ARLINGTON, Va. — If President Bush succeeds in increasing his share of the Jewish vote above the estimated 19% that he won in 2000, it will have a great deal to do with his with-us-or-against-us posture on the world stage. True, the Jewish community is sharply divided over the wisdom of the president’s stance. At least one Jew is thoroughly convinced, however, and he’s an important one: the president’s own campaign manager, Ken Mehlman.
“In the 1980s in the case of Ronald Reagan, and today in the case of George W. Bush, you have leaders who speak out and say, ‘They’re wrong, we’re right, and you’re either with us or against us,’” Mehlman said in an interview with the Forward at Bush campaign headquarters. “Some people are uncomfortable with that. I think that it is appropriate to say with antisemitic murderers, ‘You’re either with them, or you’re with us.’”
Mehlman, 37, is considered a protégé of Karl Rove, who first brought him onto the Bush team in 1999. He served as White House political director before leaving last summer to take over the Bush-Cheney ’04 re-election drive.
A veteran congressional staffer and a Harvard-educated lawyer, Mehlman said he was drawn to Republicanism while growing up in Baltimore, where his mother was a leader of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. As a youngster during the 1980s, he said, he would accompany his mother when she went to the airport to greet newly arriving refuseniks.
“Here were people who in most cases were professionally trained, and who had literally left [their] country to give up everything,” Mehlman said. “One of the reasons I’m a Republican is, when Ronald Reagan would talk about the evil empire, the left’s response was to say that’s inappropriate rhetoric. It seems to me that Ronald Reagan was right, based on a lot of the Soviet Jews I had met. That, more than anything else, opened my eyes to the differences of the parties on politics. That was one of the first of a series of examples where, when moral clarity was needed to deal with a threat to our community, you had a Republican leader who showed moral clarity and you had a lot of folks on the other side who tried to avoid that moral clarity.”
Despite his take-no-prisoners rhetoric, Mehlman’s talents and charm force even members of the other team to sing his praises. “He’s the brilliant captain of a sinking ship,” said pollster Mark Mellman, who advises Democratic contender John Kerry. “He’s doing the best he can in a very difficult situation.”
Jim Jordan, a former Kerry campaign manager, concurs. “He’s the second most important person in a very tightly structured, hierarchical organization that simply doesn’t make many bad moves,” Jordan said. “You’d have to give him a fair amount of credit for that.”
Indeed, in what might be interpreted as a sign of respect, Bush, much given to joking nicknames, does not have one for his manager. What does the president call him? “He usually calls me ‘Mehlman.’”
Mehlman said he grew up in a “traditional” Baltimore Jewish home with parents who “headed up two of the federation’s larger institutions in town.” His father was chairman of Sinai Hospital, Baltimore’s main Jewish hospital, while his mother, in addition to her HIAS volunteer work, served for 30 years as a teacher at a nursery school associated with the city’s largest Conservative synagogue, Chizuk Amuno. The family has strong ties to Israel: His paternal grandparents settled there in the 1970s.
Mehlman’s record on Jewish issues is not beyond rebuke. In late June, he strongly defended a video that the campaign put up on its Web site that contained footage of Adolf Hitler interspersed with images of Democratic leaders including Al Gore, Dick Gephart and John Kerry. Bush campaign figures defended the Hitler images, saying they were taken from an anti-Bush video that had been featured on the Web site of the liberal group MoveOn.org, which was running a contest. Mehlman said the campaign used the Hitler images “to show the depths to which these Kerry supporters will sink to win in November.” The Bush video drew strong criticism from a raft of Jewish organizations objecting to any political use of Nazi images, and ignited a furious debate among leaders of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who worried that the use of the images would lose Jewish votes — especially in Florida. The video was pulled from the site last weekend.
Despite the flap, Mehlman continues to get ringing accolades from leading Jewish Republicans. “He really does understand Jewish issues,” said the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Fred Zeidman, a prominent Republican donor and friend of Bush. “He’s served our president well, he’s served our community well and as a result he’s served our country well.”
A slender figure with sharp features and slightly receding brown hair, the unmarried Mehlman looks like his boss doesn’t give him enough R&R: He’s got bags under his eyes and a complexion that suggests too many hours spent under fluorescent lights.
But his prodigious work ethic, honed as a legal associate and top congressional aide, has earned him the undying loyalty of superiors and underlings alike. They, too, describe a man with a selfless streak and a tremendous sense of fun.
Mehlman’s former boss, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, says her one-time chief of staff is a “great strategist” who “never let anything drop.”
“He worked for me for nearly three years,” Granger said. “After six months, I said, ‘I will read about you in the history books.’ I knew he was destined for great things.”
She was so grateful for his efforts that she gave the wannabe Texan a gray rancher’s hat, black Western boots and a bronze statue of a cowboy for his desk.
Coddy Johnson, the Bush campaign’s national field director who’s been Mehlman’s right hand since they worked together on Bush’s Iowa Caucuses campaign in 1999, recalled how in 2000, when Mehlman became the Bush campaign’s national field director, he refused a salary increase so that the regional directors could get a raise. He even turned down a corner office so that he could stay with the staff in the cubicles.
“He gives the team its own sense of identity, beyond the candidate,” Johnson said, describing outings, parties and jokes.
Johnson recalled how, after coming back to headquarters following a dinner out in Iowa one snowy night, the two exited their car, only to be met by a hail of snowballs from the rest of the staff, who were lying in ambush: “As he fell, he pushed me forward and said, ‘Save yourself!’”
Mehlman won’t predict the percentage of the Jewish vote that Bush can expect to win in November, but he said that he thinks his man will do better than he did last time. Asked to identify some domestic issues on which the president might make his case to the Jewish community, he touts Bush’s record on education, especially on countering the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Still, Mehlman has no illusions that Bush’s main selling point to Jewish voters will be foreign affairs. The Soviet Union, he said, “was the largest force for antisemitism in the world at the time,” while today that force is “international terrorism.”
“Certainly, over the last three years Jewish Americans have had an opportunity to see the kind of leader George Bush is,” he said. “It isn’t always popular in the international community to take a stand of moral clarity in the war on terror. The president’s approach is to say, ‘I’m going on principle, rather than what’s always the more popular thing.’ That’s the kind of approach that supporters of Israel ought to find to be refreshing and appropriate.”