Sheldon Adelson finally begins to penetrate the national consciousness

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I belatedly got around to finishing Connie Bruck’s epic and much-discussed profile of Sheldon Adelson Monday night. It is, like most of Bruck’s work, loaded with an almost-but-not-quite-numbing amount of detail. But the essential points are these:

1) Sheldon Adelson is the third richest man in the U.S.
2) These riches flow from his hotel/casinos in Vegas and Macau.
3) He’s not always pleasant.
4) He has become a big backer of the Republican Party.
5) He’s an even bigger force in Israeli politics, and really wants to put Bibi Netanyahu back in charge.
6) He can type 90 words a minute.

Items 4-6 were the main news in the article for me (I ooze with envy and admiration for fast typists), but for most readers the big revelation seems to have been No. 1. I spent part of last week at a Century Foundation media workshop on the rise of billionaires, and several people expressed surprise that this guy they’d never heard of was so near the top of the rich list. (Knowledge boy that I am, I kept correcting everybody’s pronunciation: It’s Add-elson, not Ade-elson.)

Which just goes to show that more people ought to be reading Forbes, Fortune … and the Curious Capitalist, which ran an EXCLUSIVE interview with Adelson way back in 2006, when I was still working at Fortune. The post began:

Sheldon Adelson is really into lists. On a visit to Fortune yesterday, he spent several minutes reeling off the (impressive) academic and other accomplishments of his two daughters–much to the embarrassment of one of them, Sivan, who was sitting next to him. [Correction: He actually has three stepdaughters; but he only discussed the two daughters of his second wife Miriam.]

Before that Adelson (the “ad” is pronounced like advertising, not lemonade) had named all the countries whose populations he expects to draw on to fill the spectacularly immense new hotel/casino/shopping/entertainment complex his company, Las Vegas Sands, is building in Macau, the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. He listed the populations, too: Japan, 128 million. South Korea, 44 million. Taiwan, 24 million. And so on.

Adelson paused after mentioning India’s 1.1 billion inhabitants–whom he said he really isn’t counting as part of his potential customer base. My boss, Eric Pooley, started asking a question. “No, I’m not done yet,” Adelson interrupted. “I was having a sip of coffee.” He continued: “I forgot about the 1.3 billion in China.”

Then it was time for the punch line. “Do you know how many people I need to come each year to make my 20,000 rooms 100 percent occupied? Two million.” That’s if they stay an average of three-and-a-half nights. Then Adelson started going through the other permutations: What if people stay two nights? Or one night?

“The numbers of people I need to make it work are almost infinitesimal,” he said. “It’s almost a no-brainer. What bewilders me is that no one else could see it.”Read more.

One of the main things I came away from that meeting with was the sense that Adelson has got to be one of the least polished billionaires on the planet. I mean, T. Boone Pickens acts colorful and all, but it’s clear he knows exactly what he’s up to. With Adelson it seems different. He’s very rough around the edges, and completely incapable of staying on message. Which I guess is why he refused to talk to Bruck. (Actually, it sounds like he talked to her repeatedly, but only about how he didn’t want to talk to her.)

Update: I think I like Andrew Leonard’s shorthand version of Bruck’s article even better than mine:

So here’s how the world works, today. Americans spend their cash at Wal-Mart buying goods made in China. The Chinese take that cash and gamble it away in Macao. And then Sheldon Adelson spends it trying to defeat Barack Obama in the U.S. and get Ehud Olmert ousted as prime minister of Israel.

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