Geffen on Obama: 'He'll be an inspiring president'
David Geffen is no dummy. When I called him today, he knew exactly what I wanted to talk about: "Maureen's column, right?" he said before I could finish a sentence. I guess you don't get to be a fabulously successful media mogul without having a sixth sense of what on someone's mind, whether they're a famous filmmaker or a tongue-tied reporter.
When historians start looking for turning points in the trajectory of the Obama campaign for the presidency, they will inevitably turn to Feb. 21, 2007, the day that the New York Times' Maureen Dowd ran a column where Geffen blasted then-Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. He didn't just say he disliked Hillary, he dismissed her as "the easiest [candidate] to beat." He called Hillary overproduced and overscripted. "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 added that after eight years of George W. Bush as president, "I don't think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is--and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton--can bring the country together." Geffen's indictment of Clinton caused a firestorm. It's easy to forget that back in the winter of 2007, Hillary wasn't just the front runner--she was considered inevitable. The entire Clinton campaign was based on a sense of her invincibility. Clinton operatives were telling deep-pocket party supporters--you better sign on now. The train is leaving the station and you don't want it leaving without you.
Geffen broke the spell. Having soured on the Clintons after raising huge sums of money for Bill and sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom--twice--Geffen found himself enamored of Obama from the first time he saw him on TV, giving a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "I thought he was a remarkable guy," Geffen told me today. "After I heard him give that speech, I called him up and said, 'You're going to run for president and I'm going to support you.' " Geffen says Obama laughed and said he was very flattered, but that he wasn't running.
Cut to two years later. "He called me one day and said with a laugh, ' David, I guess you're right. I am running for president and I'd like your support.' And of course, I said, 'You have it.' "
What is the private Obama like? And how did Dowd get Geffen to finally go public with his complaints about Hillary? Keep reading:
Geffen had actually voiced his concerns about Hillary long before the February 2007 fundraiser that he hosted with fellow DreamWorks founders Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Some time before, Geffen was a speaker at the 92nd Street Y in New York. When someone asked about his take on the Democratic presidential aspirants, the billionaire mogul didn't mince words. "I said that Hillary was an incredibly polarizing figure and that if she ran, she'd never be elected president," he recalls. "And when I said it, the audience broke into applause. Maureen was in the audience and afterwards she said to me, 'We oughta do a column about that.' "
Geffen says he wasn't ready. "I said, 'No, no, no. No one's interested in what I have to say about the Clintons.' But she kept after me and finally, when Steven, Jeffrey and I had the fundraiser, Maureen cornered me and said, 'You have to say what you're thinking. It could have a real impact on the race.' So I did." Geffen sighs. "What can I tell you--I was just speaking the truth."
His remarks caused a media uproar. The comments were front-page news in Washington, D.C. The Clinton campaign instantly demanded that Obama disavow the remarks, saying that after Obama had promised to avoid any slash-and-burn politics, he'd "embraced the politics of trash." They also demanded that Obama return Geffen's $2,300 personal donation to his campaign. At a Democratic presidential forum in Carson City, Nev., the Geffen quotes were hotly debated, with Gov. Bill Richardson calling on Obama to denounce Geffen's comments and Clinton defending her husband's record as president.
According to one political operative I spoke to today, the Geffen broadside had an instant impact because he'd been the first to voice fears shared by many liberal Democrats about the prospect of a Hillary coronation. Geffen agrees. "It resonated because it was what everyone was thinking, but no one wanted to say, because they feared the wrath of the Clintons. That's also true of the press. They didn't want to take on the Clintons, because they knew they'd lose all their access. But this put everything out in the open."
Geffen sounded bittersweet about last night's results. He was pleased to see Obama win such a convincing victory, but saddened to see that California voters had approved Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in the state. I found myself eager to ask Geffen, who's spent considerable time in private with Obama, if the public candidate is different from the private person. "Not at all," Geffen says. "He's really quite consistent. It's why the Republicans were never able to bring him down. He's a calm but commanding presence, thoughtful, measured and always consistent. He'll be an inspiring president."
Over the years, whether as a manager, a record mogul or driving force behind DreamWorks, Geffen has had the ability to approach various projects with a blend of passion and pragmatism. I asked if he sees Obama as a pragmatist as well. "Of course," Geffen responded. "You have to be pragmatic to be an African American running for president in America."
Photo of David Geffen by Paul Hawthorne / Associated Press