Mike McIntireand Michael Luo

The trip to Jordan by a group of U.S. congressmen was supposed to be a chance for them to meet the newly crowned King Abdullah II. But their tour guide had a more complicated agenda.


The guide was Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate who helped underwrite trips to the Middle East to win support in Congress for Israel. On this occasion in 1999, as the lawmakers enjoyed a reception at the Royal Palace in Amman, Adelson and an aide retreated to a private room with the king.


There, the king listened politely as Adelson sat on a sofa and paged through his proposal for a gambling resort on the Jordan-Israel border to be called the Red Sea Kingdom.


“This was shortly after his father, King Hussein, died, and he was grateful to me,” Adelson explained later in court testimony, recalling that he had lent his plane when the ailing monarch sought treatment in the United States. “So they remembered.”


The proposal never went anywhere — Adelson later said he had feared a Jewish-owned casino on Arab land “would have been blown to smithereens.” But his impromptu pitch to the Jordanian king highlights the boldness, if not audacity, that has propelled Adelson into the ranks of the world’s richest men and transformed him into a powerful behind-the-scenes player in U.S. and international politics.


Those qualities may also help explain why Adelson, 78, has decided to throw his wealth behind what had once seemed to be the unlikely presidential aspirations of Newt Gingrich. Now, in no small measure because of Adelson’s deep pockets, Gingrich is locked in a struggle with Mitt Romney as Florida’s Republican primary looms on Tuesday.


Funding super PAC


By some estimates worth as much as $22 billion, Adelson presides over a global empire of casinos, hotels and convention centers whose centerpiece is the Venetian in Las Vegas, an exuberant monument to excess with canals, singing gondoliers and acres of slot machines. That fortune is a wellspring of financial support for Gingrich, who has benefited from $17 million in political contributions from Adelson and his wife, Miriam, in recent years, including $10 million in the last few weeks to a super PAC supporting Gingrich.


The question of what motivates Adelson’s singular generosity toward the former House speaker has emerged front and center in the campaign. People who know him say his affinity for Gingrich stems from a devotion to Israel as well as loyalty to a friend. A fervent Zionist who opposes any territorial compromise to make way for a Palestinian state, Adelson has long been enamored of Gingrich’s full-throated defense of Israel.


Adelson is hardly a household name. He avoids the limelight and rarely speaks to the press, remaining something of an enigma. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but he and his wife issued a statement saying friendship and loyalty are “our motivation for helping Newt.”


Through interviews and a review of Adelson’s testimony in legal disputes with former associates, a portrait emerges of a formidable and determined striver who lifted himself out of childhood penury in working-class Boston. He has a sentimental streak — on one of his first trips to Israel, he wore the shoes of his late father, a cab driver from Lithuania who was never able to visit there — and he has given hundreds of millions to Jewish causes, medical research and injured veterans.


But his rise has not been without controversy. The Justice Department is investigating allegations by a former casino executive that Adelson’s operations in Macau may have violated federal laws barring corrupt payments to foreign officials. Also, a Chinese businessman accused Adelson of reneging on an agreement to share profits from the Macau project.