Cold, hot, lukewarm - two months shy of the November election, local Jewish Republicans are still conflicted about the man at the head of their party's ticket. A sampling of attitudes indicates a wide range of attitudes toward Gov. George W. Bush.
Those who are most supportive anchor their positions in Republican philosophy more than in personal enthusiasm for Bush himself. It's safe to say that the candidate is not inspiring much excitement. And in the back of everyone's mind looms the formidable presence of Sen. Joseph Lieberman on the Democratic ticket. Most of the Republicans who were interviewed felt that Lieberman agrees with them but is in the wrong party.
"I'm indecisive, because I don't know enough yet about Bush's positions," says Ozzie Goren, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and former president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "I'm in the process of examining his positions on the Middle East and his domestic programs before I make a decision. We need to compare Gore and Bush's positions, not by virtue of the fact that one is a Republican and one is a Democrat, but by what we deem to be best for the people. A good president will change course for the betterment of the country, and not just do something for political reasons, which is what I believe to be the problem I have with Gore. He's a total politician."
Republican Jews may be backing Bush, but when the object of their real feeling and affection shows, the photo in the valentine is Lieberman.
Lieberman's presence on the ticket is an undeniable factor for those interviewed, but they are careful to assert they will not vote on the basis of religion.
"Lieberman's nomination is a positive factor in that a Jew can be considered for the position," Goren stated. "However, I don't believe that an American should vote based on his or her own ethnicity. I don't think women should just vote for women, Christians just vote for Christians, or Jews should just vote for Jews. If that point of view prevailed, we would have no Jewish congressmen or senators, and we would not be able to have a Jewish vice president. It is important that we vote on the basis of the issues and on the basis of merit and conviction."
Nettie Becker, a prominent Republican Jewish activist, is also undecided. "I'm sitting on the fence," she explains. "One reason is Bush's attachment to God and bringing it into the political arena. Particularly his statement about Jesus being his favorite philosopher and that only Christians should go to heaven."On the other hand," Becker continues, "Bush has made some strong statements regarding Israel, about moving the embassy to Jerusalem and not pressuring Israel in the peace process. These are positive indicators, provided he will honor these statements in the White House. His foreign policy advisors are very good. He has George Shultz, and Condoleezza Rice is wonderful."
Becker has a complex reaction to the candidacy of Lieberman and sways back and forth on his nomination. "First of all, we're electing a president, not a vice president. But historically it's important to have a Jewish vice president," she says. "However, I don't like his bringing religion into the arena, mixing church and state."
Becker's take on Lieberman is drawn from personal impressions. "I've spent time with him," she said, "and I happen to like him very much. Very much. He's very moderate, forthright, and he's honest and smart. I'm very impressed with him. But he's going to be following Gore's policies, which concern me."
But then Becker goes on to raise another question mark: "On foreign policy, it's never been good for Israel when a Jew's been involved. Look at Kissinger, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyck. They bent over backwards. Israel always does better with gentiles."
Bruce Bialosky, a former member of the executive board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, is more firmly aligned with Bush based on his Republican philosophy. He also feels that Bush is solid on Jewish issues.
"I feel excellent about his candidacy," Bialosky states. "Bush is surrounded by a lot of Jewish people who are involved in his campaign: Ari Fleischer, his main spokesperson; Stephen Goldsmith, his domestic advisor. Those involved in the Republican Jewish Coalition staunchly supported Bush from the beginning, even when there were other candidates in the race."
Bialosky responds in two ways to the Lieberman candidacy: "Before Joe Lieberman came on the ticket, he was pretty much a Republican Jew aligned with our positions. Once he became the nominee, he altered that philosophy to meet the needs of the political landscape. But all of us, in a lot of ways, have good feelings about him. He's an honorable man. He would have been nice as the Republican VP nominee, not that we're unhappy with our own nominee."
"My liberal Jewish friends ask me: Don't you have to think about this now that Lieberman's on the ticket?' and I reply, 'Would you vote for George W. Bush if Arlen Specter was the VP nominee?' And that kind of ends the discussion."
Beyond support for a single candidate, Republican Jews still fret the alienation most of their fellow Jews feel from the Republican Party. There's no basis in reality, they say, for an abiding feeling that Republicans won't look out for their interests.
"The biggest money in the Republican Party happens to be Jewish," said Bialosky. "The head fundraiser for Bush is a friend of mine, Mel Sembler, and the biggest giver to the party is Sam Fox. My liberal friends want to believe that for some reason the Republican Party doesn't have the interests of the Jewish people at heart. I think that's kind of insulting to these gentlemen. These guys are not schmucks. They're writing large checks. Bush isn't going to just blow off Sam Fox and Mel Sembler and the others and all of a sudden screw Israel over with Steve Goldsmith sitting in the room. Cite me a Republican president who hasn't been a good friend of Israel. You try to find me a person more supportive of the Jewish community than either Jeane Kirkpatrick or George Shultz. And who is going to be Bush's national security advisor? Condoleezza Rice, a protege of Shultz."
Dennis Prager, the talk show host, frames his support of Bush in the context of his opposition to any Democratic candidate: "The primary reason that I support Bush is that he is the only alternative to a Democratic White House."
Prager maintains that the primary financial supporters of the Democratic party are trial lawyers and teachers' unions, "the two most corrosive organized groups in the U.S. at this time. And the absence of tort reform is going to end up with America eating itself up in litigation. Lawsuits have become a form of legal terror."
Prager sees the "near destruction of our public school system as a major American tragedy. And it's not because of a lack of funds, but a lack of right values and right people running these public schools. I want vouchers to enable poor people to send their children to private schools just as a significant number of public school teachers do. And so does Joe Lieberman want this."
Prager calls the Lieberman candidacy "wonderful for America, wonderful for the Jews. But I don't vote by race, ethnicity or religion. I don't respect other groups that vote with racial or ethnic solidarity."
Is Prager concerned about Bush's perceived lack of intelligence?
"No; the most necessary characteristics for a president are clarity and stability. Way down the list is a great intelligence. I'm not voting for Bush because he's great. I'm voting for him because he's not a Democrat. He may end up great. I hope I eat my words."
John F. Nickoll, CEO of the Foothill Group, thinks Bush "is a very interesting candidate with very interesting ideas. One thing I dislike about him is that he's not pro-choice. That's his glaring weakness."Nickoll thinks that Bush's ideas about social security "are very revolutionary," and that he's "good on education. I think his ideas on taxation make a lot of sense, maybe modified somewhat. But I really believe that if you're going to cut taxes, you have to cut them everywhere. You don't just target a few people who are making between $35,000 and $48,000, like Gore is doing."
Nickoll, like most of those interviewed, is most impressed with the people around Bush in the foreign policy area.
"They're tremendous," he says. "Colin Powell could be secretary of state. Condoleezza Rice will head international security. And conceivably John McCain could be secretary of defense."
Nickoll, like Prager, is most wedded to Bush on the basis of fundamental Republican principles.
"I don't dislike Gore," he states, "but I think he has become almost too populist. He's gonna do away with poverty? We've been through that with Lyndon Johnson, and it didn't work. You can't just will it away, and you can't do it by spending. I think the private sector is the best way to solve a lot of these problems.""The predominant number of Jews in America today are very secular and not religious," said Gary Klein, another Republican activist. " They're very liberal and very much against the views of the Torah. I attend an Orthodox synagogue, and my father's an Orthodox rabbi. I don't consider myself Orthodox, but I lean toward Orthodox learning. Knowing the Torah as I know it, I do believe the Republi-cans reflect more of the Jewish ideals than the Democrats do."
Klein supports Bush as "basically the lesser of two evils." He is more wedded to Republican philosophy than to the candidate. "I'm not necessarily a George W. Bush fan. If it was up to me, I would vote for the Republican Lieberman. But the Republican Lieberman is running for the Democratic Party under the VP banner."
Still, would Klein have preferred another candidate to head his party's ticket?
"I think Bush is as good a pig in a poke as the rest of them are," he replied. "He may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, and he may not be great at debating, but if we were looking for the smartest presidents, they'd be Clinton and Nixon, and they weren't our greatest presidents at all."
When Klein was told that Jewish Republicans were being interviewed for an article on Bush, he asked, "Are there any of us?" He doesn't think there are too many. "I'm even having trouble finding a nice Republican Jewish girl. Do you know any?"