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Backstory: To help Cambodians is Bernie's law

Whether it's red tape or red carpet, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Bernie Krisher will stomp on it to get his way.

By Tibor KrauszContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 2006


You start off a meeting with Bernard Krisher looking for his halo. The philanthropist's reputation is that glowing. But the only esoteric accessory this retired journalist – whose indoor pallor and slight stoop is testament to years spent hunched over scoops on his typewriter – turns out to have is the fleet feet of Mercury. If you want to keep pace with him, you better be a long-distance runner – and an early bird, too.

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Back for two weeks recently in his adopted country – "adopted" as in him being a self-appointed foster parent – the former Newsweek foreign correspondent has the schedule of a visiting head of state: Tuesday, Mr. Krisher inaugurates a new school he's started for the children of illiterate rice farmers. Wednesday, he escorts King Norodom Sihamoni – shaded under a ceremonial royal umbrella – around a free hospital for Cambodia's desperately poor that Krisher launched a decade ago. Friday, he welcomes US Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli to the groundbreaking of a dormitory for gifted but destitute children. Monday and Thursday, he exhorts Minister of Education Kol Pheng for more textbooks for rural schools, and badgers foreign nongovernmental organizations for their support.

In between, he checks on his fundraising campaign for mosquito nets for villagers at risk from malaria. And he inquires about the sale of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which he printed last year after persuading author J.K. Rowling's publisher to let him offer Cambodian kids the book in Khmer for 50 cents a copy.

At 6 a.m. one day, he's giving a pep talk to delivery boys outside the offices of The Cambodian Daily, a newsletter-style paper he's been publishing since 1993 by way of pioneering press freedom in Cambodia (the paper's first copy is displayed in the Krisher room of the US embassy here). By evening, he's headlining a gala for foreign donors at the city's fairytale-flamboyant Royal Palace.

Right now, though, Krisher has a few minutes to spare. Sort of. Between answering a reporter's questions and nibbling on a salad (he doesn't like greens, he warns a waiter in Phnom Penh's InterContinental Hotel, before reprimanding a concierge for letting a fellow guest smoke), Krisher pores over blueprints for one of his new pet projects – Bright Future Kids.

"The idea is, even for children living in extreme poverty, the sky is the limit if they're ambitious," explains Krisher, whose puckered features put you in mind of a Shar-Pei pup wearing spectacles.

His new program has just handpicked 25 bright sixth-graders from across this impoverished country to attend the capital's best high school starting in January. Staying in a new dormitory built by Krisher, they'll receive extra English and computer lessons from foreign volunteer teachers.

"For the poor, 90 percent of job opportunities are closed," Krisher explains. "But these kids are going to be movers, shakers, leaders, pushers."

Pushers, like Bernie Krisher. When informed by an assistant that the dormitory project is on hold pending municipal approval, Krisher will have none of it: "I'm not going through this nonsense of red tape; I'm gonna break the law [and build anyway] because there's a higher law – helping people. I'll call Sihanouk and Hun Sen if I must." He means, respectively, Cambodia's revered King Father, a close friend, and its strongman prime minister.

Such chutzpah is vintage Krisher. Already a precocious reporter wannabe at 14, he launched his own mimeographed newspaper in New York City, The Pocket Mirror (800 copies at 3 cents each). He then went about landing celebrity interviews: Frank Sinatra ("I went backstage after his show in the Paramount Theatre with all those girls screaming outside"); Babe Ruth ("I went to his house and knocked on the door"); Arturo Toscanini ("I lied to the security guards that I was his grandson").