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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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Colbert's opening video a psychedelic happening after Monday night's Democratic convention

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From a visual standpoint alone, the “Death. Taxes. Hillary” video that opened Stephen Colbert’s live Monday Late Show soared into the stratosphere of what we’ve seen on our TV screens.

But the song was dead-catchy, too. And the psychedelic setting and costuming were also out of his world. As he did with the Republicans, Colbert will mess with the Democrats this week after their nightly convention activities in Philly. But he’ll find it hard to top this particular joy of discovery. If you didn’t see it, see it now.

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A disgraced Ailes is out after 20 years of ruling a news network as no one ever had or likely ever will again


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Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel since its launch nearly 20 years ago, resigned in disgrace Thursday, although the official 21st Century Fox announcement makes no mention of the sexual harassment scandal that brought him down.

Ailes, 76, will be replaced for now by 85-year-old Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of 21st Century Fox. Murdoch remains frisky, though, having recently married Mick Jagger’s ex-wife, Jerry Hall. The couple were vacationing in the French Riviera when Murdoch cut the trip short to attend to the Ailes situation.

“I am personally committed to ensuring that Fox News remains a distinctive, powerful voice,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Our nation needs a robust Fox News to resonate from every corner of the country.”

Ailes, who coined the slogan “Fair and Balanced” and led FNC to ratings dominance over cable news rivals CNN and MSNBC, was sued earlier this month by former anchor Gretchen Carlson, who accused him of repeated sexual harassment and advances.

A number of women currently employed by FNC rallied to Ailes’ defense while an internal corporate investigation got underway. But his fate was sealed when the network’s star woman player, Megyn Kelly, reportedly told investigators that she also had been sexually harassed by Ailes. Several other women reportedly also came forward. His forced resignation comes on the same day that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is scheduled to make his acceptance speech at the party’s national convention in Cleveland. Ailes had been directing FNC’s convention coverage this week.

Notable for being both prickly and outspoken in his defense of FNC’s conservative leanings, “Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years,” Murdoch said in his statement. “It is always difficult to create a channel or a publication from the ground up and against seemingly entrenched monopolies . . . Roger has defied the odds. His grasp of policy and his ability to make profoundly important issues accessible to a broader audience stand in stark contrast to the self-serving elitism that characterizes far too much of the media.”

FNC debuted on Oct. 7, 1996 and initially was thought to be a long shot to survive against MSNBC, a marriage of NBC and Bill Gates’ Microsoft company that launched on July 15th of the same year with about twice as many subscribers. Ailes, formerly a key media consultant in the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, had a taste for the jugular and how to get there.

In a telephone interview with this reporter several days before FNC’s birth, he assailed Time Warner Inc. and its chairman, Gerald Levin, for allegedly reneging on an agreement to put FNC on half of the 11.2 million cable homes it served at the time. Time Warner instead went with MSNBC.

“Yeah, Gerry Levin lied to Rupert Murdoch, apparently,” Ailes said. “”Many Time Warner shareholders perceive Gerry to have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. I’m sure he took orders from Ted (Turner Broadcasting chairman Ted Turner) to keep us off. I don’t know that Gerry has the guts to do it on his own. In any case, it is a betrayal.” He added that both Time Warner and Turner both were “dragging around debt like a dead body. It’s like Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Ailes said he wasn’t particularly concerned with “liberal or conservative bias” in mapping out his game plan for FNC. “The issue is fundamental fairness,” he said while competing with the pings of hammers pounding his New York offices into shape. “It’s not unlike affirmative action in my mind. You give other people an opportunity to get into the mainstream. What I’m trying to get my journalists to understand is that when they do a story, they shouldn’t ‘spin’ it in a way they think is correct. A lot of print journalists get this. For some reason, electronic journalists are having a much harder time with it.”

Ailes’ charter hires at FNC included Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom remain with the network and host prime-time shows. He also initially found a slot for former Dallas judge Catherine Crier, who left ABC News to get in on the FNC ground floor.

“I’ve always respected Roger tremendously,” she said at the time. “And when he came on board, I knew there was tremendous opportunity to really create something different.”

Ailes also contended back then that he wanted to diminish the face time of both anchors and reporters.

“We’re going to provide people with more straight information so they can make up their own minds,” he said. “Electronic journalism has gotten a little arrogant. Some of the anchors and reporters are spending more time on camera than the people they’re covering. We’re going to try to change that.”

It didn’t happen, with O’Reilly, Hannity and Kelly all at the forefront of their shows while newsmakers and various analysts are strictly supporting players if that.

Ailes’ big crash Thursday leaves FNC both wobbly and without the maestro who called all the shots since Day One. Rupert Murdoch’s two sons, Lachlan and James, who also issued statements in praise of Ailes Thursday, will someday be running the 21st Century Fox ship. In his glory years, Ailes branded FNC as no network head ever has. Whether anyone can measure up to him is very much hanging in the air.

In the end, though, Ailes hung himself. Like many an aging giant, he stayed too long at the party, increasingly drank in his power and then soiled himself.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO's Vice Principals is infantile and too often just vile


Ugh: Walton Goggins, Danny McBride of Vice Principals. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, July 17th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, Georgia King, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Busy Phillipps, Shea Whigham, Sheaun McKinney, Maya G. Love
Produced by: Danny McBride, Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, Stephanie Laing

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The timing will never be right for a particular extended scene in the new Danny McBride “comedy” Vice Principals.

But seriously, could the timing be much worse?

Early in Episode 2 of this HBO series, festering high school vice principals Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (co-star Walton Goggins of The Shield and Justified fame) break into the home of North Jackson High’s new principal, a black single mom named Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Both very much wanted her job, and now they’re conspiring to drive her out before resuming their f-bomb-laced rivalry.

They begin by impulsively breaking her possessions one by one. And then trashing the whole place before burning it completely to the ground. This isn’t portrayed as a racial hate crime, although these two neanderthals would be fully capable. Given what’s happened over the past two weeks, though, this extended scene is completely and irresponsibly out of bounds. It’s also destructive on so many other levels. Yes, it obviously was filmed before the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas. No, that shouldn’t matter in the least. Because this isn’t comedy -- unless perhaps you’re a Klan member.

Based on watching the six episodes made available for review, Vice Principals can be coarsely amusing in fits and spurts. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid. As it is again in Episode 3, when Coggins’ Russell describes in beyond vile terms how the new black principal smells. This episode also works in a nude scene involving a high school girl on a field trip. (The actress presumably was “of age,” but the image is still beyond gratuitous.)

McBride, who co-created Vice Principals, certainly did not make nice during four seasons of HBO’s East Bound and Down, in which he played a washed up pitcher turned middle school phy ed teacher. While on that job, his anger issues made Charlie Sheen look like Gene Wilder.

In Vice Principals, which features an opening cameo by Bill Murray as the departing principal, McBride apparently feels the need to up the ante and be even more crude and abusive. His character is matched and then some by Goggins’ conniving, amoral Lee, whose Asian-American wife has a live-in mother who does nothing but rant in her native tongue.

McBride has gotten notably beefier to play Neal. He’s stuffed into his clothes and otherwise full of himself, whether cursing students as though they were dockworkers or trying to make moves on a sweet new blonde English teacher named Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King).

Neal also has a chunky daughter, Janelle (Maya G. Love), from a previous marriage to Gale (Busy Phillipps), who’s now the wife of well-meaning motocross racer Ray Liptrapp (Shea Whigham). Although regularly referencing his daughter’s weight, Neal is halfway refined in her presence. But his main objective is to one-up his ex- and Ray, who have custody.

There’s also a jive-talking school cafeteria worker named Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney), who’s reminiscent of J.B. Smoove’s recurring Leon Black in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Curb likewise exults in bringing political correctness to its knees. But it does so with sharply honed humor and sometimes even substance. Vice Principals, in contrast, is a sitcom that immediately steps in dog crap and then can’t scrape it off. HBO has ordered just 18 episodes and plans to spread them over two seasons before calling an end to things. Perhaps the end could come sooner, though. Maybe before that second episode ever gets a chance to soil a network that by now should know much better than this.


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68th Prime-Time Emmy nominations: Game of Thrones again rules but FX is biggest gainer in major categories


He’s alive! Kit Harrington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. HBO photo

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HBO’s Game of Thrones led all programs in Emmy nominations for the third straight year while FX’s The Americans is among the Best Drama Series contenders for the first time.

The 68th annual Emmy nods, announced Thursday by the Television Academy, put Game of Thrones on top with 23 nominations, one fewer than last year and one more this time around than FX’s The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

FX, which upped its yearly Emmy nominations total to 56 from 38, also scored big with Season 2 of Fargo, which ran third among all programming with 18 nominations.

The network’s American Horror Story: Hotel likewise placed among the top 10 finishers with eight nominations. But FX’s The Americans, a critical darling whose first three seasons had been snubbed in major Emmy categories, may be the most gratifying contender. It received six nominations, including first-time recognition for its two leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, as well as the breakthrough Best Drama Series nod. In the Best Limited Series or Movie category, FX has a total of six acting nominations for People v. O. J. Simpson.

HBO’s Veep had the most comedy series nominations with 17, and the network’s Silicon Valley also made an impressive showing with 11. HBO again will be formidable in the Best Television Movie category with All the Way, which has eight nominations. Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, whose risen-from-the-dead character, Jon Snow, clogged “social media” arteries this year, received first-time Emmy recognition as a supporting actor nominee. Still, HBO’s total of Emmy nods plunged from 126 last year to 94, which is still more than good enough to easily lead all networks.

Netflix also flexed, upping its nomination total to 54 from 34 last year to rank a close third behind FX. Its biggest showing came with House of Cards, which has 13 nominations. Netflix’s first-year Master of None is among the Best Comedy Series contenders, along with the streaming network’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The year’s most-talked about true crime documentary series, Netflix’s Making a Murderer, had six nominations.

Among the longstanding Big Four broadcast networks, NBC’s Saturday Night Live had the most nominations with 16. But for the most part it was another poor showing overall for NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. Only ABC has contenders in the four major scripted categories, with black-ish making a big breakthrough as a Best Comedy Series nominee to join that network’s perennial Modern Family. ABC’s American Crime also deservedly made the cut in the Best Limited Series category.

PBS ranked behind all four commercial broadcast networks in total nominations. But its 26 nods included the last season of Downton Abbey for Best Drama Series and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride in the Best Television Movie field.

Other Emmy highlights:

***USA network’s freshman Mr. Robot weighed in with six nominations, including for Best Drama Series and Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Rami Malek).

***Half of AMC’s 24 nominations went to its limited series The Night Manager while the second season of Better Call Saul chipped in with seven nods.

***For unfathomable reasons, Emmy voters gave Fox’s Grease: Live! 10 nominations compared to six for NBC’s superior The Wiz Live!.

***Game of Thrones and Veep, respectively the defending champs in the Best Drama and Comedy Series categories, will return to defend their titles. But the surest winners appear to be People v. O. J. Simpson in the Best Limited Series category and All the Way as Best Movie.

***Among this year’s nominees, Kevin Spacey of House of Cards has the longest drought. He’s been to the plate eight previous times without a win. In contrast, Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Veep now has a total of 21 nominations and has won on seven previous occasions, including last year.

***Overall, Emmy voters were bracingly savvy this year. It helped to expand the Best Drama and Comedy Series categories to seven entrants apiece. But with so many quality television and streaming candidates in the mix, it’s impossible to please everyone. I would have liked to have seen young Connor Jessup receive a nomination for his exemplary work in American Crime. FX’s Baskets would have been a daring choice in the Best Comedy Series slot, but at least Louie Anderson got a best supporting actor nomination for playing Zach Galifianakis’ overbearing mom. And as mentioned earlier, The Wiz Live! deserved better. But really, that’s about it. And that’s saying something when it comes to the oft-maligned Emmy choices from seasons past.

The prime-time Emmy ceremony is on ABC this year -- on Sunday, Sept. 18th. Jimmy Kimmel hosts.

For a complete list of winners, go here.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net