An early tussle over Hollywood’s war chest

Times Staff Writers

In her run for the White House, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton eventually was going to face the legacy of the more unsavory episodes of her husband’s two terms as president. But in a surprise Wednesday, the first person to draw wide attention to some of the old controversies was not a Republican candidate or the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that the Clintons have assailed, but a leading liberal at the heart of Hollywood.

Comments from entertainment mogul David Geffen, which were highly critical of the Clintons, reverberated through the presidential campaign and prompted the first direct attacks between the camps of Clinton -- a New York senator -- and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Considered the two leading Democratic candidates, they until now had traded only gentle jabs in genteel language.

Geffen talked about why he had soured on the Clintons, his longtime allies, and was instead backing Obama. He called Sen. Clinton an “incredibly polarizing figure,” criticized her husband’s 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and suggested that Bill Clinton’s personal habits would damage his wife’s campaign, hurting Democratic hopes of retaking the White House next year.

“Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling,” Geffen said of the Clintons in a New York Times interview published Wednesday.

The comments marked an escalation in the battle between Sen. Clinton and Obama for Hollywood money. Geffen, who had raised millions of dollars for the Clintons over the years, on Tuesday hosted a $1.3-million fundraiser for Obama.


His remarks prompted the Clinton campaign to demand that Obama sever all ties to Geffen and return his campaign donations, citing Obama’s past denunciation of “slash and burn” tactics. The interview also sparked a brawl of the billionaires in Los Angeles.

Responding to Geffen’s comments, media mogul and Clinton supporter Haim Saban said: “David is allowing his emotions to cloud his better judgment, and I’m frankly surprised, to say the least, at the venom in his statement.”

Saban, who made a fortune on the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, wrote in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times that Geffen “knows in his heart of heart, that Hillary is the most qualified person to be the next president of the USA. Why would he lie to himself?”

The dispute comes at a crucial time for Clinton, who had been counting on strong support from Hollywood to help her post big fundraising numbers and build momentum by enhancing her front-runner status in the party. Supermarket magnate Ron Burkle remains one of Clinton’s most ardent backers, and her strategists are hopeful that a Burkle fundraiser set for March will raise even more than Geffen raked in this week for Obama.

But Clinton now risks allowing Geffen to become a focal point among donors and primary voters in search of an alternative to her candidacy. That possibility gained potency this week when Obama, a figure in national politics for only three years, proved he could draw interest from major donors in a town that has long been dominated by the Clintons and was expected to line up behind Sen. Clinton’s candidacy.

Husband’s role

Moreover, the episode highlighted the predicament facing Clinton as she decides what role her husband should play in her campaign.

Bill Clinton remains popular among many key constituencies, but Geffen’s comments dredged up controversies that could haunt the couple in 2008, such as fundraising tactics in which donors were rewarded with White House sleepovers, and the pardons he issued at the end of his term to Rich and others. By calling the former president a “reckless guy” and doubting that he “has become a different person” since leaving office, Geffen also seemed to be reviving images of Bill Clinton’s impeachment over his dalliance with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky -- an episode that contributed to the Clintons’ polarizing reputation.

Wednesday’s eruption coincided with Bill Clinton’s official entry into the campaign with a fundraising letter to supporters.

“The attacks on Hillary haven’t stopped, and she hasn’t stopped winning,” the former president wrote.

In Hollywood, Clinton campaign officials have moved aggressively to limit Obama’s inroads and force longtime donors to back the former first lady.

Her campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, recently warned donors that Clinton would remember those who did not back her. “You are either with us, or you’re against us,” McAuliffe told potential donors during a dinner at Saban’s house.

So far, the appeal has not succeeded. Some, such as Geffen and fellow DreamWorks studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, have been drawn to Obama, 45, while others are following the lead of Norman Lear in supporting multiple candidates to foster a dynamic debate.

When Lear, the legendary TV sitcom producer, was told of McAuliffe’s comments this month, he responded: “What’s Hillary going to do? Jail me?”

Adopting Lear’s strategy are singer Barbra Streisand, former Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing and another DreamWorks founder, Steven Spielberg -- all of whom are giving early contributions to multiple candidates.

“The vast majority of people in Hollywood have not decided who they are going to support,” publicist Howard Bragman said. “And they’re watching this unfold.”

Geffen’s comments, in an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd at his Beverly Hills estate, reflected a long-simmering feud that dates to the latter years of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

President Clinton had rejected Geffen’s request that he pardon American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving two life sentences in the 1975 deaths of two FBI agents. Peltier’s advocates say he was wrongly convicted.

Geffen’s comments this week marked the completion of his transformation from leading Clinton patron to vocal critic -- a change that was foreshadowed two years ago when he told a New York audience that Sen. Clinton was so polarizing a figure that she could not win the presidential election. “Ambition is just not a good enough reason,” Geffen said at the time.

Clinton aides sought Wednesday to turn the potentially damaging episode into an advantage, issuing searing statements painting Obama as a hypocrite for taking help from Geffen even as Obama denounces the “slash and burn” aspect of traditional politics.

By pulling Obama into the controversy, Clinton aides hoped to take the shine off a candidacy that has sparked surprising excitement, not only in Hollywood but among many Democratic activists across the country.

One Clinton news release, its headline in capital letters, called on Obama to cut ties to Geffen due to his “vicious attacks.” It cited earlier comments by Obama in which he denounced the “small politics” of Washington.

“How can Sen. Obama denounce the politics of slash and burn yesterday while his own campaign is espousing the politics of trash today?” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson asked.

Though Wolfson had described Geffen as Obama’s “principal fundraiser,” Geffen issued a statement later in the day saying he had “no formal role” in the Obama campaign but would “continue to offer my strongest possible personal support for his candidacy.” Geffen did not respond to requests for further comment.

Obama refused to disavow Geffen’s statements. “It’s not clear to me why I’d be apologizing for someone else’s remark,” he said while campaigning in Iowa.

‘A very positive campaign’

Appearing at a candidates’ forum in Nevada, Clinton was far more conciliatory than her aides.

“I want to run a very positive campaign, and I sure don’t want Democrats or the supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction,” she said.

Later, she added: “I believe Bill Clinton was a good president,” provoking boisterous applause, in an apparent response to Geffen’s criticisms, from the audience of labor union activists.

She demurred when asked whether Obama should renounce Geffen’s attacks. “I’m going to leave that up to the other campaign,” she said.


Daunt reported from Los Angeles and Wallsten from Washington. Times staff writer Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.