Clarke’s family ties may tether RIAA trial balloon

Newsflash to Hollywood and Washington: the race is on to fill the top spot at the Recording Industry Assn. of American, one of showbiz’s leading lobbying posts.

It’s been four months since Hilary Rosen, the outgoing topper at the RIAA, announced she would ankle her million-dollar position to spend time with her partner Elizabeth Birch and two young twin boys.

Most Hollywood insiders thought she would stay until the end of the year and assumed the search would begin in earnest at the end of the summer. But last week Rosen announced she will step down in June (though she will make herself available to the RIAA until the end of the year).

The truncated timeline along with news that the music industry is courting Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke for the job, which leaked out earlier this week, has Washington and Los Angeles buzzing.

Talk started two weeks ago when the New York Post touted Rudy Giuliani as a prime candidate, but no one took it very seriously. Refereeing music label execs and policing online pirates is no picnic. And why would Giuliani, who has no problem raking in millions from corporate speeches alone, want the added headaches?

In many ways, Clarke, the former flak for the National Cable Television Association, is more realistic. In fact, she may be the dream choice.

First and foremost, Clarke is a Republican who could help build bridges between lefty entertainment execs and the White House. From her cable TV days, she also maintains relationships with a small core of inside- and outside-the-beltway industryites.

Most importantly, Clarke has survived two decades in Washington with an unblemished career — even after serving under the tight controls and immense ego of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.

The battle for Baghdad has left Clarke virtually unscathed despite some resentment inside the Pentagon about the policy of embedding journalists, which she helped convince the top brass to support.

Clarke’s no stranger to controversy. Her steely gaze and curt responses to reporters’ rapid-fire questions were honed over time. Back in the ’80s, she worked for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the current chairman of the Commerce Committee, which oversees a large portion of the music industry issues, back when he was just a rank and file House member. At the time, McCain was under an ethics cloud for his role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal.

Perhaps the most important line on her resume is from the first Bush White House, where she defended the president’s economic record when his poll numbers were sagging. There, she forged close friendships with the inner-circle of powerful media-savvy women that include Karen Hughes and Mary Matalin, who like Rosen, decided to leave the political pressure cooker to spend more time with their children.

So far, Clarke has refrained from talking about a possible leap to the RIAA either publicly or privately. Even though the mere mention of her name has music execs drooling, realistic observers believe she too is a family woman at heart.

A desire to see her three children — all under the age of eight — before they’re in bed at night could prevent her from seriously considering a post that operates on West Coast time. (Insiders report she either leaves the Pentagon early or brings her children to work if she is forced to stay late.)

Rosen has called Clarke “an amazing talent,” but noted that the military spokeswoman has been too preoccupied lately to discuss her next career move. Even so, Rosen did not deny that Clarke is on the top of the industry’s wish list.

“There’s a long list of good candidates we’re looking at,” Rosen said. “Right now we’re at the winnowing stage.”

To speed up the process, the RIAA hired executive search firm Korn/Ferry and formed a search committee consisting of Sony Corp’s Michele Anthony, Vivendi Universal Music’s Zach Horowitz, Bertelsmann AG’s BMG’s Michael Smellie, EMI Group Pic’s David Munns, AOL Time Warner’s David Johnson and RIAA president Cary Sherman.

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