Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hillary's Wars: a Hollywood emperor strikes back

Let’s face it, this tawdry roundelay about how Hollywood mogul David Geffen has dissed the Clintons, prompting the Clintons’ flak to diss Barack Obama (Geffen’s candidate), prompting Obama’s flak to diss the Clintons….this stuff is far more entertaining than anything that Britney Spears might dream up on her way out of rehab. I bet Karl Rove is having his first belly laugh in months.

If you missed yesterday’s three-act outburst of Democratic dysfunction, here’s a quick recap:

Act One: In an interview with Maureen Dowd, which ran yesterday, former Clinton buddy Geffen assailed “the Clinton royal family,” skewered Bill as “a reckless guy” who “gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and to distract the country,” contended that the Clintons are constantly “unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believe in,” complained that the Clintons are allergic to the truth (“everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling”), and, to cap it off, articulated what many Democrats most fear about Hillary’s presidential candidacy: “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.”

Act Two: Team Hillary, which is generally on guard against negative attacks (a posture honed during the Bill Clinton administration), decided to fire back - but not at the powerful Geffen. Instead, they targeted Obama, and demanded that he apologize for the fact that his “campaign finance chair” was “viciously and personally attacking Senator Clinton and her husband.”

Act Three: The Obama camp retaliated thusly: “It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18 million and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln Bedroom.”

Where to begin…Obviously, the Geffen attack is a sensitive issue for Team Hillary, which has been trying vacuum every last dollar out of Hollywood; indeed, the Los Angeles Times reported today that Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe recently told potential Tinseltown donors not to support any rivals, and warned, “You’re either with us, or against us.” But the Clinton camp would not have helped their cause by playing hardball with Geffen. Instead, it saw the Geffen remarks as an opportunity to dent Obama’s halo; after all, Obama has been decrying the politics of incivility and pledging to run a positive campaign. So here was a chance for the Clintons to pull him off his cloud and down into the arena, where they best know how to operate.

But I think they screwed up.

It turns out, for starters, that Geffen is not Obama’s finance chair. And I would question whether it was “vicious” to describe Bill Clinton as a “reckless” guy who gave his enemies the ammunition to go after him. It may have been impolitic for Geffen to point this out – and, as the best Geffen biography made abundantly clear, Geffen is renowned for throwing tantrums and betraying old friends – but Geffen’s mini-summation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal also happens to square with factual reality.

Also, Geffen’s crack about the Clintons’ veracity (or lack thereof) is not exactly a shocker; during Bill’s first term, Democratic senator Bob Kerrey characterized the president as “an unusually good liar,” an assessment that was widely shared by Americans late in the decade, when the president’s personal approval rating collapsed in the wake of the Lewinsky imbroglio. (Although I have to say that it’s a bit rich for a Hollywood mogul, of all people, to call somebody else a liar.)

And, by going after Obama, Team Hillary merely kept the Geffen story alive and brought it greater attention - especially because it prompted Obama’s spokesman to lash back by reminding people of yet another golden oldie: the Clinton fund-raising scandals of 1996, when the Lincoln Bedroom was made available to the highest bidders. That was perhaps the only stain on Bill Clinton that Geffen had failed to mention.

Most potentially damaging to the Clintons, however, is the fact that Geffen was merely articulating in the open what many Democrats say privately. I’ve heard it myself countless times, virtually always in off-the-record conversations: That the Clintons have too much character baggage from the ‘90s, that they should cede center stage and let somebody else have a chance, and that another Clinton presidency would merely perpetuate the polarization that seemingly has become a permanent feature of national politics.

Nobody comes off well in this unseemly spat: Obama is down off his pedestal, engaging (via his flak) in two-fisted politicking; Geffen has reminded us that Hollywood is to the Democrats what the religious right is to the Republicans (that is, a base that can cause embarrassment); and, most importantly, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated that she can wield brass knuckles when her baggage is invoked. And we still have 11 months to go until Iowa.