specifically mentioned by Turner, in his original announcement in New York, as a deserving recipient of his largess.
Wirth explains that the foundation's eight-member board decided to focus on issues that are difficult for governments themselves to attend to, preventive in nature and sustainable. "We are not going to do peacekeeping, we're not going to do massive feeding programs, we're not going to do refugee programs," Wirth says.
A first-hand witness to the United Nations' mounting disrepute in Congress, Wirth has also placed enormous emphasis -- and a chunk of Turner's wealth, through a sister agency called the Better World Fund -- on helping the agency improve its image in the United States.
"We're the most important country in the world and the most important country in the United Nations," Wirth says. "The dream is to have strong support from the United States."
Wirth, a Democrat, notes with pride that he has won the support of many Republicans on Capitol Hill. Those whose opposition to the United Nations stems from an entrenched belief that it threatens U.S. interests or encroaches on U.S. sovereignty, Wirth says, are hard to win over. But some Republicans, whose chief gripe is that too much taxpayer money gets funneled to the agency, have been a bit more receptive.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, has led colleagues in demanding that some of the billions of U.S. dollars spent on peacekeeping missions be used to offset the debt the United States owes to the United Nations. But Bartlett has no problem with Turner's spending his own money as he sees fit.
"I'm very supportive of philanthropy and charity," Bartlett says. "If this turns Ted Turner on, that's fine."
Despite some recent bouts of burnout, Wirth, 58, still displays impassioned determination when he talks of persuading disparate nations to work together on urgent matters of survival. "I can't imagine a better job," Wirth says. "I really believe we all have an obligation to help and save the world."
Having earned an undergraduate degree in American history from Harvard and a doctorate in education from Stanford, Wirth was known more as a liberal-minded scholar than as a politician when he was elected to the House in 1974, when many Democrats won seats in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Friends admired what they saw as his untainted idealism, but critics viewed his global-minded crusading as self-aggrandizement.
A champion for the environment and an aggressive go-getter who frowned on seniority as the determinant for committee assignments, Wirth met Turner when he chaired a subcommittee on telecommunications early in his career, and the two are now fishing buddies. Most recently, Wirth served as undersecretary of state for global affairs and as national campaign co-chairman for President Clinton.
His retirement from politics came unexpectedly in 1992 after just one term in the Senate, before a re-election campaign he was favored to win. He left without the fondest of farewells, having written an article for the New York Times in which he complained that the institution had become so lost in partisan gamesmanship that it was no longer achieving anything worthy. "I have become frustrated with the posturing and paralysis of Congress," he wrote. "I even fear that the political process has made me a person I don't like."
At the end of that 1992 essay, Wirth hinted, perhaps prophetically, that he would one day find another niche from which to fight for the environment and for solutions to other global problems.
"There's more than one venue," he wrote, "for fighting the fight that counts."
Pub Date: 7/29/98