Last December, a NEWSWEEK reporter tentatively broached a delicate subject with a longstanding adviser to Hillary Clinton: was there a concern in the Hillary camp that her husband might somehow embarrass her in the campaign ahead? The reaction was swift and fierce. "If that's what you want to talk about, I'm hanging up right now," said the adviser, who did not wish to be identified even entertaining such a question.
But it is the elephant in the room. Senator Clinton's presidential campaign can ill afford another scandal swirling around her husband, whose second term in the White House was badly disrupted by the Monica Lewinsky affair. Perhaps the Clintonites are understandably worried that the Republican right will try to create a scandal where there is none or dredge up old history. They doubtless anticipate an assault from Clinton's old foes, but they may have been caught unawares by the attack from one of Bill's old friends. In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Hollywood mogul David Geffen tore into the Clintons' integrity and Hillary's electability. "Everybody in politics lies," said Geffen, "but [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it's troubling." Geffen raised the most eyebrows when he referred to the former president as "a reckless guy" who "gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and distract the country." Geffen was not just speaking in the past tense. "I don't think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person," Geffen told Dowd.
The reaction to Geffen's remarks from the Clinton campaign was immediate and outraged. The night before Dowd's column appeared, Geffen had co-hosted a fund-raiser for Sen. Barack Obama, a Clinton rival for the Democratic nomination. At 9:46 a.m., the Clinton campaign issued a statement calling on Obama to cut his ties to Geffen and give back the $1.3 million raised by Geffen's star-studded party. (Jennifer Aniston, Morgan Freeman and Ben Stiller were all there. George Clooney, off shooting a movie, contributed the maximum when Obama first announced and tells NEWSWEEK that Obama is "as good as Bobby [Kennedy] late in his career and Jack from early on.") The press release described Geffen as Obama's "finance chair" and accused him of "viciously and personally attacking Senator Clinton and her husband."
Geffen is not Obama's finance chair; the two are not even close friends. The shot at Obama may have been meant as a kind of welcome-to-the-NFL forearm shiver, intended to rattle the upstart candidate the Chicago press mockingly calls "Obambi." (Obama's aides hit back hard, saying that the Clintons had no problem with Geffen when they were raising $18 million from him. But Obama himself played it cool: "It's not clear to me why I'd be apologizing for someone else's remark," he said while campaigning in Iowa. In any case, he was not giving back the money.)
The Clinton camp has always believed in rapid response—in returning fire before a news cycle can pass. Last week, the Clintonites were serving notice—not for the first time—that anyone who brings up Bill and Hillary's past marital problems will be branded a character assassin. "It's the 'Godfather' theory of politics," says a Democratic strategist who asked not to be identified discussing the Clinton campaign's tactics. "If people stray, you send them a message. That's how you keep them in line."
Democratic activist Arianna Huffington, who attended the Obama event but says she is uncommitted, tells NEWSWEEK, "I think [Geffen's remarks] definitely benefited Obama because it brings into the open conversations many people have been having about the Clintons." Clinton's allies suggested that Geffen was motivated by bile. Once a close F.O.B. (Friend of Bill), he had stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom (twice). But when he asked for a presidential pardon for imprisoned American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, Clinton turned him down.
Dowd tells NEWSWEEK that Geffen did not seem out to get the Clintons. She says she asked for the interview because she had recalled hearing Geffen doubt Senator Clinton's presidential prospects during an audience Q&A at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in February 2005. "She can't win, and she's an incredibly polarizing figure," he had said of Hillary at the time. Dowd says Geffen was initially reluctant to be interviewed for her column. During their hourlong interview at his Beverly Hills mansion, his tone was "reflective," she says. (When Dowd asked him about the Peltier pardon, he said he never really expected one, though he was angry when fugitive financier Marc Rich was pardoned by Clinton.)
Dowd says she was the one who brought up questions about Bill Clinton's past as a campaign issue. Geffen acknowledged that some big donors and celebrity Clinton supporters were fretting, as Dowd put it, "that Bill will 'pull the focus' and shelve his wife's campaign." In the column, Dowd paraphrased Geffen as saying that "if Republicans are digging up dirt, they'll wait until Hillary's the nominee to use it."
Geffen may be right about the GOP dirt diggers. Republican conservative activist Grover Norquist, who loathes the Clintons, coyly tells NEWSWEEK, "Hillary is my first choice to be the Democrat nominee." A New York Times story last week suggested that the so-called vast right-wing conspiracy has gone soft. The article quoted Chris Ruddy, a mouthpiece for the conservative conspiracy theorist Richard Mellon Scaife, as saying that the Clinton administration "wasn't so bad." But the right-wingers may just be lying low. David Bossie, the former congressional investigator familiar to journalists for helping them track down Clinton sex scandals, is working with Clinton strategist turned apostate Dick Morris on an anti-Hillary documentary. R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the editor of The American Spectator, which first printed salacious details from Arkansas state troopers about Clinton's sex life, is publishing a book titled "The Clinton Crack-up: The Boy President's Life After the White House."
The mainstream press has largely steered clear of stories about the Clintons' marriage. A widely noted article last May in The New York Times reported that the Clintons are often apart. "Nights out find him zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle, or hitting parties and fund-raisers in Manhattan; she is yoked to work in Washington or New York ... " No longer Geffen's pal (or recipient of his largesse), Bill Clinton has been spending more time with Burkle, a supermarket tycoon who is giving a big fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton in March. The buzz in Hollywood is that Geffen is jealous of Burkle. But Geffen denies it, and denies any animus against the Clintons. "I think Bill Clinton is a great guy," he tells NEWSWEEK. "I support them both. I just don't think she can be elected president."