Sitting in a large conference room, I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. This was an opportunity too good to pass. It was my 16-year-old daughter, undoubtedly calling for a ride home from a sleepover.
“I can’t talk,” I said quietly into the phone. “I’m waiting for the President to come in.” As in George W. Bush.
It was mid-afternoon on Thursday, June 14 this past week and I was making small talk in a large conference room in the Executive Office Building with 47 other presidents of major Jewish organizations. We were on a daylong discussion-a-thon with the leaders of the House, culminating with a briefing with the president. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations had been invited to present our views and hear our leaders' thoughts on foreign policy issues, primarily relating to the Middle East.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the organization and one of the principal American spokesmen for Jewish causes, organized the excursion as a means of expressing the Jewish community’s support for Israel and to hear first-hand how America’s government is dealing with the ever-evolving situation in the Mideast.
Reconstructionists are well represented in the Conference of Presidents. In addition to the JRF, another Reconstructionist, Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs and a graduate of the RRC, is a member.
Of course, the most important Reconstructionist at the Conference of Presidents is June Walker, the newly elected chairperson who is a member of Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reconstructionist congregation in Chatham, NJ. She did a wonderful job of leading the meetings.
Hoenlein emphasized during the pre-excursion conference call that the ground rules dictated that the discussion stick to foreign policy issues and that comments from all parties were off-the-record, though we were permitted to relate our own thoughts about the meeting to our members.
Our first session was in the morning with the House Republican leadership and we filed into a smallish conference room in the Minority Leaders office. “The room will be bigger on the Majority side,” someone noted. The anteroom, however, was magnificent with a beautiful picture of George Washington on the wall and huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Minority Leader John Boehner was introduced by Minority Whip Roy Blount, who then excused himself to head to the floor. He turned the meeting over to Deputy Whip Eric Cantor who, according to Wikipedia, is the only Jewish Republican member of the House. Jewish connections were certainly a theme for the day.
As with most of the comments of the day, the policy points of the Republicans toward the Middle East were uniformly pro-Israel and anti-Iran. There was some discussion of Iraq, but most of the attention was combating the threat of an Iran with nuclear weapons.
Hoenlein’s exhortations notwithstanding, the first question from the group was a somewhat rambling diatribe about the condition of the Republican Party in New York State and what Boehner was going to do about it.
Behind me Hoenlein was turning beet red and I thought his neck was going to explode. But Boehner, though from Ohio, jumped right in with an admission that the New York party was not where it should be but that its problems were a long-time in the making. What a pro. The questioner wasn’t quite satisfied, but the discussion quickly turned to the implications of the Hamas victory in the Gaza – a little more on target.
Cantor mentioned a couple of bills that had bipartisan support aimed at Iran. I was going to ask how the government can foster more bipartisan cooperation in foreign policy, but a guy in the corner cut me off. That was as close as I came to asking a question during the day, but it was one that stuck with me throughout the proceedings.
After a few more questions and some chatting, we filed out of the room, (Cantor was particularly pleasant and talkative.) Meanwhile, Hoenlein was giving the guy with the NY GOP question a piece of his mind. The questioner protested, but weakly, and was never heard from the rest of the day.
We headed over to the Speaker’s lunchroom where we had plenty of space to sit. An impressive array of the House leadership was there to greet us. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, spoke first. A very distinguished gentleman is how I would describe him.
Nancy Pelosi entered from the back and she is another very impressive leader. She won the award for the day for Jewish geography. She spoke about her speech in Jerusalem, where she described how her father, a congressman from Baltimore and a huge supporter of Roosevelt, publicly disagreed with the president during World War II about Roosevelt’s insufficient efforts to help Jews get out of Europe. “It was written up in the Jerusalem Post,” she said. “I will have copies emailed to you.” She didn’t have to bother. There was a copy on every chair.
The Speaker also noted that her son-in-law is Jewish. Someone mentioned in passing that Pelosi has Jewish grandchildren. Some of the Orthodox leaders looked doubtful.
Rahm Emanuel, the number four house leader and only member to have served in the Israel Defense Force, spoke as did Steny Hoyer, the Majority Leader, and Chris Van Hollen, the number five. Several of us in the audience from the Bethesda area gave Van Hollen, our representative, a thumb’s up. (I learned his daughter is in the same graduating class as my daughter and told her she should expect a good commencement speaker.)
The goodwill was so palpable that the session ran long and Hoenlein was urging people to move out because the White House was already calling to find out why we were late. We headed out the door, but the bus wasn’t in sight. It was several blocks away over cobblestones.
“That’s the difference with a male-run organization,” laughed Walker, who is also the national president of Hadassah. “We are better on logistics. My board would never stand for this.”
“Men don’t have to walk in heels,” noted someone else.
Onboard the bus, I called my wife to tell her I couldn’t talk because I was going to see the President. “That’s nice, dear,” she said.
After several layers of security, we shuffled into a room in the Executive Office Building and sat in a full circle, with several empty chairs at the far end and two seats on the near side, surrounded by flags. A couple of aides milled around.
Right on time, the President entered and everyone rose. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, was at his side. Across the room sat Josh Bolten, his chief of staff; Stephen Hadley, the national security officer; Elliot Abrams, a Mideast specialist on the national security staff; and Jeremy Katz, the White House liaison to the Jewish community. Oh yes, and there was Karl Rove.
President Bush began with a welcome and talked for about 45 minutes on a variety of national security subjects. He pitched his immigration bill and spoke strongly about his policy in Iraq. He was very assured and seemed much more in command than he appears on television, warmer and more engaging. None of the little smiles that sometimes people dislike.
There were questions and he answered them all, with Secretary Rice only commenting on one. Otherwise, it was entirely his show. The group was very attentive. Bush seemed totally involved. Rove spent the whole time, making notes, though as far as I could tell there was nothing that the President said that wasn’t right from his basic speeches. Bush did mention the names of G-8 leaders. But Presidents have the right to name drop.
As he was finishing a question, Bolten stood and Bush said, “Time to go.” We all stood and clapped. But the President didn’t leave. He stayed in the room for another 15 minutes, greeting people, some of whom he knew or knew people they knew. Lots of pictures and handshakes. Rice stayed on as well and chatted amiably.
Rove simply disappeared.
Then we were free to go. Everyone, including Hoenlein, was struck by the amount of time that the President spent with the group, his conversational tone and his earnestness in his presentation. He is passionate about his policies.
In the end, there were no great revelations, but no one thought there would be. Clearly, both sides had achieved their objectives. The Jewish leaders demonstrated their passion for strong U.S. support of Israel in an increasingly dangerous Middle East. The politicians were able to confirm their commitment.
You know the commitment’s there. But it’s different when it’s face to face.