Hollywood Falls Back in Love With Bill Clinton (Analysis)
When all was said and sung, this weekend’s series of fundraisers celebrating former President Bill Clinton’s 65th birthday and supporting the global work of his charitable foundation was like one of those classic Hollywood romances: Though long separated by time and space, the lovers catch sight of each other and immediately fall back into one another’s arms.
It also was a kind of much-needed pep rally for a crucial Democratic constituency that, despite the oncoming presidential election, has been feeling a bit confused and a trifle tepid recently. With all
three of the Clintons—the former chief executive, the current Secretary of State and their daughter Chelsea—on hand for a Friday birthday gala at the Palladium, a Saturday night concert at the Hollywood Bowl and a Sunday brunch and golf tournament, the weekend turned into as much a celebration of the industry’s widely shared connection to the Democratic Party, as it was an appreciation of Bill.
In part, Hollywood loves Bill Clinton for the same reason it loves any natural celebrity. As Alex Avant, son of Motown great Clarence Avant, told the Hollywood Reporter between musical numbers at Saturday’s celebrity-studded concert, “He’s a rock star!” But beyond the glitter factor, there’s the industry’s admiration for a preternaturally gifted politician with legendary survival skills and the obvious fact that the former President so clearly and publicly values his association with Hollywood. From the start, he and Hillary cultivated friends in the industry and drew stars and influential executives into their legendary network of friends. At one point, they virtually -- and unapologetically -- turned the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom into a B&B for visiting West Coast celebs.
More important, the Clintons always have taken Hollywood people seriously and have treated them as collaborators rather than ATMs. Many of those in attendance at Saturday’s concert, for example, were
drawn into political activism during the Clinton Administration and, since then, many have been encouraged to embrace global philanthropy and peace-making by the activities of the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation. All this weekend’s events featured a cross section of engaged Hollywood drawn from all ages.
"I wanted people here from all over the world," Clinton told the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night.
At a moment when the industry’s dems are feeling more than a little ambiguous about their party’s direction and many suspect the current White House would like to keep a bit of distance for the sake of political expediency, Clinton’s appearances were a joyous reminder of what collaboration can create.
That sense was most clearly on display at Saturday night’s Bowl Concert, which was titled, “A Decade of Difference”—a reference to the Clinton foundation’s ten years of work. With the one-time first family in the front row, the evening began with a surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder—who sang “For Once In My Life” at the former president’s request—and moved through Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter, Usher and Juanes to an acoustical set by Bono and the Edge. Wonder made quite an impression when he urged the crowd to give to those who in need, saying “That's the joy of it all. That's why I'm here.”
On a lighter note, Lady Gaga captured the crowd and Clinton’s attention with a bit of suggestive banter, thanking the former chief executive for giving her a “Marilyn Monroe moment” and playfully coming on to
both Bill and Hillary.
The Somali poet and singer, K’naan, struck a soulful note, when he told the crowd that his “music comes essentially from struggle. When the president took office in 1992, my country was in a desperate struggle and devastating war, which I was in when I was a boy.” Now, he said, he counts Clinton as a friend. "There's something ultimately beautiful about the way life takes you," he said.
For many, the concert’s highlight came when Clinton joined Bono and the Edge on stage.
“When Edge and I think of all the reasons we might want to be here in the Hollywood Bowl, the Clinton Foundation would be enough,” Bono said. “But right on top of the list...is that we live in a country now that is largely and truly at peace -- north and south -- because of the intercession of the 43rd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. He is by far the most beloved American since JFK for all of us Irish.”
The singer added: “I also want to salute the extraordinary brain he calls his missus....her patience and impatience in traumatized spots of the world is something we should all think of.”
Bono then broke into special version of "Sunday Bloody Sunday," adding a final verse: “On another broken hill, red crosses and a crescent moon collide. Pilgrims pray to know God’s will. Scratching in the dirt and queueing up to die. Scorched earth or a cruel sun. Is this the battle Jesus won? Oh no. No.”
As Bono’s voice trailed off, Clinton blinked back tears.
After the duo finished their set, the former president wrapped his arms around both men.
“We've been friends for a long time,” Clinton told the crowd. “And I want to say to Bono, thank you for the One Campaign. Thank you for campaigning against debt, thank you trying to save the foreign aid budget of the Secretary of State of the United States, thank you for campaigning against poverty.” He added: “I want to say to Edge thank you for doing something very close to my heart. When Katrina almost destroyed the most unique, cultural and musical resource in America in New Orleans, this man led an effort to raise money for the all those musicians in New Orleans area who had no money but who are part of America's history and I will never forget it.”
Throughout the program, the industry’s most politically active members sat listening in the VIP section. The crowd included Ron and Kelly Meyer, Steve Bing, Michael King, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Ashton Kutcher, Ellen DeGeneres, Lawrence Bender, Jeremy Piven, Maria Bello, and Maria Shriver. Also attending the concert was Laura Ling, who was imprisoned in North Korea with fellow U.S. journalist Euna Lee and later rescued after intense negotiations by Clinton.
Ling helped kick off the show by telling the audience, "President Clinton didn't just save my life. Every day he is saving lives around the world."
The depth of Clinton’s appreciation for Hollywood as a collaborator—and for its culture and traditions—was clearly signaled by the weekend’s first scheduled event, remarks delivered at a memorial service for Edie Wasserman, a beloved industry figure. The former president’s connection to the woman he eloquently praised Friday was far from pro forma. It was, in fact, both long and personal. In politics, as she did so often in his storied entertainment industry career, Edie Wasserman was her husband Lew’s
talent spotter. A deeply committed Democrat, she was one of Hollywood’s earliest supporters of both Clinton and Jimmy Carter and, while her husband deeply admired Lyndon Johnson, Edie numbered Lady Bird Johnson among her closest friends.
While anyone with a sense of Hollywood history knows that Lew Wasserman virtually created the industry’s modern structure, fewer recall that Lew and Edie together essentially brought what we now
think of as Hollywood’s political dimension into being. In the mid-1960s, they created the town’s first lavish political fundraisers, the forerunners of this weekend’s events.
With Edie as his adviser and Arthur Krim, then chairman of United Artists as his partner, Wasserman established a circle of major donors called the President’s Club, whose largesse was sufficient to buy
members face-time with the chief executive. Lew established a particularly close relationship with Johnson, one that was cemented when he hand-picked LBJ’s most trusted aide, Jack Valenti, to become president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America and, thus, the industry’s Washington lobbyist. ''What you have to understand is, if Hollywood is Mount Olympus,” Valenti later would say, “Lew Wasserman is Zeus.''
And from their fabled Beverly Hills Olympus, Edie played the role of Hera—constant helpmate and conscience. Edie and Lew were long-time political and financial supporters of civil rights and—because both had been denied a college education by their families’ financial circumstances—they were generous donors to scholarship funds. In fact, when Clinton awarded Lew the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a 1995 White House ceremony, he particularly singled out his many contributions to minority scholarships.
It was political theme—one of the constants of his career—to which Clinton returned during his remarks at Saturday night’s concert. Speaking of his own hard-knock upbringing in Arkansas, Clinton mused,
“Nobody climbs any ladder alone. We are not going to build this country back by telling people they are on their own.”
It was the heart-felt sentiment of a man who clearly felt he was among friends—and, as this weekend’s financial returns for his foundation will demonstrate, those friends clearly still love him for feeling that way.