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Clinton-Obama: Fasten Your Seat Belts

4 minute read
Karen Tumulty

In the campy 1950 movie classic All About Eve, a dewy young understudy insinuates herself into the social circle of a great but aging actress. As the older performer, played unforgettably by Bette Davis, begins to realize what’s up–that the ingenue’s real goal is to supplant her on the stage–she issues a raspy warning that has become one of the immortal lines in film: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

A very similar scene played out this week in real-life Hollywood, a place where Democratic politics is a very high-stakes business. For more than a decade, the entertainment industry’s élite has been in the thrall of Bill and Hillary Clinton, pouring millions into their campaigns. But now there’s a new “it” pol on the scene. Senator Barack Obama had his Tinseltown premiere Tuesday night at a glittering $1.3 million fund raiser thrown by DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Moneymen who brought in at least $46,000 got a “private” dinner with the candidate at Geffen’s home.

If that wasn’t enough to get Hillary’s back up, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s interview with Geffen in the next morning’s newspaper certainly was. Geffen, a big fund raiser for the Clintons in the past, called Obama “inspirational” and dismissed Hillary Clinton as “overproduced and overscripted.” As for her husband, Geffen suggested that his bad-boy days are not behind him: “I don’t think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person.” And to top it off, he said this about the two of them: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”

Even by the legendary rapid-response standards of a Clinton operation, what followed was extraordinary. Her campaign issued a statement demanding that Obama denounce Geffen, banish him from the campaign and return his money. Obama’s campaign quickly fired back with a statement declaring it “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.” Then the Obama spokesman upped the ante: “It is also ironic that Senator Clinton lavished praise on Monday and is fully willing to accept today the support of South Carolina state senator Robert Ford [an African American], who said if Barack Obama were to win the nomination, he would drag down the rest of the Democratic Party because ‘he’s black.'” That drew yet another round from Team Clinton: “How can Senator Obama denounce the politics of slash and burn yesterday while his own campaign is espousing the politics of trash today?” As for Geffen, he did what few people in public life ever do: he refused to scurry. He issued a statement that his comments were quoted accurately and “reflect solely my personal beliefs.”

Those beliefs stem in part from a personal grievance against the former President: when he was in office, he refused to pardon Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist serving life in prison for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His case has been a cause célèbre for some liberal activists who say he was unfairly convicted.

Hillary Clinton lately has deployed the argument among Democrats that she should be nominated because she has a proven record of vanquishing her enemies. So she might think it’s to her advantage to put her knife-fighting skills on display. Former Vice President Al Gore has privately told friends that his familiarity with the Clintons’ hardball campaign style is one of the reasons he would be leery of making a run against Hillary. Geffen told Dowd he expected a brutal primary because the Clinton “machine is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective.” But Obama showed, despite his official disdain for pugnacious politics, that he knows how to punch back when he’s hit.

As for which candidate is truly Hollywood’s darling? Everyone will be watching the March 31 campaign-finance reports for the answer to that question. “Obama is Usher, but she’s Madonna,” says Hilary Rosen, the recording industry’s former chief lobbyist and a Clinton supporter. “He has a long career ahead of him, but the touring dollars don’t compare.” At least not yet. If the show is this good already, the tickets may be worth the price.

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