CAMPAIGN CONFIDENTIAL

By E.J. Kessler

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.

O’Neill Observations: A story about President Bush told by former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill in a new tell-all book is drawing fire from Jewish Democrats, including Howard Dean’s campaign chairman.

Quoting O’Neill on the early days of the Bush administration in the book, “The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill,” author Ron Suskind writes that upon taking office, Bush was less than interested in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to O’Neill, at the first National Security Council meeting of his presidency, Bush expressed doubts that America could accomplish much on the Arab-Israeli front, saying, “I think it’s time to pull out of that situation.” When informed by Secretary of State Colin Powell that American inaction could lead to more bloodshed, Bush said, according to O’Neill, “Maybe that’s the best way to get things back in balance.”

Dean’s national campaign co-chairman, Steve Grossman, pounced on the alleged Bush remarks.

“It’s a pretty shocking statement,” Grossman told the Forward. “It shows George Bush essentially turned a blind eye to the possibility of increased violence and bloodshed as a result of a change in American policy, i.e., disengagement. It demonstrates callousness unworthy of an American president and certainly doesn’t accord with the view expressed by many, that George Bush is a true friend of Israel.”

The executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, said it is “disappointing that Bush was so indifferent to the bloodshed that would result from a lack of American leadership.”

Bush’s friends among communal leaders carried water for him, naturally.

Fred Zeidman, the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, called O’Neill’s account a “shande” (or scandal) and “totally self-serving … spin.”

“I have been in constant conversation with the president [on this matter] since he was sworn in. He’s never ignored the situation,” Zeidman said. In the early days of the administration, Zeidman said, Bush “was trying to distance himself from [Yasser] Arafat…as part of a calculated plan.” If Bush ignored Powell’s warning, it was because he was following the advice of the national security adviser, the secretary of defense and others, Zeidman said.

The president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, a Bush supporter, said the key to Bush’s alleged statements was context.

“Times were in a state of flux,” he said. “President Clinton’s attempts to have an agreement failed. [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak’s government collapsed. The Intifada began. It would be difficult to understand all the options a new president was considering.”

* * *

Anti-Dean Calls: Foes of Dean, having bombarded Jewish voters with anonymous e-mails calling into question Dean’s support for Israel, are spreading their message through a new medium: telephone lines.

The Dean campaign told the Forward that there have been at least two instances in which supporters have gotten anonymous automated telephone calls besmirching the candidate’s position on the Jewish state.

One Dean supporter in Essex County, New York, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Rural Caucus, Stuart Brody, received such a call “two or three weeks ago.” Brody described the call to the Forward as lasting about a minute and featuring an older male voice with a Jewish inflection, who sounded as if he was reading from a script. The voice blasted Dean in terms similar to those in the anonymous e-mail — taking him to task for a remark calling for an “even-handed” approach to the Middle East — and said voters should not support him before making a pitch for Bush. The call did not identify who was speaking or who sponsored it, which is a violation of the law, Brody said.

Dean’s senior adviser on Jewish affairs, Matt Dorf, said he did not think that the person or group sponsoring the calls had purchased a great amount — although services exist that allow automated calls to be produced relatively inexpensively — because the campaign had not heard reports of large numbers of them. A second call also was reported in New York.

“This is yet another attempt by political partisans to grossly distort Governor Dean’s strong support for Israel,” Dorf said. “It shows that opponents of Governor Dean will stoop to any level, including illegal phone calls, to malign him.”

* * *

Clinton Calling: Speaking of “Bubba,” he evidently has not lost his sense of humor when it comes to ribbing his old employees.

Addressing a recent training seminar in suburban Maryland for communications directors of the state Democratic Party, Clinton delivered a half-hour briefing by phone on the Democratic message, according to someone who was there. The seminar was conducted by Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington media strategist who worked on both of Clinton’s presidential campaigns and served as director of media planning, design and production in the Clinton White House.

Clinton couldn’t resist giving Rabinowitz — known in the White House by the nickname “Rabbi” — the business.

“He told them I was constantly trying to lead him through brick walls and cautioned them not to listen to a thing I say,” Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz was fine with the playful jabs from his former boss. “We’ve been through a few battles together,” he said.

* * *

Guv’s New Guy: After some months when the post sat empty, New York Governor George Pataki has appointed a new liaison to the Jewish community.

The liaison is Michael Fragin, 30, who most recently has been working as a consultant to Jewish not-for-profit organizations. He replaces Greg Menken, who recently became executive director of the New York office of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The GOP is such a cozy club: Pataki is to be the keynote speaker at the Coalition’s winter meeting in Palm Beach in February. And the group is expected to have a high profile at the Republican National Convention in New York City in August.



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