I wondered yesterday why Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) was the only elected Republican currently in office to appear at the Medal of Freedom ceremony for Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Was it President Obama’s choice? (He named Lugar in 2008 as a Republican he would consult.) Or had other Republicans turned him down? And if either is the case, what does that say about the political culture?
I’ve since confirmed that the White House asked the congressional leadership to attend; this is par for the course for State Dinners, and although this was not technically a state dinner, the White House protocol operation treated it as such.
I learned furthermore that Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the Jewish majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never attended any formal White House Jewish functions under Obama, although he had been invited to the Chanukah parties and the Jewish American Heritage Month events.
I asked the offices of Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) why they had not attended. McConnell’s office never got back to me. Boehner’s office noted that he was out of town, as the House was not in session.
An official in Cantor’s office said this: “Leader Cantor was at his son’s high school graduation yesterday, but has attended similar events at the White House in the past.”
Not according to my sources, although “similar events” might refer to Bush administration Jewish White House events, or perhaps to Obama White House events that were not geared to Jews. It is true that Cantor attended last year’s Rosh Hashanah event at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence.
By the way, the graduation, according to the high school’s website, was at 11 a.m. in suburban Richmond, Va., which is about 90 minutes from Washington, D.C. The Peres event was an evening affair.
When asked about the noticeable GOP absence, Democrats seemed bemused. Drew Hammill, the spokesman for minority leader Rep, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who attended, said this: “This dinner was about honoring Shimon Peres and what he represents, the history of the State of Israel.”
Pelosi, I heard, juggled much to make it. Another congressional Democratic source pointed me to this 2010 Vanity Fair story about Obama state dinners, which leads with the following quote by Mary Mel French, President Clinton’s second term chief of protocol: “If you are invited to a state dinner, you are only supposed to reject that honor for four reasons: a death in the family, a serious illness, a wedding, or an unavoidable absence from Washington. Other than that, you are supposed to do the president the honor of attending his dinner, no matter who the president is. It isn’t about the person—it’s about the institution.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority leader, attended, and according to sources close his office, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader declined so he could be home with his wife, who is recovering from stage 2 breast cancer and chemotherapy.
Cantor, though, would have been especially missed at a dinner honoring an Israeli founding father.