Tom Perkins, cofounder of VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, apologized tonight for comparing the threats against the rich to Jewish victims of the Nazis during the horrific “Kristallnacht” events that precipitated the Holocaust.
Speaking to Emily Chang, host on the Bloomberg West TV show, he said he regretted making the comparison in his letter to the Wall Street Journal, which met with a huge backlash on the Internet and a disavowal from the venture firm he cofounded.
The criticism was swift because people felt that Perkins was tone-deaf and minimizing the suffering of the Jews by comparing the “1 percent,” or the rich of the world, to the Nazis’ victims.
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Perkins criticized the Occupy movement and those protesting Google buses. He said the “progressive radicalism” against the rich could instigate a new “Kristallnacht,” or the “night of broken glass,” when the Nazis rounded up Jews in pre-World War II Germany and Austria in 1938. About 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and 30,000 were arrested.
Here are some excerpts from the interview with Chang. The full interview is here.
Chang: Tom, do you regret this comparison?
Perkins: Yes. I talked to the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, this morning following up on a letter I’d sent over the weekend, apologizing for the use of the world Kristallnacht. It was a terrible word to have chosen. I, like many, have tried to understand the 20th century and the incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. It can’t be explained. Even to try to explain it is questionable. It’s wrong. It’s evil.
Now I used the word because during the [occupation of San Francisco by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, they broke the windows in the Wells Fargo Bank. They marched up through our automobile strip on Venice Avenue and broke all the windows in all the luxury car dealerships. And I saw that. I remembered that the police just stood by frozen. And I thought, well, this is how Kristallnacht began. So that word was in my mind, but I did – I don’t necessarily need to read from this letter, but if you’re interested I can.
Chang: Sure. Go ahead.
Perkins: Well, I deeply apologize – this is the letter I wrote to the Anti-Defamation League. I deeply apologize to you and any who have mistaken my reference to Kristallnacht as a sign of overt or latent anti-Semitism. This is not the case. My late partner Eugene Kleiner fled Hitler from Austria and fought in the US Army. We became the deepest of friends during our long association and he taught me, “Never imagine that the unimaginable cannot become real.”
He was never comfortable with the extreme political currents in America and never took our freedom from demonization for granted. I believe that he would have understood my Wall Street Journal letter and would have agreed with the warning. And then I apologized for using Kristallnacht, as I just said before. And I had a pleasant discussion with Abe Foxman just before I came here. And I hope that at least that part is put to rest.
Chang: So more than 90 Jews were killed in Kristallnacht, 30,000 people put in concentration camps. What were you going for (inaudible) analogy?
Perkins: I – the Jews were only 1 percent of the German population. Most Germans had never met a Jew, and yet Hitler was able to demonize the Jews and Kristallnacht was one of the earlier manifestations, but there had been others before it. And then of course we know about the evil of the Holocaust. I guess my point was that when you start to use hatred against a minority, it can get out of control. I think that was my thought. And now that, as the messenger, I’ve been thoroughly killed by everybody, at least read the message.
Chang: You mentioned the word hatred. Do you feel threatened?
Perkins: I don’t feel personally threatened, but I think that a very important part of America, namely the creative 1 percent, are threatened. I’ve – I’m friends with Al Gore, who tells me that the inequality is the number-one problem in America. I’m friends with Jerry Brown. I voted for him. I will vote for him, even though he raised my taxes 30 percent. He tells me the number-one problem in America is inequality, and that’s probably and possibly true. And I think President Obama’s going to make that point tomorrow night. But the 1 percent are not causing the inequality. They are the job creators. Silicon Valley is – I think Kleiner Perkins itself over the years has created pretty close to a million jobs and we’re still doing it. It’s absurd to demonize the rich for being rich and for doing what the rich do, which is get richer by creating opportunity for others.
Chang: How do you feel threatened?
Perkins: I said I didn’t feel personally threatened. I feel, however, that as a class I think we are beginning to engage in class warfare. I think the rich as a class are threatened through higher taxes, higher regulation, and so forth. And so that is my message.
Chang: If this is the kind of persecution that is happening to the 1 percent, what’s happening to the 99 percent?
Perkins: I think the 99 percent – I – I did not come originally from the 1 percent. I grew up as one of the 99 percenters. And so I’m your classical self-made man, if you will. I think the 99 percent is struggling and really struggling to get along in America. We have ever-increasing regulation, higher costs I think caused by more government than we need. Small businesses – it’s difficult to form and prosper in a small business these days. It’s difficult to hire. And that in my view is what is hurting and causing – hurting the 99 percent and causing the inequality. So I think that the solution is less interference, lower taxes. Let the rich do what the rich do, which is get richer. But along the way, they bring everybody else with them when the system is working.
Chang: Now you are a multi-millionaire.
Perkins: No, I’m not a billionaire.
Chang: You’re not a billionaire. I said multi-millionaire.
Perkins: I’ve created some billionaires, but I unfortunately am not one.
Chang: You have owned fancy yachts, fancy cars, an underwater submersible.
Perkins: Airplane. Underwater airplane.
Chang: I saw it. It’s basically an airplane that flies under water. Do you worry at all that you are divorced from reality? Are you divorced from reality?
Perkins: I don’t know if anybody can answer that. Truthfully, I don’t think so. I give and have given and will give millions and millions of dollars to a long list of charities. I have in mind some more chairs at universities (inaudible). I still want to leave my children something that they can have even though upon my death the government will take about 45 percent. So yeah, I think I’m connected to reality. I’ve got lots and lots of friends that are younger and in this whole web-based, Twitter-based world. And I think I know what they’re thinking and talking about, yes.
Chang: What about Silicon Valley? Is Silicon Valley to a certain extent divorced from reality? You have kids – you mentioned you created billionaires. You have kids making six-figure salaries, getting free perks at technology companies, taking shuttles with Wi-Fi access down to the peninsula, which regular residents don’t have access to. Is there something to be said for this idea that Silicon Valley really is living in its own little bubble?
Perkins: Yeah, I think there’s something in that. On the other hand, it’s a bubble that has created – that has changed the world and has created incredible wealth around America and around the world. And maybe you have to put up with a little techno geek arrogance in order to get the results of those sort of folks’ thinking. So —
Chang: How do you see this divide playing out?
Perkins: Well, now that as the messenger I’ve been shot, I think at least read the message.
Chang: But you just said at the beginning of this that you – you regret the way (inaudible).
Perkins: I regret the use of that word. It was a terrible misjudgment. I don’t regret the message at all. In fact —
Chang: What is the message?
Perkins: The message is, any time the majority starts to demonize a minority, no matter what it is, it’s wrong and dangerous. And no good ever comes from it.
Chang: What’s the solution?
Perkins: First, to understand the problem. Be aware of it. That’s why I wrote the letter. And I don’t apologize for writing the letter. I should not have used that awful word. But the letter said what I believed. And I believe we have to be careful that we don’t demonize anybody and that we certainly don’t demonize the most creative part of our society.
Chang: Your venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, said in a statement that they were shocked by the words that you used and do not agree and that you haven’t been involved in the firm in many, many years. How do you respond to what they said? Do you understand why there’s been that kind of backlash?
Perkins: Yeah. I – first of all, my letter was not about Kleiner Perkins. I didn’t mention Kleiner Perkins at all. They didn’t need to say anything, but they chose I guess to sort of throw me under the bus. And I didn’t like that. They said they were shocked. And I sort of feel like the guy saying, look, don’t go swimming. There are sharks in that water. And if you get shocked by that, you don’t understand the warning. I was presenting a warning. And I don’t think they got that.
And then secondly, they made quite a point of my not having been involved for some years, and that’s true. And I think as I’ve distanced myself from the firm, there’s been a corresponding decline in the firm, but I won’t go further than that. In a way, I miss them. I hope they miss me and we will bury the hatchet over this one.
Chang: Your name is on the door, so when you say something, it does reflect on them to a certain extent, or do you worry about it reflecting on them?
Perkins: I didn’t have them in mind when I wrote this piece, and it wasn’t about them. It had nothing to do with them. But they’re right that their philosophies and strategies have diverged significantly from my own and that my name on the door probably doesn’t mean very much, if anything, anymore.