BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- One day after Sen. Barack Obama made a glittery statement with a Hollywood fundraiser that brought in an impressive $1.3 million, the top two Democratic presidential contenders went after each other in the first big food fight of the 2008 presidential election.
It started when David Geffen slammed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in remarks published Wednesday morning, calling the presidential candidate and New York senator a liar, dismissing her husband, former President Clinton, as "reckless," and blasting the Clinton "machine." Geffen, a powerful Hollywood producer and executive, was once a major a Clinton supporter but has switched to Obama and was a host of Tuesday’s bash.
The Clinton campaign, perhaps stung by Obama’s successful incursion into Hollywood, which at one time was unchallenged Clinton country, hit back hard, saying Geffen’s comments contrasted poorly with the Illinois senator’s self-promotion as a new breed of politician, unifying and optimistic.
"If Senator Obama is indeed sincere about his repeated claims to change the tone of our politics, he should immediately denounce these remarks, remove Mr. Geffen from his campaign and return his money," said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson. "While Democrats should engage in a vigorous debate on the issues, there is no place in our party or our politics for the kind of personal insults made by Senator Obama’s principal fundraiser."
The Clintons have long been known for skilled, aggressive political infighting, and Geffen’s comments provided a way for the Clinton campaign to test how Obama, relatively new to the national stage, would take a punch. It also was the first of what will no doubt be many attempts to knock the halo off Obama’s head.
The Obama camp -- eager to show that it knew how to handle criticism and could stand up to an experienced political warrior like Clinton -- issued a biting statement.
"We aren’t going to get in the middle of a disagreement between the Clintons and someone who was once one of their biggest supporters," said Obama communications director Robert Gibbs. "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."
Obama also took the opportunity to go on offense, suggesting Clinton was being hypocritical, since she had not disavowed the recent comments of South Carolina State Sen. Robert Ford. Ford, who has endorsed Clinton, said last week that if Obama were the Democratic nominee, "Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose, because he’s black and he’s top of the ticket. We’d lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."
Gibbs said Wednesday it is "ironic" that Clinton has praised Ford and accepted his support.
If both candidates had reasons for engaging in what might seem like a minor squabble, the spectacle of Clinton and Obama duking it out so early in the campaign was nonetheless striking. It was the sort of rat-a-tat-tat political spat that usually breaks out in the snowy cold of New Hampshire in the critical days before the nation’s first presidential primary, rather than 11 months before that contest and almost two years before the 2008 election.
What ignited the battle of words was an interview with Geffen in Wednesday’s New York Times by columnist Maureen Dowd, in which Geffen portrayed himself as disenchanted with both Clintons and their style of political battle. "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling," Geffen told Dowd.
He also called Bill Clinton "a reckless guy" who "gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and to distract the country." Geffen slammed Hillary Clinton for refusing to apologize for her vote to authorize the Iraq war. "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 said.
Asked if Obama would be able to stand up to the Clinton machine, Geffen said, "I hope so, because that machine is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective."
This rhetorical eruption came one day after Geffen -- along with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, his partners in DreamWorks SKG -- hosted a $2,300-per-person fundraiser for Obama at the Beverly Hilton, site of the glitzy Golden Globe Awards.
There was no red carpet, but stars of the entertainment world showed up in packs. Flashes popped in the hotel lobby as tourists spotted stars like Jennifer Aniston. Dressed in black leather jacket and black slacks, Aniston walked past purposefully, though she tossed her hair, turned and smiled when a fan with a digital camera yelled her name.
Actors Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Taye Diggs, Christine Lahti and Zach Braff also showed up. Singers Jackson Browne and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines were there. And so were producers Norman Lear and Ron Howard, along with Laurence Bender, producer of Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" and J.J. Abrams, creator of the TV series "Lost." The heads of several major studios also attended.
Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington bought tickets but did not show.
Despite the star power, the event was a low-key affair. No cameras were permitted inside the fundraiser, which drew 300 and raised about $1.3 million, according to Katzenberg. Hotel security guards ejected camera crews and ushered out several reporters who had not registered as guests, explaining that they were acting on instructions from the organizers.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, came and left through a back entrance out of sight of the media and guests in the lobby. The couple spent about a half-hour mixing with the guests before the senator made his remarks.
Inside the ballroom, according to a pool reporter allowed in for the senator’s remarks, Obama spoke of the entertainment industry’s "enormous power," which he said comes with an "enormous responsibility" because of Hollywood’s impact on American culture.
"Don’t sell yourselves short," Obama said. "You are the storytellers of our age."
For a change, it was the Hollywood powers who were seeking autographs. The senator’s aides invited guests to bring their own personal copies of Obama’s books, "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams From My Father," and he agreed to sign them.