Who's afraid of the big bad AIPAC?
Andrew Silow-Carroll should have been.
In 1991, Carroll was the acting editor of The Washington Jewish Week, a highly decorated and well-respected independent newspaper. In 1992, he wasn't. The reason? He went to a picnic.
Generally, the worst that'll happen at a picnic is ants or the theft of a lunch basket by your smarter-than-average bear. This particular outing found Carroll representing his paper before a consortium of left-of-center Israeli groups, a reasonably standard weekend activity for a Jewish journalist. But also present was an intern from AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, who was quietly huddled in the crowd, scribbling out a record of the day's events, notably Carroll's speech. Awhile back, AIPAC had asked Carroll to replace the reporter on the AIPAC beat. Carroll had refused.
When the intern's report was handed in, the story goes, AIPAC's all-purpose enforcer quickly pulled a few quotes from Carroll's talk, turned it into a memo, and circulated it among The Washington Jewish Week's board members. Shortly thereafter, Carroll was demoted and stripped of responsibilities. He subsequently resigned.
And so I ask again: Who's afraid of the big bad AIPAC?
The answer is nearly everybody. Many of my colleagues were horrified to learn I was writing an article on the lobby, repeatedly warning me that it'd mean curtains for my career -- I half expected to wake up one morning to find a dismembered menorah in my bed.
While reporting this piece, I spoke to numerous former AIPAC employees, many professionals knowledgeable about their operations and a number of journalists who'd written on them in the past. Almost no one was willing to go on the record. But they were willing, even eager, to talk, like kids with long-bottled secrets who'd finally found someone to tell. As often happens, however, the actual information, so long concealed, seemed more tantalizing than it really was. For that matter, AIPAC, while looming large in their minds, wasn't nearly so intimidating in the retelling.
If you don't follow Washington lobbying -- or official efforts to boost Israel -- you might draw a blank on hearing the word AIPAC. First of all, it isn't a PAC in the campaign-finance sense; the name predates the rise of Gingrich-style political action committees in the popular consciousness. That's led to some confusion, as AIPAC doesn't actually donate to candidates. Instead, it compiles copious research on voting records and other activities. This research is then relied on by many donors -- primarily Jewish ones -- when deciding whose coffers to fill. Impressing AIPAC, then, is one of Washington's quickest routes to significant fundraising, especially if AIPAC doesn't hold your opponent in high esteem.
In addition, the organization has a powerful lobbying operation, so powerful, in fact, that Fortune magazine ranked it in the top five, and both Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton have called AIPAC the best in town. But much of this influence comes from a carefully protected image that relies on two main components: The first is the grand conference, where speakers have included Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Bill Frist, Condoleeza Rice, Howard Dean, Dennis Hastert, John Kerry, Gingrich, John McCain and numerous others. The upcoming conference in Los Angeles features an address from Bill Clinton.
Psychologists call this social proof. It's why companies pay celebrities to wear their products and evangelists pepper their literature with testimonials: When others are doing something, particularly high-status others, bystanders tend to attach value to the action or product in question. So if Tiger Woods is wearing Nikes, that says something about Nikes. If Madonna is sporting a red string, it makes a point about the Kabbalah Centre. And if every major politician of the past few decades believes it de rigeur to drop in on AIPAC, so will every politician of the next few decades. One wonders if they even know why they're doing it anymore.
The second is a reputation for defeating any and every politician who crosses them. But as one senior house aide argued to me, "The idea that members who cross AIPAC are defeated is very rarely true, but it's nevertheless an effective myth." What AIPAC actually does, he said, "is shoot the dead and the wounded," attacking already-weakened politicians who AIPAC knows can be defeated -- and thus used to bolster its image. When it goes after strong incumbents, as it did in 1988 with Rhode Island's John Chafee, AIPAC can and does fail. Nor does AIPAC support spell certain success. Indeed, one analysis found that, in 1992, five of the top 10 recipients of pro-Israel donations lost their elections.
But that may be beside the point. Politicians not only want to avoid defeat, they want to avoid trouble. And AIPAC specializes in presenting the implied threat of serious bother. Comfy incumbents who know they can't be toppled nevertheless don't want to be hounded by Jewish constituents, denounced by local rabbis, abandoned by Jewish contributors and challenged by a suddenly richer, pro-Israel candidate. So they go along to get along.
That, however, is how the game works, how lobbies operate -- and not just AIPAC. It's not that AIPAC invented the game or perfected something new, but it helps that AIPAC's actions have been so shrouded in secrecy and innuendo that its reputation has become far darker than its reality. And that's the fault of the press. With so many of my colleagues scared to write on AIPAC and so many half-known stories wafting round the office, it's inevitable that few would look deep enough to demythologize AIPAC. So it's perhaps a bit ironic that the journalist most willing to soften the lobby's image was the one at the center of a storied act of press intimidation.
I reached Carroll at his office in New Jersey. Now editor-in-chief at The New Jersey Jewish News, Carroll was fully willing to retell his tale, but insistent that it's time to update the story. AIPAC, he said, is not the organization it once was. Pre-Rabin, the organization enthusiastically stifled debate, but once the left rose to power in Israel, AIPAC's more conservative members, not to mention the larger Orthodox community, realized they needed room for dissent. Indeed, Rabin himself, in a meeting with AIPAC, is reported to have demanded that AIPAC stop the intimidation, real or implied, and allow the Jewish community to speak freely again. After that, Carroll says, AIPAC has been much less involved in controlling the press.
Fears of retribution then are somewhat vestigial. In any case, Steven J. Rosen, the pit bull whom Carroll blamed for his demotion (and AIPAC's reputation), is now standing trial in the wake of an espionage investigation and being denounced by his former employer. Is that ingratitude or maturity on the part of AIPAC -- or merely savvy?
Carroll's ordeal was almost 15 years ago. So are most of the tales of AIPAC intimidation. Since that time, America has changed, Israel has changed and so has AIPAC. What hasn't changed is AIPAC's reputation.
Maybe it's time that it did.
Ezra Klein is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.