Comments push rivalries to a head

After re-entering the political circles with a star-studded fund-raiser for Barack Obama this week, it didn’t take long for David Geffen to join the political fray.

In fact, he became the central focus of the political news cycle on Wednesday. His sharp criticisms of Hillary Clinton and her husband in a New York Times column ignited a war of words between the campaigns of Obama and Clinton, bringing to a head long-simmering rivalries for donors between the two superstar presidential contenders. That’s not to mention a longtime resentment Geffen has held against the Clintons since they left the White House in 2001.

It also raised issues of just how responsible a campaign should be for the words that come from its donors, with the Clinton camp calling on Obama to return the money he helped raised at the Beverly Hilton fundraiser on Tuesday, a hefty sum of $1.3 million. Obama’s campaign refused, and Obama himself said, “It’s not clear to me why I am apologizing for someone else’s remark.”

At issue is an interview that Geffen gave to Maureen Dowd, in which he characterized Hillary Clinton as a calculating figure who can’t win and her husband as “a reckless guy.”

“Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it’s troubling,” Geffen said, among other comments. He also confirmed that Steven Spielberg raised the Clintons’ hackles when he agreed to co-host the Obama fundraiser and not also raise money for Hillary. He now plans to raise money for her campaign as well.

And Geffen targeted Clinton for her 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq.

“It’s not a very big thing to say, ‘I made a mistake’ on the war and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can’t,” Geffen told Dowd. “She’s so advised by so many smart advisers who are covering every base. I think that America was better served when the candidates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms.”

Throughout much of the 1990s, Geffen was among the Clintons’ closest donors. The President stayed at his place when he was in town, and Geffen in turn was given the privilege of overnighting in the Lincoln bedroom.

But their close relationship soured by the end of Clinton’s term, culminating in a fallout over Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich and denying one to Leonard Peltier, whom Geffen was pushing for release. Geffen has seldom spoke to the Clintons since, if at all, and largely removed himself from presidential politics until this year.

“Marc Rich getting pardoned?” Geffen said. “An oil-profiteer expatriate who left the country rather than pay taxes of face justice? Yet another time when the Clintons were unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believed in.”

Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, fought back by trying to link Geffen’s comments to that of Obama’s campaign, and called on them to remove Geffen as an Obama campaign chair and to refute his comments.

“By refusing to disavow the personal attacks from his biggest fundraiser against Senator Clinton and President Clinton, Senator Obama has called into serious question whether he really believes his own rhetoric. How can Senator Obama denounce the politics of slash and burn yesterday while his own campaign is espousing the politics of trash today?”

Obama’s campaign, however, was seemingly caught in the middle of a matter that they characterized as being between Geffen and the Clintons.

“We aren’t going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters,” said Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs. “It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom.”

In a statement, Geffen said later that, “Despite reports to the contrary, I am not the campaign finance chair and have no role in the Obama campaign, nor will I, other than to offer my strongest possible personal support for his candidacy.”

Hillary Clinton tried to stay above the fray, and was asked about it at a candidates forum in Carson City, Nevada. “I sure don’t want Democrats of supporters of Democrats to be engaging in the politics of personal destruction.” Obama was in Iowa campaigning and declined to participate.

Clinton has long-standing ties to Hollywood, and a strong network of supporters and fund-raisers, but there has been much attention paid to the fact that she hasn’t automatically won the backing of the vast majority of the industry. The irony is that the stinging comments came not from Republicans, but from a longtime, high-profile Democrat who knew her and her husband so well.

To little surprise, some of Clinton’s Hollywood supporters expressed dismay over Geffen’s comments, and characterized them as the resentments of a powerful mogul who didn’t get his way.

But Obama’s Hollywood supporters often cite their doubts about Hillary Clinton — and whether she can come across as authentic — as a reason they are backing Obama. As for the DreamWorks mogul’s comments, one Obama Hollywood supporter called them “vintage” Geffen. He doesn’t often grant on-the-record interviews, but when he does he is nothing short of outspoken.

It’s doubtful that the entire affair will last much beyond a day — or that it will play much of a factor in either side raising money in Hollywood. Clinton is scheduled to visit Los Angeles today for a series of receptions with high-dollar donors including events hosted by Haim Saban, Sim Farar, Ron Burkle and John Emerson and another gathering at CAA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

For more information, please see Variety’s political website, Wilshireandwashington.com.

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