Jewish Journal

Preparing for a Presidential Visit

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Aug. 17, 2000 at 8:00 pm

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes activity last Sunday on Sony Pictures Studios' Main Street set, but this was no movie production. In the days leading up to a Democratic National Convention (DNC) kick-off reception, representatives of several major Jewish organizations were racing to accommodate thousands of delegates, elected officials and members of the press. Adding tension to the entire proceeding: As preparations approached the 11th hour, a keynote speaker for the event was unconfirmed.

"It was quite an experience. Four organizations getting together, not knowing who our main attraction's going to be until very close to the last minute," said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, a department of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Hirschfeld was among the 100 volunteers from the four organizations - the Washington, D.C.-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the National Jewish Democratic Council, United Jewish Communities, and UJC's local affiliate, L.A.'s Jewish Federation - putting in long days to work out the reception's logistics.

Ironically, the original guest speaker clinched for the event was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, according to Ken Bricker, spokesman for AIPAC, the event's lead sponsor. As Bricker told The Journal, "things changed when he was picked for the vice-president nomination and had to campaign nationally." And while Bricker added that AIPAC "was thrilled to have a Jewish nominee for second-highest office in the land," the reality was that time was working against them, and they still didn't have their speaker.

In recent weeks, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic Party's nominee for the 2000 presidential race, was the scheduled speaker. However, due to scheduling complications, Gore had to cancel. According to John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the entire situation was in flux until last Friday.

Then, just days before the reception, AIPAC invited President Bill Clinton. AIPAC has always been in good stand-ing with the Clinton Administration. Clinton has spoken twice at AIPAC annual conferences, while Gore has addressed the other six. Bricker said, "L.A. is an incredibly important region" and "we would like to raise our profile within the local Jewish community." Toward this goal, he believed that AIPAC would greatly benefit from an appearance by the Clintons, which would inevitably increase AIPAC membership.

For three long days, the prospect of having Clinton speak remained an iffy proposition. Then the president finally committed.

And to AIPAC's delight, he informed the organization that he would be bring-ing Hillary.Ultimately, the AIPAC/Clinton connection is mutually beneficial. Clin-ton knows that if a final deal is struck in the Middle East peace process, even if it arrives following his days in the White House, AIPAC will be crucial to lobby-ing Congress for a financial package (AIPAC previously helped the president strike a $3-billion financial package for Israel and $1.8 billion following the Wye Accord). Then there is Hillary Clinton's New York Senate race, in which the first lady needs to raise her approval rate to 52 percent among voting Jews to win. So the Sony-based reception would definitely become as much a political instrument as a party.

Fishel told The Journal that Clinton's participation came about as the result of some major league teamwork: "We did this as a unified front as four major Jewish organizational bodies.""Considering the short time frame, we were fortunate enough to get the president and the first lady," Fishel said. "At the same time, it increased the complexities."

Indeed, with the president and the first lady of the United States attending, the ante was greatly raised and the pressure heightened. Security issues would have to be reexamined, as RSVPs for the reception doubled following the announcement of Clinton's arrival. Secret Service agents spent three hours just prior to the reception sweeping the Culver City backlot to ensure the safety of the first couple and everyone else in attendance.

The Jewish Federation played an in-strumental role in synchronizing safety measures with the Secret Service and Sony security personnel. Federation also helped plan programming and parking details, invite thousands of delegates and community leaders, accommodate 200 members of the press and prepare for potential demonstrators. Of the 100 volun-teers involved in staging the re-ception, half came from Federation.

The participation of the Clintons at the reception was indeed a coup for all involved - it was the sole nonfundraising event that the first couple agreed to speak at, aside from the convention itself.

To everyone's relief, the event, which attracted nearly 4,000 people, somehow came together smoothly. L.A. Federation chairman Todd Morgan gives Fishel, Hirschfeld and the entire Federation staff "tremendous credit" for the reception's success, deemed the happening "a world class event for the Jews of Los Angeles. When have we had an event of that size where the president and the first lady spoke? The people were just mesmerized and even waited an extra hour in the heat for his arrival."

Indeed, with the exception of the delay, and an elderly woman felled by heat exhaustion (she was attend-ed to and is now all right), there were few glitches in pulling off the program. Outside the studio gates, a small but vocal group of about 30 young Muslim activists protested American-Israeli ties, but the demonstration went over peace-fully and without incident. A source close to the proceedings pegged the reception's cost at about $100,000. In terms of entertainment and catering, this was not, by any means, a decadent affair, but money definitely went into extra measures, particularly security.

"It's a tribute to the organiza-tional bodies involved that we were able to mobilize everyone quickly," Fishel said. "It allowed us to put on exciting and good event that people enjoyed immensely."

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