Long before the fractious public airing of their poisoned relations, the political friendship between David Geffen and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton was an unconventional alliance with a cloudy future.
The outspoken Hollywood mogul Geffen lavished nearly $1.2 million on the Clintons and other Democrats during the Clinton White House years, gaining extraordinary access to the president while hosting the couple at intimate dinners at his Malibu beachfront home and sleepovers at his estate in Beverly Hills.
But their relations were in constant flux. Intimates of the two said that flashpoints surfaced often: Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military. The president’s scolding of Hollywood after the Columbine school massacre. The Monica S. Lewinsky affair and Clinton’s impeachment. And finally, the 11th-hour flurry of controversial pardons that excluded a convicted murderer whose release Geffen had championed.
Their alliance was marked by genuine affection, colleagues say, and a large measure of self-interest. Whether its meltdown has any lasting significance remains to be seen, but Geffen’s recent broadside against the Clintons left the political world agape.
Aimed chiefly at Hillary Clinton, who was mostly a bystander to the friendship, Geffen’s waspish comments to a New York Times columnist gave voice to the kind of sentiments -- that she is polarizing, dishonest, far too ambitious -- that her presidential campaign expected from the right, not from a political soul mate.
Geffen has since retreated into silence. He declined to comment for this account, as did spokesmen for both Clintons.
But others who know the principals well described the arc of the star-crossed friendship. Most would only speak anonymously, fearful of risking Geffen’s legendary ire and political retribution from the Clintons.
Geffen first joined forces with Bill Clinton in 1992, soon after becoming a billionaire from the sale of his record company to MCA. Nearing 50, he was about to openly acknowledge his homosexuality.
Several intimates said he grew unnerved by the sway of social and religious conservatives backing the reelection campaign of President George H.W. Bush. Conservative Pat Buchanan’s call to arms for a “cultural war,” and his mocking that Democrats were radicals posing as moderates in an “exhibition of cross-dressing,” nudged Geffen toward a high-profile role in funding the Clinton ticket.
“They were talking about an America that was about being white, Christian, heterosexual male,” Geffen said in a 1993 Times interview. “Well, you know there are people who just don’t fit into that category.”
Eagerly assuming the role of campaign benefactor, Geffen was a leading light among 150 guests who paid $5,000 to honor Clinton at the Beverly Hills home of MCA mogul Lew Wasserman. By the time Clinton won in November, Geffen had donated nearly $100,000 to the campaign and other Democratic causes.
Geffen didn’t attend the inaugural festivities. But he joined Clinton at an economic summit in Los Angeles. The agenda was dry financial policy -- not Geffen’s cup of tea. But the invitation from the White House had thrilled him.
“I can’t imagine him doing it for anyone else,” the associate said. “But for Clinton, he sat there and got into it. Or at least he pretended to.”
The associate said that Geffen openly admired Clinton, intrigued by his mix of Arkansas informality, wonkish fluency and political shrewdness. But at the same time, “David was pretty level-headed about the relationship. He wasn’t a showoff about it ... you didn’t see him dial him up in front of other people to show what kind of access he had.”
Geffen had joined a rarified group of Hollywood liberals shepherding millions to campaign coffers, including director Steven Spielberg and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who would become Geffen’s partners in founding DreamWorks SKG, the film studio.
One former White House aide said Clinton was particularly “star-struck” by Spielberg and Katzenberg, and eagerly rubbed elbows with them. He roomed overnight at their sumptuous Los Angeles homes, in the Hamptons and in ski country. Geffen opened his beachfront home to Clinton and, on occasion, the first lady.
Several former Clinton aides and fundraisers said that although Geffen could be counted on to open his checkbook, he was prickly and not easily pleased. White House aides “thought of him as high-maintenance,” said one Clintonista. Another called him a “whiner.” A veteran fundraiser watched Geffen stand on a dining room chair at one event to lecture top Democrats on social policy.
“He’s a passionate guy, and he’s not cowed by anyone,” the fundraiser said. “He’ll give you anything you ask for if he thinks it’s in his interest. And he’ll decide on a dime to dry up that support if he’s mad at you.”
Almost from the start, Geffen’s presidential friendship was tested by political tensions of the day. Once elected, Clinton retreated from a promise to allow acknowledged homosexuals to serve in the military. Instead, he adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of letting gays remain in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation quiet.
Geffen helped bankroll a media campaign led by gay activists to pressure Clinton. “No one in Hollywood did more on gays and lesbians in the military than David Geffen,” said David Mixner, an old Clinton friend. But Clinton stuck with his compromise. For gay leaders like Mixner, this led to a severing of ties. Geffen remained a Clinton ally.
“He consciously decided he didn’t want it to be a rupture point,” an associate said. “David’s tendency was to get mad, but he realized he had larger fish to fry, and why give up a good relationship?”
“They had a deep friendship. You could see it,” said former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, who joined Geffen and the president at a private Malibu dinner in 1994.
Geffen took care not to neglect the first lady. He co-chaired a January 1994 banquet for AIDS Project Los Angeles where she was feted for her support of AIDS programs. Geffen intimates say that he saw Hillary Clinton as a benign figure on the periphery of his friendship with the president. “She wasn’t a political candidate then; she was the first lady,” a Geffen colleague pointed out.
Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky in 1998 and the impeachment crisis that followed was another test of Geffen’s loyalty. At the time, associates say, Geffen privately advised Clinton on how to deal with the media and the public. “They were still close, and they spoke,” one Geffen colleague said. “They discussed the issues that were confronting the president.”
But Geffen’s outlook on Clinton “began to sour,” the colleague said. Clinton had also found a new pal in Los Angeles: supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, a political supporter who became a close personal friend.
During one of Clinton’s visits to the West Coast in 1999, according to a California Democrat, Geffen insisted that Clinton stay at his home even though Geffen would be out of town. Clinton spent much of the evening at an event at Burkle’s 8-bedroom, 13-bath mansion in Beverly Hills, but then dutifully went around the block to neighbor Geffen’s estate (8 bedrooms, 9 baths) for the night.
In April 1999, after the Columbine High School rampage, Clinton surprised Hollywood by ordering a commission to investigate how the entertainment industry marketed violent video games to teenagers.
DreamWorks called it “finger-pointing,” and Geffen questioned what he perceived as the administration’s failure to press hard for tougher firearms controls.
Still, Geffen joined Spielberg and Katzenberg that May in hosting the Clintons at a fete in Beverly Hills. While tenor Andrea Bocelli serenaded the attendees, more than $1.5 million in checks was written to pump up the Democratic Party’s 2000 Senate campaigns. One of the new candidates was Hillary Clinton.
If Geffen had become skeptical of the first lady, it didn’t prevent him from backing her. Geffen donated $2,000 to her campaign and $13,000 to party political committees that aided her. Geffen also promised $1 million toward the planned Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., and sent $200,000 as a down payment.
No special favor
As the Clinton presidency neared its end, Geffen also pressed for a favor. He had become a supporter of a campaign to win a presidential pardon for Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist serving a life sentence in the shooting deaths of two FBI agents in 1975 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Peltier’s advocates say he was wrongly convicted.
A pardon was a long shot. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was opposed, and more than 500 federal agents and their families protested outside the White House.
According to Geffen associates, DreamWorks corporate spokesman Andy Spahn contacted the White House three times on Peltier’s behalf, and Geffen spoke to Clinton about it. Clinton associates recalled only that there were “general contacts.” Clinton was “noncommittal,” a Geffen intimate said.
When Clinton denied Peltier’s petition, Geffen told an aide, “This guy’s a politician; you know what they’re like.”
Geffen’s disappointment turned to ire when he learned who did win pardons. They included Marc Rich, a wealthy commodities trader who had fled to Switzerland after he was indicted in 1983 for tax evasion, and convicted Los Angeles drug dealer Carlos Vignali, whose case was pressed by Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother.
Several Geffen intimates say he was most angered by a Time magazine article quoting Clinton as telling friends that his denial of the Peltier pardon showed he had not traded pardons for money. “David Geffen will barely talk to me!” Clinton reportedly said.
“That sent him up the wall,” an associate said of Geffen. “He had a thing about people who used him to prop themselves up.”
Their friendship dissolved overnight. The DreamWorks executive sent a final $800,000 to honor his pledge to the Clinton library, but that was his last stipend. Geffen remained a loyal benefactor to other Democrats, even donating $5,000 to a PAC that aided Daschle, despite his opposition to the Peltier pardon.
Geffen shut down his donations to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and began saying she had no future as a presidential candidate. His recent criticisms of her were not the first.
“She can’t win,” Geffen said during a public forum at the 92nd Street Y in New York in 2002. “She’s an incredibly polarizing figure. I think ambition is not a good enough reason.”
By then, Geffen had met with a new Senate hopeful, Barack Obama of Illinois. DreamWorks’ Spahn had been impressed and urged the two men to meet, so Geffen invited Obama to his Malibu home for a private dinner with several other Democratic Party supporters.
“They hit it off,” Spahn recalled.
Meanwhile, Geffen had ended all contact with the Clintons.
According to one Clinton intimate, the former president tried to keep the relationship alive. “He called a bunch of times, but Geffen never called back,” the Clinton associate said. “Eventually, he stopped trying.”
Times staff writer Walter F. Roche Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.