SPHERE OF INFLUENCE: PR wunderkind and former Democratic operative Matt… (Paul Hawthorne )
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."
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.