When DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was 21, he handled the finances for John Lindsay’s New York City mayoral campaign. Literally, that meant carrying a briefcase full of thousands of dollars around the city and paying expenses as they arose.
Katzenberg is reprising his role as a campaign moneyman this year, albeit on a somewhat different scale. In 2012, the Jewish movie mogul’s political giving in support of Obama’s re-election is on a level practically unequaled among Democratic donors.
If Newt Gingrich has gambling and Mitt Romney has private equity, Obama has Hollywood. And in Hollywood, Obama has no more important supporters than Katzenberg and his former DreamWorks partner David Geffen.
This spring, Katzenberg might be the best hope for Obama’s struggling super PAC to catch up with its Republican rivals — much in the same way that Geffen boosted the Obama campaign in 2007 as its highest-profile Clinton defector.
And while Geffen has assumed a less active role this electoral cycle, taken together the two Jewish billionaires have been among the most important backers of the Obama presidency.
Before they were members of the elite circle of top Obama supporters, however, the DreamWorks men were major donors to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and even friends of the first couple. Bill Clinton visited both Katzenberg’s and Geffen’s houses. The decision to found DreamWorks was made after a dinner at the Clinton White House, attended by Geffen, Katzenberg, their partner Steven Spielberg, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, according to a 1998 New Yorker profile of Geffen. Geffen spent that night in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Founded with great fanfare in 1994, DreamWorks represented a sort of Jewish Hollywood supergroup. Among its first big films was “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated retelling of the Exodus story. Spielberg, director of such classics as “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park,” is perhaps the most identifiably Jewish of the executive trio. His various foundations are major supporters of Jewish causes. But Katzenberg serves on the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and has given to other Jewish organizations, and both Katzenberg and Spielberg had some of their foundations’ funds invested with Bernard Madoff, the massive fraudster who preyed largely on Jews.
Geffen, for his part, was born to immigrant Jewish parents and grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park. He went on to represent some of the biggest names in music, founding Asylum Records and Geffen Records before turning to film.
Geffen’s disillusionment with the Clintons reportedly came at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term after the president declined to pardon jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier, whose release Geffen had supported. Geffen took particular exception to Clinton’s controversial pardon of Marc Rich, an indicted Jewish commodities trader hiding out in Switzerland.
That frustration became public in February 2007, when Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign woke to a startling attack. Geffen had told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd exactly what it was that he didn’t like about Hillary and Bill.
“Everybody in politics lies, but [the Clintons] do it with such ease, it’s troubling,” Geffen explained.
In the interview, Geffen expressed particular revulsion at the idea of a Clinton dynasty. “I’m tired of hearing James Carville on television,” Geffen said, referring to the omnipresent Clinton political adviser.