WASHINGTON (JTA) – Eric Lynn, the top staffer on Jewish affairs for the Obama campaign, and Josh Kram, his counterpart in the Clinton campaign, are in an intense battle these days for support from a key Democratic constituency.
But nearly a decade ago they were on the same side facing a shared crisis: a supposedly “furnished” apartment that actually boasted little more than an old couch, a tub cum coffee table and a wide-screen TV.
Kram and Lynn, running their respective candidates’ competitive campaigns in the Jewish communities this presidential season, shared a room and a coming of age in 1998 as summer college interns at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
It’s a familiar tale exemplifying the tininess of the Jewish political community, and how AIPAC and other Jewish groups have an eye for top political talent on campuses.
“AIPAC is an organization with some of the best opportunities for students wanting to learn about Middle East policy,” Lynn, who attended Northwestern University, said Monday.
Being a campaign’s Jewish liaison is often a launch for senior policy work in an administration. With post-graduate backgrounds studying Middle East politics and peacemaking, Kram or Lynn might eventually have the president’s ear on such matters.
Lynn and David Goldenberg – another roommate who now is a top adviser to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) – recalled capping intensive training at AIPAC headquarters on Capitol Hill with hazy summer evenings spent girl watching on the Georgetown waterfront.
The first challenge they faced was the apartment.
AIPAC had grouped the four roommates – including Seth Weisblatt, who now helps run his family’s furniture business in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – and they did not know one another when they unlocked the door to a place in the capital’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood that was nearly bare.
The female university students who sublet the two-bedroom apartment for the summer thought that as males, all they would need was a couple of mattresses on the floor, the big TV and a couch. For a coffee table, the lessors upended an old tub.
“We figured out a way around it and negotiated it,” Goldenberg said.
Lynn filled in the details: The women agreed to let the guys buy some cheap furniture and take the cost out of the rent.
Weisblatt remembers the four rotating between a foam mattress, a bed, a futon and a sleeping bag on the floor. It didn’t matter much, he said.
“It was awesome – we were in college and spending summer with people energized by AIPAC, by politics,” said Weisblatt, who was then at the University of Kansas.
The interns met heads of state and top Palestinian negotiators, and had an insider’s tour of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Lynn and Kram shared a bedroom in the apartment. Was there anything then that suggested Lynn would hook up with Obama and Kram with Clinton? Was Lynn the sweeter talker? Did Kram hit the books a little too hard?
No, said Goldenberg, whose boss is backing Clinton; Kram and Lynn, he added, are more alike than different.
“They’ve both got two really qualified and knowledgeable individuals, either of who would be a fantastic liaison to Jews in the White House,” said Goldenberg, who was then at Michigan State.
Other alumni from AIPAC’s 1998 class of summer interns now hold key positions at the Defense, State and Commerce departments.
“AIPAC picks the best of the best,” Goldenberg said.
The roommates’ ties remained close enough that Goldenberg’s wife set up Lynn with his current girlfriend.
Lynn noted his friendship with Kram in a campaign that has otherwise proven contentious. He also asserted that Kram would never question Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides, as had a couple of Clinton campaigners.
“I know that Josh is aware of Senator Obama’s strong support for Israel,” Lynn said, “which is why I’m confident he would not be personally involved in these attacks.”
Kram, a University of Florida student at the time his AIPAC internship, did not address the topic of his summer with the guys, instead issuing a statement to JTA about his decision to work for Clinton: “I joined the campaign because Senator Clinton is the presidential candidate whose record demonstrates that she best understands and supports the US-Israel relationship and I am proud to be an advocate for her in the Jewish community.”
Sometimes, Lynn said, when encountering Kram on the road – most recently on Sunday in Youngstown, Ohio, a couple of days ahead of the state’s critical primary – he misses the day trips, the weekend Frisbee toss on the National Mall, the hikes and the barbecues.
But then he appreciates the relative comfort of hotel rooms these days.
“We slept on twin mattresses on the floor,” Lynn said, his voice filled with wonder recalling his first days in Washington. “It’s a good thing we were college students.”