Bradford Freeman is an old friend of President Bush and one of a handful described as a member of his inner circle. Freeman is also Bush’s California fundraising leader, and he loves to tell the story of how the president-elect called him with what Freeman hoped would be a prestigious appointment as an ambassador or maybe a secret agent.
The kind of reward that, in the realpolitik of campaign finance, a rainmaker like Freeman might realistically anticipate.
Bush said, “ ‘I’m going to ask you to do something important,’ ” Freeman deadpans. “I was so excited. I was standing up at my desk. Buttons were flying off my shirt. The office was lined up outside the doorway. I put my hand over the phone and told my secretary, ‘I think it’s the CIA.’ I said, ‘I’m ready to serve my country.’ ”
Instead, Bush asked, “ ‘Do you remember that night in Texas the girls brought in that wild cat, Ernie? Well, Ernie wasn’t de-clawed.’
“I thought, ‘Why’s he talking about Ernie for?’ ” Said Bush: “ ‘Well, Ernie can’t go to the White House.’
“That was it. Someone else got England and France. And I got Ernie,” Freeman says. “I had to go to a psychiatrist. I had to tell myself, ‘Yes, you are a good person.’ It’s a funny story. Unfortunately, it’s true.”
He’s kidding, though he did get the cat and a minor presidential appointment, while his brother, Russell Freeman, got a cushy post as U.S. ambassador to Belize. Self-deprecating humor is elemental to this self-styled Brentwood Brahmin of the Republican Raj, whose California party had, until the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, languished for years in post-Pete Wilson irrelevance.
Freeman, a youthful 62, did get a personal visit at his home from Bush, who “put his arm around me and said, ‘Bradley’ -- the president calls me Bradley -- ‘I’ve got ideas people. Just raise money,’ ” Freeman recalls with mock chagrin -- and perhaps a touch of disingenuousness.
That’s because membership in this elite fundraising fraternity opens the doors to an exclusive world of influence, perks and business connections that can be far more beneficial than many federal appointments.
Freeman’s pride in his fundraising prowess was evident on a recent evening at his Brentwood digs, which -- like his British Post-Impressionist paintings and private Falcon 2000 jet -- are the trappings of Freeman, Spogli & Co., the $2-billion-plus venture capital firm he manages with Ron Spogli, Bush’s classmate at Harvard Business School. His $10-million mansion is immaculately appointed, its beamed ceilings and orchid displays set off by manly hunting-lodge touches: antique fish lithographs, a mounted blow-up of Freeman and Bush at the president’s Texas ranch.
A Barbie in men’s pajamas perches on the wainscoting, and there’s a needlepoint pillow bearing the golf credo: “The 19th hole is the best place to improve your lies.” And there’s Freeman, who seems to have wandered out of a Rat Pack flick with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra: “What can I get you? Vodka on the rocks? We’ve got light beer, but this isn’t a bar.”
Start spreadin’ the news: Freeman is the life of the Party. In a milieu where a Republican moneyman might seem a fish out of water, Freeman, the California finance chairman of the Bush campaign, with an estimated net worth of more than $100 million, is something of a man about town. . Even ultra-liberal Democrats describe him as a “nice guy” and a “charmer.”
“Brad is the prototype of the new fundraiser,” says former Ronald Reagan White House staffer Bob Tuttle, who dropped by for dinner on the terrace. “It takes somebody who knows a lot of people. And Brad knows everyone.” Everyone. “You have a first lady and a first friend,” said Los Angeles billionaire developer Eli Broad. And Freeman, he said, is a “first friend.”
Or at least one of them. Among the president’s good friends, “Brad has a special place,” said Robert White, Wilson’s onetime chief of staff who stayed in Freeman’s guesthouse for three months while he ran the Schwarzenegger campaign. “The reason I think the president likes him so much is he’s similar to him as a guy."Like Bush’s, Freeman’s sense of humor can border on slapstick. When a neighbor threw a black-tie fundraiser featuring then-President Clinton, Freeman distributed “Bush-Cheney” signs. During the Iowa straw poll, Freeman donned fake buckteeth and put his arm around unsuspecting Republican contender Steve Forbes while Texas oilman Don Evans, another Bush friend (and now Commerce secretary), snapped a picture for Bush.
Even his Master of the Universe moments stray into self-satire. At a recent gala honoring him, Freeman sang “Johnny B. Goode” with the band. As the party wound down, he sped across the estate in a chauffeured golf cart, yelling, “Hail, Caesar!” to the army of workers cleaning up.
He does have a serious side. Freeman is one of the Bush campaign’s elite Rangers, fundraisers whose amassing of at least $200,000 in individual contributions have allowed them to surmount the $2,000 individual contribution limit imposed by campaign finance reform.
Freeman helped raise $40 million as finance chairman of the Bush inaugural committee, and he donated the $100,000 maximum. He and his brother, a North Dakota attorney, were both Bush Pioneers in 2000, meaning they raised at least $100,000.
Quid pro quos are illegal, but giving fundraisers plum jobs is a bipartisan tradition. Altogether, at least 146 of the Pioneers and Rangers got federal jobs or appointments, some of them in positions to regulate their industries, according to a study by the nonpartisan Texans for Public Justice, which tracks the influence of money in politics. At least two became Cabinet members, 47 were named to postelection transition teams and 24 were made ambassadors.
California’s share of Pioneers and Rangers trails only those of Texas and Florida. Of $213 million raised for the Republican presidential campaign, the Bush campaign has raised at least $15.9 million from Californians, compared with $7.6 million for the same period in 2000, according to Dwight L. Morris and Associates, which tracks the data.
Freeman’s friends say personal loyalty drives his fundraising.
“What makes him a great friend of the president is he’s never asked him for favors,” said California Education Secretary Richard J. Riordan, Freeman’s onetime business partner. Riordan hosted a $400,000 Bush fundraiser in 1999, and Freeman is credited with winning Bush’s backing for Riordan’s unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial run.
After all, “he’s got his job; he’s got his mistress; he’s got his airplane,” Riordan said, adding: “Just kidding.”
Critics say the fundraising fraternity institutionalizes special access to the White House for a privileged clique of businessmen, lobbyists and Friends of George. “If you look at a list of Bush Pioneers and Rangers, you’ll see a lot of these people had connections with Bush and his businesses, with oil companies and with his father’s campaigns,” said James Benton, of Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that tracks the links between money and politics.
Andrew Wheat, of Texans for Public Justice, said the system allows initiates -- overwhelmingly affluent white men -- access they can use to lobby for government contracts or reduce regulatory pressure on their industries.”
“For professional lobbyists to argue they have no interest in government is laughable,” Wheat said. “People who have the wherewithal to raise $100,000 are not your average people. They’re from elite schools and elite backgrounds.
In a Republican fundraising world littered with fortunate sons, Tuttle says, he admires Freeman for being “self-made,” joking, “I went to Stanford but my dad got me in.”
“That’s not true,” Freeman shoots back. “He got you your appointments.”
Tuttle, the chairman of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art and also a Bush Pioneer and Ranger, was the Reagan White House presidential personnel chief for four years. Tuttle’s fundraiser father, Holmes Tuttle, is credited with persuading Reagan to run for governor in 1966.
If the Bush administration espouses conservative Christian precepts, Freeman’s family values seem to owe more to Hollywood. Twice divorced with a married daughter, Freeman is a 25-year bachelor with a reputation for squiring models. He took Liz Taylor as his date to a State Department dinner in December 2002, prompting fellow Bush Ranger Stuart Bernstein, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, to joke to W magazine, “This is the first date Brad’s had who’s over 19.”
“It’s a different one every time I see him,” Riordan elaborates, asking a reporter: “Did you date him?”
At the moment, Freeman is seeing an age-appropriate philanthropist. “I told the president, ‘I finally figured out that dating one 50-year-old is better than two 25-year-olds,” Freeman says. “It took me 40 years to figure that out.”
In that time, Freeman went from Fargo, N.D., to Stanford on a football scholarship and on to Harvard Business School. Next he worked at Dean Witter in Los Angeles with Spogli. He would have begun political fundraising early in his career, Freeman said, but “I had no money, no contacts, and no one would answer my phone calls.”
That was beginning to change around the time Spogli introduced Freeman to the Bushes, on a trip to Midland, Texas, in 1979. Freeman invested in the younger Bush’s ill-fated Arbusto oil company and joined Bush senior’s elite “Team 100" of fundraisers. He and Spogli formed a partnership with Riordan, who contributed the capital to invest in rising companies.
Freeman’s friends still call him “Fargo.” But now he gathers with such powerful men as Colin L. Powell and Henry A. Kissinger at Bohemian Grove in Northern California for what has been called the world’s biggest frat party. He personally knows such global figures as Saudi Prince Bandar ibn Sultan.
He forged such a strong friendship with the Bushes that once former President George H.W. Bush was so eager to unwind at Freeman’s place that he left his military aide -- “who has the nuclear codes” -- behind at a Los Angeles hotel, according to Sean Walsh, then a White House press aide. “Here’s a man who enjoys Brad’s company a heck of a lot.”
‘There’s that bond’
Walsh said Freeman supported Bush’s gubernatorial aspirations early and helped raise money to finance them. “There’s that bond from being there from Day One that can really never be torn asunder,” Walsh said.
Freeman stayed at the Governor’s Mansion whenever he went to Texas, said Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s gubernatorial chief of staff and 2000 campaign chief. “They are very close friends. [Freeman] has got a fantastic sense of humor,” he said, adding that Bush takes the presidency “very seriously, but he doesn’t take himself very seriously.”
Freeman paints his loyalty to Bush in broad brushstrokes. He praises the president for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and adopting tax cuts.
“He’s got character,” Freeman said of Bush. “He’s got integrity. His word is his bond. I’ve seen him under fire. I’ve seen him in a myriad of situations, and he’s never disappointed me. He’s a man of faith. He’s a fantastic husband and parent. And I respect that.”
Stories about their friendship are rife. At Freeman’s house, Tuttle ticks off a few: The gym story. The Belgium story. The story about Natasha, Miss World. But he reveals no details.
Freeman too is a faithful keeper of the presidential past. In his own way. Once, Freeman says, a reporter asked him if he used to go drinking with Bush and he answered, “All the time.” How was Bush under the influence? “How would I know? I was passed out,” Freeman quipped. “And the reporter took me seriously.”
This, Tuttle interjects, points to one of the biggest bonds between Freeman and the president: Humor.
Bush’s jokes have gotten him in trouble too, as at the White House press dinner in March, when Bush showed himself on a big-screen TV pretending to search under furniture for Iraq’s yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction. Some were deeply offended by the humor at a time when troops were coming home dead and wounded.
What most endears Freeman to Bush, Tuttle says, is that “Brad doesn’t want anything.”
“He’s doing this because he feels George Bush will make a better America,” Tuttle says. “What does Brad have to gain by raising money for Bush?”
“It’s the cat,” Freeman says. “I have the cat.”
Actually, Freeman has spent more than a few nights in the Lincoln Bedroom. He was named to a minor presidential commission. He is reportedly invited to White House parties and Bush birthdays.
But he has few straight answers about that -- or much else. He’ll offer that he hasn’t attended church in 30 years but says his prayers every night, “no matter how much I drink.”
Tuttle attempts an intervention.
“You’re going to be roasted,” he warns. “You’re going to be sent as ambassador to Antarctica.”
Freeman lights up with feigned eagerness: “Do they have an embassy there?”
It’s like trying to rein in a Jack Nicholson character. Freeman starts narrating his own profile (“He sowed his wild oats in France when he was a student there in 1962") and shrouding simple biographical details in apocryphal legend, claiming to have gambled away his money in Vegas on the way to college and worked his way through Stanford playing poker. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,” he sings. “Know when to fold ‘em....”
He offers some unfettered opinions on current affairs: The California Republican Party “has been dysfunctional,” with a primary system that favors gubernatorial candidates who are too conservative to win the general election. Maverick Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain? “He’s not a Republican.” On liberal satirist Bill Maher: “When he comes on, I have to turn off the TV set or shoot it.”
When Tuttle says he believes the U.S. “democratization” of Iraq should be expanded to other Middle Eastern countries, Freeman is dismissive. “We’re not liberating Iraq. We’re doing a preemptive strike,” Freeman tells Tuttle. “You’ve been out of touch too long, Bob.”
Freeman is the first to admit that Karl Rove, White House senior political advisor, is reluctant to have him near the press. During one phone disagreement, Freeman says, he told Rove, “Karl, fire me,” and Rove abruptly terminated the call.
In January, Freeman says, Rove took exception when Freeman told NBC that Bush had grown in office.
“Karl went crazy. He said, ‘What was he, a midget?’ ” Freeman says. “I said, ‘Karl, if he didn’t grow in office, you’re not doing your job.’ ”
“You stood up to Karl Rove,” Tuttle says, his expression suddenly serious. “Good for you, Brad.”
A few years ago, Freeman jokingly told a reporter he was so upset at losing the president’s cat that he was on “heavy medication,” and the quote ran in Newsweek. “I told him I was on Valium, lithium -- and he took me seriously,” Freeman laments.
Freeman is still the keeper of the rogue presidential tomcat. But if he is close to the Bush family, he holds many of the socially tolerant views that place some California Republicans far from the public positions of the White House.
Freeman said he supports legal abortion and, like Nancy Reagan, favors efforts to expand stem cell research.
Some might say -- in the donor-rich hills where Friends of Bill and Friends of George share common ground as Friends of Arnold -- this Bush Pioneer has gone a touch native.
Freeman lights up with the idea of another little prank, this one on Rove.
“Tell Karl you’re doing an article on me,” Freeman says. “Say, ‘Oh, he was reluctant at first. But then he gave me all these great anecdotes about Bush.
“He’ll go crazy.”
Times staff researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this article.