By Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — As Hillary Clinton and her surrogates scour the country for mega-donors, the one left-leaning billionaire they are not approaching is the one who knows the first couple more intimately than any of the others.
Ron Burkle figures that over the years, he’s raised some $10 million for the Clintons at his sprawling Beverly Hills estate. After Bill Clinton left the White House, he and Burkle jetted around the world together in an unconventional partnership that netted the former president about $15 million and Burkle entree into the palaces and offices of world dignitaries. For years, when Clinton dropped into Los Angeles, he would only stay at “Ronnie’s” place, Greenacres, once owned by silent film star Harold Lloyd. Clinton was fond of the home and its history.
So what’s Burkle done for the Clintons lately? Nothing.
“They never asked me for a penny,” he said of Hillary Clinton’s campaign during a rare interview in his West Hollywood office that touched on his dim outlook of Hillary as a candidate, Bill’s post-presidency role with Burkle’s investment firm and what, exactly, happened on those plane rides.
The festering weirdness between the California billionaire and the Clintons might have drifted below the radar but for Burkle’s decision to start raising campaign funds for a candidate other than Hillary Clinton. He’s co-hosting a fundraiser this month for Republican John Kasich at Soho House in West Hollywood.
Burkle says he might decide in the end to back Clinton — or he might not. The billionaire who counts supermodel Gisele Bundchen among his best friends, who helped the FBI nab a New York Post gossip columnist trying to extort him, who jets around the globe in a private 757 says Hillary Clinton just isn’t re-creating the magic of her husband.
“People would expect Bill Clinton-style love and attention,” he said. “That is not going to happen with her.”
Burkle lumps Hillary Clinton in with a group of well-meaning Democratic presidential nominees who faltered. Like Al Gore and John Kerry — candidates Burkle robustly supported — he says Hillary Clinton is brilliant but troublingly disconnected with the electorate.
“As much as I like Gore, Kerry and (Hillary) Clinton, nobody can ever remember what they stand for,” he said. “They overcomplicate it. … They don’t win on vision — they make it too complicated. They don’t win on likability.” He says President Obama has been a bitter disappointment, failing to deliver on his promise to work with Republicans.
Bill Clinton, though, he says he still adores despite what looked like a very public breakup.
He reminisced about Clinton parachuting into town and wanting Burkle to line up interesting people for him to meet with from early morning through late night. Hillary Clinton, not so much. Burkle said she and her longtime aide Huma Abedin would hole up in the posh Hotel Bel Air during campaign swings in 2007. “They wouldn’t see anyone,” he said. “They didn’t want any of it.”
Few Californians are as tightly woven into the decadeslong psychodrama that swirls around the Clintons as Burkle. (One exception might be David Geffen — who happens to be Burkle’s next-door neighbor. Geffen has come back into the fold after publicly calling the Clintons shameless liars in 2007.)
Burkle even traces his interest in Kasich to Bill Clinton. Back when Kasich was a leading congressional Republican at the height of Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, he bore down and struck a budget deal with the embattled president, Burkle noted. As Burkle scans the field for a candidate with what he describes as the deal-making savvy, the political courage and the common-sense approach that he so valued in Bill Clinton, it’s not Clinton’s wife who stands out at the moment, but Kasich.
“If you are hiring a CEO, he’d be a guy you could hire,” Burkle said. “I think people who take his position should be heard.” But Burkle cautions: “It doesn’t mean I am going to write a $10 million check to him.”
Clinton loyalists do not take kindly to the musings. They say that Burkle is embittered after his business dealings with Bill Clinton fizzled. Their partnership dissolved as Hillary Clinton mounted her 2008 bid for the White House. It ended with a firestorm of bad press for both men, with reports of Clinton family confidants fretting that Bill Clinton’s bromance with Burkle invited scandal. Unsourced reports of the two men jetting around in a Burkle 757 filled with attractive young women leached from the tabloids to the mainstream media.
Burkle is still irked by it all. He says the plane — on which his then-adolescent son was often aboard with Clinton — was hardly a flying frat house. “No woman could get within 100 miles of (Clinton) while I was on watch,” he said. And the awkward, borderline dowdy businessman expresses bemusement at the idea that he’s a Don Juan. “I’m very shy with girls,” he said. “It takes me about a year to tell a girl I like her.”
Burkle suspects Geffen was a source for some of the most damning media coverage, the worst of which emerged at a time Geffen was riled with Bill Clinton for refusing to pardon Leonard Peltier, the Native American activist who Amnesty International says was unfairly convicted of murdering two FBI agents. Geffen has denied it. And because this is Hollywood and these are billionaires, Burkle expresses surprise when asked if bitterness lingers between him and Geffen. Burkle insists they are friends.
He says the same about the Clintons. The days of regular phone chats are gone, Burkle said, but when he bumped into Bill Clinton at a funeral a couple of months ago, they hugged.
The high-stakes campaign-cash bundlers and politically influential proxies in the Clinton network are conflicted about how to navigate Burkle. Some note that Burkle opened his wallet in a big way recently to elect another longtime Clinton confidant, Terry McAuliffe, as governor of Virginia, suggesting there is room for him to come back onto the reservation. Others say the Clintons can do without the baggage that Burkle brings.
©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: President Clinton visits Ron Burkle at the billionaire’s Santa Monica beach house in 1997. Burkle told The Times this week in a rare interview that he’s still fond of Bill Clinton, though he’s skeptical of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)