December 28, 2006
The Importance of Accessibility
Although this was my third visit to the White House, the novelty does not easily wear off. My first invitation was to a prayer breakfast toward the end of the Clinton administration.
The second time, I wasn't actually invited. I just hitched a ride as the guest of my close friend, Rabbi David Wolpe. Then, the occasion was a dinner to mark the opening of the Anne Frank exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
My most recent presidential encounter began with a call from the official liaison to the Jewish community. He explained that the president wanted to convene a small meeting to discuss Jewish higher education. The gathering was to take place on the morning of Dec. 18 in order to coincide with a Chanukah party at the White House later that same evening.
I was still a bit uncertain about the purpose of the meeting, but at 10 a.m. on the appointed day, I presented myself in the lobby of the West Wing.
I was part of a small group that included six presidents of Jewish universities and seminaries, as well as a few students and representatives of B'nai B'rith Hillel.
Soon we were joined by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten (who is Jewish), Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and, finally, by the president himself.
President Bush made a point of going around the table and greeting each of us personally before the "formal" meeting began. But herein lies the curious part. There really was no formal meeting. For almost an hour, the president discoursed on a variety of themes, including Iraq, the nuclear threat emanating from Iran, global terrorism, Darfur and, of course, Israel. Little was actually said about higher education.
At one point, Bush reminded us of his trip to Graceland with his friend and fellow Elvis fan, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, as an example of how former enemies can, in time, become friends. Unable to restrain myself, I raised my hand and asked whether he had considered a trip to Graceland with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
My question evoked the anticipated laughter from those seated around the table, but I think the president may have taken me a bit too seriously. He stressed that it would be inappropriate for an American president to "reach out" to a leader who currently poses a potential nuclear threat to other nations of the world.
This very serious response to a very unserious question provides an insight into Bush's view of his presidency. He is exceedingly concerned about his legacy, and he measures that legacy in terms of his own willingness and ability to protect us from the perceived threats leveled against the United States. Simply put, he does not want to be remembered as the president who ignored any encroaching danger.
Bush argued that the Islamic extremists could not possibly be religious people. After all, he reasoned, religious people do not murder others.
Had I not already squandered my one chance to speak on a joke, I would have begged to differ with him on this point. Perhaps a committed Christian in today's America sees religion primarily in terms of love, but periods of "killing the infidel" have historically been a part of Islam, Christianity and even biblical Judaism.
Often, the theory is advanced that important White House policy decisions are made by someone other than the president himself. However, the Bush we encountered is a man who appears to know his own mind. He may not always be highly articulate, even in a small group, but the moral clarity of his message came through.
The meeting concluded with a photo op in the Oval Office. In the evening, my wife, Hana, and I returned to the White House, where we were greeted by a blazing menorah and a military band playing a medley of Chanukah songs. (Of course, since the Chanukah repertoire is a bit meager, they did add a few generic holiday classics, like "Winter Wonderland" and "Jingle Bells.")
Earlier that day, the White House kitchen had been made kosher so that the dietary needs of all 500 Jewish dinner guests from around the country could be accommodated. Hana is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and as our evening at the White House drew to a close, she could not help comparing what we had just witnessed with the experience of her parents in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. I agreed that the event was remarkable, but I asked her if this whole affair had any practical significance for the Jewish community. Hana thought it did.
"Just think about it," she said. "If Jews had enjoyed this kind of access to the president during World War II, our history might have taken a very different turn."
Dr. Robert Wexler is the president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles