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News Analysis: Jews and the Lincoln Bedroom; a Quandary of Policy and Access

March 11, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Monte Friedkin found himself in quite a bind last year.

As chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Friedkin suddenly found himself without a political star for a scheduled NJDC briefing when Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s then-chief of staff, was forced to cancel after his boss called on him to mediate the baseball strike.

So Friedkin, a multimillion-dollar contributor to the Democratic Party, called the White House.

When Clinton overheard his chief public liaison talking on the phone about the problem, he took the receiver and agreed to serve as a “pinch hitter.”

Within an hour, two dozen NJDC leaders arrived at the White House for a presidential briefing.

“Did he do it because I raised money for him?” Friedkin said as he recalled the episode in an interview last week. “I don’t know.”

That is the same question being asked across the country as revelations continue to pour out of the White House about perks and benefits given to Clinton’s big donors: Just what did they get for their money?

Jewish Democrats raised tens of millions of dollars for last year’s election. Of the more than $200 million raised overall, about one-quarter came from Jews, according to sources in the Democratic Party.

In exchange for their dollars, many of them got overnight stays at the White House. Of the 938 people who stayed during Clinton’s first term, about one- third were Jewish, according to a JTA analysis of documents released by the White House.

Others rode along with Clinton on Air Force One to events in the Middle East. Still others won seats at White House dinners.

But the issue goes far beyond the fact that many Jews are big donors — and not just to the Democratic Party.

The emerging White House fund-raising scandal points to the larger question about the need for campaign finance reform.

And on this, many Jews find themselves in a quandary.

While many individual Jews find that the current campaign finance system breeds excess, the organized Jewish community has profited from it.

Friedkin and political officials speak of two types of donors.

While some contribute to further a cause, such as the pro-Israel agenda, others are seeking policies or laws that would benefit them personally.

In either case, the bottom line is that contributors are seeking to help elect individuals they believe would advance their agenda.

For most Jewishly involved donors, the key aim is achieving access to promote issues of concern – from policies toward Israel to welfare reform.

In politics, money means access. And virtually all political activists agree that Jewish access at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is disproportionate to the numbers.

“I’m not here to pass judgment on whether the system smells bad,” said a Jewish lobbyist in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The fact is that we have access under this system far beyond our numbers.”

“We get into the offices of members of Congress with no Jewish constituency. You don’t think money plays a role in that?” this lobbyist said.

It is this type of success that has paralyzed much of the organized Jewish community as debate rages over campaign finance reform.

When the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council tried to discuss the issue at its recent plenum here, delegates tabled the issue within minutes.

In fact, of the dozen Jewish groups represented in Washington, only the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism serves on a coalition of religious groups advocating reform.

“It’s a very dangerous and short-sighted view to sit back because the Jewish community has done OK under the current system,” said Mark Pelavin, the center’s associate director.

“We cannot expect morally just public policy decisions to emanate from a system overwhelmingly based on monetary interests,” he said.

Steve Grossman, national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declined to comment specifically on the appropriate Jewish position, but echoed the need for reform.

“We need a bipartisan solution for a bipartisan problem,” said Grossman, the longtime Jewish political activist who resigned as chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby to take the DNC post.

“The biggest risk we face is a lack of credibility for the entire political process among Americans from every constituency.”

Meanwhile, other Jewish groups, still mulling over their position on the issue, are facing a barrage of pressure to stay on the sidelines from pro-Israel political action committees that favor the current system.

Although campaign finance reform legislation is now stalled in Congress, the proposals under consideration would ban political action committees, which have been one of the most effective ways of channeling money into congressional campaigns.

Meanwhile, the president’s defenders remain steadfast.

Grossman, picking up on the president’s own words, asked for proof that Clinton “compromised the public interest for the special interest.”

Grossman, who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats, was one of the more than 900 people to stay at the White House.

One Democratic fund-raiser argued that Clinton did nothing different from his predecessors.

“We just did it better,” said one fund-raiser who did acknowledge, however, that the breakdown in safeguards against foreign money was “unfortunate.”

“We were called on to raise a record amount of money and we did it. We used the White House to our advantage: the stays, the coffees, the dinners. That’s not illegal,” he said on the condition that his name not be printed.

The fund-raising mantra of “something-for-something” extends far beyond the reaches of politics. Money buys power and access in the private sector as well.

In the Jewish community, the size of one’s contribution has long been a factor in determining one’s position and status.

In a twist, Clinton himself was the prize for a handful of contributors to the United Jewish Appeal a few years ago.

After about 100 people joined to raise $32 million for UJA, Clinton accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at an elegant reception at the State Department.

“Fund raising is fund raising and one uses all the tools at one’s command to raise funds,” Richard Wexler, UJA national chairman, said without commenting on the appropriateness of Clinton’s fund-raising activities.

But private fund raising is different, most agree.

In the public realm, elections and public policy are at stake, according to those advocating for reform.

“People are troubled by the impression that giving money amounts to a night in the Lincoln bedroom,” Pelavin said. The “scandal isn’t what’s illegal, it’s what’s legal,” said Pelavin.

But not all the visitors to the White House were there because of their contributions.

Some guests at Clinton’s numerous coffees were prominent Jews, such as Leonard Fein and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, both officials with the Reform movement who were invited to discuss policy issues.

And last March, Rabbi Eugene Levy of Little Rock, Ark., arrived at the White House for a one-night stay.

A longtime “friend-of-Bill” who was invited as such, Levy defended what he called Clinton’s “right” to invite guests to the White House.

“It was done by previous presidents and should be done by future presidents,” said Levy, who said he gave only a few hundred dollars a year.

When Levy spent the night, he stayed in a third-floor bedroom because the Lincoln bedroom was occupied by former Clinton counsel and Jewish activist David Ifshin and his family.

Clinton invited Ifshin to the White House after he was diagnosed with cancer. That night was the last time Clinton saw Ifshin before his funeral four weeks later.

“Clinton told the kids bedtime stories and was very emotional because he knew these kids would not have a father soon,” Levy said, adding that Ifshin’s stay “had nothing to do with politics. It had nothing to do with finances.”

As the White House hunkers down for what undoubtedly will be a long spring, top officials have tried to maintain a sense of humor.

Last week, on the day that Vice President Al Gore faced a barrage of criticism for making solicitations from his office, he turned to Clinton as they waited in the Oval Office for the arrival of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.

Gore told the president that 20 years ago, he never thought that he, instead of Arafat, would be the object of public scorn.

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