President's Advance Man Doesn't Always Make President Happy
May. 03, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Producing a successful campaign can be a bit like the movies: Get yourself a sharp-looking star, shoot pretty pictures and keep it all under budget.
So it should be no surprise that President Clinton, a fan of the silver screen, turned to Hollywood producer Mort Engelberg four years ago to stage his campaign events. And it makes sense that Engelberg is still around, primed to cast Clinton for a White House sequel.
But his latest production was a critical flop.
Assigned to organize the president's trip this week to Miami, Engelberg rejected a community group's candidate to introduce Clinton. The White House was forced to apologize Thursday; Engelberg was reprimanded.
Still, supporters say he is well cast as producer of Clinton productions.
He is a key member of the White House ``advance team,'' a gung-ho group of Clintonites who organize presidential events. His job is supposed to be stealthy and subtle, melding sights and sounds for settings that are pleasing to the camera's eye.
Though not well known outside the movie world, Engelberg credits include ``Smokey and the Bandit,'' the 1977 Burt Reynolds-Jackie Gleason hit that made big bucks. Among the dozen or so other pictures on his resume: ``The Big Easy,'' ``Russkies'' and ``The Hunter.''
He still works in Hollywood, a resident of Hollywood Hills who volunteers at the White House for what aides say is a modest per-diem check. A former journalist, Engelberg worked for the Peace Corps in its earliest days, and served in the Johnson administration.
He has long dabbled in politics.
Engelberg was on advance teams for Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. In late 1991, when the Clinton campaign was still run by a handful of Arkansans, Engelberg offered his services.
He helped stage the successful bus tour following the 1992 Democratic National Convention, and he still is the man Clinton looks to when the setting for a speech is as important as the script.
``He's very efficient in his job _ and fun at the same time,'' White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said.
Frizzy-haired and pushing 60, Engelberg is a striking contrast to the clean-cut, Generation X crowd that normally works Clinton trips. He almost always wears khaki pants, a blue blazer and a blue button-down shirt.
His quirky sense of humor keeps White House aides laughing. On a recent trip, the lengthy presidential motorcade was parked when Engelberg radioed a colleague sitting several cars back and convinced him that the front half of the caravan had already left for the airport.
Maybe it's his Hollywood connection, but Engelberg is also a bit of a ham. Photographers who travel with the president complain that the movie producer manages to find his way into their pictures. A constant refrain at presidential stops is, ``Hey, Mort! Get out of the way!''
In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently with Clinton, Engelberg set up the camera angles _ then was caught on camera yukking it up with a staff member while the president talked somberly about World War II.
Last summer, a red-faced Clinton jabbed his finger at Engelberg and yelled when he realized a sleek limousine would ferry him around Yellowstone National Park. The Cadillac looked humorously out of place roaming among the buffalo.
In fairness, the star of Engelberg's productions does not always cooperate.
On the same Miami trip that got him into trouble this week, Engelberg set up an elaborate runway leading to the stage. Clinton was supposed to walk on the structure, waving to the suitably adoring crowd.
Ignoring his script, the president strolled alongside the runway _ still waving _ until he reached the stage. In the background stood a frustrated Engelberg, his arms outstretched to the sky. Take Two!