Two weeks ago, over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a woman who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 told me she wouldn’t be doing so again.
She was 40ish, successful — on her way to China for the Shanghai International Film Festival — and our paths crossed through a mutual friend here, in the land where a bowl of oatmeal costs $17 and Ryan Seacrest can sit for an hour at the table beside us, unbothered.
“You think he’s anti-Israel?” I asked her — Obama, I meant, not Seacrest.
“Anti-Israel?” she repeated. “He’s not just anti-Israel, he’s anti-Semitic.”
That’s election 2012. The Jews who love Obama no longer swoon — romance has given way to marriage. The ones who oppose him, detest him.
After my meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, I was off to the Peninsula Hotel — left or right, it’s good to have money.
There, about 18 agents, producers, lawyers, directors — you know, Hollywood — were sitting in a sumptuous dining room for a private luncheon briefing by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. She is a special assistant to the president for national security affairs and the Obama administration’s senior director for Europe and Turkey.
Sherwood-Randall came at the invitation of the Foreign Policy Roundtable (FPR), a group whose aim is to promote greater understanding of international issues within the entertainment industry.
But, as several guests kept referring to her as Liz, it was also apparent this was a homecoming for her, of sorts: Sherwood-Randall, 52, was born and raised in Beverly Hills and attended Beverly Hills High School before going off to Harvard, becoming a Rhodes Scholar (along with her brother Ben, now head of ABC News), and then completing her doctorate at Oxford.
“She was always very intense,” said Donna Bojarsky, a Beverly Hills High classmate, who founded the FPR. “This is the job she was bred for.”
As a key member of the National Security Council, Sherwood-Randall isn’t permitted to politick, but with just four months to go before the election there was, however unintended, an underlying political message. Sherwood-Randall, an attractive, composed woman of compelling intellect, offered a behind-the-scenes report on the president’s efforts to prevent European collapse, to rescue Egypt from fundamentalist chaos and to secure Israel. Throughout the Middle East, she depicted Obama as deeply involved in finding the optimal solutions to the revolutions there.
With Syria, she struck a firmer tone.
“We launched an international coalition to isolate the regime while seeking to support the peaceful opposition and to create increasing pressure on President Assad to stop committing atrocities against his own people,” she told the group. “We have said to President Assad, repeatedly, ‘You’re on the wrong side of history.’ ”
“As these historic changes unfold,” she said, “the stability of Israel’s borders and the security of its people have remained our highest priority. This administration is committed to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region involving two states, a State of Israel as a Jewish state, and a State of Palestine that will be a homeland for the Palestinian people, with each respecting the right of the other. The status quo is not sustainable.
“We continue to work to see there is a durable peace that meets all of Israel’s security concerns. President Obama has declared Israel’s security sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable.”
Then Sherwood-Randall stopped herself. In a largely Jewish audience, she knew exactly what kind of murmurs were circulating.
“I would pause here and say there are some who assert there is a different sort of relationship between the president and the prime minister, that it is not a solid relationship. I would assure you that the president has built a very important relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. What this administration has done to advance Israel’s security is, literally, unprecedented.”
She detailed military-to-military cooperation, $205 million spent to assist Israel in developing its Iron Dome missile defense system, Obama’s assistance to stranded and threatened Israeli diplomats in Egypt, and his speech before the United Nations General Assembly arguing against a bid for Palestinian statehood.
“When he spoke with Jeffrey Goldberg subsequently — it made me laugh when I read the transcript — Goldberg noted the U.N. General Assembly is not like going before Hadassah,” she said.
On Iran, Sherwood-Randall maintained that the administration has imposed “the most far-reaching sanctions that Iran has ever faced,” and that because of its intensive diplomacy, 18 countries — including Turkey, Japan, South Korea and India — have decreased purchases of Iranian oil, halving Iran’s crude oil exports.
She pointed out that the president has never ruled out a military option on Iran, and his record on killing Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists has made clear that “he is not a president who bluffs.”
That evening, Sherwood-Randall spoke at Hillcrest Country Club, at a large gathering sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC). Her late father, Richard Sherwood, an attorney, was a longtime leader of the AJC.
The crowd there, judging from a recording of the proceedings, was even more proud of how far Liz Sherwood had come, but even more dubious about the man she serves.
I wondered if there was anything the woman I had lunch with could say to persuade the woman I had breakfast with.
Last week, the campaign of Republican candidate Mitt Romney announced that he would make sure to visit Israel before the election, and that Israel would be the first foreign country visited by a future President Romney.
I received a dozen e-mails from Obama critics pointing out that he still hasn’t, as a sitting president, visited Israel.
A simple political ploy, maybe.
But four years ago, candidate Obama had to constantly fight the perception among some Jews that he didn’t have Israel in his kishkas, his guts. Four years later, despite his record, despite even Liz Sherwood-Randall, he’s still fighting.