Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: A Democratic president, facing a wave of Republican money, turns to Hollywood to help fill his re-election war chest, even if that means withstanding attacks from the right for being too cozy with showbiz elites.
The vintage may sound more recent, but the scenario also fits a campaign season 16 years ago, the last time a Democratic incumbent faced reelection, and it’s easy to make comparisons.
That year, President Clinton tapped the biz in a big way, even throwing a birthday fund-raising gala at Radio City Music Hall. This year, President Obama is drawing on stars like George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker for online contests to win tickets to fund-raising events at their homes.
Both Democrats won office after historic races — Clinton as the man from Hope and Obama as the man of hope — only to face newly entrenched Republican opposition in Congress and, in their re-election races, the challenge of reigniting enthusiasm amid elements of disappointment. There is a certain nostalgia for the Clinton years in Hollywood, but there also was triangulation at the time, to the point where the ACLU of Southern California in 1996 had a dinner honoring Peter Edelman for resigning from his post in the Clinton administration to protest the President’s capitulation on welfare reform.
Still, when it comes to courting showbiz, there are differences between the former President and the current one. That became readily apparent just months into Obama’s term, when some donors started to grumble that he wasn’t paying the level of attention that Clinton did: hanging out after big money events, offering face time at the White House or routinely following up after a high-dollar fund-raiser. A White House visit these days means just that: maybe a handshake with Obama, but not a night in the Lincoln bedroom. On his visit to Los Angeles for the fundraiser at Clooney’s home in May, Obama hopped from table to table, chatting up donors until nearly 11 p.m. — late for him, but not like Clinton’s famous chats that could stretch into the early morning.
“There’s no question Clinton had a special connection to California,” says Donna Bojarsky, a Hollywood-based political consultant. Obama, she notes, is “not a schmoozer in the same way.” She identifies the idiosyncrasies: Obama’s deep and long-standing home base connections are in big-city Chicago; Clinton, meanwhile, found a vast network in Los Angeles that he couldn’t get in the much smaller Little Rock. Some of his Arkansas friends, like Harry and Linda Bloodworth Thomason and Mary Steenburgen, already were in Hollywood. And the former President is still a frequent draw for Los Angeles events: On June 7, he was courting industry donors at the home of Haim Saban, raising money for the Democratic National Convention, and later at a Women’s Heart Center benefit at the home of Barbra Streisand. Longtime fund-raisers call Clinton a rarity for his charm in dealing with donors.
There’s also a political reality: Clinton was in California a lot more than Obama. By the time his re-election rolled around, Clinton had visited California 40 times, in part because the state was still somewhat in play, and had yet to turn true blue.
“These are two very big and charismatic personalities,” says Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, Southern California finance co-chair of Obama’s re-election campaign. “These are magnetic national leaders who entertainment people and celebrities are drawn to, and continue to be drawn to. But they both have their own unique styles.”
The general public would struggle to notice many differences at all in each man’s relationship to showbiz. Clinton overnighted at mogul’s homes; last month, Obama played basketball with Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Don Cheadle. In his latest trek to L.A., Obama met with Jeremy Renner, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Alba and about two dozen others to engage them for the fall campaign. Last week, he met with Betty White in the Oval Office.
But compared with the Clinton years, real-time scrutiny is now a big part of the equation, what with blogs, social media and Pinterest, where, by the way, some of the young stars quickly posted their pictures with the President. As Twitters spread the news that Jon Bon Jovi was riding on Air Force One with Obama to a recent New York fundraiser, the White House assured reporters that it was the campaign that was picking up the tab.
Perhaps rightly so, fund-raising faces an even greater skepticism of motive, and whether there’s a degree of quid pro quo. And, as has already been the case, the Obama campaign is subjected to an ever-more-rapid response from Mitt Romney and heavily funded SuperPACs, ready for any story that feeds into a narrative that the “celebrity” President is out of touch in a sputtering economy.
Back in ’96, Bob Dole took to a 20th Century Fox soundstage to bash Hollywood content and, by implication, his opponents’ embrace of showbiz. This time around, Obama’s supporters would gladly welcome the attacks — provided the election results are the same.