The Washington Dread and Denial Association

“Don’t do it!”

Stories, whether torn from history or made from whole cloth, can make us want to shout that. Don’t open that door at the top of the stairs. Don’t get on that boat. Don’t believe that president, general, journalist, preacher, cop. 

This packs a punch in a short story Delmore Schwartz wrote when he was 21, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The narrator tells us he dreamed he was in a movie theater, watching an old film of his parents’ courtship. His father asks his mother to marry him, she says yes — and the narrator is galvanized to stand up and shout, “Don’t do it!  It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you.  Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The whole audience is annoyed; the lady next to him tells him to be quiet, “and so I shut my eyes because I could not bear to see what was happening.” He awakens from the nightmare to the morning of his 21st birthday.

We can’t stop Othello from trusting Iago or Antigone from burying her brother.  We can’t stop America from swallowing President Lyndon Johnson’s lie about the Gulf of Tonkin, or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from interning Japanese Americans. (Richard Reeves’ new book about that, “Infamy,” is horrifying.) But in real time, we want to forestall new bad things from happening, and the same bad things from happening again. When we fail, sometimes it’s a failure of clairvoyance, which is forgivable; sometimes it’s a consequence of our ignorance or impotence, and sometimes it’s because our default hardwiring is denial. 

Did you watch any of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner? Politico called it an “orgy of everything people outside the Beltway hate about life inside the Beltway … clubby backslapping, carousing and drinking between the press and the powerful.” The event, as usual, was crawling with celebrities. Cable panelists hammered the association for going Hollywood. President Barack Obama and comedian Cecily Strong seemed hip to how bizarre the evening was, “bizarre” being what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen called it on his blog, Pressthink, just before the red carpet glam began. He compared the press corps to a “big extended family with a terrible secret that cannot be confronted because everyone knows how bad it would be if the discussion got real.” That terrible secret: the Iraq war. 

“For a press that imagines itself a watchdog,” Rosen writes, “failing to detect a faulty case for war, then watching the war unfold into the biggest foreign policy disaster in memory … is an event so huge and deflating that it amounts to an identity crisis.” 

That crisis hasn’t happened. Instead, the festive crowd at the Washington Hilton looked pretty much like it did in 2002 and 2003. Getting real about that terrible secret ought to be a prerequisite for the press to serve as watchdogs of today’s wars, as educators of citizen choices between “Don’t do it!” and “Do it!” Instead, the Beltway press says, as Obama did of the malefactors of the Great Recession, “Let’s move on.” In principle, history should guide us. In reality, Dick Cheney — “the worst president in my lifetime,” Obama called him at the dinner — is as belligerent about Iraq today as he was when he got Colin Powell to fool us at the United Nations.  

I think there’s a second terrible secret those playahs in that ballroom and those corporate after-parties also can’t face: the complete corruption of our political system by money. 

Much of the dysfunction that now poses a lethal threat to our politics and government is, ultimately, about money and the media it buys. From time to time, campaign-finance reform comes up — Hillary Clinton says it’s a big issue for her — but the Washington press corps treats the cesspool like old news. Maybe they’ve just gotten used to the smell. If the press weren’t in denial, if it truly functioned as a watchdog, that corruption would be BREAKING NEWS, and a public informed and therefore outraged about how far gone our self-governance is would be shouting “Stop! Don’t do it anymore!” But as the 2016 race begins, it’s normal — not bizarre and scary — when the Koch brothers say they’ll spend nearly $1 billion on the election, when Hillary Clinton’s supporters talk about her raising $2 billion. There is no brake on this train, nothing — not even the Constitution — to stop runaway oligarchs and deep-pocketed industries from hijacking American democracy.

The trouble, of course, is that we’re in denial about other terrible secrets as well. Our failure to prevent another financial meltdown. Or a global cyberwar. Or climate change. Or earthquakes. The devastating news from Nepal is prompting Californians to check our emergency water and batteries, but soon we’ll forget again that, at any instant, the worst earthquake in thousands of years could forever mark the biggest Before and After in the lifetimes of everyone who lives through and comes after it. 

I don’t blame us for wearing blinders. I think our brains would explode if we faced the realities of risk and mortality all the time. Yes, I know that climate change will be irreversible unless the world puts a price on carbon pollution and changes what we grow and eat. But thinking about that makes me feel depressed and helpless. Luckily, the human brain has a built-in proclivity for processing tragedy with magical thinking, for believing we’re being rational rather than actually being rational. That helps with the pain.

When Jon Stewart told a Guardian writer why he’s quitting “The Daily Show,” he said that his job — which requires him to watch news all the time — “is incredibly depressing. I live in a constant state of depression. I think of us as turd miners. I put on my helmet, I go and mine turds, hopefully I don’t get turd lung disease.” Our best satirists — Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, whose genius 2006 routine the WHCA received like a turd — try to wake us from our sleepwalking, to shake us from our amnesia. But there’s only so much reality you can take before — hey, is that Bradley Cooper with Justice Scalia?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He can be reached at 

Helen Thomas: Jews were not persecuted in Europe after war so should have stayed there [VIDEO]

Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas said the Jews did not have to leave postwar Europe because they weren’t persecuted.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN’s “Joy Behar” program, Thomas told Behar that once World War II ended, the Jews “didn’t have to go anywhere really, because they weren’t being persecuted anymore. But they were taking other people’s land.”

Impromptu remarks that Thomas made last May to a rabbi video blogger about how the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Poland and Germany cost her her job as correspondent for the Hearst newspaper corporation. She now works for a newspaper in Virginia.

Though Thomas apologized for the comment, follow-up remarks last December about how “the Zionists” own Congress, the White House, Hollywood and Wall Street caused further uproar, and prompted the Society of Professional Journalists to drop an award named for Thomas, who was a fixture on the White House beat for decades.

In this week’s interview on CNN, Thomas said that when she said Jews should go back to Poland and Germany, “I should have said Russia too.”

After the interview, Elan Steinberg, the vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said, “Helen Thomas, not content with previous offensive comments, now is either uncaring or spiteful of the terrible circumstances of post-Holocaust survivors in Europe—a shocking display of ignorance of events which occurred in her lifetime.”

Thomas’ account of history is inaccurate. Attacks against Jews and persecution of Jews continued in Europe even after World War II, both in the years immediately following the war, such as during the Kielce, Poland pogrom of 1946, and in the decades since. Poland, for example, launched an anti-Jewish campaign in 1967 that culminated in the expulsion of nearly 13,000 Jews over the course of five years. The country’s prime minister at the time described Zionists as a fifth column in Poland and say they should leave the country for Israel.

When asked on Behar’s program is she considers herself anti-Semitic, Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese, said, “Hell no, I’m a Semite.” Of the Jews she said, “They’re not Semites. Most of them are from Europe.”

Asked if she regretted making the remark that ended her career in Washington, she said, “I have regrets that everybody’s misinterpreted it and distorted it,” singling out former George W. Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman.

“We have organized lobbyists in favor of Israel, you can’t open your mouth,” she said. “If you say one thing about Israel, you’re off limits.”

Watch the video:

Don’t underestimate the power of the Jewish newspaper

If I have to blame anyone for my fate, I suppose it would be the late Peter Boyarsky, who put out a Yiddish newspaper in Chicago.

Peter, my father’s uncle, was an
influential Chicago journalist in the early part of the last century. “Printers’ ink in his blood,” they used to say of newspaper people in the old days. I guess my dose of ink came from Uncle Peter, and here I am today, just like him, pounding out words for a Jewish newspaper.

I learned just how influential Peter Boyarsky was years ago, when my editor at the Los Angeles Times, Ed Guthman, suggested I stop in Chicago on my way to Washington and talk to Jake Arvey, a once-famous boss of the Chicago machine who was then in semiretirement. Guthman was always trying to broaden my political knowledge, and he figured I could learn something from the old boss.

Arvey, seated behind his desk, looked at me closely.

“Boyarsky,” he said. “Boyarsky,” he said again, pondering the name. “Are you related to a Yiddish newspaper editor named Boyarsky?”

I replied that he was my father’s uncle.

Arvey smiled. When he first ran for office, Arvey said, Boyarsky agreed to have his paper endorse him, assuring him of victory in the solidly Jewish district.

After that, Arvey and I got along just fine.

I thought of Peter Boyarsky when I returned from a vacation that included a visit to the ” target=”_blank”>Forward, still published today as an influential weekly on the Web and in print, with a Yiddish-language edition that, as the paper says, is experiencing “a modest revival, benefiting from the renewed interest in Yiddish on college campuses…. .”

Such a revival is happening in Los Angeles, too.

In Chicago, Peter Boyarsky edited the Idisher Kuryer, the Daily Jewish Courier, with editions in Yiddish and English. Like the better-known Forward and other Yiddish papers, it covered the common problems of Chicago’s immigrant Jews and familiarized them with the customs, rules, traditions and politics of their new city and country

When Arvey was rising to power in the 24th Ward in the heart of Jewish Chicago, it was logical that he would call upon the Idisher Kuryer and its editor for help. The paper was probably as important to Arvey as a good precinct captain in getting out the vote.

All that seems a bit old fashioned today. Sophisticated Los Angeles Jews don’t have to turn to a Jewish newspaper for political advice or for guidance through the pitfalls of American society. Assimilated Jews can find that information on their own.

But one of the basic tasks of Jewish community newspapers remains. It is the same task that faces Lansky at the National Yiddish Book Center —building and maintaining a sense of community and Jewish identity among a people now scattered and often secularized. Rachel Levin, program officer of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, put it this way in discussing the foundation’s grant to the Yiddish Book Center for digitizing Yiddish literature:

“Over 50 years after the war, a new generation is beginning to realize how cut off we are from our recent history, as we try to piece together fragments of what life was like in towns, shtetls and cities throughout Europe. Often these fragments seem to be only hints and shadows of what was, and therefore, we look to literature, albeit fiction, to find the color and life of the marketplace, the intense struggles between different ideological factions, the misery of factory life and the joy of communal celebrations.”

Newspapers aren’t literature, but that’s what my great uncle, Peter Boyarsky, did at the Idisher Kuryer, and that remains one of our tasks at The Jewish Journal today.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at His column appears here monthly.

Q & A With Ari Fleischer

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary andassistant to President Bush, will participate in the University of Judaism’s2004 Public Lecture Series opening Jan. 26.

Following the sold-out success of the previous two series,next year’s Monday evening lineup at the Universal Amphitheatre will featureGen. Tommy Franks on Jan. 26, former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. BobDole on Feb. 23, Bill Maher and William Kristol on March 22 and Fleischer, TomBrokaw and Dee Dee Meyers on April 19.

The series format will allow audience members to submitquestions well in advance that will be printed in the programs and become partof each lecture’s question-and-answer period.

The Journal spoke to Fleischer, 43, to ask a few questionsof our own.

Jewish Journal: It must have been a heady experience to bethe president’s spokesman, with the world hanging on your every word. Why didyou leave?

Ari Fleischer: The job was exhilarating, fascinating andintellectually rewarding, but it was also exhausting and very hard. The natureof the White House briefing room has changed a lot. And I got married, too. AsI said when I left, I wanted to do something more relaxing, like dismantlinglive nuclear weapons.

JJ: In what sense have White House press briefings changed?

AF: With round-the-clock TV and radio news, with the Internet,everything has become instant. Reporters are under a lot more pressure thanjust 10 years ago, when they had more time for reflection and analysis.

JJ: There were and are relatively few Jewish faces in theWhite House. How did you feel as the sort of resident Jewish rep?

AF: My Jewishness was never an issue. The White House staffis overwhelmingly Texan and Christian, but I found it a very comfortable placeto work. Besides, I wasn’t the only Jew. There was Josh Bolten, the No. 1policy person; Blake Gottesman, the president’s personal aide who travels withhim everywhere; and Brad Blakeman, the president’s scheduling director.

JJ: Are you a lifelong Republican?

AF: By no means. Both my parents are proud Democrats. My dadnever voted for a Republican and never will. While I lived at home and when Istarted college, I was a liberal Democrat. In a sense, it was President Carterwho drove me out of the Democratic Party and it was President Reagan whowelcomed me into the Republican Party.

JJ: How did your parents react when you came out of thecloset and told them you had become a Republican?

AF: They were horrified and my dad is still horrified. Weare a very close family, but not a quiet one. One of my brothers is a veryliberal Democrat, and the other is a very conservative Republican. We have somevery spirited discussions around the dinner table.

JJ: Did you have a Jewish education?

AF: I went to a Jewish nursery school on the Upper West Sideof New York, attended Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue, and [had my]bar mitzvah at a Reform temple in Ridgefield, Conn.

JJ: Tell me a little about your family background.

AF: My father was born in this country, but my mother camehere from Hungary in August 1939. Very few of her family survived theHolocaust.

JJ: Have your parents met President Bush?

AF: Yes, many times. They both like him personally, and mymother even said she might vote for him because he is so pro-Israel. She isstill sitting on the fence. Occasionally, the president would ask me, “Have Igot your mother yet?” but she is making him work for it.

JJ: Did the president have a nickname for you?

AF: Yes, he called me Ari-Bob, sort of Texanized my name.

JJ: Are you involved with any Jewish organization?

AF: I was too busy when I was working in the White House,and now I have been setting up my own communications firm in Washington. But mywife, Becki, and I are expecting our first baby in May and we have beensynagogue shopping.

JJ: Are you writing a book? Will it be a kiss-and-tell?

AF: Yes to the first part and no to the second. I’m writingabout what I saw in the White House and my relationship to the press corps. Thejob was really like walking a tightrope between the president and the press.The reporters were a very sharp group, but very demanding.

JJ: The large majority of Jews remain Democratic. What wouldyou tell them to try and shift the balance?

AF: I would urge Jews to be open-minded, to follow the news,to vote their conscience and to be thankful that they have such a good friendof Israel in the Oval Office.

JJ: Do you see any shift among Jewish voters in the 2004elections?

AF: If the issues are largely domestic, the Democrats willfare very well among Jewish voters. But if Iraq, terrorism and Israel are frontand center, I think Jews will take a second look. There is also thegenerational factor. Younger Jews are much more open to voting Republican.Their elders, who still remember FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], are likely tostay with the Democrats.

Subscriptions for the UJ’s Public Lecture Series are$200-$400. Tickets cannot be purchased separately. For more information, call(310) 440-1246.  

A Barak Diary

Ehud Barak stomps down the aisle of the old, white Boeing 707 that doubles as Israel’s Air Force One. He has come to shmooze with the traveling press corps. Close up, he is shorter than expected. He clenches his shoulders like a muscle-bound wrestler. His pudgy face looks as if it was molded from children’s modeling dough, his hair as if he still has it trimmed by his old army barber. No $200 stylist at the airport for him.

Barak’s brisk, efficient media adviser, David Ziso, describes himself as “the prime minister’s personal spokesman and producer.” There is indeed an element of performance about all his boss’s appearances, even off the record and 30,000 feet over the Mediterranean.

The prime minister is genial and informal, but never totally relaxed. He listens to himself speak. He teases political reporters by their first names, flirts with the women among us, but inoffensively. You won’t catch him calling them meidele as Ezer Weizman, another macho general turned politician, might. He asks to be introduced to the half dozen foreign correspondents in the party.

Ziso confides that Barak has taken a conscious decision not to emulate you-know-who and spout sound bites as a substitute for policy. If anything, the Labor leader has gone too far the other way. Like Golda Meir and Menachem Begin — and for all I know David Ben-Gurion — he belongs to the didactic school of prime minister.

He mocks that he reads the Hebrew press to find out what’s going on in his government, but on the plane there is little dialog. Barak educates. He is determined to be understood, without any room for doubt or confusion. Politics being politics, media being media, he won’t always succeed, but it won’t be for want of trying.

Standing between the seats, with the journalists craning our necks to hear him above the engine noise and air conditioners, Barak spells out his strategy for the final-status negotiations just starting with the Palestinians.

A nervous press officer, Gadi Baltiansky, late of the Washington embassy, reminds us that it’s all “background,” attributable to senior officials, et cetera. In fact, at least 90 percent of what Barak said was on the record in his own speeches, stake-outs and press conferences within 24 hours.

His contention that United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territory captured in the 1967 war, didn’t apply equally to the Palestinian track as it did to the Egyptian, Jordanian and even Syrian was less surprising for its content than for the provocative way it was presented.

We — and the Palestinians — know that he does not intend to pull back to the old “Green Line” armistice border, but Barak sounded as if he was repudiating the sacred resolution, the template for all Middle East peace efforts for three decades, root and branch. Once the wire services filed their stories, Barak was quick to limit the damage. Of course, Israel was committed to 242, but …

The nearest to an indiscretion was a mildly sexy description of the way Barak is wooing Syria’s Hafez Assad. It remains “not for quoting,” even by those anonymous officials. But my own impression, from airborne and terrestrial briefings during the Prime Minister’s visit to Paris in early November, is that he knows no more than us about Assad’s readiness to make a compromise peace.

Barak says flattering, optimistic things about the ailing Syrian President. Like a girl dropping her handkerchief in an old-fashioned romantic movie, he hopes Assad will pick it up. Maybe yes, maybe no. Assad’s son and heir, Bashar, met French President Jacques Chirac the day before Barak. The verdict in the Israeli camp, after Chirac had privately briefed Barak, was that Bashar’s mission hadn’t made a breakthrough any less likely. Don’t hold the front page.

In his public appearances, Barak was confident and assertive — a man with a mission to complete the circle of peace, but not at the cost of Israel’s security. Dare I suggest that he ease off on his military past? We’ve all read that he was Israel’s most decorated warrior. As the world gets to know him, he doesn’t have to keep reminding us. The law of diminishing returns soon takes its toll. At one point, he actually said: “Having spent most of my adult life as a general.”

On the flight back to Tel-Aviv, the Prime Minister sent his aides to talk to the traveling press corps. We had, it seems, had our ration of quality Barak time. In any case, we were strapped to our seats for most of the four hours. An electric storm was raging over the Mediterranean. The pilot, a veteran air force colonel, turned off the lights and took us way above the clouds and put his foot on the gas.

I watched the lightning flash from my window seat. No one else seemed worried, but I kept wondering if I was going to have the story of a lifetime — and never be able to write it.