To raise money for Mrs. Clinton, in March 2007, Mr. Zimmerman co-hosted a dinner headlined by President Clinton; in August, he co-hosted cocktails at the Southampton home of prominent Democratic fund-raiser Bernard Schwartz; and in December, he held a “low-dollar” event at Hofstra University. “Sometimes you have certain donors who speak to the press who are not necessarily ‘on message,’” said Mr. Nemazee. “Robert is not only on message, but finds he is often the one suggesting the message.”
AFTER GRADUATING FROM Brandeis in 1976, Mr. Zimmerman briefly worked for former Congressman Lester Wolff and dropped out of law school at Hofstra after one year, finally getting an M.B.A. from Fordham in 1981. He has spent almost his entire life in Great Neck, about half an hour on the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station, except when he has been at his weekend and summer home in Southampton, which he purchased eight years ago. (“That’s a very special place to me,” Mr. Zimmerman told me.)
He lives alone in an apartment, and the office of Zimmerman/Edelson Inc. is across the street from the train station; he and his business partner, Ron Edelson, employ 26 people, mostly 20-somethings who looked bemused as Mr. Zimmerman paraded me around the office. He has never been married and has no children, and it’s not hard to think of his political involvement as, in some way, his avocation and his extended family.
Soon we decamped for lunch at Bruce’s Bakery, a deli down the street from his office that could have emerged, intact, from an MGM lot. As soon as we walked in, a couple at a table by the entrance beamed and greeted him. But then: “Hey, all you need now is a photo of Obama with a spear, huh?” the man guffawed. This was a day or so after someone from the Clinton campaign had allegedly sent a photo of Barack Obama clad in traditional Somali garb to the Drudge Report.
Mr. Zimmerman looked horrified. “That’s inappropriate,” he said to the man, as we took our seats. “That’s just inappropriate.” He was briefly shaken, then recovered. “I’m terribly sorry about that—he’s just a man who lives in my building, and …”
I asked what he would have done, if he had been hired as a crisis consultant by the campaign in the aftermath of the photo. He brightened. “I think there are certain things that have to be done from the Clinton perspective,” he said. Back on message! “They have to be very clear in their denial and refocus on the issues that really matter.”
On March 5, the day after Mrs. Clinton revived her candidacy with wins in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, Mr. Zimmerman stayed resolutely on message in a late-evening phone conversation with The Observer. “One of the great aspects of this season is the fact that the voters have trumped the pundits and the pollsters every time,” he said. “I guess since I’m part of that pundocracy, if you will, as a Lou Dobbs contributor, I do love the fact that the voters have not been swayed by the predictions of the mainstream media. They haven’t been overwhelmed by the issues of who has the money. They’ve made very tough, independent analysis. The conventional wisdom has been wrong every step in this process, and I think that just great. I think the independence of the voter and their independent analysis has been just terrific.”
Then, in an almost exact parroting of Mrs. Clinton’s words to her Ohio supporters on the evening of March 4, he said, “Everyone who ever felt like an underdog or counted out could feel a sense of vindication at the way [Mrs. Clinton] took on the odds and won.”
Sometimes, Mr. Zimmerman makes news. On the evening of March 10, he appeared once again on Mr. Dobbs’ CNN show. On a day when most prominent Democrats hedged when asked whether Eliot Spitzer should stay in office despite his prostitution-ring allegations, Mr. Zimmerman stated unequivocally, “If the facts are as they appear, no, I don’t.”
But even this was less a spontaneous outburst than a calculated attempt by a partisan official to contain one official’s radioactivity before it spread.
Mr. Zimmerman’s success as a fund-raiser and surrogate is directly related to his ability to speak precisely. (No Samantha Power-type slip-ups here!)
His first attempts at raising money came during Al Gore’s first presidential campaign, in 1987. “I was collecting $50 checks and $100 checks, and that was hard to do,” he said. “I saw an opportunity. I was getting in my car and driving around to diners to talk to people, and knocking on doors.” The next year, Mr. Zimmerman founded his PR firm, and in 1990, he and Mr. Edelson formed Zimmerman/Edelson.
Since then, he has also accumulated a rather mind-boggling list of powerful New York friends, all of whom were eager to testify to Mr. Zimmerman’s loyalty and affability. Mr. Zimmerman, nearly everyone agrees, is just a nice guy.
“He’s an extremely personable, likable individual,” said the New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who met him at a birthday party Ms. Adams gave for the Broadway and film producer Marty Richards. (“It was Marty’s guest list, and Robert was there,” Ms. Adams explained.) “He goes out of his way for everyone. Whoever needs a favor, he’s doing it.”
“He’s beloved by many people,” said Tina Brown.
“Robert is one of those people who, when he is in a room, you know he is in a room,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. “In a very, very good way!”
“He’s a great guy. He’s a great adviser,” said Representative Gary Ackerman, who represents Mr. Zimmerman’s district.
“I think it’s a simple thing,” said Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs. “He’s likable.”
Ask Mr. Zimmerman, though, and the answer is usually vague. This one, he met in the Hamptons; that one, at a dinner. “Then we just became friends” or “just over the years” are common refrains. He admittedly has no trouble simply going up to people and starting to talk to them, and so it’s not surprising that his list of friendly associates also includes such varied figures as New York Post editor Col Allen; New York Senator Chuck Schumer; writer Jay McInerney and his wife, the socialite Anne Hearst; The View co-host Joy Behar; Lou Dobbs; James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio; former NYPD Chief William Bratton and his wife, TruTV analyst Rikki Klieman; and radio host Joan Hamburg.
Over the course of my reporting this article, Mr. Zimmerman often called me several times a day (or night)—sometimes just to check in, sometimes to see if I had managed to reach his various contacts, sometimes to offer up yet more friends to be interviewed. “It’s like I’m your stringer!” he said at one point.
There’s this story one of his friends likes to tell about the time he was walking by the Ralph Lauren store in the Hamptons and saw a leather jacket in the window, and even though it was August and not exactly the season for a leather jacket, he decided to try it on anyway, and as he was looking at himself in the mirror, someone came up behind him and adjusted the shoulders. “Absolutely perfect,” this person said, and wouldn’t you know, it turned out to be Ralph Lauren himself, and so Mr. Zimmerman purchased this very expensive jacket, and when his friend asked why he had bought the jacket, Mr. Zimmerman said, “I got a good story out of it.”