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The Marketing of Ehud Barak

Labor's candidate is the newest client signed by Clinton's campaign wiz, James Carville

by Larry Derfner

January 7, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Now that the race for prime minister is on, the main challenger, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, has suddenly become dynamic. He's talking loud, banging his fist on the table, giving it to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for all he's worth. Political observers watch the new, transformed Barak and come up with a simple explanation: James Carville.

Barak is the newest client signed by Carville, the political campaign wizard who managed Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential victory.

Very simply, Carville is Barak's answer to Netanyahu's consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, a leading campaign adviser to U.S. conservatives, including Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. The Labor Party has ridiculed Netanyahu ever since the 1996 campaign for hiring an American political Svengali to feed him his lines; now Labor has hired one of its own.

Carville, however, has a greater reputation than Finkelstein in America, and also in other parts of the world. Ever since he managed the successful campaign of a little-known Southern governor against an incumbent president coming off a war victory, Carville has become known as the man who teaches liberals how to move toward the center and win.

In the lobby of the Tel Aviv Dan Hotel, Carville stood out. With his shaved head and prominent brow, he looked like a Svengali, but the color-striped polo shirt, denims up around his ankles and Heineken in his hand softened the impression.

Arriving here with Greenberg and their other partner, media man Robert Shrum, Carville freely admitted that he wasn't well-versed in Israeli politics. He'd met earlier in the day with a number of Labor Knesset members, but couldn't recall any of their names. His first meeting with Barak came about six months earlier in New York. "I kept looking at his hands and wondering, you know, as a commando, how many people he'd come up behind," the ex-marine said about the former Israeli chief of staff and most decorated soldier in Israeli history.

Carville gushed about his new client, saying that he had been so dazzled by Barak's reputation as a soldier and general that it took him awhile to get past the halo. Barak's reputation proceeds him in the United States, or at least among big-time Jewish Democrats, Carville said. "Sitting with him is like sitting with Audie Murphy," he said. "He's a classical pianist, and they say he plays very well. He has a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. He's a remarkable man."

The Louisiana native nicknamed the Ragin' Cajun wanted to focus not on Barak's style but on his political persona and the way he puts his messages across. This is what Carville said he was hired to improve, to sharpen.

"What I do is so frighteningly simple that I'm almost scared to tell people what it is," he said. "I find out what a candidate believes in, what's important to him, and then we focus on those things relentlessly, aggressively, energetically, with clarity of thought, direction and commitment."

First, though, Barak has to do a better job of playing his strongest card. "He has to remind people of his military record, and make it absolutely clear that he is totally, unequivocally committed to the security of the State of Israel," Carville said.

That's the positive message. There's also going to be a lot of emphasis on the negative message.

"The premise," Carville said, "is this: It's not that Netanyahu is a bad man; it is that he has led an inept government. Israel is a country looking for change; people are dissatisfied with this government. There's no reason Israel has to continue down the road of division and ineptitude that has been the road taken by the present government."

Barak, he continued, will be saying that Netanyahu hasn't been a leader, but instead has been led by the minority right-wing and religious factions in his coalition. The thing is to get Barak to say this more sharply and simply. Maybe the Labor leader's wide-ranging intelligence has been a bit of an obstacle, he said, cheerily. "The guy's full of ideas. He's got more ideas about more things than anybody I've ever met in my life," Carville said. "I would just like to help him take that brilliant, wonderful mind and focus it on a few ideas, and express them a little more clearly."

And once Barak hones his message, he is going to repeat it over and over and over and over -- literally ad nauseam, Carville hopes.

"It's only when a candidate's wife tells him, 'I'm sick of this, I don't think I can listen to you say that anymore,' that I know the message is getting down to the people who don't pay attention to the news, who may be taking care of a sick parent and are too busy for politics. I want the [news junkies] to be sick and tired of hearing it -- that's the great breaking point."

Told that Israeli news junkies may have already gotten sick and tired of hearing Barak's exhortations about "physical separation from the Palestinians -- us over here, them over there," Carville replied, "you know what I say to that? Good."

"Why do you think people drink Coca-Cola? Because they see Coca-Cola logos, and Coca-Cola ads, and hear Coca-Cola commercials, and it's Coca-Cola here, Coca-Cola there, Coca-Cola everywhere."

Which led him into an appreciation of Netanyahu: "Let's give him credit: He can be very repetitive; he's a very good politician. I don't disparage his skills as a politician."

But the Ragin' Cajun stayed focused: "He's just the head of a failed government. His job isn't to give speeches. Sometimes, I think we should elect one guy to run the country, and another guy to run his mouth."

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