Adapting to biz, pols’ evanescence of power

I DO NOT PRETEND TO BE AN FOB (friend of Bill) nor to have any unique insight into our ex-president’s complex psyche, but the other day I killed a few minutes with him and our conversation inevitably drifted to issues of transition.

My assigned task was to introduce him at Variety‘s annual media conference in New York, and Clinton seemed eager to launch into his first post-presidential address in Gotham. As we waited for our cue, however, he couldn’t resist venting about what he felt was the media’s misreading of his intentions.

“Look, I’m downright relieved not to be president,” he said. “It was a great adventure for eight years, but let the next guy do it now. All I want for myself is the chance to get a life.”

One of the serious impediments to “getting a life,” he suggested, was the press, which still assigns scores of reporters to the job of tracking him, all the while writing that Clinton refuses to leave “center stage.”

The ex-president insists he would be delighted to exit stage left, provided the media relents in its ceaseless pursuit.

But, bright as he is, Clinton remains uniquely accident-prone, which clearly works against his quest for privacy.

Further, the sheer process of exiting a power position, whether in politics or showbiz, has always proven hazardous.

One can easily picture the gregarious ex-president, stripped of staff and perks, rattling around his 11-room home in Chappaqua, N.Y., accompanied only by his faithful valet, Oscar, and his pooch, Buddy. He probably finds his new ATM cash card as challenging as getting his senatorial wife on the phone.

CLINTON WANTS TO FIND A PLACE for himself in the foreign affairs arena, but seems not to have a precise roadmap to take him there. Speaking with him, I could not help but recall encounters with powerful showbiz figures who suddenly found themselves jobless, rattling around their own even grander mansions. By and large, they seemed forlorn figures, despite protestations to the contrary.

For a while the Internet bubble provided them protective cover. CEOs like Frank Biondi and even Terry Semel became instant Internet gurus, mastering the lexicon of cyberspeak. When the bubble burst, however, most quickly abandoned their new identities and returned to reality — and unemployment.

There’s a big difference between being president of a company and president of the U.S., but both entail delicious accouterments of power. There are private planes, homes, servants and limitless access to other seats of power.

And suddenly it’s all gone and you have to figure out how to “get a life.” I remember bumping into one recently deposed CEO at Heathrow, who’d become totally lost in trying to find his way to his American Airlines flight to Los Angeles. He hadn’t been on a commercial flight in well over a decade and literally had forgotten how to fend for himself.

Some CEOs plot a smooth transition.

Bob Daly, ever the shrewd tactician, orchestrated his move from Warner Bros. to the Los Angeles Dodgers, only to find that the sports business had its own roster of petulant superstars. Jeffrey Katzenberg mobilized his DreamWorks team in time to cushion his abrupt exit from the Mouse House.

OTHERS HAVE HAD A BUMPIER RIDE. Sid Sheinberg owned the town at Universal, but has seemed increasingly cantankerous in his efforts to levitate his Bubble Factory. John Calley admitted to an addiction to “recreational sleeping” during his decade-long hiatus after running Warner Bros. An offer from MGM rescued him from terminal boredom.

Network programmers like Fred Silverman and Grant Tinker found themselves monumentally frustrated in their new role as sellers to the power players who succeeded them. Michael Ovitz reassessed his life goals after his Disney misadventure and after an awkward intermission, decided to refocus on the resource he most understood — talent.

Some top executives find the road back is through acquisition. Strauss Zelnick, former CEO of BMG Entertainment, told a reporter in New York last week that “It’s sad when you have to buy yourself a job, but the good news is I can afford it.” He’s scouting for major media acquisitions.

Peter Guber used his post-Sony years to collect an array of sports teams, besides mobilizing movies and TV shows. His reason was simply that he enjoyed owning them.

And many CEOs have never re-surfaced at all. Michael Fuchs, late of HBO and Warner Music, occasionally makes the scene at an industry function but has never latched onto a new power job. Nor has Nick Nicholas of Time Warner. And for that matter, what ever happened to Ted Turner?

Will Bill Clinton reappear among the power elite? Clearly he doesn’t hanker for a job in showbiz. He’s been loath to bite on offers to become a TV pundit. He’s also been more lackadaisical than his wife in pitching his memoirs.

But as accident-prone as he may be, he’s too riveting a figure to fade into the night. There will be a Second Coming of Bill Clinton. It’s just a matter of figuring out the where and when.

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