April 26, 2006,
I don't quite get Ron Burkle. You know who Burkle is by now, don't you? He's the West Coast supermarket tycoon and investor who went from bag boy to billionaire and claims he is very, very publicity-shy. Once obscure, for the past couple of months Burkle has been brawling in a very public way with the New York Post's Page Six gossip column. And because of this Ron Burkle has become a very recognizable boldface name.
There was yet another front-page story about him in the New York Times this weekend. But some flattering passages in that story were promptly shot down by the bloodied but unbowed Page Six. Mickey Kaus on Slate.com gave them the ammunition, knocking the Times's "PR-perfect" reporting about Burkle.
The Times's story was about how Ron and his buddy Bill Clinton (whom Page Six you gotta love 'em refers to as the "former horndog-in-chief) first met. The Times said that Burkle's Los Angeles supermarkets were not torched during the rioting after the Rodney King incident because "Mr. Burkle treated his customers and his employers fairly." Clinton, touring the destruction, wanted to meet such a swell guy.
Kaus did some fact-checking and found out that Burkle's supermarkets, in fact, "sustained $25 to $30 million in riot-related damage." What is with the New York Times these days? I know from personal experience that they fact-check wedding announcements as if they were reporting about WMD in Syria, so why can't they use even Nexis, as Kaus notes, when it comes to most other things?
To get back to privacy-seeking Burkle, what was most interesting about the Times's story was the description of Bill and Ron's current business relationship, which could turn out to be very, very profitable for the former president. Clinton, it's said, could make "millions of dollars" from Burkle's investment funds, and for doing relatively little. (By the way, Burkle held a nearly $1 million fund-raiser for Hillary and Bill this very weekend at his Beverly Hills mansion. The 450 guest included Jennifer Lopez, Ron Reiner, and Billy Crystal. Not exactly the way to stay out of the spotlight.)
The Burkle-Page Six story is, of course, rather convoluted. It started as every gossip aficionado knows with Burkle complaining in a letter to Rupert Murdoch about some Page Six items about him and his appreciation for young models (items which he claimed were untrue). He didn't get the response he wanted from Murdoch, but Jared Paul Stern, a Page Six freelancer, did contact him implying there were ways he could soften the Page Six coverage. They got together and Burkle videotaped Stern saying he could arrange things for a price. Then Burkle, crying "Extortion!", took the videotape to the New York Daily News, the Post's arch rival. The Daily News splashed the story on their front page and milked it for all it was worth for several days. And dozens of other news outlets picked up the story. In his defense, Stern, whom the Post has since fired, claims he was set-up and was merely seeking an investment for his clothing business. Whatever the truth of the matter, it certainly made shy, retiring, "I-don't-want-anyone-gossiping-about-me" Burkle the talk of the town.
But, you might ask, what were the items that so upset him in the first place? He cares so little about convention, so the story goes, that he dresses for almost every occasion in a black polo shirt. Still, he was miffed that Page Six said he was dating supermodel Gisele Bundchen, when they are just "neighbors and friends." And that he had flown some minor celebs to his mansion in Aspen, when he doesn't really have a mansion in Aspen. And that he was buying a model agency that Bill Clinton could run, when he really wasn't. That was the story that seems to have upset him the most. Considering there have been more eyebrow-raising things written about the former "horndog-in-chief," and they were usually true, this seems like a bit of an overreaction.
So I think you can understand why I just don't get it. Why does a shrewd bachelor with a billion bucks and a casual lifestyle care if a gossip column said he liked to date models and pal around with celebs? Frankly the Times' story about the Clinton-Burkle business connections, as poorly researched as it may have been, is far more intriguing.
Maybe he thought complaining about little things might avoid inquiries into bigger matters that might turn out to be of concern to Bill or, even more important, to Hillary. Or maybe he thought righteous indignation was a good stance to take, and no matter what gossip came out about him or his relations with the Clintons, he could maintain that he was still being picked on. But as his pal Bill ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky") could have told him, righteous indignation is ultimately not much protection. And Mark Twain could have told him, "Never have an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."
Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies' Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.