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RON BURKLE, THE BILLIONAIRE best friend of Bill Clinton, thinks he’s misunderstood. “It pisses me off that people think everything I do is for a return,” he complained during a rare, hourlong interview with L.A. Weekly — several days before Vanity Fair blistered him in its June 4 takedown of the former president.
But his public image as a backroom tycoon doling out big contributions for political favors, and VF’s slams of him for his business dealings with Bill, may be the least of his problems.
With Senator Barack Obama winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and with a definite power shift within the party that’s moving away from Bill and Hillary Clinton, political observers are already wondering if Burkle — a top-echelon supporter of the Clintons — will end up some kind of loser.
“If the winner is vindictive,” says Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist, “it could be a problem.”
Jeremy Bernard, a top fund-raiser for Obama’s campaign, simply states, “He won’t have the kind of incredible access he had with Clinton.”
And David Mixner, a longtime Democratic political operative who supports Obama, says, “For the first time I can remember, major donors don’t run the show. It’s the way the Obama camp has organized its campaign, and he has to make his case just like everyone else.”
Burkle, in other words, resides in very strange territory. For the first time in 16 years, the ultimate insider is just another rich, middle-aged man who likes to party. An ideal contributor for a candidate pushing change he is not.
RONALD WAYNE BURKLE, the working-class son of a grocery-store manager, made his initial fortune by smartly investing in the stock market at a young age and later buying supermarket chains such as Ralphs and Jurgensen’s. Burkle then forged good relationships with labor unions like United Food and Commercial Workers Union and sold the stores after they turned into profit makers. While building his financial empire, Burkle named his massive holding company after a town in San Bernardino County called Yucaipa, where he once lived. The Yucaipa Companies owns stakes in 35 businesses and manages four private-equity funds, according to Forbes. In 2007, that meant Burkle was No. 91 on the list of the Forbes 400 Richest Americans, worth perhaps $3.5 billion. The previous year, Burkle was No. 117, with $2.5 billion.
Burkle’s riches have bought him a customized Boeing 757, one of the swankiest estates in Beverly Hills, called Green Acres, built in 1929 by the famed Golden Age slapstick-film giant Harold Lloyd, and co-ownership of a professional hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The billionaire partier, age 55, often seems to hobnob with a far younger set, including actress Kate Hudson and hip-hop star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and recently attended actor Ashton Kutcher’s birthday party.
But it was his fortune, not his high-flying carousing, that brought him to the attention of fellow nightlifer Bill Clinton.
In his memoir, My Life, Clinton describes Burkle as “one of my best friends and strongest supporters.” The two quickly bonded during Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign. “Burkle was always around,” says David Mixner, who was part of Clinton’s kitchen cabinet.
Over the next eight years, President Clinton stayed at Burkle’s mansion 80 times, and he has slipped into Los Angeles more than 100 times to visit the billionaire at his 44-room Mediterranean/Italian Renaissance–style manse in his post-presidency period. The two are so tight that when the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, Carol Felsenthal wrote in her book Clinton in Exile, the president sought refuge at Green Acres.
“Burkle is very important to Clinton in supporting his library, his work in Africa, and giving him his airplane,” Felsenthal explains to L.A. Weekly.
A registered Republican until he met Bill Clinton, Burkle also holds major fund-raising events for other Democrats at Green Acres. In March 2007, the billionaire threw a star-studded blowout that hauled in a reported $2.6 million for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Burkle is seen as a loyal friend of the Clintons, particularly the former president’s. “He’s more of a friend to Bill than Hillary,” says Felsenthal. The Clinton watcher also describes the relationship between the two men as a “real love affair.” “Burkle is a very smart guy,” Felsenthal says, “and Bill likes him on a lot of levels.”
The friendship has always been scrutinized by the press, but it made national headlines and put the blogosphere in a tizzy with the Vanity Fair article about Bill Clinton’s life after the White House. In the story — widely attacked for its poor sourcing, in which it uses blind quotes for some of its hardest hits — writer Todd Purdum quotes an anonymous source who describes Burkle and Steve Bing, another very wealthy Democrat donor, Los Angeles party boy and friend of Clinton’s, as “radioactive,” a reference to their fast lifestyles.