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Inside the Biden, Obama and Clinton Fundraiser at Radio City

by California Digital News

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44, 46 and 42 put on a fundraiser to prevent 45 from returning to the Oval.
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

“YOU IDIOTS!!!!!”

It was shortly before 9 p.m. last night, and a 58-year-old anti-war activist who’d paid $1,000 for her seat near the stage at Radio City Music Hall was yelling at Stephen Colbert and the three Democratic presidents, Biden, Obama, and Clinton. They were on stage, in the middle of answering one of Colbert’s softball questions, about whether it’s actually enjoyable to live inside the White House. Bill Clinton (who says it is) paused briefly while the woman tussled with security. As they frog-marched her past where I stood with the rest of the press, she turned back and screamed one more time, “YOU’RE ALL OUT OF YOUR MINDS!”

I sort of wondered if she had a point. Was hosting this big-money, star-spangled fundraiser really what was going to bring this party together into U.N.I.T.Y., as Queen Latifah sang on stage earlier that very night?

The campaign is on, and last night Donald Trump’s name was like Beetlejuice. Biden, Obama and Clinton seemed determined not to invoke it. Colbert kept trying to get them to go there. “This is such an exciting and rare occasion,” he said at the top of the program. “Three presidents have all come to New York and not one of them is here to appear in court.” They seemed a little unsure if that was something to laugh about.

The whole evening was the kind of spectacle only the Democrats could whip up. Biden’s campaign co-chair, the Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, orchestrated it with Anna Wintour and finance chair Rufus Gifford. Jordan Roth helped produce. Colbert moderated and Lizzo performed. Annie Leibovitz was on hand to take photographs of top donors with the presidential troika.

Various Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, Mitch Landrieu, and Hakeem Jeffries, were there, as well as VIPs like fashion designer Michael Kors, restaurantrepreneur Danny Meyer, and the venture capitalist Alan Patricof. Security was tight, and some VIPs were made to stand in line outside in the driving rain for 90 minutes, which made them feel not as important as they’d prefer. The campaign said it raked in $26 million.

Hours before the show began, I had arrived to Radio City and was stuffed, along with the rest of the traveling White House press corps, in a Rockettes dressing room backstage. There was also a reporter from People and one from BET and two people from Vogue, who stood in the corner, dissecting the news of Alessandro Michele being appointed to the top job at Valentino. Across the room, a claque of campaign reporters talked with junior Biden aides about the new show Girls on the Bus, which depicts life on the campaign trail and is based on Times reporter Amy Chozick’s book. (Reviews in the room were mixed). A reporter from “Page Six” leaned against a window, looking bored. “It was either this or the Pornhub awards at the Whisky a Go Go,” he said.

Shortly after 8 p.m., we all turned toward the little television in the dressing room to watch the First Lady walk onstage. Notepads out. “The fundraiser to end all fundraisers!” she said, before introducing Lizzo. “We got three presidents in the building tonight, that sounds like a pahh-pahh-pahhhrrrttyyy to me,” Lizzo said. The audience clapped. Then it was Mindy Kaling. “I don’t normally get asked to host political events like this,” she said, “and I think it might be really bad for my career, but who cares about me and my problems — this is so glamorous, and it’s for such a good cause.” Kaling ragged on the audience a bit. “I love that you were willing to spend money to re-elect a president that has openly promised to raise your taxes, it’s amazingly selfless. And it’s so stupid. It just warms my heart.” Laughter. She said that, once, her 2-year-old daughter “saw Kamala Harris and thought it was me, and I have never felt so hot. Or that my daughter was a little bit racist. It’s fine.” Ben Platt came on next; he talked about his “chosen family” and sang a song.

The press was ushered out of the Rockettes room and down a tight hallway backstage. We emerged into the auditorium in time to see Colbert and the presidents rise up from the orchestra pit like aged rock stars.

“First question for you, President Biden, how would you describe what’s at stake in this election …”

Biden gave his well-rehearsed stump speech about democracy being at stake.

“President Obama and President Clinton, is there anything you would like to add to that sense of urgency …”

Each president had gotten elected thanks to coalitions that were all slightly different. Now, they were telling their base, It’s time for you all to get back under this big (glam) tent. Now. This president faces a tricky path to another general-election victory. His poll numbers are shaky, with voters concerned about his age, his mental acuity and his handling of the economy and the war in Gaza. That last problem kept showing itself inside the tent at Radio City.

“BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS,” a different protester screamed from another section of the auditorium. That happened several more times. The presidents tried to ignore it, but eventually Obama snapped. “Here’s the thing, you can’t just talk and not listen,” he scolded. The room broke into applause. “That’s what the other side does. And it is important for us to understand that it is possible to have moral clarity and have deeply held beliefs but still recognize that the world is complicated and it is hard to solve these problems. And the reason why I originally selected Joe Biden to be my vice-president, the reason that I think he was one of the best vice-presidents we’ve ever had, and the reason why I think he’s been an outstanding president, is because he has moral conviction and clarity, but he also is willing to acknowledge that the world is complicated, and that he’s willing to listen to all sides in this debate, and every other debate, and try to see if we can find common ground. That’s the type of president I want.”

Clinton couldn’t help but take one direct swipe at the former president who the others tried their best to not name. In a long answer about the economy, Clinton said “You know, President Trump, let’s be honest, had a pretty good couple of years — ’cause he stole ’em from Barack Obama!” Obama chimed in, “The Biden-Obama economy!” Clinton continued: “… then, all the sudden, Joe Biden comes along, and creates about roughly twice as many jobs. So, I believe in keeping score. Not in a vindictive way, but in a positive way. He’s been good for America, and he deserves another term.”

A few screaming dissenters aside, the crowd ate it up. After it let out, I bumped into a few people standing at a crosswalk on Madison Avenue, discussing the show. “I’m really embarrassed, we had the cheapest tickets available, $250,” said one, a college counselor from Connecticut named Joan Thakor. (Actually, there were hundreds of people there with much cheaper tickets; the campaign set aside many seats for smaller-dollar donors). Well, was it worth it? “It was awesome,” she said. “I never had any doubts about Biden. And the entertainment, by the way, was great.”

While the Democrats were playing to their base, Donald Trump, taking a break from hawking Bibles, was playing to his.

On Monday, a 31-year-old NYPD officer named Jonathan Diller had been shot dead during a traffic stop in Queens by an ex-con with 21 prior arrests. He was the first police officer killed in the line of duty in the city since 2022, and the New York Post jumped all over the story, putting his face on the cover of Tuesday’s paper — “DARK DAY FOR CITY” — and editorializing on Wednesday: “An NYPD officer is dead because progressives have thrown law enforcement to the wolves and given the city over to crime.” This is a consistent talking point on the right. However mixed the news of the actual crime statistics might be, there is a feeling, still, of disorder in this city, and others (the recent subway mayhem — three murders so far this year — has kept New Yorkers on edge). By Thursday, as the Democrats were descending on Radio City, Diller’s funeral was being held 40 miles east, in Massapequa Park. Mayor Adams and the NYPD commissioner came to pay their respects. And Donald Trump showed up too, turning it into a campaign stop.

“In life, some things just capture a moment,” he said before the cameras, “and this captured a moment.” It sure did: Breitbart and Fox News and all the MAGA influencers on social media fell in line, and the split-screen narrative began to take hold further afield. All day, the two events were being contrasted across the wider cable-news universe and on The View, where Trump’s ex-flack turned “Style” section resistance heroine Alyssah Farrah Griffin admitted, “I have to say, Donald Trump is getting smarter. This is his third time running now, he knows what he’s doing in a way that there’s a sophistication that wasn’t there. And I do think this works.”

The wood.

Even as the Trump campaign was tarring the Democrats as elitist and out of touch, they were touting how their even-more-elitist billionaire fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago next week is expected to raise $33 million (According to Trump’s people, anyway.)

Hypocrisy aside, even David Axelrod admitted Trump’s showing up at the wake was an effective bit of counterprogramming. And in case you didn’t get the point, the Post’s front page this morning spelled it out for you: “Trump attends wake for killed hero NYPD cop … as 3 Dem presidents shut down city for glitzy $25m fundraiser.”

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