Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House - Carol Felsenthal (2008)
Chapter 4. NOT QUITE READY FOR PRIME TIME
IN JANUARY 2003, DON HEWITT, THE CREATOR OF CBS’s 60 Minutes and then its executive producer, went to Chappaqua to see Bill Clinton. Hewitt had an idea—an update on the James Kilpatrick/Shana Alexander “Point/Counterpoint,” a popular feature during the program’s early days in the 1970s. He wanted Bill Clinton to be the new liberal voice, and Hewitt thought it best to propose it in person.
Clinton seemed happy for the company, Hewitt recalls, and the two men chatted for four hours. The former president showed the veteran producer all his “great souvenirs of all his trips: ‘Let me show you this. I got this from an Indian tribe in God knows where.’” Hewitt was “awed by the guy.”1 Clinton was interested, contingent on whom Hewitt selected to be the conservative voice.
A television pioneer who had started with CBS News in 1948, crafted programs for Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, produced the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debates, and launched 60 Minutes in 1968, Hewitt, then eighty, knew in his bones who Clinton’s sparring partner should be—Bill O’Reilly, host of Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. That matchup would make great television because O’Reilly had strong, loud opinions and refused to back down. That would be a “stunner,” Hewitt says, “but Clinton’s advisers thought that was beneath him and you’re always dealing with the ex-president of the United States and protocol and this nonsense…. [Clinton] wouldn’t do it.” That did not stop Hewitt from continuing to push the matchup: “Just think where the world would be if in the famous Scopes trial, Clarence Darrow had said ‘It’s beneath my dignity to do it with William Jennings Bryant.’…Sometimes you’ve got to take on guys like that.”2
Hewitt could have saved his arguments, says Larry King. “Clinton wouldn’t sit down with Bill O’Reilly in a million years. He has no respect for O’Reilly. O’Reilly is a prankster, a huckster.”3
Hewitt also understood that the O’Reilly gambit was dead on arrival for another reason—the unpredictability of how it would affect Hillary’s run for the White House. “You never know when you’re dealing with Bill Clinton how much he has on his mind ‘Is this good or bad for Hillary’s candidacy?’”4
So Hewitt was stuck. He wanted Clinton badly enough to take the sparring partner Clinton’s people wanted—Bob Dole, Clinton’s opponent in the 1996 presidential race. Clinton’s staffers warmed to the selection of Dole because they wanted someone of great stature to face off against the former president, and Dole, war hero and former Senate majority leader, had stature to spare. And he was not a shouter; he was the reasonable man.
The matchmaker was the Democratic power broker Lloyd Cutler, an old Washington hand who had served in both the Carter and Clinton White Houses. The agent was Robert Barnett, the Washington lawyer/literary agent who already represented both Clintons and Dole (and scores of other big political names of both parties). Barnett negotiated a hefty fee for the tryout period of ten weeks—for a weekly forty-five-second commentary and fifteen-second rebuttal, each man would be paid $100,000, a million dollars total. Newsweek calculated the take at $1,667 per second per man.5
Hewitt was not optimistic. He knew he needed to pair Clinton with someone with whom he “violently disagreed.” That didn’t describe Dole at all. Clinton liked and respected Dole and Dole reciprocated. Their 1996 contest brought them closer. “I think the president always felt that if he talked to Bob Dole that Bob Dole usually stuck by his word,” says Leon Panetta. “That’s worth a lot in politics.”6 Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick’s verbal sparring worked, Hewitt says, because they “had no use for each other’s opinions.”7
From the start, there were no sparks. As Larry King analyzed it, “a former president and a former majority leader of the Senate will tend to always be respectful…. They’re not going to say, ‘You’re an idiot.’ If you’re going to do point/counterpoint, you have to say, ‘You’re an idiot.’”8
Tony Coelho, a longtime friend of both Clinton and Dole—he and Dole worked together on the Americans with Disabilities Act in which they both had a personal stake; Coelho has epilepsy and Dole crippling war injuries—describes the relationship between the men as warm and emotional. During Clinton’s first term, Dole celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first Senate speech—about disabilities. Coelho arranged for President Clinton to make a surprise visit at a luncheon in Dole’s office. “Dole was absolutely shocked and started crying,” Coelho recalls. Clinton had read Dole’s speech from twenty-five years before in the car on the way over to the Senate, and, without having it in front of him, “he quoted in effect the whole speech verbatim.” Tears rolled down Dole’s cheeks as the president spoke, and Dole often told Coelho that it was “a moment he would never forget.”9
Even after the 1996 election, in which Dole never came close, their relationship thrived. Scott Reed, Dole’s campaign manager, recalls a White House East Room gathering just after Clinton’s reelection at which he bestowed on Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Dole wiped away a tear, and then, according to an account in the Baltimore Sun, said, ‘I, Robert J. Dole—do solemnly swear—sorry, wrong speech. But I had a dream that I would be here this historic week receiving something from the President—but I thought it would be the front door key.’”10
After 9/11, Clinton and Dole worked together to raise $105 million to pay college tuition for children, unborn children, and spouses of 9/11 victims.11
As Hewitt had predicted, Dole’s impressive sense of humor was way too dry for television. It’s often said that the camera loves Bill Clinton; it doesn’t love Bob Dole. “I didn’t think it was the greatest forum for Senator Dole,” says Scott Reed. “Clinton is a guy that charms the birds right out of the trees every day. They land right on his arm…. He really knew how to seduce the camera and it worked, and so to be put in a position where you’re in a contrast to that is very difficult for nine out of ten politicians.”12
The nightmarish logistics added to the looming failure. On the prowl for big fees, Clinton had “speaking engagements everywhere,” Hewitt recalls. “He was constantly on airplanes going to places, some of which I never heard of.” Because of Clinton’s schedule, only once were the two men ever in the same studio at the same time.13 There was none of the chemistry generated when Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick sat glaring at each other across a table.
After two weeks, not just Hewitt but the viewing audience lost interest. “There was no sizzle to it,” says Tony Coelho.14
The Alexander/Kilpatrick exchanges had such attitude that Saturday Night Live parodied it with actors Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd. “Jane, you ignorant slut” became a line so famous it has long outlived its origins.15“Variety actually said I took it off the air because Saturday Night Live was doing a parody of it,” Hewitt recalls. “And I said, ‘You stupid bastard, that’s why I kept it on the air. That was flattering to me.’”16
In retrospect, Hewitt regrets that he did not suggest former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as Clinton’s sparring partner. “I think he would have gone with Newt Gingrich. He respects Gingrich.”
Hewitt had only to call Bob Barnett to kill it. “I don’t think it’s doing either one of them any good,” Hewitt told him, “and it’s not doing me any good.” Nobody, including Clinton, objected, Hewitt says, because “it was a dud…. It wasn’t being talked about or written about; it wasn’t making a splash and I think he lost interest, as we all did.”17
IN JUNE 2003, just as his television gig got canceled, Bill Clinton was out at night—as usual, without Hillary—in Manhattan at a book party at Tina Brown’s Upper East Side apartment. The event was for journalist-turned-Clinton-aide-and-booster Sidney Blumenthal. His book in fulsome defense of the Clintons, The Clinton Wars, had just been published.
Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, asked one of her guests, David Carr, the media reporter for the New York Times, if he’d like to meet the president. “Yeah, I’d like to shake his hand,” Carr replied.
“Clinton heard my last name was New York Times and he launched into what I would characterize…as either a tirade or a filibuster on the New York Times.” He accused the paper, or rather Carr, whom he apparently saw as the Times incarnate, of “willful ignorance of the failings of the Bush administration…. ‘These people understand power and they’ve got you’—meaning the New York Times—‘totally cowed.’” Carr found the blast, sprinkled with profanities, both alarming and “hilarious” because he considers himself hardly an insider at the paper; and, in any case, he covers media and culture and business, not politics. “I’m the definition of a middle guy at the New York Times.”
Clinton was just getting going: “Then he launched into a recitation of his history with the paper beginning with Whitewater and through numerous and countless transgressions, beautifully argued, comprehensively remembered,…and people began to gather as he got more and more worked up.” Inevitably he got to Lewinsky. “By the time he got done talking,” Carr recalls, “I was just covered in flop sweat; giant guy yelling at me and he circled back to the fact that we cuddle up to the administration and won’t give the Democrats a chance to break through with their message…. When I finally got a chance to talk, I said, ‘With all due respect, Mr. President…I must tell you that I heard more effective rhetoric in a five-minute speech out of you tonight at an Upper East Side cocktail party than I’ve heard out of your party in the last two years and I think part of the reason that’s true is because of how you left the presidency.’ He stopped at that moment and he came back and said, ‘You got me; okay, you got me.’”
At that point, says Carr, Clinton was “very good-natured about it” and, he recalls, “had a smile on his face most of the time…. But his big, meaty hands were gesturing fairly close to me.”
His lambasting by Clinton, says Carr, was “spontaneous,” and, oddly, “charming…. He was analyzing the relationship of the nation’s leading newspaper with the current administration and doing a masterful off-the-cuff deconstruction of it…. I would have enjoyed it if I wasn’t the one standing in front of him.”18
One student of the newspaper says that Clinton’s ire was probably mostly aimed at then executive editor Howell Raines, whose tenure as the paper’s editorial page editor coincided almost exactly with Clinton’s tenure as president. Editorials had often been unkind to Clinton and, he thought, unfair. Post-Lewinsky, the New York Times’ editorial writers, for example, bemoaned the president’s “documentably dysfunctional personality.”19 Clinton had been heard to say that the disharmony between him and Raines was “a southern thing”—Raines was born, reared, and educated in Alabama. “You’d have to read all of Faulkner to understand what was going on there.”20
THAT SAME month, June 2003, Hillary’s ghost-written memoir, Living History, was published. Hillary made her deadline, but Bill missed his early 2003 deadline, no surprise to anyone who knew him.
Some of Clinton’s more melodramatically inclined friends pushed the notion that Clinton sat alone in his house, his valet Oscar Flores bringing him steaming cups of coffee, writing and by so doing cleansing his soul. “You could see that it weighed heavily on his mind,” says Irena Medavoy. “He has a very strong survival instinct and I think the book was cathartic for him. I think that book saved his life at that point. It gave him such focus, such direction. If there’s one thing we know about him, it’s that he is meticulous in memory and meticulous in writing things down. What I saw was a man who really wanted to throw himself into that book.”21 His spiritual counselor and friend Tony Campolo writes that “the time immediately after he left office was spent on writing his book and reviewing his life in writing.”22
Sounds good, but not true. Clinton found it difficult to get to work until his deadline was imminent. The final preparations and the actual publication of Hillary’s memoir had spurred the former president to action, of sorts. Much of the work was done in 2003, and into the spring of 2004. Knopf hoped to publish that June. Working around his speaking schedule, he typically devoted one to two days a week to the book, usually working at home in Chappaqua.
Leon Panetta describes his former boss as “one of these kids we all knew in school who didn’t do a lot of studying and then the night before crams and gets an A.”23 In other words, Clinton procrastinated. He reportedly often called friends to read them anecdotes and passages, sometimes entire chapters that he particularly liked.24
Friends say he did have some help with the writing. He hired Ted Widmer, a historian (author of books on Martin van Buren and on Jacksonian democracy) and a speechwriter for Clinton in the White House, although Widmer, now director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, was called a researcher or an interviewer. By interviewing Clinton about his own life, Widmer helped the former president gather his thoughts about his prepresidency years. For reasons unclear, Widmer did not work on the second part.25 (Contacted for an interview, Widmer said he’d talk only with Clinton’s permission, which was not forthcoming.)
People around Clinton at that time report that they saw pages written by him in longhand—he claims to have filled twenty notebooks—which he then handed off to a staffer who typed them into the computer.26
CLINTON WAS distracted from writing as much by his glittering social life as by his speaking schedule.
“Do the Clintons have any friends who aren’t really rich?” asked New Republic editor Martin Peretz, a question that many of the Clintons’ old friends also ask, just not for publication.27
They complain that they find it much more difficult to reach him. “I could always call Doug [Band] for years and get to the president,” says Lou Weisbach. “Now, and I’ve heard it from everybody, he’s becoming less reachable.”28
In Hollywood, even, some of the older FOBs don’t talk to him much these days. “I haven’t talked to the president in a long time,” says Bud Yorkin, one of those credited with introducing the young Bill Clinton to Hollywood’s deep pockets. (Yorkin and his wife gave a dinner for Clinton in 1992 when, Yorkin recalls, “All of show business was for [Bob] Kerrey.” Nobody wanted to meet the Arkansas governor, but Yorkin talked David Geffen and Sidney Pollack into coming and ended up with eighty to ninety people for a sit-down dinner, almost all of whom, says Yorkin, were hugely impressed.29 The Yorkins later raised $250,000 for the Clintons’ legal defense fund.30)
One hears that complaint in the voice of Stanley Sheinbaum, an old Hollywood activist and friend. Sheinbaum claims, along with several others, to be the man who persuaded Bill Clinton to run in 1992 and raised six figures to help him do that.
In 1981, after he lost his bid for reelection as governor, Bill and Hillary stayed with the Sheinbaums in the same Brentwood house in which Stanley now convalesces in a hospital bed. By any conventional standard he is wealthy—he’s married to Betty Warner, daughter of studio magnate Harry Warner; he has an impressive art collection and a staff—and in the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s he was at the center of the Hollywood Left.31 As late as 2003, The Hotline called Sheinbaum a “Democratic kingmaker,”32 and the Los Angeles Times described him in 2001 as host of “a legendary salon of powerful and famous liberals for more than 20 years.”33
Stanley and Betty were guests in the Lincoln Bedroom during the Clinton years. They supported the president through impeachment. Sheinbaum complains that now Clinton has time only for “the bigger man, Ron Burkle.”34
“Clinton leads a totally different life, different friends,” says Betty Sheinbaum.35
Sheinbaum, a pauper next to Clinton’s new LA friends, is now old, ill, and hard of hearing, and his memory appears to be fading.
When asked about the former president, he replies, “Who’s Bill Clinton?” and that question is dripping with sarcasm and unrelated to any possible memory loss. He complains that since Clinton left the White House he has not seen him for “more than two minutes,” that he has been “cut off,” that he wrote to him soon after he left the White House but Clinton never responded.36
The new FOBs do have several attributes in common that Stanley Sheinbaum never had—they’re billionaires, they’re younger than Bill, they’re mostly divorced or single, they’re players on the dating and power circuits, they’re flashy, and they own at least one private plane, which they happily lend to Bill Clinton—sometimes to do good work, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes to get to Europe or some other continent to give a high-priced speech.
They also know what the former president has been up to and who knows how that knowledge might be used. As one woman who knows Clinton well puts it, “He has this problem with women, which I find appalling…. When you do things like that and then you’re trying to cover things up, you could become beholden to people you really don’t want to become beholden to.”37
One friend who describes Clinton as the smartest, most interesting man he has ever met—“He’s off the charts; he’s almost a different species”—also calls Clinton “the most narcissistic human being I’ve ever met.” This man complains that Clinton “doesn’t discriminate very well in the people he allows to surround him…. Presidents are surrounded by sycophants and fans and groupies…. Sometimes you…wonder, ‘What’s he doing with that guy?’”38
In describing Clinton’s circle these days, Don Hewitt says simply, “He sees the money guys.”39 To Dick Morris, Clinton’s current circle “represents the triumph of materialism in a man who had once only wanted power and recognition.”40 (Morris was forced to resign as a Clinton adviser during the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when news broke of his cavorting with a prostitute who indulged his taste for having his toes sucked.)41
“What’s wrong with him traveling on the private plane of Ron Burkle?” asks Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s a private citizen and…thanks to Clinton a lot of people made a lot of money and became very rich very fast during the Clinton years…. He’s reaping the benefits of what he did.”42
How many people in Clinton’s position would turn down the offer of a plane? Friends claim that people are falling over one another to offer him their planes. Think about the mileage, so to speak, some chieftain gets out of casually mentioning on the golf course or at a dinner party in the Hamptons, “I lent Bill Clinton my plane because he had to be in Johannesburg to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday.”
In Bill Clinton’s case, sometimes a private plane is not just a plane. One insider explains that it’s a matter of logistics; for moving around the world, “there’s no better friend to have than a guy with a private plane.” But then comes further grist for the rumor mill: “I’ve been told that there are women on the plane.”43
For a speech Clinton gave in a major city, he arrived and departed on the plane of one of his billionaire buddies. The executive who invited the former president expected him to join him and other business leaders at a four-star restaurant for dinner. Clinton declined. The executive believes that Clinton was with a woman. The situation, says this man, is “dangerous, and there’s more than one.”44
CLINTON’S BEST FRIEND—even closer than Terry McAuliffe, friends say—is Ronald Wayne Burkle. He is fifty-four, and divorced; he made his billions—Forbes estimates his worth at about $2.5 billion—buying, merging, and selling supermarket chains. (In the 1990s, for example, he bought Ralphs and Fred Meyer and then sold them to Kroger for $8 billion.) He is chairman of Yucaipa Companies, a private equity firm that owns such grocery chains as Jurgensen’s, Falley’s, and Alpha Beta. He founded the company in 1986, naming it after the small California town in which he was then living.45 Burkle boasts that he spends five hundred hours a year with Clinton. And he keeps an office in Clinton’s Harlem headquarters.46
Clinton met Burkle in 1992, the same year Burkle separated from his wife.47
The myth of how Bill and Ron met had a sweet, progressive ring to it, but it was entirely made up. The New York Times reported that, in 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, candidate Clinton was touring poor neighborhoods, seeing destruction all around him except for some grocery stores that were left relatively undamaged. When Clinton asked why those stores were spared, he was told that they were owned by Burkle who, the Times reported, “treated his customers and employees fairly.” (Not all of Burkle’s stores were spared and the Times ran a correction.) Clinton asked to meet him. Burkle, a registered Republican, was so impressed that he cast his first vote for a Democrat that fall when he voted for Bill Clinton.48
In fact, says Darius Anderson, once head of Burkle’s government relations, now a lobbyist in Sacramento, the person who brought the two men together was Bob Burkett, a political consultant who had been raising money for Bob Kerrey in the 1992 primary.49 The Bill/Ron meeting had nothing to do with Burkle’s treatment of employees and everything to do with the Beverly Hills house that Burkle had recently purchased—the forty-four-room, twenty-six-bath Green Acres, one of the largest and most lavish private homes in Los Angeles. Originally the home of the silent screen star Harold Lloyd, it was later owned by movie producer Ted Field, an heir to the Chicago department store and newspaper fortune. Field was politically active and he refurbished the house specifically to accommodate huge fund-raising events.50
Burkle immediately began to throw the biggest fund-raisers in town. “There are very few houses in LA where you can do that type of event,” explains Anderson, “and so when Ron bought it, it sort of put him on the map overnight and everybody started calling.” Green Acres, says Anderson, was “one of these houses that…was like an extension of the DNC on the West Coast. Instead of having events at the Sheraton, you’d have them at Ron Burkle’s house.”
The night Clinton and Burkle met, Burkle had offered up Green Acres for a DNC fund-raiser for the Democratic nominee for president, Bill Clinton. Burkle, says Anderson, had never “played at the presidential level before…. This was sort of his first move into the national scene.” The event was spectacular. “Barbra Streisand performed…the who’s who of Hollywood, business, and industry…a total of about three thousand people were there.”
On Clinton’s arrival, Burkle, whom Darius Anderson describes as “painfully shy,” led Clinton to his library and the two chatted. “The great thing about Governor Clinton at the time that made him so effective was his ability to connect and to make you feel special. Ron was very impressed with him…. The reason they got along so well over the years is that they have a similar story in essence. They came from tough backgrounds, self-made.” (Burkle’s father, “a supermarket guy,” says Anderson, worked his way to be regional manager for one of the big chains and eventually became president of the company, but he had a humble start.51 Even as a young boy, Ron spent evenings and weekends stocking shelves, in part so he could be with his father. He started as a box boy, tried college—his father wanted him to be a dentist—but dropped out and never earned a college degree.)52
For Burkle, Clinton was the perfect partner. Burkle hated being the center of attention as much as Clinton loved it.53
In the late 1990s, Burkle bought a luxuriously appointed Boeing 757, complete with what a former employee describes as “two massive sleeping cabins,…beautiful living room and full galley and crews’ quarters.”54(The plane carries the numbers 770BB, or Box Boy Local 770, the union to which Burkle belonged when he started in the grocery business as a box boy.) Clinton has dubbed it “Air Force Two” or “Ron Air.”55
Owning a commercial-sized plane that can fly anywhere in the world is extremely unusual, explains Anderson. “There are very few in private hands…. Most of the time when you get to that level you…do Gulfstream or business Boeing jets; that’s what the Spielbergs and Geffens of the world have.” Most of the time the huge cabin holds Burkle and a few friends and perhaps a staffer or two. “He doesn’t take thirty people with him,” says Anderson. Because the 757 is too large to land some places where Burkle wishes to fly, he now has a second, smaller plane for local jaunts.56
Postpresidency, in April 2002, Burkle hired Clinton as “senior adviser” to two Yucaipa Companies investment funds.57
Burkle did not respond to requests for an interview made directly to him, to people in his company, and to an outside PR man and gatekeeper, but he did tell Matthew Miller of Forbes that when he was trying to do a deal with McDonald’s, he asked Clinton to call the company’s chairman, who was so eager for things to go well with Clinton that he gave Burkle his home and cell phone numbers. Burkle volunteers that CEOs who would never take his calls jump at the chance to take Clinton’s.58 The deals have not always seemed appropriate for a former president. When Burkle used Clinton to open the door to the Teamsters and Teamster president James Hoffa Jr., Clinton’s name was soon drawn into an ugly battle, complete with lawsuits and charges by truck drivers that the bottom line would be lower wages for them.59
Both Bill Clinton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson sit on Burkle’s board. Jackson’s former girlfriend, Karin Stanford—also mother of his child—was given a $10,000-a-month retainer for a time by Yucaipa Companies. An even bigger beneficiary of the Burkle/Clinton tie has been Jackson’s son, thirty-seven-year-old Yusef.
In 1998, Yusef, a lawyer, was sold a majority ownership of a lucrative Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship covering Chicago’s North and Northwest Sides. (In the early 1980s, his father had called for a boycott of the beer company because of a lack of minority distributors.) Yusef Jackson met August A. Busch IV, a close friend of Burkle’s and son of Anheuser-Busch chairman August III, at a party at Burkle’s mansion in 1996. Seated next to each other, the two discussed the ups and downs of life with name-brand fathers, and the deal was put in the works after Burkle vouched for Yusef.60 With Burkle’s financial backing, Yusef would later invest in magazines, including Radar.61
When he’s in Los Angeles, Clinton almost always stays in a private wing at Green Acres that contains a guest suite.62 Irena Medavoy calls it Clinton’s “refuge…because in Green Acres he could be protected…. There’s no one coming in and out.” She says that Bill and Ron “will stay up until three or four in the morning and discuss everything.”63
As Clinton suffered the humiliation of the Lewinsky scandal, he found Green Acres to be a “safe harbor,” says Medavoy, who recalls being with the president at “a very small dinner” at Burkle’s house during those dark days. Also there was Jesse Jackson, just back from Belgrade, where he helped to negotiate with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president of Yugoslavia, the release of three American POWs.
That dinner at Burkle’s mansion, Medavoy says, allowed Clinton to relax, to find solace and people who were not going to sit in judgment. “He could be himself,” she says, “and…no one here betrayed him.” At that dinner, Medavoy recalls, they talked about the success of the hostage release, about other “hot spots” around the world, and how issues such as ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were all shunted aside so the world could focus on Bill Clinton getting “a blow job.”64
Located above the Beverly Hills Hotel, Green Acres shares a common border with the property of another erstwhile Clinton billionaire supporter, David Geffen. Geffen joined the billionaire ranks in 1992 when he sold his record company to MCA; later he became a founding partner with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks. When Geffen, in an interview with the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, called the Clintons liars and the former president “a reckless guy” who “gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and to distract the country,” and said he would not support Hillary for the Democratic nomination in 2008, many saw behind it jealousy on Geffen’s part that Clinton liked Burkle’s mansion better than Geffen’s.65
According to a report in the New York Times, while Clinton was president, “Geffen insisted that Clinton stay at his home even on nights when Geffen was out of town. Clinton spent much of the evening at an event at Burkle’s…mansion…, but then dutifully went around the block to neighbor Geffen’s estate.”66
The story became a tasteless, silly spat over whose compound is bigger and whose Clinton liked better. Geffen’s, filled with expensive contemporary art, is on 9.4 acres and was once owned by movie mogul Jack Warner; Burkle’s acreage is smaller, reported variously as five to eight. Whatever the precise size, their lots are the first and second biggest in Los Angeles.67
Burkle carries an air of mystery, a Gatsbyesque mix of riches, eccentricity, and striving that provides endless fodder for the gossip pages—one described Green Acres as “one of Southern California’s best-known party houses”—and even the New York Times has more than once put stories featuring Burkle on its front page. For a man who is so often described as shy he seems to invite publicity. A fund-raiser at Green Acres will include the most gorgeous stars and celebrities, a far cry from a political fund-raiser in the grand ballroom of a Chicago hotel, where celebrity might mean a politician or a trial lawyer.68
Burkle favors a uniform of Levi’s, a black polo shirt, and blue Converse sneakers. He is friends with rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Burkle reportedly invested $100 million in the “Sean John” line. He shares a New York City pied-à-terre with actor Leonardo DiCaprio.69
Today, Burkle is all over the place. He tried to buy twelve Knight Ridder newspapers when the company was broken up; he tried to buy the Tribune Company and then the Los Angles Times and then proposed a plan to buy the Wall Street Journal. With Yusef Jackson, he tried to buy the Chicago Sun-Times.70
Since 1999 Burkle has been part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and has floated the idea of moving the team to Las Vegas. He attempted to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles. With Yusef Jackson and others, he bid $450 million but failed in 2006 to buy the Washington Nationals.71
He serves on the board of Yahoo! and is in business with Vice President Al Gore; he has a stake in Gore’s cable channel. The college dropout is also the money behind the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and the Claremont Graduate University business school.
Some say that Burkle and Clinton are also partners in philandering. Burkle is said to like much younger women, especially models. The New York Times used suggestive language in describing their friendship; the word zipping was much remarked upon: “Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife. Nights out find him zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle.”72
One Hollywood woman who knows Burkle well raves about him, describing him as shy, brilliant, loyal in a way rarely seen anymore, an honest businessman, “the one who hardly ever says anything, so when he does, it’s always of value…. If you have Ron Burkle as a friend, you’re a lucky person.” But this woman seemed to hint that Burkle and Clinton spend time together doing things that Hillary would not want made public.73
“That’s the word around Hollywood,” says one major star, “that it has to do with women, like the friendship he had with Vernon Jordan, supposedly all about women.”74 Darius Anderson says he never witnessed any philandering “firsthand,” but specifies that he left Burkle’s employ in 1998 just as he acquired the plane, “so I wasn’t there for the whole jet-setting around the world thing…. I’d hear the same things; some people like to spread rumors. I’m sure there’s some truth to [it]; where there’s smoke there’s usually fire.” One Washington journalist who has written extensively about the Clintons says that, in private, Burkle refers to his plane as “Fuck Jet.”75
The most cynical of Clinton watchers say that Hillary would look the other way if her husband and Burkle were chasing women. Burkle is a key player in Hillary’s political future.76
One well-known journalist says that Burkle “creeps me out,” and he mentions Burkle’s attempt to expose Jared Paul Stern, a freelance gossip reporter for “Page Six” of the New York Post, a paper that Burkle detests because of its suggestive and, Burkle claims, false coverage of his private life. This journalist, while stressing that he carries no brief for Stern, calls Burkle “fucking crazy” and says he reminds him of former Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, “another Bill [Clinton] familiar who [has a]…prurient interest in manipulating and jacking around the press.”77 (Clinton is so close to Weinstein that he was with the president on election night 2000.)78
The Jared Paul Stern “Page Six” fight with Ron Burkle was sparked by Burkle’s anger over an unbylined item in May 2002 about his buying a modeling agency, Elite Models, in part so former president Bill Clinton could run it. The item also described Burkle as flying models around on his private jet.79 On March 22, 2006, Stern and Burkle met; the meeting’s purpose, allegedly, was for Stern to advise Burkle on steps he could take so no more modeling agency-type stories would appear in the New York Post. Burkle, unbeknownst to Stern, made video recordings. The New York Daily News obtained a transcript that had Jared Paul Stern saying, “I wouldn’t be asking you for this kind of money if I didn’t think I could help you when it is needed.” (The amounts were reportedly $100,000 up front and a $10,000 monthly stipend.)80
It appeared that Stern was trying to extort money from Burkle, and a federal investigation ensued. Stern, who was fired from his freelancing job, claimed that he was merely attempting to persuade Burkle to invest in Stern’s clothing company, Skull & Bones. Months later, someone from the U.S. Attorney’s office advised Stern’s lawyer, “They are not proceeding with any case against Mr. Stern.”81
Unhappy about losing his freelance work, Stern filed suit against Burkle, the New York Daily News, Burkle’s PR man, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. The affidavit describes Burkle as a billionaire who “carries on sexual liaisons with fashion models, some of whom are under the age of consent.” In November 2007, Stern predicted, “Burkle will do anything to keep us from taking Clinton’s deposition.”82
Another important FOB (and FOH)—one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest financial supporters in her bid for the White House—is Haim Saban. When Mike Medavoy is asked if Bill Clinton has lobbied him to support Hillary for the presidential nomination in 2008, he says, no, but “Haim asked me.”83
Saban, who did not respond to a request for an interview, was one of the extreme loyalists who never wavered in his support for Clinton during the worst of the Lewinsky days. At a fund-raiser for Democrats at his house in September 1998, attended by a cast of two hundred, including Burkle, Madonna, and Rob Reiner, Saban, according to a report in the Washington Post, assured the beleaguered president, “Our prayers are with you and our support is absolutely unwavering.” The take for the party that night in his neo-French château in North Beverly Park, a gated community, was $1.5 million.84
Saban, sixty-three, an Egyptian-born Israeli who left Israel for France in 1975 and moved to Los Angeles in 1983, made his fortune producing the children’s cartoons Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In 2001, then chairman and CEO of Fox Family Worldwide Inc., he increased his wealth by $1.5 billion when he sold his share.85 In the approach to the 2002 midterm elections, he donated $7 million to help the DNC build a state-of-the-art Washington headquarters.86
Former DNC national finance chairman Alan Solomont calls Saban “a classic Israeli, kind of gruff exterior, tough guy.” Saban founded the Saban Center on Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and gave “a bunch of money” to Tel Aviv University to establish the Saban Institute for the Study of the American Political System. He arranged for Bill Clinton to receive an honorary doctorate from the university in January 2002.87
Instead of flying to Israel with Saban on his G-7, Clinton flew with Burkle on his 757. “I’ve noticed that for very wealthy men,” says Solomont, “planes take on a life of one of their organs; it’s like whose dick is bigger. And at that particular moment Burkle’s was.”88
Corky Hale, a musician and Hollywood activist, calls Saban, whom she says is second in his generosity to Democrats after George Soros, “very close to Clinton, after Burkle maybe, because anybody who’s extremely, extremely rich…”89 She leaves the thought unfinished, but its meaning is obvious. Saban’s Who’s Who in America entry notes under “Awards” that he was “Named one of Forbes’ Richest Americans, 2006.”
Another man whose friendship with Bill Clinton has flourished postpresidency is New Yorker Jeffrey Epstein, fifty-three, a billionaire money manager, president of J. Epstein & Co. in Manhattan. Epstein, who limits his clients to those who have a billion dollars or more, started life in Coney Island, the son of a Parks Department worker. He was teaching calculus and physics in the 1970s at the Dalton School in Manhattan when the father of a student arranged for him to meet Alan “Ace” Greenberg at Bear Stearns. Epstein rose quickly at the firm before moving on.90
Epstein, who did not respond to a request for an interview, lives in a forty-five-thousand-square-foot house on East Seventy-first Street on the Upper East Side that, according to one published report, he describes as “the largest private residence in the city.” He also owns a fifty-one-thousand-square-foot castle in Santa Fe, reportedly the largest house in the state, a villa in Palm Beach, and a hundred-acre private island off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.91
Epstein’s fleet consists of a Boeing 727, a Gulfstream, a Cessna 421, and a helicopter to carry him from his private Caribbean island to St. Thomas.92
In 2002, Clinton traveled to Africa with Epstein on the 727—also along were Epstein’s (and Clinton’s) friends Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker. The trip, which was dismissed as “The Three Amigos’ Most Excellent African Adventure,” put Epstein in the spotlight; and New York magazine soon assigned a writer, Landon Thomas Jr., to profile him. In describing the Africa trip, Thomas breathlessly portrayed Epstein’s crush on Clinton. “While Epstein got an intellectual kick out of engaging African finance ministers in theoretical chitchat about economic development, the real payoff for him was observing Clinton in his métier: talking HIV/AIDS policy with African leaders and soaking up the love from Cape Town to Lagos.”
Thomas’s portrayal had Epstein loving beautiful women, but being so much deeper. “As some collect butterflies, he collects beautiful minds. ‘I invest in people—be it politics or science. It’s what I do,’ he has said to friends. And his latest prize addition is the former president. In his eyes, Clinton as a species represents the highest evolutionary form of the political animal. To be up close to him, as he was during the African journey, is akin to seeing the rarest of beasts on a safari.”
Thomas also quoted Donald Trump: “I’ve known Jeffrey for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Unlike the others quoted in the profile, including Bill Clinton paying tribute to Epstein, Trump turned out to be right on the money.93
In 2006, while at his Palm Beach villa, Epstein, according to reports in the Palm Beach Post, was jailed for two hours before posting bond, for activities involving underaged naked girls, one reportedly fourteen years old, a naked Epstein, massages, and a reported request for “a happy ending.” (The official charge was soliciting a prostitute.)94
That year, New York magazine took another look at Epstein, this one, by Vanessa Grigoriadis, not quite so starry-eyed: “Epstein was known to be a womanizer: He usually travels with three women, who are ‘strictly not of our class, darling,’ says a friend. They serve his guests dinner on his private 727, and are also there for touching. But it seems that he was also interested in younger women: Over the past few years, a then-17-year-old Olive Garden waitress…brought at least five high-school girls between the ages of 14 and 16 over to Epstein’s house in Palm Beach to ‘massage’ him, which meant watching him masturbate and even allegedly having sex.”95 (The case is expected to go to trial; Epstein claims that he did not know the girls were underage and he passed a lie detector test in which he asserts that he thought the girls were eighteen.)
One well-known New York journalist says of Epstein, “He’s truly a brilliant autodidact, but sort of crippled in a personal sense and who does that remind you of?”96
Philip Levine, forty-five, a Miami businessman—he made his fortune on cruise-ship concessions—and bachelor, a mere multimillionaire, became friendly with President Clinton the usual way; he gave a lot of money to the party. Levine cohosted a star-studded fund-raiser in Beverly Hills for the DNC and another in Miami Beach, both with Clinton in attendance. He was quoted as saying that he has “contributed more than $100,000 to the party and its candidates.”97
Levine, who did not respond to a request for an interview, described President Clinton as a combination of Elvis and JFK and explained their friendship as one “self-made guy” enjoying another. Levine has had overnights at the White House, entertained Clinton at his house, and traveled with Clinton postpresidency. Robert Sam Anson in Vanity Fair quotes Hillary as saying, “I need to start coming on those trips.” Levine also keeps an apartment in Manhattan.98
One longtime (and disapproving) friend of Clinton’s describes Levine as “a single guy who likes to party.” He ponders why Clinton wants to spend his time with Levine, comparing him unfavorably to close Clinton advisers Ira Magaziner, Sandy Berger, and the late Eli Segal: “There’s this dissynchrony in the kind of people around Bill Clinton…. He does love to be around those folks who will throw themselves at his feet and worship him and do his bidding and pay his bills.”99
And then there’s movie producer (The Polar Express, Beowulf ) Stephen Bing, heir to his grandfather’s real estate fortune of nearly $1 billion, owner of a Boeing jet, often in the gossip columns, most famously in 2001 after Elizabeth Hurley claimed Bing fathered her son. A DNA test backed up Hurley’s charge. Paternity tests also showed Bing as the father of a daughter born to Kirk Kerkorian’s former wife, Lisa.100
A recent Wall Street Journal article described Bing as competing with Burkle and Saban to see whose haul for Hillary is bigger.101 Before that he was a reliably ultragenerous supporter of Bill and the party. He wrote a check for a million dollars to help fund the 2000 Democratic National Convention.102
According to one journalist who has written about Clinton, “Stephen Bing epitomizes that crowd. Clinton’s still very much a skirt chaser and these guys in Hollywood are movers and shakers. Stephen Bing [is a] rich, young guy on the loose with power and…who is bedding every broad…. That really appeals to Clinton…. He has done some things that are wildly inappropriate, even after Monica Lewinsky, even after he’s trying to become this venerable sage of American politics, he still does it. He’s just fundamentally flawed. And these guys,…he likes being around them…. He likes the beautiful women…and he likes the power they wield and likes the fact that they’ll cut him fat checks…and help to enhance his lifestyle by offering him their private planes and the other things they have available to them.”103
Irena Medavoy, who briefly dated Bing, describes the attraction between the two men as “everything, because Bill Clinton’s also a guy who likes to laugh and he likes to have fun…. He was a young president…and I think being around young people makes him happy…. I think Steve for him was…an outlet.”104
There are still others, substantially lighter in the wallet and even lighter in the gravitas department, who, with some reason, consider themselves FOBs. Some members of Clinton’s staff were said to be appalled that the former president would keep company with the likes of Jason Binn, twelve years Clinton’s junior, CEO of Niche Media, publisher of high-end glossy magazines for the ultrarich in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, the Hamptons, and Aspen.
“To the consternation of legacy protectors,” Robert Sam Anson wrote, “Binn also puppy-dogs with Clinton, and Clinton appears pleased to have him at his heels. It can’t be for the chat…. One undertaking at which Binn incontestably shines is entree with models.”105
Binn refused a request for an interview.
Terry McAuliffe is described by one Clinton friend and supporter as “probably Bill Clinton’s best friend.” Still, this man wonders why Clinton would want to spend so much time with a man who may be shrewd but seems limited intellectually and whose adoration for Bill and Hillary is creepy. McAuliffe appears to have devoted his life to raising money for the Clintons and bailing them out of embarrassing situations. “Terry’s…the world’s greatest salesman,” says this man. “In a sense I can kind of see they’re kind of kindred spirits in their energy and even their charisma, but Bill Clinton’s a fucking genius, it’s just…an odd best friend, to be honest.”106
Former DNC head Don Fowler, who tangled with McAuliffe, says of his relationship with Clinton, “He [McAuliffe] lives off of that.”107
As Bill Clinton was leaving the White House, and, more important, after Hillary was elected senator, Oscar de la Renta began to invite them for Easter week trips to his house in the Dominican Republic.108
On de la Renta’s end, says Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul recently convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice, this was all about business—designing for Hillary should she become president. De la Renta designed her second inaugural gown and the dress she wore on the cover of the December 1998 issue of Vogue, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, that made her appear, as Robin Givhan, the Washington Post fashion critic, wrote, “glamorous, regal and defiant.”109
The famous designer, a Dominican native, continued to invite them even though, Black adds, de la Renta’s genuinely close friend and Connecticut neighbor Henry Kissinger disapproved. “Kissinger purports to regard Clinton as a very shabby character and a very second-rate president.”110
Too much is made of Clinton’s befriending people with private jets and then being shameless in mooching a seat (and a bed), says David Schulte: “Once you’ve flown Air Force One for eight years, you think you want to fly United?…You’d have to be brain-dead to prefer commercial aviation.” He adds that Clinton’s yen for billionaire-style travel is “peanuts, compared to the Marc Rich pardon.”111
One New York journalist says he understands why Clinton is attracted to the staggeringly rich, illustrating it with a reference to the New Yorker cartoon, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been superrich and superrich is better.” He says of the “superrich guys,” with whom Clinton consorts these days, “They can help him on what he cares about: his issues. It isn’t just about the jets…. When he’s trying to get into their pockets, a lot of times it’s cause oriented.”112
Besides, says another journalist who has covered Clinton since his gubernatorial days in Little Rock, “he came a long way and as soon as he got out of lower-middle-class lifestyle, there was no looking back.”113
POST-WHITE HOUSE, Bill Clinton dresses like the rich man he has become.
In 1996, the AP writer Ron Fournier described a Bill Clinton who no longer exists. “The president gently unwraps presents so the paper can be reused. He used to buy his shoes at a discount self-serve store in Arkansas—one black pair, one brown pair. ‘That’s all anyone needs,’ he’d say.”114
As governor, he proudly wore a Timex watch—the Ironman LCD, not a bad idea for any Arkansas politician because the company had manufacturing facilities there, was one of the state’s big employers, and made the first wristwatch affordable to the workingman.
Today Bill Clinton collects high-end mechanical watches and wears a Rolex, or a Patek Philippe or a Cartier or an Audemars Piguet or a watch by the young German watchmaker Michael Kobold. These are watches that cost thousands of dollars; some reach to six figures. Clinton has about fifty watches in his collection.115
In 2004, when Michael Kobold, German born and only twenty-seven, first met Clinton at a small private party, the former president was wearing an Audemars Piguet skeleton watch that was worth well over a hundred thousand dollars. Kobold’s designs—advertised as the preferred watch “for polar explorers, NASA test pilots, NSA and CIA operatives”—range in price from $2,500 to $25,000. Kobold gave the former president the Kobold off his wrist to try on. Clinton took off the Audemars Piguet, and Kobold, needing to adjust the presidential cuff, put the watch in his suit jacket pocket. “We got talking and I told him that’s actually Jim Gandolfini’s [aka Tony Soprano’s] personal prototype watch because Jim and I had worked on that particular watch together. So he said, ‘Well, I love Jim, and I love this watch.’”
Kobold left Clinton with the watch and was some distance away when he realized he still had the president’s Audemars Piguet in his pocket. He rushed back to return it.
Kobold calls Clinton “a charmer,” who told the watchmaker specific reasons why he loved his watches. Kobold receives regular letters from “Bill,” who expressly asked Kobold to call him by his first name. (Mostly everyone else calls him “Mr. President.”)
Kobold ended up lending Clinton three watches, and James Gandolfini gave Clinton one as a gift. Kobold is delighted when Clinton wears his watch at some “high-profile event.” He wore a Kobold on Larry King Liveand also when he was photographed for the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal. “He has given my watch a lot of wrist time.”
Kobold describes the former president as having hands that are “very powerful; they are not too sleek but also not a farmer’s hands, refined looking.” His nails, says Kobold, are manicured. His clothes are “incredibly well finished.” Kobold makes watches for Secret Service agents and has befriended some who were on Clinton’s detail, “and they say that he is sort of known in endear[ing] terms as a clotheshorse; impeccable taste and always likes to get dressed very nicely.”
Clinton also told Kobold that he “really enjoyed watches with a second time zone indicator, so I’m actually in the midst of designing one anyway, so I told him…‘I’ll send you a picture of one and see if you like it.’” If he does, says Kobold, he’ll send him one to wear.
Another president, George W. Bush, also wears a Kobold. One of Bush’s assistants ordered it, the president paid for it, and that was that.116
SENATOR JOHN KERRY of Massachusetts, in a battle for the Democratic nomination for president, had begun to wonder at some of the Clintons’ activities early in 2004. They were not so subtly supporting General Wesley Clark—the retired NATO supreme allied commander, an Arkansas-reared late entry in the race for the Democratic nomination. Some of the more Machiavellian-minded believed that the Clintons were using the politically naïve general as a stalking horse. He couldn’t possibly win and that would leave the field open for Hillary to run in 2008. If Kerry won in 2004, he would presumably be the hands-down favorite for reelection in 2008.
Mark Buell laughs as he recalls sitting beside Hillary at a dinner at her house. “She knew that we announced early that we were supporting Kerry, and she said to me,…‘Do you think that General Clark would be viable?’” The Clintons were definitely supporting Clark, says Buell.117 Kerry’s finance chairman, Lou Susman, had come to the same conclusion: “We were sure that the Clinton crowd had put Wesley Clark in the race.” The “Clinton crowd,” Susman adds, included Terry McAuliffe, whom Clinton, as noted in the Boston Globe and other papers, had installed as head of the DNC in order to protect his and Hillary’s interests. McAuliffe, Susman explains, would not have pushed Clark into the race without approval from the Clintons. The Clintons’ close friend, the late Eli Segal, moved to Little Rock where he became the Clark campaign’s chairman.118
Clinton was on the phone often with Clark, a fellow Rhodes scholar, with Segal, and, most important, with potential donors. But Clark was inept. He cheerfully admitted having voted for Reagan in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. Clark told reporters that Kerry would soon “implode” over an “intern problem.” Kerry’s daughter Vanessa said she almost died laughing when she read about the rumor, which quickly died, as did the Clark campaign.119
Strategist Hank Sheinkopf chuckles at the notion of backroom maneuvers by the Clintons. “Most of what happens in politics is the same thing that happens in the media; it’s called ‘the Confederacy of Dunces,’ a lot happens by accident.” Sheinkopf suggests that Clinton might have felt grateful to Clark, who had “served him well…. The management of the Bosnian conflict is something the president can look back on with some pride.”120
Bill Clinton, missing the political arena, was talking to many of the candidates because that’s what he likes to do. “I remember being with John Edwards [in 2004],” says Lou Weisbach, “and Edwards said, ‘It’s amazing, Bill Clinton calls me all the time and asks me what my plans are and gives me advice,’ and then you talk to another candidate and hear the same thing.”121
THE MONTH before his presidency ended, Bill Clinton had met with another portrait painter, Simmie Knox, who would become the first African American to be commissioned to paint the official White House portrait of a president.122 The son of a sharecropper,123 Knox grew up in Alabama on a plantation/farm and attended segregated schools.124 He had painted Justice Thurgood Marshall, which led to a commission to paint Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who recommended Knox to Clinton.
Hillary Clinton, impressed with Knox’s study showing the president in five different poses, asked him to paint her as well.125 The senator sat for him in her house in Washington; she also looked at the portrait of her husband and asked Knox to make his beard area a little pinker, “put a little color in it” so it matched his cheeks. “I agreed with her; she was right about that,” Knox says.
Knox had recommended the blue necktie, one that would bring out the blue in the former president’s eyes. Although famous for having avoided the draft, Bill Clinton wanted military medallions in his portrait and the former first lady wanted her book, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. “I asked them if there are things that they feel that helped to shape them and make them the person that they are.”126
In June 2004, in the East Room at the Bush White House, Knox unveiled the portraits of Bill and Hillary. President Bush won over the Clintons with his greeting, “Welcome home,” and reminded the assembled that he and his father call each other “41” and “43.” Turning to Clinton, he said, “We’re glad you’re here, 42.” It was the start of a thaw that would soon produce a genuine friendship between “41” and “42” and a fragile cordiality between “42” and “43.”
“Over eight years it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency,” Bush said, striking just the right note and bringing his predecessor to tears at the mention of his late mother. “I am certain that Virginia Kelley would be filled with incredible pride this morning.” President Bush also evoked laughter and his Texas roots when he said, “People in Bill Clinton’s life have always expected him to succeed, and more than that, they wanted him to succeed. And meeting those expectations took more than charm and intellect. It took hard work and drive and determination and optimism. I mean, after all, you got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas.” 127*
Larry King took note of the reception that “W” gave his predecessor. “Bush was glowingly praising of him; I mean really overglowingly. So the next time I saw Bush, I said, ‘Why were you so…?’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you kidding?…How could you not like Bill Clinton?’”129
THAT SAME MONTH, June 2004, Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life, was published.
Democratic leaders were not happy; they wanted the book out earlier or later, but nowhere near election day. They feared that Bill Clinton would not only steal the spotlight but that he would also remind swing voters why not to vote for John Kerry for president.
Among presidential memoirs, Clinton’s does not rank high. One might expect it to be self-serving, but it’s also boring, and, especially in the second half, more a laundry list of events and people and legislation than an insightful look back at two turbulent terms.
What he wrote himself continues to be murky. The far better first half was said to benefit from Ted Widmer’s handiwork. “I don’t know why they only let Widmer go for the early years but that’s what he did,” says Douglas Brinkley. “He did interviews with President Clinton…and they would transcribe them. They were like long oral histories…. President Clinton would work off of the transcript…. Maybe Ted would craft them up a little bit from what Clinton said…. I think that collaboration between Widmer and Clinton bore great fruit because that’s clearly the most gripping part of the memoir.”130
For the book’s second half, Clinton relied heavily on White House diaries kept by Janis Kearney, an Arkansas native and old friend. It was the first time a president had hired a diarist, she explains, “and so we kind of structured what it was as we went along.” Kearney recorded Clinton’s daily activities, assembled relevant documents. She called herself his “shadow,” and as much as she could while still affording the president privacy, she recorded everything that transpired in the business part of a day—events, meetings, who was there, who said what, and so on. She took notes in pigeon shorthand and then typed them up at the end of each day. As part of the Oval Office staff, “I could hang out there whenever I felt that I needed to.” She says there was no taping system in the Clinton White House. “We knew all the things that had gone down before.”131
The “fly on the wall” nature of her relationship with Clinton meant that she had to endure an appearance before the Lewinsky grand jury. She got stuck in that nightmare because she kept records of who entered and exited the Oval Office.
Clinton’s editor, Robert Gottlieb, was considered first-rate—among his authors were Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, Joseph Heller, Jessica Mitford, John le Carré—but his skills were not apparent here. “I was very surprised that an editor of that skill let it go,” says former Time magazine columnist and biographer Christopher Ogden, “but I think it was a financial decision.”132
Rushed to publication, the 957-page hardcover of My Life was a mess. In this writer’s copy, the cover is on upside down and backward. The index is unreliable.133 In the last two lines of the book, in the “Acknowledgments,” he thanks a long list of people, and then concludes on what was meant to be an earnest, high-minded note: “None of them are responsible for the failure of my life, but for whatever good has come out of it they deserve much of the credit.” Although certainly the innocent mistake of a rushed copy editor or proofreader, still, says Jonathan Alter, Clinton was “furious.”134
While acknowledging that Widmer was “heavily involved” in the writing, Alter argues that the book sounds too much like Clinton to believe that he didn’t do “most of it, himself.” To Alter, the book has that “kind of all-over-the-map, up-until-four-A.M. Clinton thing.” He adds, “If it had been a lot better, I would have been awfully suspicious about whether he wrote it or not.” The laundry-list aspect of it, Alter explains, “that’s just him sitting there with his legal pads.”135
Donna Shalala is typical of his friends in saying she “loved” the first part and then trailing off when talking about the rest.136 A surprising number of people didn’t read it; they read the reviews and just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm. Leon Panetta says he “brushed” through it, that he read enough “to get a feel for it.” While the first half perhaps merits an “A,” the rest, says Panetta, is a failure. When he got to the presidency, the deadline noose was tightening and he “just kind of ran through his schedules.”137 One friend calls it “a brain dump.”138
In 2003, Panetta had advised Clinton to write two books: one to take the reader through his governorship and then a second volume on the presidency.139 Other friends have expressed hope that he’ll have the confidence to admit that the hundreds of pages on his presidency are largely without insight or subtlety—“boilerplate and unimaginative,” says Douglas Brinkley—and that he’ll write another book.140 One of those is Jake Siewert, who pronounces My Life “rushed” and says “he’ll probably have to go back and do that section again, but I wouldn’t expect that any time before the next couple of elections” (i.e., until after Hillary finishes her second term).141 “I think he has to write another one,” says Vartan Gregorian, who found the second half suffered from the fact that “time dictates content.” He wrote Clinton after publication but says he was “polite as you have to be with a president. He’s not your pal.”142
Clinton was disappointed by the reviews. (Kay Graham’s memoir won the Pulitzer; Clinton’s did not.) Douglas Brinkley reviewed it for the Financial Times and was surprised to hear that Clinton thought the review “snarky.” “I was very hard on the whole impeachment problem and I got wind back from Camp Clinton that there was some unhappiness at my analysis.” Given that Brinkley wrote essentially a positive review, Clinton’s displeasure results from Brinkley’s “refusing to allow him to claim impeachment as a badge of honor…. They’re determined to wash it away,…to turn it into a minor event, and it wasn’t minor. As a historian you have to recognize that that consumed a great deal of his energy.”143
Sensing, friends say, that people whose opinion he valued, whether they read it or not, were belittling the memoir irritated Clinton most of all. “I’m told that it reminded some people of that famous speech down in Atlanta in 1988,” says Theodore Sorensen, JFK’s speechwriter (and, some say, author of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, which Sorensen adamantly denies).144 Larry Sabato calls it “one of the most boring [presidential memoirs] I’ve ever taken a look at.”145 Christopher Ogden liked the first two hundred pages “because it was fresh and then it became a diary dumper, and so disappointing because he could have done a good one,” but then, Ogden adds, Clinton’s “such an undisciplined guy” and the book is “an undisciplined effort.”146
To Elaine Kamarck, the memoir is “a total mess…nothing really of intrinsic interest there.”147
“I would never claim to have read his memoir,” says Paul Greenberg, “except perhaps as a sleep aid.”148 When Greenberg’s then deputy, Kane Webb, is asked if he read the memoir, he answers, “No, life is short.”149
Knopf claimed that the book broke opening-day records for a nonfiction title, selling more than 400,000 copies.150 The publisher had estimated that it needed to sell 1.8 million hardcovers in order to cover the president’s advance. It ended up selling 2.2 million in hardcover and 500,000 in paperback in the United States alone. Knopf reportedly reaped at least $6 million from publishing rights to My Life sold to foreign publishers.151
Bill did end up selling more books than Hillary, whose Living History sold 1.7 million hardcover copies.152
The publicity buildup to the book’s release was huge—interviews on 60 Minutes, Oprah, and Larry King Live, a cover story in Time, and thousands of people waiting in line whenever Clinton made an appearance to sign books. When he appeared at a Borders in New York City on release day, the store sold more than two thousand copies.153
Mike and Irena Medavoy stood in an impossibly long line outside Brentano’s in Century City. “He just started laughing when he saw us,” Irena recalls. “You did not!” he said in surprise as he motioned them over to his table. They sat there chatting with him until the store closed, and he headed off to spend the night at Ron Burkle’s house before awakening early the next day for another signing.154
ONCE JOHN KERRY won the nomination, Clinton reportedly pushed him to take General Clark or Hillary as his running mate and was ignored.155 Clinton continued to call Kerry with advice156 and warnings. People who had worked on the Clinton campaigns—Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry—went over to help Kerry. “There are people who believe that that effort was helpful and there are people who believe it wasn’t helpful,” says Lou Susman, seeming to indicate that he believes the latter. Susman says he is not conspiratorially minded but does comment that Clinton’s advice resulted in “two camps…people who were more loyal to Clinton than they were to Kerry as opposed to the Kerry people who had been there from the beginning.”157
That summer, the Medavoys hosted a dinner at their home in support of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. (Mike Medavoy is cochair of the Burkle Center.) Senator John Kerry, by then the Democrats’ nominee for the presidency, was to be the guest of honor, discussing foreign policy with a Harvard professor, a former foreign minister of Australia, along with movie stars—Barbra Streisand and Annette Bening—and an audience of Hollywood players. Her husband’s hope, says Irena Medavoy, was that this group would do for Kerry what it had done for Clinton in 1992. The day before, Kerry called to cancel. The Medavoys panicked. “We’ve got this full house coming,” recalls Irena. “Mike picked up the phone and called Clinton. ‘I’m in China, but I’ll stop by on the way back.’”
Kerry made no friends that night, but Clinton was “mesmerizing.” Clinton was “a bigger draw” anyway, says Irena Medavoy.
Despite his nonstop, worldwide book tour, Clinton, coming off that plane from China, was full of energy and wisdom about foreign affairs, including the main topic of conversation, the war in Iraq. He left the Medavoys’ house at two or three in the morning.158
Mike Medavoy reportedly told someone who was there that night, “Kerry will not win. He doesn’t get it.”159
WHEN BILL CLINTON signed his book contract three years earlier, Jonathan Alter had pointed out that Clinton was probably worth the record advance: “…[U]nlike the ailing Ronald Reagan or the pope, who received huge but not as huge advances, Clinton can hawk the hell out of his book on everything from ‘Oprah’ to ‘Good Morning Bangladesh.’ Knowing Clinton, he’ll probably do the 6 A.M. early news in Topeka, too.”160
Not to mention Peoria, but publicity plans for My Life were scuttled in late August 2004, when Bill Clinton could no longer ignore tightness in his chest that persisted even when he was standing still.
He would later tell a reporter who accompanied him on a trip to Africa in 2005 that he had felt symptoms of what turned out to be severe coronary artery disease as early as 2001. When New York’s Jennifer Senior asked him what the symptoms were, he hesitated and then said, “The one I feel comfortable mentioning is that although I lost a bunch of weight in 2001, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping and walking. It didn’t make any sense.” He did not say which symptoms he was not comfortable mentioning.161
Friends did notice that Bill Clinton seemed tired that summer of 2004 and attributed it to his book tour.
In Ireland the last week of August, he signed one thousand copies of his memoir at Eason’s, a Dublin bookstore, and then went straight to the Royal Dublin Golf Club, before dinner with Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. According to a report in the Irish Independent, “Asked if he was tired after the morning’s hard work, Mr. Clinton said that it was tough trying to sign for everyone that had turned up. ‘I normally like to do it standing up, but after so many you get tired and need to sit down.’”162
That same week Robert Torricelli ran into former Clinton aide Doug Sosnik, a regular traveling companion of Clinton’s during the White House years. Sosnik told Torricelli that he had seen Clinton on television and was concerned about how he looked.163
By Thursday, September 2, 2004, at home in Chappaqua, he felt a definite clenching sensation in his chest as well as shortness of breath. His Secret Service detail drove him to the hospital closest to his home, Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York.164 Detecting nothing unusual, doctors sent him home, but, apparently worried about that decision, they called him back early the next morning and suggested that he go to Westchester Medical Center, in Valhalla, New York, for more tests, including an angiogram, which found that several of his arteries were “well over 90 percent” blocked.
A stent would not solve the problem; he needed major, invasive surgery. He was taken by ambulance to the Columbia Presbyterian Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, above Harlem, in Washington Heights, scheduled for surgery the next Monday, and monitored in the hospital until then. Doctors feared that he could have a “substantial heart attack in the near future,” and did not want to risk sending him home.165
When the news broke that Clinton had been scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery on Labor Day, September 6, 2004, many of his friends were surprised and said that they had not noticed any symptoms at all. “We were all in a state of shock,” says Melanne Verveer, “because he was so vigorous, he jogged, he wasn’t a couch potato by any stretch.”166 Jake Siewert points out that his life was healthier after he left the White House—less stress, better diet, more exercise.167
The year before, he had finally found a diet that worked—the low-carbohydrate, low-fat South Beach plan—and he had lost twenty pounds.168
Terry McAuliffe wrote in his memoir that the night before Clinton went to the hospital they talked on the telephone for nearly an hour, and “he sounded great and we joked around a lot.”169
Leon Panetta was not surprised to hear the news because while Clinton, aware of a family history of heart disease and early death, tried to regulate his diet and his exercise—he had installed a home gym in Chappaqua and hired a personal trainer—he would often “stray” from good habits. That, Panetta says, combined with the stress of the “pretty hard decompression period leaving the presidency,” might have triggered or exacerbated his condition. Panetta describes the former president as “trying to make up for [the stress related to becoming a private citizen] and running around doing speeches…just kind of getting careless in terms of his lifestyle.” He liked to talk about his healthy diet and give advice to others about theirs, but he was a serious backslider, still a binger of unhealthy foods. In 2000, during his last physical as president, he had elevated cholesterol levels and was taking a statin drug to bring it down.170
When his friend Tom Kean had a heart attack, Clinton called him in the hospital and told Kean that he had seen his [step]father suffer a heart attack in front of him and then started to give Kean, just out of the operating room, still woozy and sweating, detailed advice about diet. Later Kean visited Clinton in the White House and the president called to order lunch. The two men had decided on heart-healthy veggie burgers, a first for the president. A uniformed worker came in to take the order, Kean remembers. “Can we have a couple of veggie burgers?” The man was almost out the door when Clinton added, “Just one second, and lots of French fries.”171
Clinton seemed remarkably at ease as he approached the first serious medical procedure of his life. He played Boggle with Hillary and Chelsea. Tony Campolo talked to him in “a pastoral role just before…his surgery.”172 Talk-show host Larry King, himself a veteran of bypass surgery, talked to the president the night before. “He was very, very courageous,” King recalls. “I was scared to death the night before I had it…. If they didn’t give me sedation,…I might have walked. You know what they’re going to do to you.”
King notes that Clinton was totally unlike another bypass veteran, Vice President Dick Cheney, who had his open-heart surgery in August 1988. King recalls spending time with Cheney at the Republican National Convention just before Cheney’s operation. “We sat on the back steps of the New Orleans Superdome; Cheney wanted to know everything that happened to me. ‘What they do to your chest,…what was it like when you woke up?’ Clinton, on the other hand, was like, ‘I’ll face it. I’ve got faith in these doctors.’”173
His Arkansas friend Vic Fleming, the father of Chelsea’s best friend before moving to the White House, hoping to get Clinton’s mind off the bypass, wrote a crossword puzzle for Clinton to work as he recovered. Fleming sent the puzzle to Chelsea so she could hand-deliver it, and Fleming says that Clinton got word to him that he had received it and worked it and liked it. The theme was “the Clinton Family.” He made the clues “pretty hard,” says Fleming, who has written puzzles for the New York Times, “knowing that he wouldn’t much enjoy it if it were a real no-brainer.”174
One of Clinton’s most fervent fans, Phil Ross, the collector of Clinton memorabilia, blamed the Republicans for Clinton’s condition. “The Republicans beat the shit out of him for how many years? He had to go through an impeachment based on the most embarrassing stuff…. I was not surprised when he came up with an almost totally blocked heart. A lot of stuff like that takes its toll, not immediately, but if you tend to internalize it, which he always has had a knack for…. I really to this day think that if he had not been demonized by the Republicans and if he had been more careful in his own private life, he might not have had such a problem.”175
The four-hour surgery, performed by a team of twelve—including the lead surgeon, Craig Smith, who had contributed that year to Bush’s reelection campaign—was routine and successful. (Sections of arteries and veins from Clinton’s chest and leg were harvested to bypass the blockages.) It was necessary to stop the heart at one point in the surgery, and he was placed on a heart/lung machine.176
Bypass surgery patients, especially those who are being kept alive by a machine, sometimes feel a bit less sharp after the surgery, and the condition, known colloquially as “pump head,” sometimes lasts indefinitely. People who know Clinton say he’s still the smartest guy in the room.
After his surgery, Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, sent Clinton an advance copy of a puzzle, titled “From the Presidential Record Books.” That puzzle was published in the Times magazine on December 5, 2004. The following week, in place of the usual completed answer grid, readers found a facsimile of Clinton’s handwritten (in ink) completed puzzle, signed and dated October 29, 2004. Next to it was the note: “Another recent rainy-day activity for President Clinton: solving last week’s puzzle. He says that it took him less than an hour.”177
A year later, in an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, Clinton did admit to some memory loss. “I have seen two or three examples where I couldn’t remember the name of someone that I had known quite well…. But it eventually came to me. And so far, there’s nothing permanent that I can recall.”178
His recovery was difficult, and friends were shocked by how frail he appeared.179 “The first time I saw him I was really upset,” says Susie Tompkins Buell. “He looked like a cadaver.”180 Former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker says that Clinton “looked bad; I thought his condition appeared to be very poor and I suspected that he might be really considerably more ill than had been suggested…. He looked very, very drawn and weak.”181
Although his spokesmen and his doctors said he was doing great, people who were accustomed to being around him saw he was not. “I think that it took him a long time to recover,” says Donna Shalala.182 Jonathan Alter said that Clinton “complained of being tired. We compared notes.” (Alter was then battling lymphoma.)183
George McGovern, whose late wife had bypass surgery, said that when he saw Clinton he looked so ill that “at first I thought maybe the operation had failed.”184
FROM HIS hospital bed as he awaited surgery, Labor Day weekend, 2004, Clinton called John Kerry to give him advice—they spoke for ninety minutes, with Clinton doing most of the talking—and to warn him about the problems in his campaign.185
Bill Clinton was still in the hospital when he received a call from George W. Bush: “The Kerry campaign is the most inept group I have ever seen in politics,” Bush told him. “Don’t let them ruin your reputation.”186
As it turned out, President Clinton did not have to worry because John Kerry did not call much on Bill, or Hillary, for that matter. Clinton was sidelined by his surgery, but Susie Tompkins Buell insists that before that and after, neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton was asked to help the Kerry campaign, until close to the end, when, Buell says, it was too late.
Susie Buell recalls Hillary calling her to complain, “I’m really worried…. They [Kerry and his team] haven’t called us to help them.”187
Bill Clinton and John Kerry had never been close. One man who is close to the Clintons, and who calls Clinton “the best people person I’ve ever met,” describes Kerry’s people skills as weaker even than Al Gore’s. This man recalls a dinner at which a prominent woman sat next to Kerry. Three weeks later they were at another dinner, and “he had no idea who she was.”188 Corky Hale was invited in 2004 to mix with John Kerry at Ron Burkle’s house. With her was her husband, the songwriter Mike Stoller. (With his partner, Jerry Leiber, Stoller wrote “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and other songs for Elvis, all of the Coasters’ hits, and songs for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.) Stoller approached Kerry and told him that he and his partner wanted to donate to his campaign their song “Stand By Me.” Kerry was delighted. “What a great idea, get back to you tomorrow.” They heard nothing more—no recognition that Kerry had been offered such a unique gift.189
Looking back at the campaign, strategists disagree about whether Clinton was welcomed to campaign for Kerry or stiff-armed as he was by Gore four years before. Kerry’s top adviser, Bob Shrum, was no friend of Clinton’s. “John relied on Shrum more than anybody,” says Lou Susman. Clinton is known to deeply dislike Shrum, to wonder out loud why anyone would hire him—he has lost every presidential race, including Al Gore’s in 2000, with which he’d been involved. Shrum is said to have advised Gore not to use Clinton in 2000 and Kerry not to use Clinton much in 2004. One fund-raiser for the Democrats says of Shrum, “He could screw up a one-car parade; he’s just so arrogant and out of touch.”190 (According to Noam Scheiber, writing in The New Republic, John Kerry’s aides “fumed” when the hospital-bed telephone conversation between Clinton and Kerry the Saturday night before Clinton’s surgery ended up on the front page of the New York Times the following Monday. Those aides, presumably, thought that Clinton and his people had leaked it to the paper. In the Times account, Scheiber writes, Clinton carries “a Yoda-like glow,” while Kerry comes off as a “cipher.”)
On October 25, in downtown Philadelphia, Bill Clinton, seven weeks postsurgery, stood next to John Kerry to address a lunch-break rally of some eighty thousand people. With the crowd shouting, “We love you, Bill,” Clinton, looking painfully thin, his wedding band slipping down his finger, replied, “If this isn’t good for my heart, I don’t know what is.” Pennsylvania went narrowly for Kerry, although the other states in which Clinton campaigned just before election day—Nevada, New Mexico, Arkansas—went to Bush.191
That Philadelphia appearance, says Elaine Kamarck, put Arkansas in the Bush column. Until Clinton’s appearance, she says, Arkansas seemed to be leaning blue. “People have told me that internal campaign polls in Arkansas saw…Kerry close to Bush in Arkansas, and then somebody decided to bring Clinton into Philadelphia to campaign—national news, you don’t keep anything secret—and Kerry lost Arkansas by nine points. And they say that Arkansas just bled when Clinton got on the stage in Philadelphia.”192
Tony Coelho argues that had Clinton kept his health, “the political community” would have demanded Bill Clinton’s participation. Kerry would have had no choice. “I think the political community came to the realization that Gore made a huge mistake not using Clinton in 2000, so it didn’t make any difference what Shrum or even Kerry thought…. If Kerry hadn’t used Clinton he would have been booed offstage in effect. He had to use him.” And, Coelho argues, Clinton’s appearance on Kerry’s behalf all through September and October in two or three key states could have won Kerry the election.193
“Kerry would have lost anyway,” maintains Stan Brand. “His candidacy was flawed…. I don’t think they were tough enough in striking back on the Swift Boat thing, and I don’t know that Bill Clinton could have bailed him out.”194
Not even Bill Clinton could have reversed Kerry’s biggest problem—his elitism, his grossly expensive bicycle, his spandex bike shorts, his windsurfing gear, his exotic wife, and his many estates. “No poor person in America thought for a minute that John Kerry knew anything about their lives and their struggles,” says one prominent Democrat.195
The day after the 2004 election, Bill Clinton was one of the people who received a personal call from John Kerry informing him that he was going to concede to Bush.196