Walter J. Schloss: Friend of Freedom
by Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research
Walter Schloss first encountered Freedom House in the mid-1970s. This was not an especially happy time for the United States: the Vietnam War was still raging, the Watergate scandal was fresh in memory, racial polarization had reached a disturbing level, and the consensus over America’s global role that had prevailed since World War II was in the process of shattering. Nor was the state of global democracy particularly cheerful. Communism was poised to make major gains in Southeast Asia and Africa, and Marxist insurgencies were being met with right-wing military takeovers throughout Latin America.
This was the political context when Walter dropped in to the Freedom House office on West 40th Street in Manhattan. He had read some articles about Freedom House and was intrigued by an organization that continued to believe in both bipartisanship and the proposition that the United States had a unique and positive role to play in world affairs. After a long talk with the then executive director, Leonard Sussman, Walter joined Freedom House and soon became a member of its board of trustees.
Walter died last week, at age 95. He had served as a key member of the Freedom House board right up until mid-2011. He was much beloved by his fellow trustees and by staff members, like myself, who had the privilege of sharing time with him.
Walter was a legend on Wall Street, for two reasons. First, he was, in the words of his friend Warren Buffett, a “superinvestor” who consistently earned the clients of his investment firm a higher return than they could expect from the average yield of stocks listed on the
Standard & Poor’s index.
Second, he earned a reputation as one of the most honest men in the investment universe. As Buffett put it, Walter “never made a dime off his investors unless they themselves made significant money.” For many years, he served as Freedom House treasurer, to the profound benefit of the organization.
On most political issues, Walter was a common-sense conservative. He recognized the symbiotic relationship between free markets and political freedom, and thus appreciated Freedom House for its grasp of the importance of economic liberties. Walter, who had served in World War II, was also deeply patriotic in the very best sense, believing that a weakened America would benefit neither the people of the United States nor the rest of the world. He rejected the winner-take-all approach to politics and government. He observed during his long lifetime that the most critical decisions required the support of conservatives and liberals, and he remained unconvinced that America or the world had so thoroughly changed as to render bipartisanship an anachronism. Walter remained involved with Freedom House in part because it was a place that welcomed people of all ideological stripes as long as they believed in democracy and an internationalist American policy.
Despite his business success, Walter lived modestly. In an age of appalling excess, he was a true democrat, a New Yorker who preferred subways to cabs and diners to glitzy restaurants. In today’s world, the values that defined Walter’s life would be seen by some as quaint. In fact, his legacy of honesty, modesty, and loyalty comes pretty close to the ideal. Walter was also generous in his support for the organizations whose missions he believed in, including Freedom House. Once he was convinced that a cause, such as the spread of freedom, was worthy, he “invested” in it in much the same way as he invested in undervalued corporations.
Those of us who knew Walter personally are grieved by his death. We will miss his good humor, his stories (he was in Yankee Stadium for the historic All-Star game in which Carl Hubbell struck out five consecutive American Leaguers destined for the Hall of Fame), and his kindness, especially toward friends whose private lives had taken a downward turn. As an institution, Freedom House has drawn great strength from Walter’s involvement through the years, and will continue to be inspired by his generosity, his fierce independence, his loyalty in difficult times, and his example of modesty and collegiality for many years to come.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.