Drinks With ...

Jim Kennedy

How to Succeed In Politics and Showbiz Without Being Evil

Jim_Kennedy_polaroid-e1320274572446

Venue

Rush Street
9546 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, C.A.
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The Tab

(2) Stella Artois
(1) Sierra Seasonal Ale
(1) ginger ale
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$27.19 + tip


Kennedy's Tip for the Road: Respect the power of faith in your life.

Jim Kennedy is the antithesis of slick. That’s sort of a shock. He’s a former press secretary for the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) and a current executive vice president of global communications at Sony Pictures Entertainment, so somehow I was expecting to be meeting with a cross between Ari Gold and Ari Fleischer. Instead, the man sitting across from me at Rush Street in Culver City nursing a Stella is a mild-mannered, bespectacled, bearded man in his 50s. If you spotted him on the Sony lot you’d think he was an actor playing a history professor in a heartwarming film about inspiration and challenges at a northeastern liberal arts college.

But no, Jim Kennedy has spent his career playing the affable message strategist in a number of far-less-genteel environments: politics, Wall Street, and entertainment. His choice of drinking venue, Rush Street, is a sort of upscale restaurant and bar, but it still feels like it ought to smell of cigarettes and spilled beer at the end of the night.

I intend to prod Kennedy for Hollywood gossip, but, as a D.C.-raised kid, I can’t resist touching on stories from his previous life in politics. Take his old phone. Yes, his phone; that’s a story. Kennedy was Gore’s communications director in 2000, and, after that election’s long overtime, once the Supreme Court ruled and it was time for Gore to concede, the vice president used Kennedy’s office phone to call Dubya. Kennedy wasn’t in the room to hear what was said, but recalls the day’s “very, very dark feeling.” If only phones could talk, or at least record conversations automatically.

It is safe to say that Jim Kennedy, born in 1953, didn’t end up occupying his office in the Thalberg Building, an Art Deco structure on the Sony lot in Culver City, as a result of some tidy master plan. As a young man growing up in Wallingford, Connecticut, Kennedy thought he’d be an astrophysicist. That was a forecast upended by his classmates at the University of Rochester. “The people who were on their way to becoming astrophysicists were just in a different stratosphere of intellect,” he remembers. “They’d spend their lunch hour chewing over advanced calculus.”

So he gravitated over to history and political science. He helped out on the George McGovern presidential campaign of 1972. (No need for an overtime in that one.) He then got a junior-year internship with Democratic Congressman Glenn Anderson from L.A.’s South Bay. But Kennedy also had an itinerant streak to him, and, after college, when his girlfriend got a scholarship to study in Cologne, Germany, Kennedy pulled up stakes and followed her there to be a street musician. He played guitar and harmonica.

“At the time, I was very shy as a person,” he says. “And the experience of being a street performer helped me break out of that shyness and taught me how to stand in front of strangers and communicate.”

When he got back the United States, Kennedy studied journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. But it didn’t make him want to be a journalist. Instead, he took a job as an aide to Congressman Jim Mattox from Dallas, Texas.

After a couple of years, Kennedy needed a break from the Hill, so he went to Europe-again!-and travelled about as a street musician. But politics still beckoned, and, in 1980, Kennedy found himself working on the campaign of a state senator named Joe Lieberman who was making a run for Congress. Lieberman lost, but the experience of working on a campaign, and the intense cohesion it engenders, had left him hooked. “The fact that you’re with a team of people all in one room, and you have a deadline, and you’re all working together to achieve a very defined goal in a short period-that’s a dynamic that’s hard to replicate in daily life,” Kennedy says.

As we order another round, I notice that Kennedy, unlike most people I’ve ever profiled, is unfailingly cooperative when I take a chronological journey through his résumé, point by point. Most people skip around. In fact, when I jump ahead in time, it’s Kennedy who brings us back to where we left off and keeps things tidy. Perhaps he’s seen too many journalists get things wrong.

Kennedy these days splits his time between the West Coast and New York, working both with the studio and with Howard Stringer, boss of Sony Corporation of America. Differences between the political and corporate realms? Well, in the corporate setting he is often trying to keep his bosses out of the press. Also, when Kennedy first came to Sony in 2005, he was surprised learn that “any corporate environment is much more complicated than a political environment, because it’s like three-dimensional chess. You have to cover so many bases.”

Was it really tougher than fielding one of the most famous political scandals ever? (We’ll get to that.) Yes. In politics, Kennedy said, all the relevant people are usually in one room. It’s straightforward. But in corporations people are spread throughout the world. The dual Japanese-American nature of Sony must make the politics all the more labyrinthine, though Kennedy doesn’t put it that way.

Joe Lieberman, though unsuccessful in his first run for Congress, proved to be Kennedy’s ticket to national politics When Lieberman became attorney general in the 1980’s, Kennedy settled back in Connecticut to become his communications guy. Then, in 1988, Lieberman ran was elected to the U.S. Senate and, Kennedy followed him to Washington.

In 1997, after eight more years of working with Lieberman, Kennedy was hit with two job offers. One job was to be director of issues management at Standard and Poor’s. The other was to be a press guy at the Clinton White House. Having always yearned to live in New York, Kennedy and his wife, after much agonizing, picked New York.

He quickly had second thoughts. While Kennedy found his new colleagues to be brilliant (“they were obsessing over the economies of the whole world”), the pace of the office was unbearably slow in comparison to what he’d known in Washington. Plus, he’d passed up an offer from the White House-the White House. “I felt haunted by it,” he said.

Then, out of the blue, came a call from White House Counsel Chuck Ruff. Was Kennedy interested in a job? Kennedy was. On January 16th, Press Secretary Mike McCurry announced Kennedy’s appointment as deputy press secretary.

This, of course, was a bit like being promoted to the bridge of the Lusitania on May 6th, 1915. On January 17th, the Drudge Report sent out the first smoke puffs of what seemed like a potential brushfire. Newsweek had apparently been sitting on some story about Clinton and a woman. “I wonder if this is going to be a problem,” Kennedy remembers thinking.

It was going to be a problem.

“It became my fulltime occupation for a year,” Kennedy says. “Hence all the white hair.” But Kennedy didn’t have such a bad time of it, not really. He was part of a team devoted exclusively to scandal, and the point of it was to take it off the hands of staffers who’d come to the White House to play actual governmental roles, not damage-control roles. “We were helping to make it possible for people at the White House to do their jobs,” he says. That wasn’t fun, but it was fulfilling.

Eventually, the scandal peaked and died away, and Kennedy’s job became a lot more pleasant. At least for a minute or two. In the latter half of 2000, Kennedy became Al Gore’s communications director. That led directly to another crisis: the undecided 2000 election. “I had a bad feeling, because I felt the Republicans were hungrier than the Democrats,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy took a job for Senator Hillary Clinton, experiencing yet another crisis when terrorists struck on 9/11. (Crises seem to hit Jim Kennedy. Stand aside.) Then, a couple of years later, he rejoined his old boss, Bill Clinton, who was launching the Clinton Foundation. “By and large, it was like going to grad school everyday,” Kennedy says of that time. “It was always a delight.” Plus, Kennedy got to be in New York.

Was Clinton as hot-tempered as they say?

Kennedy smiles. “I’m not saying anything new that he occasionally has a temper,” he says, carefully. “Occasionally it would happen, but not often.”

But Kennedy, with two daughters and a lifetime of modest salaries, was getting to an age where, if he ever wanted to make the sort of money he was in a position to make before his daughters went to college, he had to act fairly soon. So Kennedy launched a job search that eventually landed him at Sony. The learning curve in this new environment was steep enough that Kennedy acknowledges being worried about being axed, but I wonder if saying things like that isn’t just part of his self-effacing nature. Many of his tales are told in an aw-shucks-I-was-just-lucky-to-be-there manner. If Kennedy has an ego, he certainly didn’t bring it to Rush Street.

So how, I ask, does a decent fellow wind up choosing a career in such formidable snake pits-those of politics and entertainment? “It’s an interesting question,” Kennedy says. “As mean as both worlds can be, they’re nonetheless mostly populated by good people, and there’s enough of them to make life enjoyable.”

And I’m guessing such people, if they really exist, have similar feelings about Jim Kennedy.

T.A. Frank is editor of Zócalo Public Square.

*Photo by T.A. Frank.

Correction: This article originally described Jim Kennedy’s old phone as a cellular phone. It was a desk phone.