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HBO's Meet the Donors is a priceless, cost-efficient film on those who throw millions into the country's biggest game-changing political campaigns


We’re again at the height of buck-hunting season. HBO photo

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Supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis is a pudgy, plain-faced man whose money has bought him a lot of pictures on his walls in the company of prominent politicians from both major political parties.

He enjoys showing them off to filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi in HBO’s revelatory and highly entertaining Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk? The 65-minute documentary premieres Monday, Aug. 1st at 8 p.m. central.

Catsimatidis estimates he has given over $100 million to the nation’s highest office-seekers. In return he’s been to Camp David “a few times” during both Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies; hosted Clinton at his apartment for a surprise birthday party while he was still president; and currently enjoys being photographed with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Besides them, Catsimatidis also has photos with Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney and John Boehner among many.

His mother planted the seeds, he says, telling him, “John, you want to pee with the large dogs.” And so he has in pursuit of all those vanity plate pictures and the certitude that his phone calls will always be answered. Giving “a few million” to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is a small price to pay. In fact, it’s “nothing,” Catsimatidis shrugs.

Pelosi, plucky daughter of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, says she went to OpenSecrets.org to identify America’s biggest givers to political campaigns. “Not surprisingly,” she says, “only a handful” were willing to appear on camera. But in fact, it’s striking to see how many of these people she persuaded to play ball with her. And how quotable and even gruffly charming they can be while Pelosi aims her hand-held camera at them and asks pointed questions in a fairly congenial way.

Haim Saban, the “media mogul” whose cash cows have included He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Power Rangers, is a delight in his own inimitable way.

“It’s my freakin’ private business,” he retorts when Pelosi asks him how much he’s given to the Clintons. He admires Hillary for being liberal on social issues and a hawk on foreign affairs. But what kind of influence does his money buy? “Somewhere between zero and minus two,” he contends.

Pelosi is incredulous, prompting Saban’s still fractured English to emerge when he tells her he’s trying to explain himself “but it’s not sinking in your interviewer’s very hard-headed woman!” Priceless -- and no offense is taken by Pelosi.

She also talks to Minnesota-based “broadcasting tycoon” Stanley Hubbard, a rock-ribbed GOP donor who agrees that he gets access in return for his money but has never asked a politician to “help me with something.”

Not that he doesn’t have strong views. There are too many “tree-hugging fruitcakes wandering around” who want to regulate everything, Hubbard says. And a bit later: “If we had global warming, that would be the best thing that could happen.”

Cardiologist Bruce Charash, who enjoys throwing lavish fundraising parties for big-time politicians, says it’s appearances that count when someone sees him in a grip ’n’ grin photo with Obama or Hillary Clinton. “Never underestimate the projection of power,” he counsels. Because people react differently “when they think you have power” -- even if you really don’t.

Republican “mega-donor” Brad Freeman, who’s donated millions to the Bush family, says he does so in large part because ‘I like to be in the game. It’s fun.”

However, he did expect to receive a plum appointment when George W. Bush phoned him after he was elected president. Instead, “I got the friggin’ cat,” Freeman says, referring to Bush’s request that he take care of the clawed family feline, who was too old to be declawed and therefore could do considerable damage to White House furnishings.

T. Boone Pickens remains proud of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attack ads he bankrolled in order to hurt the candidacy of Vietnam War veteran John Kerry, who was portrayed as a liar and a coward.

“The Swift Boat deal, I think won the election” for George W. Bush, Pickens says. But “I can’t think of anything he did (as president) that made me a dime.”

Pelosi fails to land the two biggest fish, Charles and David Koch, who refused to sit down with her. But the film is rich anyway.

Meet the Donors closes with a segment on the effort to take big money out of politics. Ironically, Barack Obama is largely responsible for torpedoing public funding of presidential campaigns. In 2008, he turned down the maximum $84 million in taxpayer money available to his candidacy because he didn’t think it was enough anymore. The Obama campaign instead raised over $1 billion on its own before the U.S. Supreme Court later removed all restrictions on how much “Super PACS” could pour into political campaigns.

Vin Ryan, former Democratic candidate “mega-donor,” says he now has “stopped writing checks to anyone who does not support campaign finance reform . . . You have government by a few people for the benefit of a very few people.” Ergo, a plutocracy, Ryan says.

His grandson is by his side when he says this from the porch of a nestled, isolated home on an idyllic-looking Rhode Island island. “I hope he never becomes a lobbyist,” granddad adds.

Meet the Donors likely won’t remedy a thing. But as an up-close look at some of the country’s biggest political givers and takers, it’s something of an instant post-convention classic premiering at the start of a money-fueled, three-month sprint to the Election Day finish line.

Grade: A

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