Hollywood Gives Biden Star Billing During Visit
Wallets Are Opened At Celebrity Parties
By ANJALI HUYNH
LOS ANGELES — President Biden is facing multiple wars, economic anxieties, the indictment of his son and flagging poll numbers. But he was received in California this weekend like a superstar, headlining the hottest events in Los Angeles.
In sprawling Southern California homes, celebrities flocked — and opened their wallets — to hear the president and the first lady, Jill Biden, make the case for why Mr. Biden should be reelected. The campaign swing was the first since the end of the monthslong actors’ and writers’ strikes, during which the president stayed away from the fundraising hub to show support for those on the picket lines.
“It was like a desert out here in L.A.,” said James Costos, a former ambassador under the Obama administration, who hosted one of the events. “There was a lot of people who were idly sitting by, wanting to know what was going on, who hadn’t seen the president in a while.”
The weekend’s activities — which included two larger fundraisers and two “campaign meetings,” as described by the White House — came as recent polls indicated that Mr. Biden could lose in an expected rematch with former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Biden has struggled to assuage anxieties around an improved economy, and his steadfast support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza has earned the ire of young, diverse voters who threaten not to support him in 2024.
But in Hollywood, as they say, anything is possible.
At a party held by Mr. Costos and his partner, Michael Smith, many of those in attendance were household names: Steven Spielberg, Shonda Rhimes and Rob Reiner were co-hosts; Barbra Streisand and Jon Hamm attended; and Lenny Kravitz was the musical performer. Tickets started at $1,000 and went up to $500,000, and the event was expected to raise more than $7 million, according to a person familiar with the president’s fund-raising.
And while Mr. Biden was the star, Mr. Trump took center stage in Mr. Biden’s remarks. He cast his predecessor as a danger to democracy — taking care to mention him by name in saying, “You’re the reason why Donald Trump is a former president,” which was met with cheers.
“The other day, he said that he’d be a dictator only on the first day — thank God, only one day,” Mr. Biden quipped. He later added that Mr. Trump “embraces political violence instead of rejecting it. We can’t let this happen.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Mr. Trump on Saturday in New York City called the allegation that he would pose a threat to democracy part of Democrats’ “newest hoax,” and again flipped the attacks, saying, “the threat is Crooked Joe Biden.”
Democrats have long counted on the liberal Los Angeles area as a financial power source. In 2019, Mr. Biden raised more than $700,000 at the home of Mr. Costos and Mr. Smith for his victorious primary campaign. The reliance on the region is a frequent subject of attack for Republican opponents, who decry Democrats nationwide as funded by Hollywood elites and California liberals.
At a second fund-raiser, held Saturday at the home of José Feliciano and Kwanza Jones, Mr. Biden tailored his remarks around his administration’s successes for Black, Latino and L.G.B.T.Q. constituencies. Of Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden said: “He talks about the blood of our country being poisoned. He’s talking about — you know what he’s talking about,” a slight addition to his comments from the night before.
While in town, Mr. Biden also paid his respects at the shiva for Norman Lear, the acclaimed television writer and producer who died on Tuesday.
In attendance at both fund-raisers was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the longtime Hollywood executive who is a co-chair of the Biden Victory Fund. Mr. Katzenberg said the 36 hours of events represented a preview of fund-raising efforts in the region next year. On Sunday, he put the weekend’s fund-raising totals at “over $15 million.”
“This is a group of people that are pretty well read, and they understand that all of the signals today are headed in the right direction, and the wind is beginning to come into the sails of the president’s campaign,” Mr. Katzenberg said in an interview. He explained away Mr. Biden’s troubling poll numbers as evidence that “sentiment has not caught up with the facts.”
The soirees that reporters got a glimpse of had it all: At one, a couple hundred attendees gathered around heat lamps, conversing over live jazz in the background and eating organic hot dogs. On Saturday, dozens of stars lined the path into a multimillion-dollar home whose entryway displayed a larger-than-life Christmas tree, and Mr. Biden joked it “looked like walking into the White House.”
The events also drew a wide array of politicians and others, who congregated to demonstrate their support for Mr. Biden — and their distaste for his likely opponent. Two of the state’s best-known elected officials, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Representative Nancy Pelosi, attended Friday’s event, and a third, Senator Alex Padilla, was present at the fund-raiser on Saturday.
One surprising co-sponsor of Friday’s fund-raiser was Rick Caruso, a billionaire and recent Democratic convert who lost his bid for mayor of Los Angeles last year. (Mr. Biden endorsed his opponent, Karen Bass, who won the election. She also attended on Friday.)
Mr. Caruso, who said he had a “very meaningful” private conversation with the president on Friday, said he planned to financially support moderate Democrats in California House races next year — and he did not rule out another run for public office himself.
“I don’t agree with everything that Joe Biden does,” Mr. Caruso acknowledged in an interview. But, he added, “what I do feel strongly about is that he has a deep care and concern for our country, and he’s got a commitment to the democracy that we all enjoy. And I don’t believe that Trump does.”
But even while insulated in friendly territory, Mr. Biden couldn’t quite escape his woes. Pro-Palestinian protesters chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has got to go” could be heard from the spacious backyard in Western Los Angeles on Friday. More than 1,000 people gathered at a nearby park to criticize Mr. Biden’s approach in Israel and Gaza, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Mr. Biden did not mention the conflict in either of his fund-raiser addresses. But Dr. Biden didn’t skip a beat when faint echoes of the protesters could be heard over her speech on Friday. At one point, she remarked, “I’m so grateful Joe is our president during these uncertain times,” prompting a standing ovation from the crowd.
Tapping a reliable fund-raising source for Democrats.
New York Times