The New Billionaire To See

On one morning last march James Kimsey, as a member of the National Gallery's Collectors Committee, helped choose between a half-dozen art works the museum was seeking to acquire (Kimsey voted for a Warhol). Then he went over to the Capitol to talk to Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Kimsey, who is on the Board of Visitors at his alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was mad because, as he put it, "some congressman was trying to screw West Point out of a new gym." Kimsey and some senators discussed what they could do to make the congressman back down. (He did.) For dinner that night, Kimsey joined several Supreme Court justices in the high court's private dining room. Seated next to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he had to excuse himself early. "I said, 'Sorry, I gotta go.' But I couldn't say why." He was off that night on a secret mission on his private jet--to meet the next morning in the South American jungle with the leader of a rebel army that has killed 30,000 people in civil-war-torn Colombia. Around the campfire, Kimsey tried to educate the hard-core Marxist on the virtues of capitalism.

Just who is Jim Kimsey? The founder and retired chairman of America Online is much less well known than Steve Case, the young genius Kimsey hired to run the Internet giant back in 1983 (Kimsey himself stepped down in 1995). But Kimsey is a colorful object lesson for retired high-tech billionaires in search of a reason for living. Some join boards, buy a professional sports team, build a dream house, acquire a trophy wife. Kimsey, too, indulges himself. He motors around town in a chauffeured Bentley and flies the world aboard his own jet. But he wants more: restless, sharp-tongued and worth more than $1 billion at 60, he's hellbent on using his money and influence to do good in the world--whether it's trying his hand at international diplomacy or shelling out cash to overhaul the ailing District of Columbia public-school system. Never one for minding his manners--or his mouth--the former Army Ranger has a blunt, headlong approach to politics that sometimes ruffles feathers in official D.C. The old establishment of politicians, statesmen and media heavies has long kept its distance from the techies across the Potomac in northern Virginia, where vast fortunes are piling up and power will shortly follow. And the younger, hipper dot-com crowd, for the most part, couldn't care less about the crusty Georgetown set. Yet Kimsey, who grew up in Washington and is much older than many of today's tech supermillionaires, manages to move easily between both worlds--power-lunching with senators by day and talking megabytes and megabucks with dot-comers by night.

Kimsey wants to be a model and example for other cashed-out New Economy moguls. Writing checks, he declares, is not enough. He thinks the new wave of billionaires should join together to create a 21st-century elite of private-sector social activists. "A lot of these dot-com billionaires are pretty smart," he says. "They think outside the box. And"--like Kimsey himself--"they have nothing to lose."

From his office overlooking the White House and the Washington Monument, Kimsey gives away tens of millions of dollars each year. A culture maven, he donated $10 million to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, endowed a chair for a tuba player at the symphony and arranged to admit--free of charge--any fifth grader in D.C. who wants to go to any event at the Kennedy Center. Kimsey serves on no fewer than 54 nonprofit boards, most for reasons of social conscience, some for the hell of it. (He says he sits on the board of the Italian-American Foundation "because I went to all three 'Godfather' movies and like Italian food.")

Kimsey, a Vietnam combat vet, still refers to himself as a "soldier" and seems to live for the next adrenaline rush. Once, while gambling in Istanbul, he felt that his luck was provoking the anger of some Muslim Turks. Each time he won, he sang out, "Jesus loves me, this I know!" On his far-flung adventures, the former paratrooper will go anywhere--and say anything. Since the 1960s, Colombia has been mired in a civil war, fueled by drug money. At the suggestion of Colombia's President Andres Pastrana, Kimsey and a fellow mogul, real-estate king Joe Robert, flew into the jungle to meet with guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda. The Colombian president hoped the entrepreneurs could educate the Marxist rebels about the promise of the New Economy. The State Department tried to dissuade the freelance diplomats, arguing that they might be kidnapped or killed. But Kimsey ignored the professionals, whom he refers to as "pencil necks." Kimsey jokes that his friend Joe Robert was "a little nervous" flying over the jungle. "He asked, 'What if they've got Stingers [missiles]?' " said Kimsey, who explained that his combat experience kept him steady. "After you've been in enough air assaults," he says, "you know if you're going to get popped, you're going to get popped." At the rebel base, Kimsey says he was "very blunt" with the rebel leader, whose nickname is "Sure Shot," but that the two men found a warrior kinship. "Sure Shot and I would be buddies, but for the language problem," he says. Kimsey returned home and spoke directly to President Clinton, offering his own plane to bring Marulanda to meet in Washington for peace negotiations. Clinton was interested, says Kimsey, but so far the State Department has nixed the idea. "Those pencil necks are so myopic," says Kimsey. Foreign-policy professionals take a dim view of Kimsey's intercessions. "What the hell does he think he is doing? This isn't a business he can come in and fix," splutters one high-ranking intelligence official.

Kimsey sees himself as kind of a one-man Straight Talk Express. "If you mealy-mouth around, you're not effective," he says. Last fall he went to China with a delegation of recently retired four-star officers to meet with senior Chinese military leaders. ("I went mostly for the dim sum," jokes Kimsey.) A People's Liberation Army general started ranting at the American delegation, threatening that China would "sink our carriers and hold our cities hostage," Kimsey recalled. "I said, 'Excuse me, General, have you ever heard a shot fired in anger? Every one of us has been in battle. Maybe you ought to tone your ass down'." From Beijing, Kimsey and the U.S. brass went to Taipei, where they met with various high officials. Kimsey fumed that the then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui seemed to be speaking disrespectfully of the United States. "I said, 'Excuse me, Mr. President, let me ask you a question'," Kimsey recalled. He asked how Taiwan would negotiate with the People's Republic of China without U.S. military aid. "Your Congress would never let that happen," interjected a Taiwanese official. Returning to Washington, Kimsey made "a beeline for [Sen. Jesse] Helms, [chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee]" to discuss his host's arrogance. He asked Helms to take a less reflexively hard-line position in support of Taipei. "I'm not sure he changed the senator's mind," says a Helms aide, "but [the senator] listened."

For all his travels, Kimsey's most fervent cause is at home, trying to save the District of Columbia public-school system. A tall order--D.C. schools are among the worst in the country--but Kimsey as usual has taken the direct approach. "It's all about leadership," he says. He offered to pay $300,000 a year out of his own pocket to hire a top-notch administrator for the then D.C. schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. When Ackerman quit last month, Kimsey organized his wealthy, social-activist friends into a search committee to find a new deputy schools chief. It's hard to tell how much power the committee really has. Does the mostly black D.C. School Board resent this intrusion by Kimsey and his mostly white friends? Kimsey dismisses the question by saying that he has had no difficulty talking to inner-city gang leaders. D.C. Mayor Tony Williams acknowledges some grumbling but says: "What Jim has done has really sparked renewed interest of business people to reinvest and recommit themselves to the city."

Kimsey grew up a poor Irish boy, far from the salons of Georgetown. Though brilliant--his nickname was "Lightbulb"--he was tossed out of a Catholic high school, Gonzaga, for being, as he puts it, "a wise ass." Divorced, he likes to party and he still seems ready to brawl, though thanks to a hip replacement, he is less vigorous at his hobby of kickboxing. His mouth continues to get him in trouble. He was recently quoted in The Washington Post saying that a "friend" had told him, "Thank God you weren't a woman, with your inability to say no." Such indiscretions notwithstanding, he is on Washington's charity-ball A list. With his money, and his record of giving, he can pretty much go anywhere--and say anything--he wants.