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Famous allies were often at odds

David Geffen shocked many by speaking out against Hillary Clinton. But he and Bill Clinton had a rocky friendship.

March 04, 2007|Stephen Braun and Dan Morain | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Long before the fractious public airing of their poisoned relations, the political friendship between David Geffen and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton was an unconventional alliance with a cloudy future.

The outspoken Hollywood mogul Geffen lavished nearly $1.2 million on the Clintons and other Democrats during the Clinton White House years, gaining extraordinary access to the president while hosting the couple at intimate dinners at his Malibu beachfront home and sleepovers at his estate in Beverly Hills.

But their relations were in constant flux. Intimates of the two said that flashpoints surfaced often: Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. The president's scolding of Hollywood after the Columbine school massacre. The Monica S. Lewinsky affair and Clinton's impeachment. And finally, the 11th-hour flurry of controversial pardons that excluded a convicted murderer whose release Geffen had championed.

Their alliance was marked by genuine affection, colleagues say, and a large measure of self-interest. Whether its meltdown has any lasting significance remains to be seen, but Geffen's recent broadside against the Clintons left the political world agape.

Aimed chiefly at Hillary Clinton, who was mostly a bystander to the friendship, Geffen's waspish comments to a New York Times columnist gave voice to the kind of sentiments -- that she is polarizing, dishonest, far too ambitious -- that her presidential campaign expected from the right, not from a political soul mate.

Geffen has since retreated into silence. He declined to comment for this account, as did spokesmen for both Clintons.

But others who know the principals well described the arc of the star-crossed friendship. Most would only speak anonymously, fearful of risking Geffen's legendary ire and political retribution from the Clintons.

Timely alliance

Geffen first joined forces with Bill Clinton in 1992, soon after becoming a billionaire from the sale of his record company to MCA. Nearing 50, he was about to openly acknowledge his homosexuality.

Several intimates said he grew unnerved by the sway of social and religious conservatives backing the reelection campaign of President George H.W. Bush. Conservative Pat Buchanan's call to arms for a "cultural war," and his mocking that Democrats were radicals posing as moderates in an "exhibition of cross-dressing," nudged Geffen toward a high-profile role in funding the Clinton ticket.

"They were talking about an America that was about being white, Christian, heterosexual male," Geffen said in a 1993 Times interview. "Well, you know there are people who just don't fit into that category."

Eagerly assuming the role of campaign benefactor, Geffen was a leading light among 150 guests who paid $5,000 to honor Clinton at the Beverly Hills home of MCA mogul Lew Wasserman. By the time Clinton won in November, Geffen had donated nearly $100,000 to the campaign and other Democratic causes.

Geffen didn't attend the inaugural festivities. But he joined Clinton at an economic summit in Los Angeles. The agenda was dry financial policy -- not Geffen's cup of tea. But the invitation from the White House had thrilled him.

"I can't imagine him doing it for anyone else," the associate said. "But for Clinton, he sat there and got into it. Or at least he pretended to."

The associate said that Geffen openly admired Clinton, intrigued by his mix of Arkansas informality, wonkish fluency and political shrewdness. But at the same time, "David was pretty level-headed about the relationship. He wasn't a showoff about it ... you didn't see him dial him up in front of other people to show what kind of access he had."

Geffen had joined a rarified group of Hollywood liberals shepherding millions to campaign coffers, including director Steven Spielberg and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who would become Geffen's partners in founding DreamWorks SKG, the film studio.

One former White House aide said Clinton was particularly "star-struck" by Spielberg and Katzenberg, and eagerly rubbed elbows with them. He roomed overnight at their sumptuous Los Angeles homes, in the Hamptons and in ski country. Geffen opened his beachfront home to Clinton and, on occasion, the first lady.

Several former Clinton aides and fundraisers said that although Geffen could be counted on to open his checkbook, he was prickly and not easily pleased. White House aides "thought of him as high-maintenance," said one Clintonista. Another called him a "whiner." A veteran fundraiser watched Geffen stand on a dining room chair at one event to lecture top Democrats on social policy.

"He's a passionate guy, and he's not cowed by anyone," the fundraiser said. "He'll give you anything you ask for if he thinks it's in his interest. And he'll decide on a dime to dry up that support if he's mad at you."

Friendship tested

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