Larry and me
I have been through three presidential election cycles while at The Jewish Journal.
The candidates change. The issues ebb and flow. Administrations come and go. But Larry Greenfield — that dude abides.
On Thursday evening, Oct. 30, I’m going to see Larry. Again.
Greenfield is the regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Over the past few months, as the race narrowed to Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain and the polls tightened and the rhetoric and tactics grew nastier, Greenfield has manned the front lines, appearing at dozens of debates, lectures, parlor meetings and rallies to promote McCain and oppose Obama.
Thursday evening at Valley Beth Shalom he’ll appear at his last one, facing off against Rep. Howard Berman, with me moderating. Frankly, I find it inconceivable that there is a Jew south of Fairbanks who hasn’t made up his or her mind about this election, but I suppose many people still feel the need for reassurance, the same way you can’t help but read the ads for the car you just bought.
I’ve attended or moderated too many debates with Greenfield to count. He is always the most eager, least jaded person in the room. He shows up with his jet-black hair, his dark suit, a ready smile bursting across his ruddy cheeks, and immediately he’s working the crowd, shaking hands. He’s a Mormon missionary crossed with a shtetl tummler — and I mean that as a compliment.
Republican Jews are small in number. They set themselves apart from that great majority of their co-religionists — the most consistent Democrat voting bloc in the nation, perhaps in the nation’s history. They feel persecuted. They work hard to leverage their passion, money, talents and time in order to have an impact disproportionate to their numbers. In doing so, they risk unpopularity, they overstep boundaries, they make some friends and many enemies. They are the Jews among Jews.
Greenfield and I can disagree on many candidates and issues. And I cringe when, at these debates, his temper flares or he stoops to some of the tactics he accuses his political enemies of employing. But I have a soft spot for anyone who tilts at windmills. Kol koreh b’midbar, the prophet Isaiah says, “a voice cries in the wilderness.” For many years, in Los Angeles at least, this voice has been Greenfield’s.
And the voice is relentlessly optimistic. A Democrat in his student days at UC Berkeley, Greenfield, like so many Jewish Republicans, was inspired by Ronald Reagan. The Gipper’s there-must-be-a-pony-in-a-room-full-of-manure philosophy is Greenfield’s own. Early in this election, Greenfield and I compared notes on the Republican field. He was giddy from the embarrassment of riches.
“Rudy is great, he’s one of us,” he said of one-time candidate Rudy Giuliani. “But I think you really ought to watch Mitt Romney.”
When McCain won the nomination, I ran into Greenfield again. He predicted a big chunk of the Jewish vote going the Arizona senator’s way.
He ran down the list of Obama’s “negatives” from the Jewish perspective: limited track record on Israel, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, unsavory past affiliations.
For a while I believed him. McCain was the moderate, pro-Israel Republican who could sweep up many independently minded Jewish voters. Early polls showed McCain getting more of the Jewish vote than Bush.
But all that momentum stalled when McCain picked Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
“Homerun!” Greenfield e-mailed me within five hours of the announcement.
In fact, it was close to a third strike. Independents, and independently minded Jews, bailed.
If the polls and pundits are right as of today, next week Greenfield and his fellow Republicans are going to be standing on the beach when a Democratic tsunami hits. The House, Senate and White House may go to Democratic majority. Some favorites are most at risk. A New York Jewish Democrat, Al Franken, may actually defeat a New York Jewish Republican, Norm Coleman, for a Senate seat in Minnesota.
I am anxious to hear on Thursday if Greenfield still sees a pony. And if not, I’m going to ask him to explain what happened.
I have my own theory: given a choice between playing to the center-picking Sen. Joe Lieberman, for instance, or playing to the base of Christian evangelical conservatives, McCain chose the latter. Instead of inspiring potential Jewish Republicans, like Reagan, he turned them off, like Bush.
The Lee Atwater-Karl Rove strategy that welds culture to religion for use as a political club never seemed to hold much appeal to McCain, a fact that endeared him to more socially liberal Jews. But Palin turned out to be that club.
Four years ago Greenfield stood amid admirers at a victory party for George W. Bush at the Level One club in Beverly Hills and proclaimed that half the country’s Jewish vote would go Republican within a decade. But the needle, which might have jumped in this go-round, doesn’t look like it will budge.
So Larry Greenfield may just go back to being, if not the only Republican Jewish voice, one of the relative few.
Except, you know, for Joe Lieberman.