August 10, 2000
Local Democratic volunteers work to support their presidential candidate.
What a difference a day makes. When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate on Monday morning, he transformed the Jewish community's attitude toward him from one of bemusement and perplexity to a clear affirmation. Gore had seemed distant and abstract. Overnight he changed that perception with a concrete, courageous and historic act.
On the previous Sunday, I had cruised the talk show circuit on TV to learn the latest news about Gore. David Broder on NBC mentioned a poll of Democratic voters which indicated 33 percent would prefer that another candidate receive the nomination. When I told this to the Jewish backers of Gore, with whom I was talking that morning, no one was surprised. Some laughed. When I mentioned this to Richard Ziman, a major macher in the campaign and chairman of the board of Arden Reality, Inc., he said, "You know what? Sure they would. But so what? That's irrelevant, because this is the candidate. And you can quote me on that." Hilton Creve, a grass-roots supporter and past president of the Culver City Democratic Club, commented, "Well, Clinton's a hard act to follow." But no one questioned the data, and most said off the record what Ziman said on it: That they believed it.
I'm not the first to notice that life is but a flicker of a moment. So why in the world did they do it, I wondered: invest their time, money or energy in a person that was, well, hard to get a hold on? My interviews with these dedicated stalwarts (most of whom are not paid) suggested that Gore may have programmed himself out of a palpable existence. Except for those who had worked with him directly, people didn't feel anything about him. The air got attenuated when I asked about him; the support seemed skin-deep. They were largely there for the core Democratic issues - choice, gun control, the environment, the Supreme Court, Israeli security - and a variety of reasons that buzzed through their personalities. For some of them, the shadow story lurking behind everything is the Holocaust, because their parents are survivors. Eddie Tabash is a civil and constitutional rights lawyer. He views himself as situated on the middle level of Gore backers, between the machers and the rank and file. He has a square face with a full head of black hair, a smiling readiness and a quick wit.
Eddie is proud to say he rents his office from Alan Isaacman, Larry Flynt's attorney. Tabash says several times he is a fan of Flynt. Eddie's big issues are free speech and the separation of church and state. They are the fuel that drives him to back Gore. "I think that what we have learned from the entire agony of Jewish history would be nullified if we forget the importance of never permitting any government to favor or promote any religious belief," he says.
This underlying reference to the Holocaust is bound up with his own experience. Tabash's mother is a survivor, and his childhood years were deeply impacted by her sorrow. She talked about the Holocaust constantly. When he was 3 years old, she took him into the kitchen and said, "See the oven where I bake things? This is like where my daddy, your grandfather, was burned after they gassed him."
Donna Bojarsky is a political consultant who operates in the nexus between the entertainment industry and Democratic Party politics. She helps advise actor Richard Dreyfuss and Norman Pattiz, founder and chairman of Westwood One, on their political activities and philanthropies. She raises money "on a modest level." In terms of political Hollywood, she is a player. "It's a unique opportunity to make a diference in the areas we care about," she said. "Obviously the entertainment world does help draw focus in a high-profile way to an issue or a candidate. The glamour wasn't what got me in, and the glamour didn't seduce me."
But like Tabash, Bojarsky has deeper motivation. Her mother is also a survivor. Bojarsky's grandmother was killed early in the war. She was taken away before her mother's eyes. Bojarsky's mother and her grandfather spent the war on the run. Her mother's experiences, Bojarsky says, "made a major impression on my Jewish consciousness" and helped forge her political passions.
Jay Greenstein, a field respresentative for LAUSD board member David Tokofsky, sees his commitment linked to his Judaism. "Making the world a better place for everyone - I see that as a kind of core Jewish value," he said.
Evelyn Jerome is the 28-year-old president of Los Angeles County Young Democrats. She has been active in several presidential campaigns and has found her participation emotionally draining. It is like the obliteration of self. "It's a 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job," she tells me. "When I did it professionally, what I found most difficult was you were looking for a new job every four to six months."When you're working on a campaign," she says, "you talk to people six or seven or 12 times a day, every day, for three months. The day after the election, you don't have to talk to anybody. It's like nicotine withdrawal. I feel that after every campaign. A total and complete void. You literally wake up and say, 'What do I do now?' It's like being on a high and dropping. You have no personal life when you're working on a campaign. None. You have no use for one."
Jerome may find it tiring, but she isn't stopping now. I flip to CNN on the first night of the Republican convention and there is Jerome (whom I have not met in person) with her Gore button, debating a Young Republican. She is quick, spirited and gives as good as she gets. She is visibly thrilled to be there.
Ziman has a clear objective: Making sure candidates understand the Jewish and Israeli perspective. "You can deliver that message in one of several ways," he explains. "One is money. Another is involvement and befriending politicians. Lastly is just being there and poking at them with the issues over and over."Ziman does all these things, at the local, state and federal level. "Unfortunately," he says, "it's the most expensive endeavor one can have, in terms of time and money. There's no financial benefit from this whatsoever, either for myself personally or for my business."
Would he do this for a candidate other than Gore? Absolutely. "It's a matter of the issues, politics and programs rather than the personalities," he says. He has no illusions about Gore's personality deficits. I sense the usual empty air space when people try to get rhapsodic, or even positive, about Gore.
Nevertheless, he tries, and there's no doubt of his respect for Gore's intellectual abilities. "Gore's got the intellect, the empathy, the will, the drive. Let's face it, Bill Clinton is who he's measured against."Mel Levine is at the top of the heap in the California Gore campaign. A partner in Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, an L.A.-based international law firm, Levine had a distinguished career in the California Assembly (l977-l982) and in Congress (l983-l993). He ran and lost in a bid for the Senate. Because of his political experience and his contacts with Gore through his work as a congressman, Levine is immediately at front and center, one of those running the campaign on the West Coast. He is both a financial contributor and a fundraiser. It's clear he doesn't need to be doing this, so what is the pull and tug of it for him? Levine feels he is particularly motivated by his concerns for Israel and social justice in America.
"I was born during the Holocaust," Levine explains, "and my father was the Western States representative for the Haganah in the War of Independence. Many of my childhood memories that impacted me were a visceral knowledge of the importance of Israel to Jews everywhere. The other factor is I was very much a product of the 60s."
Of all the people I interview, Levine is the one who has a tangible affection for Gore based on his own experience with him. "Gore is a friend," he says. "We served together in the House. I thought he was an unusual mix of substance, passion and political skill. And he's deeply committed to Israel's security and survival."
I asked Levine if he would be committed to other candidates with the same intensity. "I've never done this for another candidate," he replies, "never nearly to this extent. And I do this while continuing to make my law firm my first priority.
"The nuts and bolts of politics are not glamorous," he continues. "One of the hardest is asking people for money. I have never enjoyed that. It's hard each time."
I mention Gore's otherworldly persona as a candidate. To explain his support for Gore, Levine refers me to a profile of Gore by Nicholas Lemann in the July 3l issue of The New Yorker. Like Levine, Lemann wants to be enthusiastic about Gore (At an "empyrean level," he writes, "where almost none of day-to-day politics is conducted, Gore is the most impressive politician alive"), but the evidence Lemann presents paints a strange and cerebral picture: "He [Gore] displayed a degree of thoughtfulness and study, and also of abstraction from the daily world, that is astonishing in a presidential candidate in mid-campaign.... 'The world is a system, not a collection of individuals,' I heard him [Gore] say in one of his speeches (not an applause line, you can be sure). Who else would say this in a presidential campaign, or even think it?" When I read some of Lemann's quotes from Gore to my wife, she looks at me skeptically and says, "You're putting me on, right?"
Motivated in myriad ways, the Jewish backers of Gore gear up their efforts, hoping they can achieve victory for a highly abstract and abstracted candidate who, for better or worse, is the focus of their efforts and hopes.
With the news of Lieberman's selection, the Jewish backers of Gore are gearing up their efforts in his behalf. They now know that whatever his tendency toward abstraction, Gore has anchored his own nomination with a realistic and inspired choice for vice-president. For many of them, haunted by family histories of Holocaust agony, Gore's choice of a distinguished Jewish American rekindles a sense of moral renewal and hope.