Ron Burkle raised $10 million for the Clintons. Now, he has almost nothing to do with them.
As Hillary Clinton and her surrogates scour the country for mega-donors, the one left-leaning billionaire they are not approaching is the one who knows the first couple more intimately than any of the others.
Ron Burkle figures that over the years, he’s raised about $10 million for the Clintons at his sprawling Beverly Hills estate. After Bill Clinton left the White House, he and Burkle jetted around the world in an unconventional partnership that netted the former president about $15 million and Burkle entree into the palaces and offices of world dignitaries. For years, when Clinton dropped into Los Angeles, he would only stay at “Ronnie’s” place, Greenacres, once owned by silent film star Harold Lloyd. Clinton was fond of the home and its history.
So what’s Burkle done for the Clintons lately? Nothing.
“They never asked me for a penny,” he said of Hillary Clinton’s campaign during a rare interview in his West Hollywood office that touched on his dim outlook toward Hillary as a candidate, Bill’s post-presidential role with Burkle’s investment firm and what, exactly, happened on those plane rides.
The festering weirdness between the California billionaire and the Clintons might have drifted out of sight but for Burkle’s decision to start raising campaign funds for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton. He’s co-hosting a fundraiser this month for Republican John Kasich at Soho House in West Hollywood.
As much as I like Gore, Kerry and [Hillary] Clinton, nobody can ever remember what they stand for. They overcomplicate it.
Burkle says he might decide in the end to back Clinton – or he might not. The billionaire who counts supermodel Gisele Bundchen among his best friends, who helped the FBI investigate a New York Post gossip columnist suspected of trying to shake him down, who jets around the globe in a private 757, says Hillary Clinton just isn’t re-creating the magic of her husband.
“People would expect Bill Clinton-style love and attention,” he said. “That is not going to happen with her.”
Burkle lumps Hillary Clinton in with a group of well-meaning Democratic presidential nominees who faltered. Like Al Gore and John F. Kerry — candidates Burkle robustly supported — she is brilliant but troublingly disconnected with the electorate, he says.
“As much as I like Gore, Kerry and [Hillary] Clinton, nobody can ever remember what they stand for,” he said. “They overcomplicate it. … They don’t win on vision — they make it too complicated. They don’t win on likability.” He says President Obama has been a bitter disappointment, failing to deliver on his promise to work with Republicans.
Bill Clinton, though, he says he still adores despite what looked like a very public breakup.
Clinton is due in Los Angeles on Thursday for a series of fundraisers and a campaign appearance.
Few Californians are as tightly woven into the decades-long psychodrama that swirls around the Clintons as Burkle. (Another would be David Geffen — Burkle’s next-door neighbor. Geffen has come back into the fold after publicly calling the Clintons shameless liars in 2007.)
Burkle even traces his interest in Kasich to Bill Clinton. Back when Kasich was a leading congressional Republican at the height of Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, he bore down and struck a budget deal with the embattled president, Burkle noted. As Burkle scans the field for a candidate with what he describes as the deal-making savvy, the political courage and the common-sense approach that he so valued in Bill Clinton, it’s not Clinton’s wife who stands out at the moment, but Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor.
“If you are hiring a CEO, he’d be a guy you could hire,” Burkle said. “I think people who take his position should be heard.” But Burkle cautions: “It doesn’t mean I am going to write a $10-million check to him.”
Clinton loyalists do not take kindly to such musings. They say that Burkle is embittered after his business dealings with Bill Clinton fizzled. Their partnership dissolved as Hillary Clinton mounted her 2008 bid for the White House. It ended with a firestorm of bad press for both men, with reports of Clinton family confidants fretting that Bill Clinton’s bromance with Burkle invited scandal. Unverified reports of the two men jetting around in a Burkle 757 filled with attractive young women leached from the tabloids to the mainstream media.
Burkle is still irked by it all. He says the plane — on which his then-adolescent son was often aboard with Clinton — was hardly a flying frat house.
“No woman could get within 100 miles of [Clinton] while I was on watch,” he said. And the awkward, borderline dowdy businessman expresses bemusement at the idea that he’s a Don Juan. “I’m very shy with girls,” he said. “It takes me about a year to tell a girl I like her.”
Burkle suspects Geffen was a source for some of the most damning media coverage, the worst of which emerged at a time Geffen was riled with Bill Clinton for refusing to pardon Leonard Peltier, the imprisoned Native American activist who Amnesty International says was unfairly convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975. Geffen has denied it. And because this is Hollywood and these are billionaires, Burkle expresses surprise when asked if bitterness lingers between him and Geffen. Burkle insists they are friends.
He says the same about the Clintons. The days of regular phone chats are gone, Burkle said, but when he bumped into Bill Clinton at a funeral a couple of months ago, they hugged.
The high-stakes campaign-cash bundlers and politically influential proxies in the Clinton network are conflicted about how to navigate around Burkle. Some note that Burkle opened his wallet in a big way recently to elect another longtime Clinton confidant, Terry McAuliffe, as governor of Virginia, suggesting there is room for him to come back onto the reservation. Others say the Clintons can do without the baggage that Burkle brings.
But everyone is treading cautiously. Should Burkle ever choose to inflict damage on the Clintons, he is well-positioned to do so. His entanglements with the family were deep.
So much so that people close to both men say Burkle never paid Clinton millions of dollars owed him when the partnership was dissolved. If true, Clinton had no recourse. A court battle would have been mutually assured destruction, exposing both to embarrassing depositions.
Burkle tells a different story. He says Clinton just never got interested in helping drum up business for Burkle’s investment firm, Yucaipa.
“It wasn’t his thing,” Burkle said. “Whenever we went anywhere, he didn’t want to talk business.” Besides, Burkle said, Clinton had other things he was focused on, namely setting up his foundation and its work on AIDS prevention in Africa and other global issues.
The partnership sprung, Burkle said, out of Clinton’s need for income when he left the White House deep in debt with legal bills. “He was looking at doing a TV show,” Burkle said. “I thought, this is the worst idea ever. I thought, let’s do something that is worker-friendly and community-friendly. If you need to make money, let’s do something good.”
Ultimately, though, Burkle said of Clinton’s time with Yucaipa: “If you try to figure out what he did, he really didn’t do anything.”
For more, go to latimes.com/politics.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our bureau chiefs in Sacramento and D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.