Bob Iger for President? Disney's Political Cat-and-Mouse Game

Bob Iger for President - Illustration by Zohar Lazar - H 2017
Illustration by Zohar Lazar

The Hollywood exec won't rule out a 2020 run and recently weighed in on gun control and immigration. Still, says one skeptical politico, "When he shows up in Iowa, let me know."

Officially, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger is not running for president. At least not yet. The 2020 election may feel eons away, but the Des Moines International Airport will soon start crowding with candidate wannabes, and while Iger has plenty of time to make up his mind, the clock is ticking and the whispers will only grow louder.

While Iger, 66, hasn't explicitly said he's interested, he also hasn't ruled himself out, which sets him apart from Sens. Al Franken and Chris Murphy, who recently have taken themselves out of the hypothetical running.

Those who know and work with Iger in Hollywood say he is seriously considering a presidential bid, which would be perfectly timed with his plans to step down as Disney CEO in 2019. One fellow media titan tells THR that Iger would be a great candidate if he decides to run but stops short of saying he is encouraging him to do so. Iger told THR in June 2016 that "a lot of people" have urged him to run for office, though that was a political lifetime ago.

The Iger option may be stoking enthusiasm in some quarters of the entertainment business, but outside its media bubble, Democratic strategists desperately seeking a way to reclaim the White House from Donald Trump are less sure how serious Iger is about running and, if he is, whether he could be a credible candidate for the party's nomination in 2020. (Although maybe that's not what he has in mind: The New York Times recently reported that Iger no longer is registered as a Democrat.)

"Success in business can be a compelling attribute, but most important in the wake of Trump will be to demonstrate a passion for doing good that can inspire people again," says Brian Fallon, Hillary Clinton's campaign press secretary. "And, for anyone seeking the Democratic nomination, certainly a specific, bold commitment to progressive values."

Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, warns against confusing trial balloons with active candidacies. "When [Iger] shows up in Iowa, let me know," he says.

At a Vanity Fair conference Oct. 3, Iger looked visibly uncomfortable when writer Nick Bilton polled the audience on whether the superstar CEO should run. After a divided response, Iger guaranteed that his wife, Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, was not on the side cheering for the idea. It was a canny way of confirming that the topic has at least been broached within the Iger household while withholding any details of what actually has been discussed. To be clear, no reporter has been able to get Iger to say whether he wants to be president, including The Times' Jim Rutenberg, who cornered Iger at a cocktail party after the panel but couldn't get the exec to say more than he did onstage. (Iger did not respond to requests to comment.)

Perhaps the biggest reason to take an Iger candidacy seriously is that no one thought the man currently occupying the Oval Office had any shot, either. And Iger is not the first media mogul to toy with the idea of running for president: Michael Bloomberg weighed a run in 2016 shortly after returning to his financial information empire after 12 years of serving as mayor of New York.

And Iger of late has begun sounding more like a politician, with strong statements on issues like gun control and immigration. On Sept. 5, he released a statement calling Trump's plan to end the DACA immigration program a "cruel and misguided decision." At press time, he's the only CEO of a publicly traded media company to denounce Harvey Weinstein.

Symone Sanders, who served as press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, compares Iger's steps into political terrain to his ABC network's late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who recently crusaded against the Graham-Cassidy health care bill. "I don't think Jimmy Kimmel wants to run for president," she says. "He's just a good person."

And former CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein cautions that media executives — even ones who run sprawling entertainment empires that touch nearly every aspect of consumers' lives — do not have the same name recognition and cultural awareness as TV stars. "Maybe Adam Levine could run," he says, "because The Voice is so popular."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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