January 1, 2004
The Doctor Is In
Listening to Howard Dean reminds me of going to a doctor who starts out the visit by saying, "Bill, you really look sick."
Maybe I do, but I don't want to hear it expressed quite so bluntly. Just like I didn't want to hear Dr. Dean saying in Los Angeles Dec. 15, "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer."
Dean's pessimism was hard to take, especially right after the bearded villain was hauled out of the ground by American troops.
Such blunt, sometimes thoughtless talk could be damaging to him in the Jewish community because it has led to a perception among some Jews that he is soft on the Palestinians. That may be one reason Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew and a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion, led the Democratic presidential field among Jews in Florida in a December poll by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald.
The impression has persisted even though Dean's prescription is the same two-state solution advocated by Bill Clinton and now by President Bush. As a statement issued by Dean's campaign put it: "The basic framework for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is a two-state solution -- a Jewish State of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent, demilitarized Palestinian state."
His trouble began when he said, "It's not our place to take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian battle and that the United States should be evenhanded in its approach. Criticism forced Dean to clarify, as he has had to do before.
On CNN, he said he would "speak out against violence of any kind in the Middle East. That's what I mean by being evenhanded." He conceded that he shouldn't have used the term "but the fact of the matter is, at the negotiating table, we have to have the trust of both sides."
During Chanukah, I talked about Dean with a few people while attending an American Jewish Committee reception at the Beverly Hills canyon home of Naty and Debbie Saidoff.
As is true with most of California, most were not especially focused on a presidential nominating contest now being fought in Iowa and New Hampshire. By the time the fight reaches this state, in the March primary, the nomination may well have been decided. For Californians, except for dedicated political activists and large contributors, the Democratic presidential contest is like the National Football League -- something we watch on television.
Nevertheless I encountered some interest.
Valerie Fields, a long-time political activist, said she and her husband, Judge Jerry Fields, had been struck by Dean's ability to draw new people into his campaign. They attended a Dean fundraiser at Union Station. The place was packed, she said, and Fields, acquainted with innumerable people in politics, knew only two other people there.
Fields had hit upon the great strength of the Dean campaign. A combination of his blunt manner and brilliant use of the Internet for organizing and fundraising has brought in large numbers of political newcomers, put him ahead of the field and seemingly on his way to the nomination. It has created a base of supporters dedicated enough to love him for his mistakes, and to step up their contributions whenever he is attacked by rivals.
The Dean Web site, www.blogforamerica.com, has a young, rebellious intensity, a bit too intense for me, too much like a fan club. The big question is how far can Dean extend his appeal beyond the adoring bloggers and the friends they make at Dean meet-ups.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), had his doubts when I talked to him briefly at the AJC reception and then on the phone a few days later.
He seemed skeptical about Dean's ability to expand his base into large numbers of those in their 30s and older in the Jewish community, which he said comprises a substantial part of AJC membership.
He said, "Given the rise of anti-Semitism in the Arab world and Europe, Jews will be "more inclined ... than ever before" in the voting booth to base their votes on what candidates say about Israel. Jews usually vote liberal, but "this time they will be voting Jewish issues," he said.
Dean's use of the phrase "evenhanded" was damaging, he said, as was his failure to understand that the words would infuriate Jews increasingly concerned about Israel's survival.
Donna Bojarsky, liberal political strategist and Jewish community activist, sharply disagreed.
It's "preposterous" to challenge Dean's commitment to Israel, she said, "there's no foundation for it."
Only Dean generates the excitement to awaken and expand the Democratic Party base, she added.
Personally, I think the Jewish community should give Dean a chance.
He can be careless with words. But he doesn't pose and pander. He doesn't parade his Jewish physician wife or his Jewish children on the campaign trail. He doesn't try to make voters feel happy. He's the doctor who slams you in the face with the unpleasant truth.
And while hearing the truth is uncomfortable, a politician with the guts to tell it should be valued.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at email@example.com.