A Hollywood Heavyweight Is Biden’s Secret Weapon Against Trump

A Hollywood Heavyweight Is Biden’s Secret Weapon Against Trump

When President Biden made clear last year that he was planning to run for another term, some important Democratic contributors expressed doubt. He was too old, they feared. He was not up to another four years.

It fell to Jeffrey Katzenberg to tell them they were wrong. When some still did not believe him, Mr. Katzenberg challenged them to come to Washington and find out for themselves — then arranged to bring the dubious donors to the White House to sit down with the octogenarian president to convince them he was still sharp enough.

“He was like, ‘Trust me. And if you don’t trust me, trust, but verify. Come with me and see for yourself and engage with the president,’” Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a longtime ally of Mr. Katzenberg, recounted in an interview. “And he started doing that in a consistent way.” In the end, Mr. Newsom added, “He really was instrumental in getting people off the sidelines and getting them to dive headfirst in this campaign.”

Few have dived headfirst into the president’s re-election campaign more thoroughly than Mr. Katzenberg. The longtime Hollywood mogul known for “The Lion King” and “Shrek,” among many others, Mr. Katzenberg has been one of the most prolific cash generators for Democratic presidents for a generation. On Saturday night, he will bring Mr. Biden together with former President Barack Obama, George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jimmy Kimmel for a star-studded fund-raiser in Los Angeles, following the $26 million fund-raiser at Radio City Music Hall in March he arranged with Mr. Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

While Mr. Katzenberg has not solved Mr. Biden’s age problem by any means and Biden aides noted that some of those he brought to the White House did not need convincing, his efforts to validate the president with the well-heeled set have helped build a war chest that has been outpacing the Trump campaign. But he has gone far beyond his past political work, joining Mr. Biden’s campaign as a co-chairman and investing himself fully in the effort to defeat former President Donald J. Trump.

He can be found in the halls of the West Wing offering advice and counsel. He was at Camp David the weekend before the State of the Union address, helping the president prepare for his nationally televised speech. He pushes the campaign to tape reaction videos of the president for social media and connected Biden aides with writers to help come up with jokes for the president to deliver at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

“He’s a true believer in the importance of this election,” said Rob Flaherty, the deputy campaign manager. “He speaks about it in really existential terms. He talks about how this is what he wants to spend his time on and he can’t focus on anything else. He’s a really relentless guy.”

The president speaks with Mr. Katzenberg several times a week, as do many of his advisers. “To the best of my knowledge, this guy doesn’t sleep,” said Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, noting that he was speaking in a personal capacity, not in a campaign role. “He’s 24/7. That’s invaluable.”

He can be a handful, though. “He doesn’t take no for an answer,” said Rufus Gifford, the campaign’s finance chair. “He definitely has an opinion and argues it vociferously, which I appreciate.” The two talk so much, Mr. Gifford said, that “he calls us Batman and Robin. We argue about who’s Batman and who’s Robin.”

It is no real surprise that Democrats are happy to offer testimonials to Mr. Katzenberg. For years, he has been the party’s go-to guy to tap Hollywood money, raising millions of dollars for Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama and others. It is likewise no surprise that skeptics wonder what’s in it for him. Big-dollar fund-raisers usually want something, whether it be policy or perks. Mr. Katzenberg has plenty of business interests these days, mainly in the technology sector.

But if he has an ask, Democrats say he has not made it yet. “I never got a sense that there was any personal interest, if you know what I mean. Never. Never,” said Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles, who benefited from Mr. Katzenberg’s help in her 2022 election. “He’s not trying to be an ambassador. He’s not trying to have a cabinet position.”

Trim and wiry, intense but amiable, Mr. Katzenberg at age 73 still exudes a kind of ambitious, animal energy as if he were one of his movie protagonists. He is famous around Hollywood, and now Washington, for rising at 5 a.m. and riding an exercise bicycle for 90 minutes while simultaneously reading four newspapers before taking as many as three breakfast meetings — and waffles or eggs-and-extra-crispy-bacon breakfasts, not the leafy California kind. “The guy eats like a horse and he doesn’t gain any weight,” his close friend Casey Wasserman, the sports, music and entertainment mogul, groused good-naturedly.

Mr. Katzenberg declined to give an interview for this story, but in public forums has described himself as a “super-triple-type-A” personality and a demanding boss who became famous for telling employees that if they did not come to work on Saturday, they should not bother showing up on Sunday. “Exceed expectations” is his two-word mantra.

“I’m not a bunter,” he said in an onstage interview at the Summit Palm Desert in California in 2022. “I’m not a base hitter. I’m not a runner. I only know one thing: My whole career has always been about, swing for the fence.” He has no patience for second best. “Show me a good loser — I’ll show you a loser,” he said.

Mr. Katzenberg grew up in New York’s Upper East Side, the son of a Wall Street stockbroker and an artist who sent him to Ethical Culture Fieldston School. He picked up a love of gambling from his father that got kicked him out of summer camp.

At loose ends, the teenager then went to work for Mayor John V. Lindsay, eventually becoming the mayor’s body man carrying his papers and bags of cash to pay for speech venues in the days before credit cards were more widely used. “That was my college degree,” said Mr. Katzenberg, who dropped out of New York University.

Ultimately, he went west and became an assistant to Barry Diller, the media tycoon, and worked his way into the film business, becoming close to Lew Wasserman, the longtime Hollywood power broker. “My grandfather handed him the baton,” said Casey Wasserman, now chairman of the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Olympics. “He doesn’t play a lot of games. He’s really incredibly straight down the middle. What you see is what you get.”

First at Walt Disney Studios and then, after being pushed out in a power struggle, at DreamWorks, the firm he founded with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, Mr. Katzenberg helped shepherd to the screen films like “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Pretty Woman” and “Dead Poets Society” as well as animated classics like “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda.” By his own count, he had a hand in 406 live-action movies, 41 animated movies, more than 85 television shows and five Broadway plays.

Not known for excessive self-doubt, he was brought low when his effort to build a streaming video app for short-form content with Meg Whitman, the former C.E.O. of eBay, proved an embarrassing flop. Despite $1.75 billion in investment, their start-up firm Quibi folded after barely six months, unable to find a market during Covid against competitors like TikTok. His technology investment firm, WndrCo (pronounced Wonder Company), however, just announced this month it had raised another $460 million in venture capital funds.

Mr. Katzenberg, estimated to be worth $2.1 billion, has long indulged his interest in politics and has become what Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic strategist, called “the greatest fund-raiser alive.” Mr. Begala, a native Texan, noted that ranchers put a bell around the neck of a lead cow for the herd to follow. “Jeffrey Katzenberg is the Democratic Party’s bell cow,” he said.

Mr. Begala said Mr. Katzenberg was so fixated that he called on Election Night 2012 when Mr. Obama was declared the winner. “Who are we for in 2016?” Mr. Katzenberg demanded. “I think it should be Hillary. We should get started.” Mr. Begala recalled protesting that he had not yet celebrated that night’s victory: “Jeffrey, I haven’t even had time to get drunk.”

But that means Mr. Katzenberg can get ahead of things. On Election Day 2016, when Hillary Clinton was expected to defeat Mr. Trump, Mr. Katzenberg met at the Waldorf Astoria New York with the actor Alec Baldwin. The two were mapping out plans for a television comedy starring Mr. Baldwin as Mr. Trump in an alternative reality in which he had won the presidency.

Like many Democrats, Mr. Katzenberg nurses a visceral dislike of Mr. Trump. He has told associates that he met Mr. Trump in New York decades ago and thought even then that the real estate tycoon was entitled and rude. “He was a colossal” jerk “then and nothing has really changed,” he told a gathering in West Hollywood sponsored by Axios last month, using an expletive. Not that it stopped Mr. Katzenberg from making a guest appearance on “The Apprentice” with Mr. Trump in 2006.

When asked why he is so determined now to defeat Mr. Trump, Mr. Katzenberg often tells a story about a high school assignment to interview his European-born grandparents about where they were before World War II. He discovered that they did not believe Adolf Hitler posed a real danger during his rise. He tells associates that he does not want his grandchildren to ask what he was doing when his own country faced a similar test.

Mr. Trump also happens to fit into Mr. Katzenberg’s theory of politics and movies: He likes to quote Walt Disney saying that movies are only as good as their villains. Mr. Trump is much easier to present to voters as a villain than, say, John McCain or Mitt Romney were.

If Mr. Trump is Scar from “The Lion King,” Mr. Katzenberg sees Mr. Biden as Mufasa, the wise father-king. It may not be the best analogy — Scar kills Mufasa in a coup to take over the Pride Lands and it falls to Mufasa’s son Simba to seek justice and topple the usurper.

But the point is that Mr. Katzenberg has been pushing the Biden team to think of the campaign as a story to tell. “He’s a good thought partner on how you bring the various elements together,” said Michael Tyler, the campaign communications director, who estimates that he talks with Mr. Katzenberg several times a week. “How do you create a moment? How do you make sure it’s not a run-of-the-mill moment?”

That was why he was at Camp David before the State of the Union, sitting in Aspen Lodge along with the president’s advisers. Mr. Katzenberg did not write or edit the speech, but offered his thoughts about how to frame the narrative, along with pleas for brevity that were not entirely successful. He has argued that Mr. Biden should lean into the age issue, calling the president’s longevity “his superpower.”

Mr. Katzenberg is not a policy wonk, although lately he has been absorbed by the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles. He has pressed Mayor Bass on that issue and even flew to Sacramento in a raging storm for a 15-minute meeting with Governor Newsom to advocate for a more robust homeless policy before turning around to fly home.

None of that compares to his passion for the Biden campaign, though. Even his beneficiaries find it curious that he is so all-in on this campaign. “I’ve asked him in 10 different ways on 10 different days, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Mr. Newsom recalled. “He looks at me cross-eyed and gets upset every time I ask him what are you after here.”

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