The Doctor Is In
Listening to Howard Dean reminds me of going to a doctor who
starts out the visit by saying, “Bill, you really look sick.”
Maybe I do, but I don’t want to hear it expressed quite so
bluntly. Just like I didn’t want to hear Dr. Dean saying in Los Angeles Dec.
15, “The capture of Saddam has not made America safer.”
Dean’s pessimism was hard to take, especially right after
the bearded villain was hauled out of the ground by American troops.
Such blunt, sometimes thoughtless talk could be damaging to
him in the Jewish community because it has led to a perception among some Jews
that he is soft on the Palestinians. That may be one reason Connecticut Sen.
Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew and a strong supporter of the Iraq invasion,
led the Democratic presidential field among Jews in Florida in a December poll
by the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald.
The impression has persisted even though Dean’s prescription
is the same two-state solution advocated by Bill Clinton and now by President
Bush. As a statement issued by Dean’s campaign put it: “The basic framework for
peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is a two-state solution — a Jewish
State of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent,
demilitarized Palestinian state.”
His trouble began when he said, “It’s not our place to take
sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian battle and that the United States should be
evenhanded in its approach. Criticism forced Dean to clarify, as he has had to
On CNN, he said he would “speak out against violence of any
kind in the Middle East. That’s what I mean by being evenhanded.” He conceded
that he shouldn’t have used the term “but the fact of the matter is, at the
negotiating table, we have to have the trust of both sides.”
During Chanukah, I talked about Dean with a few people while
attending an American Jewish Committee reception at the Beverly Hills canyon
home of Naty and Debbie Saidoff.
As is true with most of California, most were not especially
focused on a presidential nominating contest now being fought in Iowa and New
Hampshire. By the time the fight reaches this state, in the March primary,
the nomination may well have been decided. For Californians, except for
dedicated political activists and large contributors, the Democratic presidential
contest is like the National Football League — something we watch on
Nevertheless I encountered some interest.
Valerie Fields, a long-time political activist, said she and
her husband, Judge Jerry Fields, had been struck by Dean’s ability to draw new
people into his campaign. They attended a Dean fundraiser at Union Station. The
place was packed, she said, and Fields, acquainted with innumerable people in
politics, knew only two other people there.
Fields had hit upon the great strength of the Dean campaign.
A combination of his blunt manner and brilliant use of the Internet for
organizing and fundraising has brought in large numbers of political newcomers,
put him ahead of the field and seemingly on his way to the nomination. It has created
a base of supporters dedicated enough to love him for his mistakes, and to step
up their contributions whenever he is attacked by rivals.
The Dean Web site, www.blogforamerica.com, has a young,
rebellious intensity, a bit too intense for me, too much like a fan club. The
big question is how far can Dean extend his appeal beyond the adoring bloggers
and the friends they make at Dean meet-ups.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the
American Jewish Committee (AJC), had his doubts when I talked to him briefly at
the AJC reception and then on the phone a few days later.
He seemed skeptical about Dean’s ability to expand his base
into large numbers of those in their 30s and older in the Jewish community,
which he said comprises a substantial part of AJC membership.
He said, “Given the rise of anti-Semitism in the Arab world
and Europe, Jews will be “more inclined … than ever before” in the voting
booth to base their votes on what candidates say about Israel. Jews usually
vote liberal, but “this time they will be voting Jewish issues,” he said.
Dean’s use of the phrase “evenhanded” was damaging, he said,
as was his failure to understand that the words would infuriate Jews
increasingly concerned about Israel’s survival.
Donna Bojarsky, liberal political strategist and Jewish
community activist, sharply disagreed.
It’s “preposterous” to challenge Dean’s commitment to
Israel, she said, “there’s no foundation for it.”
Only Dean generates the excitement to awaken and expand the
Democratic Party base, she added.
Personally, I think the Jewish community should give Dean a
He can be careless with words. But he doesn’t pose and
pander. He doesn’t parade his Jewish physician wife or his Jewish children on
the campaign trail. He doesn’t try to make voters feel happy. He’s the doctor
who slams you in the face with the unpleasant truth.
And while hearing the truth is uncomfortable, a politician
with the guts to tell it should be valued.
Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of
each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a
political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for
three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.