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To find right PR guru, Beck looked to his left

By Jason Horowitz
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Glenn Beck, a young Tampa-based disc jockey eager to break into conservative talk radio, called his new Manhattan agent, George Hiltzik, to help arrange a visit to Ground Zero. Hiltzik directed Beck to his 29-year-old son, Matt, who had returned to his job with the TriBeCa-based studio head Harvey Weinstein after playing a key role in electing Hillary Rodham Clinton to the U.S. Senate.

"I wasn't aware of all his positions at the time," Hiltzik said of Beck's enthusiastic conservative views. "I knew he was not, like, a big Democrat."

To say the least.

In the years since their first encounter, Beck has become arguably the most influential and incendiary conservative critic in America. He has called President Obama a racist, compared him to Hitler and forced the firing of administration appointees. This month, the White House retaliated against Beck's outlet, Fox News Channel, but the resulting controversy has only boosted Beck's notoriety, which, is Hiltzik's professional concern.

"My job is to look out for his personal business interests and try to weave them in well with his partners'," said Hiltzik, whose boutique PR firm, Hiltzik Strategies, has represented Beck since 2007. "We give strategic counsel, which includes managing the profile of the business."

"When I'm picking politicians, employees or business partners, I focus on their character not their political parties," Beck said in a statement. "And I know and trust Matthew's character."

The close friendship and lucrative business relationship that has developed between the 45-year-old conservative firebrand and the 37-year-old former Democratic operative shows how partisan media personalities get discovered, promoted and catapulted into the political stratosphere, even when the talent and the talent broker have opposing ideologies. But for Hiltzik's former Democratic allies, the alliance is still mostly shocking.

"It's surprising," said Bill de Blasio, who ran Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign, for which Hiltzik served as the go-to liaison to New York's Jewish community. "He worked for the state Democratic Party, he worked for Hillary Clinton in 2000, he is as solid a Democrat as you can imagine."

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who benefited from Hiltzik's help in his 1998 breakthrough win to become attorney general, was astonished that the guy he knew as his state party's lead spokesman was now representing the man some in the White House see as Public Enemy No. 1.

Spitzer called Hiltzik a friend and "a thoughtful, reasoned advocate -- certainly at the time -- for the Democratic principles that I was running on and that most of my colleagues believed in."

Other Hiltzik allies resort to strange-bedfellow teasing. "Everyone knows they're dating," joked Harvey Weinstein, who called his former right hand a deeply religious, brilliant guy. "It must be that kind of attraction. I can't see any other reason."

His voice turning more serious, Weinstein said there was perhaps a simple reason Hiltzik felt comfortable representing Beck. "I had a lot of actors Matt came in contact with," Weinstein said. "I just think Glenn is another one."

The ribbing and occasional opprobrium of his friends is something Hiltzik -- who also represents Katie Couric, Alec Baldwin, Annie Leibovitz and Don Imus -- said he has no problem weathering.

"As a general rule," Hiltzik explained, "I stand by people and don't make decisions based on what other people think."

An election maestro

Little in Hiltzik's background suggests he would end up at Beck's side. He grew up in the affluent New Jersey suburb of Teaneck, and commuted to the exclusive Manhattan Jewish day school Ramaz, where other future Clinton operatives Phil Singer and Philippe Reines also matriculated. He graduated from the industrial labor relations school at Cornell University, where in 1993 he eagerly attended the first of many speeches by Hillary Clinton.

As a law student at Fordham, Hiltzik became politically active: He volunteered for Carolyn McCarthy's successful 1996 bid for Congress, inspired by her commitment to gun control. He got to know people in politics and scored a gig as spokesman for the New York State Democratic Committee, helping Chuck Schumer unseat Sen. Al D'Amato and laying the groundwork for Clinton's listening tour in Upstate New York.

His success in getting Democrats elected caught the attention of Weinstein, the co-founder of Miramax Films, who wanted to widen his footprint in Democratic politics. He invented a hybrid job for Hiltzik that would put the movie honcho in the middle of the action. "Matt's job was half P.R., and mostly politics," Weinstein said. With Hiltzik's contacts, Weinstein threw a star-studded fundraiser for the first lady at his home on Martha's Vineyard, with Jimmy Buffett on the bill. A few days later, Hiltzik took a leave of absence from Miramax and went to work for Clinton.

Right around that time in October 1999, Hiltzik's father, George, took a call during an business trip in Zurich. On the other end was Beck, an obscure disc jockey toiling in New Haven, Conn. Beck had done his research and informed the former NBC executive and high-powered agent of his conclusion: It should be Hiltzik, who has brokered the radio gigs of blogger Matt Drudge and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, to lift Beck's career to a new level.

"He's in New Haven probably spinning Britney Spears records," George Hiltzik recalled thinking at the time. But he admired Beck's tenacity and sized him up. His scouting report: Beck, a recovering alcoholic, was talented but not without issues. But the elder Hiltzik recalled that something about the way Beck spoke about his new wife convinced the agent, a devoted family man himself, that Beck would turn things around. He gave Beck a shot.

Beck moved to a radio station in Tampa in 2000, and after some iffy first weeks, started drawing in listeners with his nakedly personal style and stunts like broadcasting from treehouses.

As the elder Hiltzik brokered a lucrative syndication deal that gave Beck a much wider audience, his son was neck-deep in New York Democratic politics.

The younger Hiltzik was tasked with positioning Weinstein, his brash, polarizing boss, as the uniter of a Democratic Party torn apart by a nasty mayoral primary. And Hiltzik had to manage some outsize, infighting personalities.

On the eve of the mayoral election between Democrat Mark Green and Republican Michael Bloomberg, Hiltzik and Weinstein attempted an eleventh-hour unity news conference with Green, the vanquished Democratic primary opponent, plus local machers Bill Clinton and Al Sharpton. In a Four Seasons hotel suite, Hiltzik and his crew worked the phones furiously while Sharpton ate shrimp cocktail and Weinstein gobbled entire pizzas. The whole room nervously awaited Clinton, who was circling the hotel in his motorcade waiting for the final details of the news conference to be worked out. Negotiations collapsed and local television cameras captured Clinton's car speeding off. Hiltzik and Weinstein decided to ring up Bloomberg with Weinstein's endorsement.

"At 11:45, Matt said, 'Call Mike and tell him you're supporting him,' " Weinstein recalled.

Fast friends

In his 2003 book, "The Real America," Beck includes "Miramax Matthew" among his acknowledgments. In 2004, Beck, then based in Philadelphia, devoted airtime on his national radio show to plug "Paper Clips," a little-known documentary Hiltzik produced about Holocaust education, which was screening in Tampa. Hiltzik expected a handful of people to attend -- instead, there was a packed house of 250.

"I'm telling you," Hiltzik said, as he sat in on an interview with Beck for GQ Magazine earlier this year. "You don't understand the influence [Beck] has, you don't understand the audience he has, the books he sells, the loyalty to him, you are looking at somebody who has an audience that actually does things."

Beck, sitting proudly to Hiltzik's right in the corner office of his Midtown Manhattan headquarters, emphasized how remarkable it was that a large crowd attended Hiltzik's film.

"A documentary. On the Holocaust. And paper clips," Beck said.

In May 2005, Hiltzik left Weinstein to build the U.S. wing of the London-based Freud Communications. He brought on Couric, Imus, Baldwin and other gold-plated clients. He and Beck briefly discussed working together, but concluded the time was not yet ripe.

But in the summer of 2007, as Beck was on the verge of signing a five-year, $50 million deal with Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications -- he saw an opportunity.

"Glenn calls me up, tells me he's looking for a public relations person and [asked] how would I feel if he called Matthew," George Hiltzik said. "I'm not 100 percent against it, I'm 1,000 percent against. I don't believe in mixing family and business. But I said, 'You are both businessmen, you can make your own judgments.' " The younger Hiltzik, who would soon be striking out on his own, took the job -- and the risk. (Neither Beck nor Hiltzik would discuss the fees involved.)

"He wasn't someone who was getting a lot of attention back then," he said.

Line in the sand

Since Hiltzik has started working for Beck, the commentator has graced the cover of Time and the front page of the New York Times (a copy of which is framed in Beck's Manhattan office). He made the Forbes Celebrity 100 list and was profiled by "20/20." He has millions of radio listeners. His books are bestsellers. His Web site is a cash cow. His comedy tour sells out theaters around the country.

And his name is cursed in the White House.

Beck's fame is, of course, directly related to the heightened platform given to him by Fox News, and his willingness to use it to say outrageous things. Hiltzik said that he deferred to Fox News on all things related to Beck's television show. He repeatedly said that he had nothing to do with the content of Beck's commentary.

Some of Hiltzik's critics failed to find that a convincing distinction.

"Lawyers sometimes have to represent mobsters," said Green, the onetime mayoral candidate in New York and president of Air America Media. "But it's not the same excuse when you are a public relations guy. There's a due process that requires everyone to have a lawyer in a criminal case. There is no due process that requires a talk show host to have a flak."

"I love Matt," said Ken Sunshine, a Democratic activist and public relations powerbroker whom Hiltzik regards as a mentor. "I value our friendship, but I wouldn't be caught dead representing Glenn Beck."

Hiltzik is ever ready for counterattack. "Apparently Mark failed to mention that he sought my assistance in resolving an Air America issue," Hiltzik said. "And that he called me repeatedly this summer soliciting contributions for his most recent campaign."

It's a strange world where close friends can manage clients who are avid enemies. Sunshine, for example, also advises Color of Change and Green for All, two groups founded by Van Jones, who resigned from his position as the Obama administration's special adviser on green jobs after withering, unrelenting criticism from Beck.

And it's not just Sunshine's clients who are subject to Beck's drubbings, it's also his onetime mentor. The current secretary of state, for example, did not respond to calls about Hiltzik and his top client's tirades against the Obama administration. Asked if he thought Hillary Clinton approved of his current promotion of Beck, who has called her, among other things, "the antichrist," Hiltzik said, "She has a lot more important things to worry about."

"Matt Hiltzik is a top professional who can't save Glenn Beck from his vulgar, hateful ignorance," said Robert Zimmerman, a public relations executive in New York, Democratic National Committee member and close friend of Hiltzik's. "But he can get him extensive publicity while he goes down in flames."

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