Obama Mines Hollywood Gold, Draws Fire

ByJAKE TAPPER via via logo

Feb. 21, 2007 — -- At the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards Tuesday night at the posh Beverly Hilton -- the site of last month's Golden Globes -- the stars came out for another million-dollar affair honoring a thin, statuesque, idol of color.

Though Hollywood is focused on the Oscar race to air Sunday, the icon in question was presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Obama's presidential candidacy is thrilling Tinseltown's liberals and clearly upsetting the campaign of his chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., which took umbrage with comments made by one of Obama's chief Hollywood fundraisers, media mogul David Geffen.

Only hours after Obama had boarded a plane for Iowa, comments that Geffen made to The New York Times slamming Clinton prompted her camp's ire.

"Not since the Vietnam War has there been this level of disappointment in the behavior of America throughout the world, and I don't think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is -- and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?" Geffen told the Times' Maureen Dowd.

Geffen helped former President Clinton raise almost $20 million during that era, and spent at least one night at the White House's fabled Lincoln Bedroom.

"Obama is inspirational, and he's not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family," Geffen told Dowd.

Geffen also alluded to possible campaign distractions caused by Bill Clinton's personal life should his wife secure the Democratic nomination, saying, "Everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it's troubling."

The founder of Geffen Records continued, "I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," calling the former president "a reckless guy" who "gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and to distract the country."

This morning, Clinton aide Howard Wolfson demanded that Obama remove Geffen from his campaign and return the money he had helped raise.

"While Sen. Obama was denouncing 'slash and burn' politics yesterday, his campaign's finance chair was viciously and personally attacking Sen. Clinton and her husband," Wolfson said.

"If Sen. Obama is indeed sincere about his repeated claims to change the tone of our politics, he should immediately denounce these remarks, remove Mr. Geffen from his campaign, and return his money," the Clinton backer said.

Wolfson added that there was no place in the Democratic Party or in politics for the kind of personal insults made by Obama's "principal fundraiser."

In a statement, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "We aren't going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters. It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when [he] was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom."

Gibbs noted that on Monday, the Clinton campaign had "lavished praise" on one of her supporters, South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford, who is black and was quoted last week saying that if Obama were the nominee he would drag down the rest of the Democratic ticket because he's African American.

Clinton, Other Candidates React

In the first gathering of Democratic candidates at a Nevada forum moderated by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, Clinton lashed out against the "politics of personal destruction," telling the enthuastic union crowd that sponsored the forum, "I think we should stay focused on what we're going to do for America. I think Bill Clinton was a good president. I am very proud of the record of his two terms."

When pressed by Stephanopoulos, Clinton would not say whether she--like her campaign spokesperson--personally believes that Obama should denounce Geffen's comments.

"I'm going to leave that up to the other campaign," said Clinton.

Clinton also dodged Stephanopoulos' question about whether candidates should be held responsible for statements made by their supporters.

Another Democratic contender, Governor Bill Richardson, D-N.M., pressed the point, saying, "If we're going to win, we have to be positive," adding that Democrats should "sign a pledge that we all be positive. That's what we want and that's how we'll win."

When asked by ABC News' Stephanopoulos whether Obama should renounce Geffen's statements, Richardson replied, "Yes."

Maiden Dust-Up in Long Campaign

In an indication of how heated the campaign season had become, both campaigns seemed to be making statements that didn't square with the facts.

For the Clinton campaign's part, Geffen is not Obama's "finance chair." He doesn't have an official title and is not an official member of the campaign.

For the Obama campaign's part, Clinton did not "lavish praise" on state senator Ford when she was in South Carolina Monday for a town meeting. The citation the Obama campaign provides is from a New York Times blog entry that noted that at one campaign stop Ford "was in the audience, and she thanked him for his support."

Either way, the dust-up was a window into how much the Clinton and Obama campaigns consider each other a threat.

And in a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Geffen reiterated, "Despite reports to the contrary, I am not the Campaign Finance Chair and have no formal role in the Obama campaign, nor will I, other than to continue to offer my strongest possible personal support for his candidacy."

Geffen said he was "quoted accurately by Maureen Dowd" and continued to add that the comments "reflect solely my personal beliefs regarding the Clintons."

Obama made his rounds with Hollywood's power elite, shaking hands, signing books and collecting checks from the 300 or so assembled glitterati, including Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Morgan Freeman, Zach Braff, Jennifer Aniston, directors Ron Howard and J.J. Abrams, studio chief Brad Grey, and producer Lawrence Bender, each of whom paid the maximum allowable $2,300 contribution to the Obama presidential campaign.

The event's hosts, Dreamworks founders Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Geffen, said they'd raised around $1.3 million for the newcomer's bid for the White House.

In the 1990s, Hollywood was President Clinton's Valhalla.

These days, Hillary Clinton has some Hollywood support. Her backers include Quincy Jones, Meg Ryan and Dame Elizabeth Taylor as well as powerful Los Angeles political fundraisers Haim Saban, Steve Bing and Ron Burkle. Spielberg will also host an event for her next month.

But many Hollywood liberals are disappointed with her position on the Iraq War and see her as unelectable.

"She can't win, and she's an incredibly polarizing figure," Geffen told a Manhattan audience in 2005. "And ambition is just not a good enough reason."

So the Hollywood primary is in many ways up for grabs, as evidenced Tuesday night.

Snacking on carved meats, shrimp dumplings and filo turnovers, the audience crowded the open bars inside the hotel's ballroom.

"Don't sell yourselves short," Obama told the assembled stars, few if any of whom had ever been accused of selling himself or herself short. "You are the storytellers of our age."

After the event, a smaller group of Obama enthusiasts who had recruited at least 19 others to contribute the maximum to Obama's campaign were treated to a private dinner at Geffen's Beverly Hills estate.

For a newcomer to Hollywood, Obama reportedly did quite well in offering his celebrity audience both policy specifics and adulation.

He praised Hollywood for being able to effect change, whether through movies such as "Schindler's List," "Philadelphia" or "Hotel Rwanda," which allows audiences to see what life is like in "the other guy's shoes."

He also praised the work of Bender, producer of the Academy Award-nominated Al Gore-suffused documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which, Obama said, took "an obscure debate" about climate change and "suddenly is in everyone's living room. … And suddenly transformed the conversation."

"What an enormous power that is," Obama said. "What an enormous responsibility."

Obama's wife, Michelle, shined as a potential first lady, winning her own rave reviews after a sharp, funny introduction of her husband.

"I actually thought his wife was amazing," said Natalie Maines, the recent five-time Grammy Award-winning lead singer for the Dixie Chicks. "It's a great balance between the two of them."

With such an open race and so much money needed to run -- perhaps even $100 million just this year -- Hollywood is a key stop on the cash circuit.

"There is a lot of money in this state and a lot of politicians lined up for it," said political consultant Allen Hoffenblum.

While it remained unknown what would happen if the state of California decided to move its primary earlier in the process, Hoffenblum said, it would almost certainly make fundraising in Hollywood that much more competitive since running for office in the Golden State is so expensive.

Competition for those Hollywood dollars is already fierce.

Unlike the time legendary crooner Frank Sinatra sang for John F. Kennedy's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, though, today's Democrats are increasingly sensitive about being seen with stars.

Obama-backer George Clooney -- who contributed $2,300 to Obama's fundraiser but did not attend -- learned that lesson the hard way when he tried to help his father's race for Congress in 2004.

"I backed him by raising money for him but everything was categorized as Hollywood versus the Heartland and I actually hurt him," Clooney told ABC News.

Clooney is conflicted about advertising his endorsement of Obama -- or that of other movie stars -- acknowledging, "I certainly don't think they helped John Kerry when they backed him. I don't know necessarily saying I back him is helpful."

ABC News' Nitya Venkataraman and Kate Snow contributed to this report.

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