The $6 million man

From golfing with Jack Nicholson to rubber-chicken dinners in Ohio, President Clinton's full-time fund-raising tour is tough for anybody to keep up with. Especially the GOP.

Published March 16, 2000 10:30AM (EST)

As fund-raising activities of George W. Bush and Al Gore both score headlines, the man who stared down a possible indictment over his fund-raising, President Clinton, has managed to keep a fairly low profile. That's surprising, considering he's raking in money that would make Steve Forbes blush.

Since January, Clinton has been the featured speaker for more than 30 fund-raisers in Washington and outside the Beltway. His 19 appearances at Democratic National Committee events in just three months raised for the party about $6 million, with slightly less than half of that earmarked as controversial soft money, according to the DNC.

On top of that, the president, with a team of staffers and members of the press corps (like me) in tow, has stumped for a variety of Democratic causes, from Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan's Senate bid to Native American tribal leaders running for Congress. Overall, Clinton's fund-raising has generated an estimated $16 million in 2000 alone.

One fund-raiser, held Feb. 28 at Washington's stately Union Station, raised over $5 million for the Democratic Governors Association. A more typical affair looks like one Jan. 19 at the Corcoran Gallery, where about 100 DNC donors paid $13,000 each to eat a chicken plate and hear a rehash of the State of the Union, surrounded by the latest Annie Leibovitz exhibition. The photo pantheon of women included the first lady, whose own campaign will benefit, if indirectly, from the roughly $1 million raised that night.

His fund-raising takes on even stranger dimensions on his quasi-official trips out of town, which usually include a token public appearance, a round of golf and one or two private events. Take Jan. 21, when Clinton began a 24-hour jaunt to Southern California with a quick speech on scientific investment and nanotechnology at Caltech, then spent the rest of the afternoon swinging the wrenches with Jack Nicholson on Bob Hope's golf course. His staff, meanwhile, hung out with Rob Lowe and the rest of the "West Wing" cast on their White House set at the invitation of the show, which periodically consults with administration insiders.

After his afternoon with Nicholson, the president proceeded to a $500,000 DNC dinner at the home of Fox Kids president and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers marketing mastermind Haim Saban, before crashing at the home of billionaire media honcho and longtime Clinton booster, David Geffen, at his sprawling Beverly Hills compound. In the morning, Clinton brunched with the Women's Leadership Forum at the Regency Club for a $100,000 DNC take before heading back to Washington.

Similar trips to Miami, Dallas, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and New York have kept Clinton on the road this year for many 20-hour days. The White House says he'll keep it up until he leaves office, traveling to roughly six fund-raisers a month and frequenting Washington events with the DNC billed for White House expenses related to blending government with party business.

With a formula drawn up during the Reagan years, White House accountants break down the president's day minute by minute, divide the time spent on official business from time spent working for the party and come up with a cost ratio. For example, if Clinton goes to Texas and gives one policy speech but makes two fund-raising appearances, then the White House bills the DNC for two-thirds of the trip's expenses.

Neither DNC nor White House officials said they could release cost figures for recent trips, though a DNC official said that despite the money spent putting up dozens of staffers in expensive hotels, paying for the use of Air Force One and the cell-phone calls made during fund-raising activities, it was still well worth the trouble. (Critics say the most careful bean-counting cannot tally all the costs related to presidential travel. Who, after all, pays the overtime wages for the dozens of L.A. motorcycle cops sitting outside Geffen's home at all hours when the president visits? Not the White House. Not the DNC.)

Clinton, meanwhile, seems to love it. On a recent trip to San Francisco, he declared himself a "medical miracle" after going strong for nearly 20 hours. He exudes personal energy and delivers speeches with oomph on a few hours of sleep when those of us in the bedraggled traveling press corps slump behind velvet ropes. He recently said he wished he didn't have to sleep at all during his final year in office. Apparently he's trying -- and coming close.

This week, before heading off to India, Clinton was at it again, scoring more than $1 million for the DNC in just three stops in under 17 hours Monday. Here's what his day looked like:

Monday, March 13

10:15 a.m.: Clinton takes his presidential motorcade from the White House to nearby Andrews Air Force Base, where he springs up the steps to Air Force One with a chipper wave to the press. Moments later, the president and a small armada of administration staffers, Secret Service agents, military aides and journalists are in the belly of the Boeing 747 and en route to Cleveland.

Noon: Air Force One arrives in Cleveland, and Clinton greets well-wishers before climbing into a waiting motorcade. A short ride through Cleveland's snow-dusted downtown brings Clinton to the Playhouse Square Center, where he addresses an audience at a fund-raising lunch for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and other representatives and House contenders.

Clinton is greeted by soft applause from guests seated at round tables in a marble-column hall. He thanks the crowd and urges their support in order to "restore a Democratic majority in the House."

But throughout the day, Clinton spends most of his time talking about the talk-show-style spat between the White House and the National Rifle Association. Clinton says the harsh NRA rhetoric (specifically, NRA official Wayne LaPierre's crack on "Meet the Press" that "Clinton needs a certain level of violence in this country") underscores the need to curb the power of special interests out of touch with the public.

Clinton decries the NRA attack and recalls recent meetings with shooting victims and their families from across the country. But hey, this is supposed to be a fun event, so the president backpedals: "I'm not trying to get you in a depressed mood."

Some 70 guests eat hors d'oeuvres, salmon and fresh vegetables in silence for up to $25,000 a plate.

Amount raised: $350,000

2:15 p.m.: Clinton arrives at the Cleveland Public Library, mingles with a crowd of mostly seniors, then takes the podium after introductions by Gephardt and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, also along for the trip, who stresses the need for Medicare prescription-drug benefits to cover middle-income earners.

Clinton kicks off his speech with another swipe at the NRA, outlines his proposal for Medicare prescription-drug benefits and calls on Ohio seniors to support it by pressuring Congress with letters and phone calls.

After the nearly two-hour ceremony, Clinton spends about an hour meeting privately with seniors, local officials and librarians. He also takes a moment to chat on the phone with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, telling him the U.S. will support the latest German candidate, Horst Koehler, to head the International Monetary Fund.

Clinton hangs up with Schroeder, says a few goodbyes at the library and heads back to Cleveland's airport for an evening takeoff aboard Air Force One, this time headed for fund-raising in Chicago.

6:45 p.m. (5:45 p.m. local time): Air Force One lands at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. Off the plane moments later and without a coat, Clinton greets more well-wishers standing outside in near-freezing temperatures. In another motorcade, Clinton takes a short ride to the nearby O'Hare Hilton, where he meets privately with potential presidential library donors. The White House insists no money is solicited, despite the long, intimate meeting.

8:50 p.m. (7:50 p.m. local time): Clinton arrives at Stefani's Restaurant in Lincoln Park to address an upscale downtown crowd at a DNC fund-raiser reception. Inside, Clinton mingles with supporters and poses for pictures with the kitchen staff before leaping into some shopworn stand-up. "Thank you all for being here. I'm sure the fire marshal is nervous," Clinton tells the stuffy, packed room from a podium flanked by DNC General Chairman Edward Rendell and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky. "I will be brief."

Again, more swipes at the NRA, and more calls for better gun control. Clinton tells his well-heeled crowd that weapons enthusiasts should learn to accept proposed firearms restrictions as much as the greater public has accepted the inconvenience of commonplace safety measures like seat belts and airport metal detectors.

"It's some inconvenience, especially if you got something that jangles in your pants," Clinton says in an off-script moment that draws a few stilted titters. "You know, your money clip keeps setting it off and you go through four or five times. But we do that, right?"

In closing remarks Clinton takes another jab at the GOP and the NRA, gives Gore a plug and shakes a few hands before heading out.

"Thank you, and God bless."

Some 350 guests pull out their money clips and contribute $250 each after nibbling on an assortment of 20 appetizers and slurping cocktails.

Clinton, himself too rushed to eat, was given by restaurant owner Lino Stefani a doggy bag stuffed with rack of lamb and rotisserie chicken. ("To nibble on, you know," Stefani tells me later. "He's a pretty good eater.")

Amount raised: $87,500.

10 p.m. (9 p.m. local time): Clinton's motorcade pulls up to the home of Chicago lawyer Mike Cherry, who hosts a fish dinner for about 60 guests at his spacious house in Lincolnwood, a suburb north of Chicago. Inside, Clinton greets guests briefly before taking the microphone.

"I want to thank Mike Cherry for all those ties," is Clinton's first line for this last event. "If I could run for a third time I would, just to get four more years of ties."

Then, 12 hours after leaving the White House, Clinton launches into a fantasy scenario where, if God visited him in the middle of the night and granted him one wish, he would not ask for a third term as president. No, he said, he would ask for a truly united America. "'I'm no genie,'" says Clinton, thickening his Arkansas drawl in an impersonation of a southern-fried Holy Ghost. "'I'm not gonna give you three wishes, but I'll give you one.'"

After the remarks, Clinton and the rest of Mike Cherry's guests (who paid $13,000 apiece) eats pasta salad, poached salmon and fresh fruit.

Amount raised: $700,000.

Tuesday, March 14

2 a.m.: Clinton's motorcade returns to the White House. At the residence portico, Clinton and a shrinking entourage walk tiredly inside. Clinton's driver returns briefly to the presidential limousine and grabs a deck of cards left in the back seat.

A White House aide later explains that the cards belong to Clinton. He likes to play hearts on the road, he says. Hearts and, occasionally, poker.

By Mark Kukis

Mark Kukis is writing a book on John Walker Lindh to be published in the spring of 2003 (Brassey's). He is a former White House correspondent for UPI, and has reported from Afghanistan for UPI and Salon.

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