Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Starring Role in Biden vs. Trump II

Jeffrey Katzenberg in Iowa.
Photo: Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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The Democrats did not caucus in Iowa this year in any real way, but they did hold a press conference with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the 73-year-old-Hollywood mogul formerly of Disney, DreamWorks SKG (he was the K), and the short-lived shortform-video start-up Quibi.

“This is an L.A. question for Mr. Katzenberg,” asked KNBC-TV’s Conan Nolan. It was Monday, January 15, five hours before Donald Trump’s victory in the state would be assured, and Katzenberg was there as one of eight national co-chairs running the Biden campaign. Katzenberg is the only co-chair who has never held public office. His specialty is fundraising, which is what he was at the press conference to talk about. He stood beside Minnesota senator Tina Smith, who spoke about abortion, and Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who trashed Trump. But it was the local L.A. reporter who asked the question everyone was wondering.

“If you don’t mind,” said Nolan, “considering the fact that the Republican Party — one of the major talking points is that your party has abandoned the working class and it is a party made up of coastal elites — are you at all concerned that your presence here or your exalted position in the campaign sort of underscores that?”

Katzenberg was having none of it. How dare this local TV news reporter suggest he was out of touch? After all, he was the studio exec behind all sorts of middle-American hits, from Shrek to Beauty and the Beast, Lion King to King Fu Panda. During the 2020 Quibi fiasco — they blew through $1.75 billion in six months while trying to invent an entirely new type of content business model — he was quoted by one of his underlings as saying, “I’m not a child or mother, but I made movies children and mothers loved. I know millennials better than millennials.” Plus he’d become a trusted adviser to Biden, reportedly encouraging the president to lean into his age and wisdom with a sense of humor — after all, Katzenberg reasoned, Harrison Ford is 80 and still starring in Indiana Jones movies. So, really, why shouldn’t Katzenberg have been up there, among the pols and the press, in that brightly lit convention center in Iowa, talkin’ shop? Frowning, he spoke into the mic.

“Not. At. All.”

Silence. A very-rich-guy-who-doesn’t-like-being-questioned level of silence. He wasn’t kidding.

“Jeff,” stammered the reporter, “seriously —”

“No, seriously,” said Katzenberg. “Not at all. I don’t accept your premise. Sorry.” He didn’t look terribly sorry. “I just don’t buy your premise at all. I think that President Biden was elected by a greater majority than any president in the history of our country, 8 million votes, and for you to suggest that that was a divided vote of Los Angeles and the East Coast is just factually inaccurate, so what do you want me to say? I don’t accept your premise.”

The thing is Katzenberg has been a behind-the-scenes power player in Democratic politics going back decades. He was a top fundraiser for the Clintons, and when he and David Geffen began fundraising for Barack Obama in his 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton, it was seen as a defining moment at the outset of the race. But never before has Katzenberg been this publicly involved.

Rainmaker. Photo: Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images; Christopher Polk/Getty Images for International Medical Corps.

Rainmaker. Photo: Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images; Christopher Polk/Getty Images for International Medical Corps.

“He’s really devoting his time and energy to this in a much more significant way,” says political consultant Andy Spahn, who has been Katzenberg’s liaison to Washington since 1994. “He is playing a significant leadership role on media, message, and money.” Spahn says that Katzenberg — who as a teenager worked on John Lindsay’s campaign and was nicknamed “Squirt” — has “known President Biden since his days in the Senate for some 40 years now.” As for the charge that this Hollywood elite shouldn’t be giving press conferences? “Much ado about nothing,” says Spahn. “He’s not a candidate. He’s not running for office. He’s bringing his decades of experience to bear to help save our democracy.”

Lately, Katzenberg has appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and been quoted talking about campaign strategy in the papers. He’s been taking donors on White House tours (raising ethics concerns) and brought his business partner, Sujay Jaswa, to a State Dinner. The night before the press conference, Katzenberg and campaign strategist Michael Tyler held an off-the-record dinner in Des Moines with nearly 40 reporters from across major outlets.

Katzenberg’s pugnacious performance at the podium the next day did not go unnoticed back in Tinseltown. “What better way to redeem yourself after Quibi than think you’re saving democracy,” says one top Hollywood player. “This is classic Jeffrey,” says another. “There is no amount of attention that could ever be enough, and he’s lost his perch here, so he’s seized this new perch. But he is so the wrong messenger.” One Democratic strategist puts it this way: “Katzenberg in Iowa? There’s a feeling of, like, What is going on here? Donors should never be talking to the public like that.” (Told about all the Hollywood snark coming at them, one Biden ally says, “If any of these Hollywood types would like a tour of the White House, they could just ask.”)

It’s a rich irony that Democrats must beat back accusations of being elitist while running against a billionaire tax cheat who stiffed workers, sells condos to oligarchs, lives in a private club in Palm Beach, and deploys his silver-spooned spawn as campaign surrogates. Fair or not, in our ever-more extreme us-against-them politics, it’s the perception Democrats must battle against: that they are out of touch with the economic and social concerns of regular Amercians, too busy jockeying for a spot at the Met Gala (like AOC), or a Netflix deal (like Obama), or Goldman gigs (like Hillary), all the while destroying the gender binary and the Second Amendment as they raise taxes and ignore the border. Which is why Katzenberg’s “exalted” role on this campaign, and his response to the KNBC-TV reporter, has top Democrats in Hollywood and Washington worried that maybe the campaign isn’t self-aware, and doesn’t understand what sort of optics voters are picking up on.

While speaking in a personal capacity, Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president, pushes back on the notion that Katezenberg’s role is somehow at odds with Scranton Joe’s identity as “the most pro-labor president ever to occupy the Oval Office,” one who believes “the super-wealthy ought to pay their fair share.”

“He’s deeply appreciative of Jeffrey’s commitment and the work he has and will continue to do,” says Dunn. “This election is one where democracy itself is at stake, and President Biden is proud to have Jeffrey on the team that will defeat whatever extreme MAGA Republican emerges from their primary.”

And even those who grumble about Katzenberg’s public posturing admit he’s a real money magician, perhaps the best there is, and that it’s better to have him in Biden’s corner than not. “He is probably the single most important Democratic fundraiser in California,” says another Hollywood supremo. “He’s ferocious, relentless. I think everyone in Hollywood is so cynical, and they just want to jump on Jeffrey because he failed.”

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