Hobnobbing with Mr. Milken

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- Welcome to Michael Milken's living room: a fire marshal's nightmare crammed full of people who have money or power, want money or power, or are willing to pay several thousand dollars to be near any and all of the above.

At least 3,000 people were packed into this week's high-powered salon, which is not being held in Milken's Encino home (too small), but at his longtime haunt, the Beverly Hilton. They had come to hobnob with the junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist and hear the musings of his marquee friends, people with names like Murdoch, Pickens, Turner and Broad (as in Rupert, T. Boone, Ted and Eli).

And it was sold out.

Not so a decade ago. When the Milken Institute Global Conference debuted in 1998, the world was reeling from the meltdown of Asia's financial markets and organizers struggled to fill the seats while fretting that they could attract only financiers and policy wonks. Milken, the 1980s Wall Street wizard whose creative financing revolutionized financial markets but landed him a two-year sentence on securities fraud, was still fresh out of prison.

Today, the event has grown into a confab of Hollywood heavyweights, political and academic stars - even the occasional Olympian. Milken sets the agenda, and it's an eclectic one, from the future of K-12 education to the future of prostate cancer treatment to the future of capitalism.

There were a few echoes of the past: The four-day conference was held at hotel where Milken in the 1980s presided over what became known as the Predator's Ball - a gathering of corporate takeover artists who used his high-yield junk bonds to finance hostile bids. And the predominant attire is still Wall Street power suit - dark and tailored, shirt preferably white or light blue (all the better for that hallway interview with Bloomberg Television or face time with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo).

But the conference was about expanding minds as well as wallets.

From the beginning, said institute spokesman Skip Rimer, the plan was to bring in smart people from around the world, ban canned speeches and promote lively debate on topics of global import, be it the high price of obesity, rebuilding of war-torn economies in the Middle East or the politics of global warming.

Behind and in front of the curtain, Milken - backed by a staff of 40 researchers, economists, number-crunchers and go-to guys and gals - played chief provocateur, referee and congenial host.

"It's not just brain food; it's a call to action," said Rafael Pastor, a former News Corp. executive who runs Vistage International, the world's leading CEO organization (Milken sits on its board).

It's also a pretty good party.

Vistage is one of the conference's 70 corporate sponsors, some of which pay more than $100,000 to have their brands displayed on booths and printed material, as well as at cocktail parties and other invitation-only events.

Pastor, who invited more than 75 people to the conference, said it's money well-spent.

"It goes without saying, it's very eclectic," he said. "You turn to one side, and you see Al Gore and you look around you, and you see Rupert Murdoch and you look somewhere else, and you might see David Rubenstein, who runs the Carlyle Fund."

Using the same energy he devoted to transforming Wall Street, Milken, a prostate cancer survivor, is pursuing radical changes in other arenas. He and his family have funneled more than $1 billion in personal wealth and money raised from other sources into medical research and education, said Geoffrey Moore, Milken's senior adviser.

In his decades on and off Wall Street, Milken has knit a global network of people who feel indebted to him for their fortunes, their careers and in some cases, their lives. Those ties are on full display at the gathering.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and his wife, Teresa Heinz, were booked into the same time slot - on different panels. While he pontificated about developing markets for carbon credits, she discussed how she leverages her family wealth to help build a greener world.

Sandwiched between sessions on hedge funds and global leveraged finance markets was a joint appearance by Hollywood producer Sydney Pollack and architect Frank Gehry. Actor Kirk Douglas dropped by to plug his new book.

Milken played dinner host one night, taking the stage with actor Michael J. Fox, tennis star Andre Agassi and CNN founder Ted Turner to explore their passion for philanthropy. He praised Fox for transforming a personal tragedy into a multimillion-dollar crusade to push medical boundaries to find a cure for Parkinson's disease. He pushed Agassi to explain why he built a nationally ranked college prep academy in one of Las Vegas' poorest neighborhoods. He teased Turner about his modest ambitions - even though his short list includes reversing global warming, reforming the United Nations, nuclear disarmament, empowering women and ending wars.

"If humanity is going to survive another 50 years, we're going to have to solve a lot of problems in a real hurry," said Turner, who was applauded at his suggestion that a first step might be for the U.S. government to send doctors and teachers to Iraq instead of bombs.

Evelyn Iritani writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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