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A Trusted Ally of Politicians

June 04, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The death of former MCA chief Lew R. Wasserman on Monday rumbled through Washington almost as powerfully as it did Hollywood.

In the decades from Lyndon Johnson through Bill Clinton, Wasserman probably did more than anyone in the movie industry to build the road that now runs between the two cities.

Beginning under Johnson in the 1960s, Wasserman both established the expectation that movie executives would cultivate friendships with politicians and demonstrated how to do so.

In his heyday, Wasserman was by far the most effective fund-raiser in Hollywood, perhaps the most effective in Hollywood's history. But he also became a trusted intimate of political leaders who prized his experience and discretion. Johnson, according to one account, offered to make him secretary of Commerce; Clinton came to see him as a close friend.

"I'm sure other presidents had the same experience: I just wanted to listen to him talk," Clinton said Monday. "I was never around him when I didn't have a good time, and learn something from it, and was elevated by it."

Added Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee: "He was in a class and a league by himself."

Hollywood was a source of money for politicians long before Wasserman. But it was Wasserman, together with the late Arthur B. Krim, former head of United Artists Corp., who defined the modern style of Hollywood fund-raising--the foundation of the industry's political influence.

The generation of moguls who founded Hollywood built their political influence on their autocratic control of their studios. At a time when the studios held writers, directors and even stars under binding contracts, the studio chiefs had enormous leverage to coerce contributions for their candidates.

But in the 1950s, economics unraveled the old studio system, which greatly reduced the political influence of the moguls. More than anyone it was Krim, based in New York, and Wasserman, in Los Angeles, who filled the vacuum. Both recognized that modern campaigns needed so much money that the most successful fund-raisers--and thus the most influential men--were those who could reach beyond their own studios, and the industry itself, and extract money from other local powers.

It was Krim, a key fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy, who first recruited Wasserman into national politics. Jules C. Stein, who founded MCA, had for years kept the company away from politics. But as MCA morphed beyond a conventional talent agency through the 1950s--producing television shows and eventually acquiring Universal Pictures--politics found the company; under Kennedy, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit that forced the firm to dissolve its talent agency after it bought Universal.

For Wasserman, the government's intervention was a traumatic event. By company legend, it was the act that inspired Wasserman to shed his political passivity and begin acquiring the allies that could prevent a recurrence.

Wasserman first appeared on the national stage in June 1963, when he served as host of a $1,000-a-plate dinner at the Beverly Hilton hotel for the President's Club--a fund-raising vehicle for Kennedy that Krim had established. But Wasserman fully emerged as a force in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign. Early in the race, Wasserman was still such a secondary figure that a White House thank-you letter was returned because it was sent to the wrong address. But by the election's end, he had proved his skill by raising unprecedented amounts in Southern California.

Although a staunch Democrat, Wasserman also had a long-standing relationship with Ronald Reagan, whom he had represented when Reagan was an actor. Michael K. Deaver, Reagan's longtime aide, said Reagan had for many years been estranged from Wasserman by the time he won the presidency, largely because he felt Wasserman had foisted him off on another MCA agent at the lowest point in his career. But Wasserman rebuilt the relationship while Reagan was president, to the point that when Reagan returned to private life in Los Angeles, the first man he sat down with for lunch was Wasserman.

For all his personal relationships with politicians, Wasserman never lost sight of his business interests. And he could be just as forceful at presenting his views in Washington as in Hollywood, where his temper was legendary.

Yet Wasserman almost always found time to meet not only with political heavyweights who could do him favors but also those just starting out. One of them was Clinton, then governor of Arkansas.

"I asked him if he would give me some advice about how I could get more movies made in Arkansas," Clinton said. "He didn't know me from Adam. He certainly couldn't have known I would be president. And he sat and talked to me for 30 or 45 minutes, like I was the most important person in the world."

During the last decade, Wasserman scaled back his political activity; others, such as DreamWorks SKG's David Geffen, became more central to Democratic efforts. But Wasserman remained a powerful player, even after he stepped down from MCA in 1995. From 1991 through his death, Wasserman personally gave $1.4 million to candidates and party committees--all but $6,500 of it to Democrats, said Dwight Morris, a consultant on campaign finance for The Times.

Ambitious, sometimes fierce and always self-contained, Wasserman in his prime was as hard and inscrutable as the featureless black tower in Universal City in which he headquartered his empire. But in his final years, he spent hours reminiscing with visitors such as McAuliffe and Clinton.

"He talked to me about other presidents," Clinton said. "He wasn't a gossip. He told stories to illustrate how he thought things ought to be done, how he thought problems ought to be solved. I always hated to leave when I was at his home."

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