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Party animal

Brentwood's Bradford Freeman raises money, lots of it, for old pal George W. Bush. He has the president's ear--and his tomcat.

June 30, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Bradford Freeman is an old friend of President Bush and one of a handful described as a member of his inner circle. Freeman is also Bush's California fundraising leader, and he loves to tell the story of how the president-elect called him with what Freeman hoped would be a prestigious appointment as an ambassador or maybe a secret agent.

The kind of reward that, in the realpolitik of campaign finance, a rainmaker like Freeman might realistically anticipate.

Bush said, " 'I'm going to ask you to do something important,' " Freeman deadpans. "I was so excited. I was standing up at my desk. Buttons were flying off my shirt. The office was lined up outside the doorway. I put my hand over the phone and told my secretary, 'I think it's the CIA.' I said, 'I'm ready to serve my country.' "

Instead, Bush asked, " 'Do you remember that night in Texas the girls brought in that wild cat, Ernie? Well, Ernie wasn't de-clawed.'

"I thought, 'Why's he talking about Ernie for?' " Said Bush: " 'Well, Ernie can't go to the White House.'

"That was it. Someone else got England and France. And I got Ernie," Freeman says. "I had to go to a psychiatrist. I had to tell myself, 'Yes, you are a good person.' It's a funny story. Unfortunately, it's true."

He's kidding, though he did get the cat and a minor presidential appointment, while his brother, Russell Freeman, got a cushy post as U.S. ambassador to Belize. Self-deprecating humor is elemental to this self-styled Brentwood Brahmin of the Republican Raj, whose California party had, until the election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, languished for years in post-Pete Wilson irrelevance.

Freeman, a youthful 62, did get a personal visit at his home from Bush, who "put his arm around me and said, 'Bradley' -- the president calls me Bradley -- 'I've got ideas people. Just raise money,' " Freeman recalls with mock chagrin -- and perhaps a touch of disingenuousness.

That's because membership in this elite fundraising fraternity opens the doors to an exclusive world of influence, perks and business connections that can be far more beneficial than many federal appointments.

Freeman's pride in his fundraising prowess was evident on a recent evening at his Brentwood digs, which -- like his British Post-Impressionist paintings and private Falcon 2000 jet -- are the trappings of Freeman, Spogli & Co., the $2-billion-plus venture capital firm he manages with Ron Spogli, Bush's classmate at Harvard Business School. His $10-million mansion is immaculately appointed, its beamed ceilings and orchid displays set off by manly hunting-lodge touches: antique fish lithographs, a mounted blow-up of Freeman and Bush at the president's Texas ranch.

A Barbie in men's pajamas perches on the wainscoting, and there's a needlepoint pillow bearing the golf credo: "The 19th hole is the best place to improve your lies." And there's Freeman, who seems to have wandered out of a Rat Pack flick with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra: "What can I get you? Vodka on the rocks? We've got light beer, but this isn't a bar."

Start spreadin' the news: Freeman is the life of the Party. In a milieu where a Republican moneyman might seem a fish out of water, Freeman, the California finance chairman of the Bush campaign, with an estimated net worth of more than $100 million, is something of a man about town. . Even ultra-liberal Democrats describe him as a "nice guy" and a "charmer."

"Brad is the prototype of the new fundraiser," says former Ronald Reagan White House staffer Bob Tuttle, who dropped by for dinner on the terrace. "It takes somebody who knows a lot of people. And Brad knows everyone." Everyone. "You have a first lady and a first friend," said Los Angeles billionaire developer Eli Broad. And Freeman, he said, is a "first friend."

Or at least one of them. Among the president's good friends, "Brad has a special place," said Robert White, Wilson's onetime chief of staff who stayed in Freeman's guesthouse for three months while he ran the Schwarzenegger campaign. "The reason I think the president likes him so much is he's similar to him as a guy."Like Bush's, Freeman's sense of humor can border on slapstick. When a neighbor threw a black-tie fundraiser featuring then-President Clinton, Freeman distributed "Bush-Cheney" signs. During the Iowa straw poll, Freeman donned fake buckteeth and put his arm around unsuspecting Republican contender Steve Forbes while Texas oilman Don Evans, another Bush friend (and now Commerce secretary), snapped a picture for Bush.

Even his Master of the Universe moments stray into self-satire. At a recent gala honoring him, Freeman sang "Johnny B. Goode" with the band. As the party wound down, he sped across the estate in a chauffeured golf cart, yelling, "Hail, Caesar!" to the army of workers cleaning up.

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