Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Republican Doyenne Georgette Mosbacher On The GOP's Tarnished Brand


When I was growing up, Pamela Harriman (née Digby-- yes her great-great aunt was Jane Digby!), Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law, was the grand dame of the Democratic Party, the hostess with the mostest who had had affairs with countless social celebrities, from William Paley, Averell Harriman and Edward R Murrow to Prince Ali Khan, Leland Hayward, Baron Elie de Rothschild and Gianni Agnelli. She was, in her day, known as the world's greatest courtesan. She also married some of these men. She threw parties in DC during the '60s and '70s and during the '80s and '90s she raised enormous amounts of money for the Democratic Party from her wealthy friends. Clinton named her Ambassador to France. By the time she died (in Paris, as Ambassador) in 1997, the Republican Party had their own (relatively pale) version of Harriman, Georgette Mosbacher. [First, the Pamela Harriman story:]

Georgette Mosbacher hasn't had quite the career that Pamela Harriman had but she's had more of life than most high ranking Republican women. Currently she's an RNC Finance co-chair. In 2001, the NY Times compared the two women:
Unlike a lot of visible women who have been helped to where they are through a succession of rich, well-connected husbands, Ms. Mosbacher is apparently not a hostess who will trample the women in the room to get to the lone irresistible man. As Ms. Griscom said, referring to the Big Bertha of political hostesses: "Pamela Harriman was just heinous to women, had no time for them, was just contemptuous. And Georgette's not that way at all. She really enjoys the company of intelligent women, who she can talk to about business or politics."

Certainly no one can deny that the former wife of Robert A. Mosbacher, who was commerce secretary under President George Bush, has worked diligently on behalf of Republican causes and candidates. As general chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, Ms. Mosbacher has established a core of national contacts. And of course, she climbed on the McCain bandwagon early. But considering her role as a McCain campaign co-chairwoman, will anyone in the new Bush administration seriously consider her for a political appointment? Last Wednesday, in an interview in her Borghese office, which is lined with photographs of Ms. Mosbacher past and present, she sounded typically optimistic about her chances.

"For over a decade, I've worked very diligently for the Republican Party, and I would like to serve," she said.

She did not mean run for office. She gave a fluttery laugh. "I'd get in too much trouble," she said.
Like today (more on that below), back in 2001, Mosbacher, who had been dubbed "the Auntie Mame of the Republican Party," was seen as making trouble for the GOP. By then she was a major Beltway Republican hostess.
No one can deny that she has come a long way from the days when her cleavage drew more media coverage than her fund-raising. Whether the subject is Ms. Mosbacher's business acumen or her political success, one hears a surprisingly consistent chord-- about a woman who's passion is genuine, yet whose weakness for self-dramatization undermines her effectiveness.

"She's one of the most persistent personalities I've ever come across," said Allan Mottus, an independent cosmetic industry analyst. "She gets a lot of good ideas, but she doesn't know how to translate them through other people and get the job done that way. She really does herself in. It's not intelligence-- she's smart enough. It's a lack of dimension. In a small company, it's very hard to have a large ego. Knowing how to nurture as well as be demanding is a fine balance she hasn't learned."

Some Republican stalwarts noted the same blind spot. "She's a smart woman, but she's her own worst enemy," one said, adding that in politics, "if you're too far out, they don't like you; if you're too much under a bushel, you're forgotten. You just have to know when to hold them and when to fold. With President-elect Bush's group, there's less focus on glitz and glamour." It could be a long four years for a Republican insider with a hothouse persona.

And while Ms. Mosbacher has a reputation as an ardent fund-raiser and was the host of dinners and cocktail parties throughout the fall in New York, Republican consultants knowledgeable about her efforts question how much money she personally raised. "She did not raise that much money for McCain; it was more talk than action," a a senior campaign aide for the senator said.

Ms. Mosbacher sounded perplexed that people within her party felt that her support for Senator McCain could be seen as a liability and that her plan to conduct salon dinners somewhere in the Republican thickets of Northern Virginia might not go over so well.

"I don't think I'm identified with McCain as much as I am, strangely enough, with the Bushes," she said at one point during the 90-minute interview in her office. When asked if she thought there was perhaps a gap between the way close friends like Nancy Silverman see her (as someone with well-meaning impulses) and the way she often comes across in the media (a flame-haired diva with a tendency for self-promotion), Ms. Mosbacher smiled thoughtfully. "This is the first time I've been asked that question," she said. "I think the press in general has a problem with glamour. Glamour with respect to Hollywood is positive, but with anyone else it's suspect. There are people threatened by it, and certainly as a woman you're not supposed to have it."

Questioned later more specifically about her political expectations, as well as her fund-raising results, she sounded addled, saying: "The Bushes haven't expressed any kind of anger with me. On the contrary, when I've seen the president-elect and Laura, they couldn't be warmer. Look, was Mary Matalin disqualified because her husband vilified the Bushes? The Bushes can make these distinctions. They can get past these things." Referring to the impression in Washington that McCain supporters are being frozen out, she said: "McCain is giving this administration a very tough time. He's opening leaks. I can't blame the administration for not giving him anything. He's not behaving."

Ms. Mosbacher said she had raised $1 million for her candidate. When told that two Republican consultants disputed that number and gave a much lower estimate, she said: "Well, whatever. How do you know how much you raised? Everyone computes it differently. Does it mean that I made every one of the calls to get the money? No. I easily got 10 people who raised $100,000 each. I can say that confidently. So it just depends on how you look at that."

...As Kenneth Duberstein, the former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan and an adviser to Senator McCain, put it, "The cardinal rule about Georgette is that she should never be underestimated."
So why is Georgette in the news this week? She seems to have realized her party is being run by incompetent imbeciles-- and she's talking about it and how they've tarnished the brand: "the sorry state of the presidential primary process, the ongoing alienation of Latino voters, the 'outrageous' Senate candidates that the party ran this cycle, the epic failure of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, and, most recently, the House’s dithering over disaster aid for the victims of superstorm Sandy."
“I’m angry!” fumes Mosbacher. “I’m angry about the stupid mistakes that were self-inflicted.” It’s this last part she finds the most enraging. Though she believes the party has “unfairly” been defined by its recent mistakes, she is very clear about where the ultimate blame lies: “We did it to ourselves.”

Mosbacher is, of course, not alone in her ire. Postelection, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a hastily assembled group of Republican leaders laboring to figure out where the party went wrong last cycle and how to get it back on track. So far, however, Mosbacher is unimpressed by their efforts.

“I have not seen an honest postmortem assessment yet,” she told me. “I have not seen anything that gives me any comfort right now.”

This is an unfortunate development for the GOP, because, as Mosbacher explained it to me this weekend: “I’m not writing any checks, and I’m not asking anyone else to write any checks until I hear something that makes sense to me.”

The root problem, as she sees it: the sorry state of the party’s leadership in Washington.

Take the implosion of certain Senate candidates, she says. “One or two bad apples-- excuse the cliché-- really can spoil the whole thing. But it’s incumbent on our leadership to know who those are. Don’t tell me these people didn’t know who they were before they spewed their nonsense.” Mosbacher grows increasingly agitated. “How did they get this far? Where was the leadership to stop that?”

OK. So the party’s finance co-chair is disgusted to the point where she’s threatening to shut off the money spigot. That’s the bad news. Now for the worse news: she is not alone.

As Mosbacher tells it, many of her fellow mega-donors are vowing to sit on their wallets until something changes. “Since the election, there have been a lot of gatherings, a lot of meetings among those who are active in raising money,” she says. “There’s been one every week. There are a lot of us who are saying, ‘Just wait a minute.’”

Mosbacher adds, “The question is, ‘Are we united in drying that up?’ From the people I’ve talked to, the answer is, ‘Yeah.’”

Earlier this month, New York Republican Rep. Peter King caused a stir when, incensed by the House leadership’s refusal to vote on Sandy relief, he publicly called on area voters not to donate to his own party. “The Republicans have no problem finding New York when they’re out raising millions of dollars,” raged King. “I’m saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds.”

King’s outburst-- closely followed by a similar declaration of war by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie-- prompted a flurry of news reports about how much the GOP relies on New York funders. (State Republicans gave in the neighborhood of $378 million during the 2012 cycle, putting it No. 2 behind only California.) A scant hour after Christie’s denunciation, House leadership reversed course and scheduled an aid vote.

As far as Mosbacher is concerned, however, the damage was done. While “stupid,” the leadership’s fumble of the Sandy vote “was just that moment in time,” she says. “It only reinforced how angry we are about what they’re doing.”

If anything, says Mosbacher, the episode drove home the impact that New York-- which she refers to variously as “the motherlode” and “the golden goose”-- can have. “You know how loud we were. Let’s face it, it didn’t take long to turn that one around. It showed that the golden goose does have some pull.”

Now, she says, it’s time to tackle “the bigger issues,” subjects on which she and her fellow donors expect to be heard by party leaders before they hand out any more golden eggs.

“There’s one thing they understand,” she says with the confidence of a woman who has played at the highest level of the game for many years. “They understand money. Politics is about money. Make no mistake. They’re going to have to listen.”

And not merely listen. Mosbacher warns, “They may listen and not act. But that will be risky.”

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