Obama Visits Billionaires Row

San Francisco, April 6, 2008

[UPDATE: Are you looking for the controversial statement about "bitter" small-town Americans which Obama made immediately after this fundraiser? If so, click here to jump to the audio clip and transcript, which are posted at the bottom of this report.]

On April 6, 2008, Barack Obama visited the San Francisco region, zipping from event to event all day long, from one end of the Bay Area to the other.

What? you might ask. How did I miss that? If only I had known, I would have gone to see him.

Well, there's a reason you didn't know about it. Obama didn't want you to know about it. Because the events he was attending weren't for people like you.

They were for people with lots and lots of money, who use that money to gain access and influence with politicians -- especially politicians who might become president.

So although the San Francisco Bay Area is probably the most pro-Obama section of the entire country, with Obama signs and stickers visible everywhere you turn, when Obama himself actually visited his electoral home base, he ignored the hoi polloi -- all the little people who swoon over him -- and instead, he spent the entire day with the rich. According to local gossip columnist Leah Garchik:
In the Haight, stencils of Barack Obama's smiling face are decorating the sidewalk. But in real life, he is turning up in more lucrative venues: The candidate will be around here on April 6, at a series of events that includes three $2,300-a-head maximum-strength fundraisers: Sara and Sohaib Abbasi are throwing a luncheon in Atherton; he'll zip up to Nancy and Bob Farese's house in Kentfield in mid-afternoon; and proceed from there to Ann and Gordon Getty's in San Francisco.
(Let it be pointed out that Atherton and Kentfield are two of the cities with the highest-per-capita net worth in the entire United States.)

And not only were the non-affluent excluded from these events, even the media was disallowed -- as Garchik adds:
Your trusty party-animal-by-proxy has tried to infiltrate these events, but transparency seems to be fogged up. No media eyes allowed on the collection kettles; when the gifts are big, the press is barred.
I wasn't about to let that stop me. When I hear the words "No media allowed," that's when I reach for my camera.

And I set my sights on the grand prize: The fundraiser at the home of Ann and Gordon Getty, on what has come to be called "Billionaires Row," reputed to be the wealthiest block in the world.

But why was I so interested? As pointed out in the Bookworm Room blog,
Obama bills himself as a man of the people, who will beat down big business. ... Given his populist stance, Obama's recent trip to the Bay Area, during which he hobnobbed only with the richest and most famous, is amusing, since it either presents a man with no discernible principles or it presents a bunch of rich people who are allowing themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter.
The 46-year-old Democratic senator started the day in Atherton [really rich people], made his way to Marin [really rich people] and then was due in at the Getty [plutocrats] mansion in San Francisco for another event.

Actually, the political pandering from Obama, on the one hand, and the stupid fawning from the rich, on the other hand, wasn't what I found so irritating about the IJ article. Politics in America is, after all, mostly about power, and Obama looks as if he will have the power and these people think that they can buy access. End of story.
Obama's campaign slogan is "Change" -- declaring that he alone will change the way things are done in politics.

But what kind of "change" is this? The single most insidious aspect of American politics is that candidates often must pander to and do the bidding of the wealthiest Americans, who have the funds to get the candidate elected. It's so commonplace, we no longer think of it as "corruption," but that's basically what it is. So when Obama spends all day doing nothing but going to a series of private fundraisers populated exclusively by the wealthy, the only "change" I feel are the coins jangling at the bottom of my pocket.

And I don't like hypocrisy.

According to this article (and many others), Obama's campaign is claiming he raises his money from small donors:
"When you're given the gift of advocacy, you don't sell it to the highest bidder," Mrs. Obama said. Mrs. Obama stressed how her husband has relied on "regular folks" instead of big donors. Instead of thousand-dollar donations, the Obama campaign has raised millions on small checks of $20 to $50. Mrs. Obama sees this participatory attitude as a new trend.
Wait just a minute there. If you do the math, on just this one day in the Bay Area, Obama went to four events, three of which had $2,300 minimum donations per ticket, and the other $1,000 minimum per ticket. Each of the events, from the various descriptions, held as many as 400 people (the Getty mansion has a ballroom that reportedly seats at least 300). 400 x $2,300 = $920,000 per event, times three events = $2.76 million, plus the other event, which undoubtedly puts him over $3 million in contributions for this one day alone. And who knows how many other similar days he schedules in other parts of the country.

Michelle Obama (and other Obama campaign spokespeople) aren't telling the truth. It seems that a signficant portion of Obama's monthly campaign contributions are coming from "large donors"' -- i.e. rich people, not just the "$20 to $50" donations they're constantly bragging about.

It was not easy finding out exactly where and when to go. The precise time of the fundraiser was never revealed, and the Gettys own many properties in the area. But another local columnist dropped a clue as to where it was happening: "The hottest ticket in San Francisco this weekend may well be the $2,300-a-head reception for Democratic hopeful Barack Obama at the Pacific Heights mansion of billionaire couple Ann and Gordon Getty." Ah, that Getty home -- it could only be the legendary one in the heart of Billionaires Row.

I scoped out the address and took a guess at the time -- late afternoon -- only to find I had arrived over an hour early. I sauntered up to one of the attendants and asked, "Doesn't the fundraiser start at four o'clock...?" "Five," he corrected me. "That's right -- five, " I said, and walked away.

The mansion, seen here in wedding-cake colors, may not look overly impressive at street level, but it sits on the crest of a ridge overlooking the bay; the estate actually cascades down the hillside behind, out of sight from the front façade.

Notice the servants' entrance on the left side of the building -- it'll crop up again later in the report.

Across the street, I found a newspaper (probably dropped by a previous rubbernecker) which featured a photo spread about the Gettys' renowned parties. Since their address is not widely publicized, I suppose the person was using the photos as visual clues to the mansion's location.

Around 4:30, the millionaires started to arrive. And yes, I'll call them millionaires, because I'm pretty sure Ann Getty doesn't have too many poor people in her famed Rolodex.

A no-nonsense guy with a crew cut held The List: all arriving guests, no matter how rich or famous, had to check in with him to confirm that they were approved for admittance.

As the sidewalk swelled with arriving millionaires, the police set up a perimeter around the building. I pointed out to them that the street in front of the Gettys' was still public property -- so couldn't I walk down the block if I wanted to? The police were actually quite nice and said yes, in fact, I could indeed walk right past them down the block to the Getty house if I really insisted. They were only there to discourage any potential party-crashers. Even so, I didn't have the nerve.

Next, the bomb squad showed up, to check the area out in advance of Obama's arrival.

A hippie car parked nearby was given the twice-over by the bomb-sniffing dog, just to be sure.

Every now and then limousines (in this instance, an extraordinarily long one) would deposit Getty guests in front of the mansion.

The real logistical problem with the fundraiser was parking -- there was nowhere to put the scores of cars that were showing up every minute. Guests would leave them idling in the street, and valets would one-by-one drive them off to mysterious distant parking spots.

A surrealistic scene ensued as parking valets in red bow ties ran by the dozens through the surrounding streets -- they'd drive off in a guest's car, park it in an empty spot somewhere blocks away, and then sprint back to the Getty house to pick up another car. I felt like I was watching a nature documentary about the migration rituals of an endangered species.

Behind the cars in the previous photograph you can see part of Billionaires Row. While we're waiting for Obama, let's check it out.

As far as I can tell, this page has the best description of Billionaire's Row, and gives the addresses of some of the Gettys' immediate neighbors. According to various sources, this short stretch of Broadway has more billionaires-per-house than any other neighborhood on Earth. A sample (according to the link):
Norman Stone, heir to insurance tycoon W. Clement Stone, 27xx Broadway.
Peter Haus, Levi Strauss heir, 28xx Broadway. In 1996, Haas' Levi holdings were valued in a news report at $2.2 billion.
Peter Sperling, U. of Phoenix heir, 28xx Broadway. In 2003 he had about $1.5 billion.
Larry Ellison, Oracle founder, 28xx Broadway. In 2003 Forbes set his worth at $18 billion.
Gordon Getty, Getty Oil heir, 28xx Broadway. In 2003 Forbes Magazine estimated his fortune at $2.1 billion.
George Jewett, Weyerhaeuser heir, 29xx Broadway.
...and so on. I've deleted the exact addesses -- click the link for the full list and more details.

Yes, this is a single-family dwelling -- as are all the houses along the block.

The mansions on the north side of the street (where the Gettys are) have the best views, but the structures seem somewhat less impressive to the casual viewer, because what we see as the "front door" of each building is actually the back of the house, layout-wise.

One of the estates reflected in the convex mirror they have in their driveway.

This must be one of the poorer families -- they're not on the list of billionaires linked to above.

This is the view from Billionaires Row -- and the Golden Gate Bridge is just out of the frame to the left.

As five o-clock approached, the crowd swelled. A few key people were let inside, but the rest of the millionaire riff-raff had to wait out on the sidewalk.

Watching the guests arrive one-by-one, I got an unofficial fashion show revealing how the wealthy dress. If I was the Society Pages editor of some high-end publication, I probably would have recognized half these people, who were after all the crème-de-la-crème of the San Franisco social scene. Instead, I'll just give you an off-the-cuff analysis of the many different variations of "millionaire style." (I've pixelated the eyes of each guest for privacy, since this wasn't a "protest" and this report doesn't exactly count as a gossip column.)

Here we see the "no-nonsense successful businessman" look. Very aggressive posture, go-get-'em attitude. Probably a venture capitalist or an investment banker.

Here is a good example of "old money" style. Aristocratic.

Definitely two of those "dot com millionaires" you hear about. Young, proud of themselves.

The "Mom, do I have to go?" "Yes, we're grooming you for a life of success" look.

One half of a glamorous power couple from a bygone era.

Very daring. The "I paid my $2,300 and the rest of my family is dressed decently so I can wear whatever I want" look.

Ooooooh. Now here's someone to watch out for, whoever he may be and wherever he was going. Fancy clothes are for mere millionaires and social climbers. When you get past a certain level of wealth, you inevitably assume the "casual billionaire" style, most famously expounded by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It's like -- I don't even have to try.

[UPDATE: An astute reader did a little research and discovered that this particular billionaire is a Republican and most likely is a neighbor of the Gettys who was just strolling by to see what was up, and probably was not a paying guest to the fundraiser. Check out the caption for this photo near the bottom of this page, and then check out whose campaign he donated to in 2000.]

Shortly after 5pm, Obama's motorcade zoomed up. Here's a video of the thrilling scene.

Our small cluster of onlookers had figured out that Obama would probably sidestep the paying crowd directly in front the building, so we positioned ourselves closer to the servants' entrance where we guessed his limo would pull up. And our guess turned out to be correct -- Obama got out of the car and was about to quickly slip into the building when the shouts from our group caught his attention.

He did that fake "I recognize you" gesture that politicians always do.

He came over and shook the cop's hand.

A grand total of one San Francisco eccentric had showed up -- an Obama supporter in a glittery costume. All the other members of our small group of onlookers were random passersby who stumbled on the fundraiser by accident. His costume caught Obama's eye and earned him a handshake as well.

He briefly exchanged niceties with a few of the people there.

For more Obama pictures from this event, see the Seven Things About Obama I Never Knew Before posting at zomblog.

And then he was taken into the building -- through the servants' entrance.

When I pointed out this rather ironic detail in the zomblog posting linked above, a few commenters felt that my observation was somehow tasteless or offensive. I don't get why. I've read biographies of various famous black performers from the mid-20th-century, and a common incident that crops up in many of these biographies is when the performer would get invited to entertain at a private party in a rich person's mansion -- and still be forced to enter through the servants' entrance, simply because they were black, even though they were the star of the show. I realize that in this instance Obama was shunted to the side and hidden from the guests most likely to allow him to make a grand entrance later on. I just thought it was a weird echo of the past.

After Obama was inside, they made the millionaires line up as they let them in one-by-one. For some reason, there's something strangely gratifying about seeing millionaires forced to stand in line. They probably don't have to do that very often.

I -- along with the rest of humanity -- was of course excluded from the Getty mansion. So this long-distance shot of the interior of the building will have to be our substitute for a ticket to the fundraiser. We can see, for example, that the Gettys have a very shiny floor, an arched doorway, and a big picture window. And a mean-looking doorman.

A tiny smattering of media did in fact show up -- three local news crews stood across the street or down the block and used the Getty mansion as the backdrop for short segments about Obama's swing through the Bay Area. But that was it. They didn't probe any further. This newscaster stood underneath an eccentric samurai-robot statue perched in front of a nearby house.

The few other rubberneckers who had been there seemed so intoxicated with the idea of Obama that they didn't seem at all bothered that he was pandering to the dictates of the wealthy -- just like all the other candidates -- and that his insistence that he'll bring "change" appears more and more to be just another hollow campaign slogan.

UPDATE: Less than an hour after these photos were taken, Obama addressed the assembled guests at a very similar fundraiser held just a few blocks away at the mansion of Alex Mehran, and said a now-notorious statement about "bitter" small-town Americans. An audio of his speech was posted at Huffington Post, but it is an overwhelming 50 minutes long. Luckily, I now have a 44-second long, short and small mp3 clip of just the crucial portion of his talk, which you can listen to by clicking on the audio player below:

Here is a transcript of Obama's words (this is an EXACT transcript -- versions posted elsewhere had some minor errors):
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, a lot of them -- like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they've gone through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

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