Bill Clinton and Casey Wasserman Reveal Secrets of Their Friendship, Philanthropic Bond
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
As president, William Jefferson Clinton enjoyed a wider and deeper connection to Hollywood than any chief executive before or since, and he continues to nourish relationships with younger stars and entertainment executives who support his work through his family's Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, his annual conference that once again will bring together world leaders Sept. 23 to 26 in New York.
Clinton, 66, enjoys a particularly close partnership with Casey Wasserman, chairman and CEO of the L.A.-based Wasserman Media Group, one of the largest sports agencies in the world. Wasserman, who calls Clinton a philanthropic "mentor," has joined him in efforts to combat the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. Recently, both men talked with THR about their commitment to that issue and others.
Clinton's interest in the obesity issue has personal roots. "After I had my bypass surgery in 2004," he says, "I heard from people across America who said that my experience had encouraged them to get a checkup or to exercise more and eat better. I had battled my weight since early childhood, even in the 20-plus years I ran 20 miles a week. And I was not careful about the heart-harmful food I ate. So when the American Heart Association approached me about working together to combat heart disease, I knew that it was an area where I could use my experiences to make a real difference."
Wasserman has allied his family's Wasserman Foundation with the Clintons in an initiative that sends his company's client athletes into the schools to talk about exercise, health and nutrition. "Casey recognized the power of using athletes as healthy role models to inspire young students to live active lives," explains Clinton. "It's amazing to watch how excited the students are to see them and how strongly the message, when conveyed by a respected sports figure, resonates."
Clinton regards Wasserman as "a perfect example of the new generation of philanthropists -- one with an expansive worldview, a strong understanding of the power of technology as a tool for giving and a bias for action. Casey, like my daughter, Chelsea, and many in their generation, grew up with an appetite for progress and an expectation of positive change." Clinton tells THR that along with the Wasserman family and Barbra Streisand, he has "been lucky to work with many others in Hollywood on philanthropic causes, including Haim Saban, Matt Damon, Ben Stiller, Jeffrey Wright, George Clooney, Eva Longoria and Ben Affleck. Several of them already have leading roles through their own foundations. Nothing exemplifies this trend more clearly than the groundbreaking work Sean Penn has done and continues to do in Haiti."
Adds Clinton: "Hollywood holds unique power and influence. … The considerable media attention that actors, producers and musicians receive offers a platform to amplify a philanthropic message beyond what many nongovernmental organizations could do on their own."
Clinton and his daughter are embarking on a tour of Clinton Foundation projects in Africa beginning July 30.
For his part, Wasserman -- the 39-year-old heir to one of Hollywood's most illustrious names -- recalls how he met candidate Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, in 1992 at a fundraiser hosted by his late grandparents, Lew, MCA's former chairman, and Edie. Clinton was "a rock star even then," says Wasserman, who credits his years of weekend breakfasts with his grandfather as "my real education. Giving back was an expectation, not an option."
Lew Wasserman established a personal connection between his grandson and Clinton after the chief executive left office. "Bill called and asked my grandfather to have a fundraiser for him, a luncheon to talk about the foundation he was starting," says Wasserman. "My grandfather said yes, 'But only one thing: I will be there, but Casey is going to host at his house.'
"I was 26 at the time, and thankfully my wife -- who wasn't my wife yet -- was around to help with the combined pressure of having the just ex-president and my grandparents there. Actually, anybody who has spent time with the president knows he makes everyone feel at home -- even if it isn't his house. We've since built an incredible friendship. I've been terribly lucky."
Wasserman's philanthropic endeavors (in addition to serving on the Clinton Foundation board) include overseeing the 2014 opening of the $116 million Edie and Lew Wasserman medical building at UCLA, serving on the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (it was his idea to have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences open its planned Hollywood museum on the LACMA campus) and becoming a passionate advocate for school reform. He's donated about $10 million to LAUSD, including a $4 million commitment to support more than 9,500 classroom projects through Donorschoose.org.
"You can't just put a bubble over the Westside of L.A. and pretend like there aren't other problems," says the father of two. "The way that we are failing the kids in this city through our education system has a profound effect on everybody in the city, and I'm not prepared just to turn a blind eye to that." He adds: "I also love a good challenge."
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