Jews Give Bush Cabinet Picks Mixed Reviews


President-elect George W. Bush has been hailed for assembling one of the most diverse administrations in U.S. history, but his cabinet choices do not include a single one of America's most active and visible minority groups -- American Jews.

And while not all have agreed on how to react to Bush's cabinet picks, many Jewish leaders agree that for at least the next four years, they will not enjoy the same access they did in the previous administration.

Indeed, when President Clinton leaves the oval office this week, he will be taking with him the largest number of Jews to have ever served in a US cabinet. They include Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and his successor Lawrence Summers, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. And both Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of Defense William Cohen have Jewish backgrounds. Other Jews to serve in high-level positions under Clinton include CIA Director George Tenet, Mickey Kantor and his successor Charlene Barshefsky as trade representatives, Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller as top-level Middle East peace negotiators, Sandy Berger as head of the National Security Council, and Richard Holbrooke as US Ambassador to the United Nations.

No Big Deal, Some Say

Some Jewish leaders are downplaying the decreased role they will have in the coming administration, saying that their influence on Washington is above and beyond counting heads.

"The Jewish community has graduated beyond the point where, at every election, we have to hold a stopwatch and count how many people cross the finish line," said Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Congress in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Some have even criticized the notion of selecting candidates based on their race or religion.

"We, as a community, once we broke that initial ceiling, have never been in favor of quotas," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement.

Growing Signs of Concern

Still other Jewish leaders have become vocal in their disappointment that Bush's cabinet will not include one of them.

"It's a little distressing that [Bush] sought to diversify the Cabinet and people on the extremes of American life, and no Jew was chosen," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress in a published interview.

Others echoed Baum's concerns, saying that Bush does not keep close company with many Jews. "Either their circle of friends doesn't include Jews or the Jews just didn't get picked," Ira Foreman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council said to the JTA. "I think it is the former."

And Jewish columnist Sydney Zion recently lamented, "there'll be no Yiddish spoken in the Bush Cabinet - unless Colin Powell starts talking to himself."

Jewish Support for Democrats

But the fact that fewer Jews will serve in the Bush White House comes as no surprise to political pundits. Historically, Jews have not secured as many positions in Republican administrations as they have in Democratic ones. In fact, no Jews reached cabinet level positions under Republican presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan either. Experts say this is because Jewish voters generally favored their democratic opponents during elections. Furthermore, a majority of Jewish activists have traditionally supported the Democratic Party.

In every election since 1924, a majority of Jews have supported the Democratic candidate for president, according to statistics released by the American-Israeli Cooperative enterprise. Only in the 1980 elections did Jews seem somewhat split over choosing between Reagan and his democratic opponent Jimmy Carter, voting 39 to 45 respectively. But when Reagan ran for re-election, a much larger majority supported his opponent Michael Dukakis, perhaps because his wife Kitty is a religiously observant Jew.

Still in the Game

But Jewish Americans have not been left out of the loop altogether. Bush has nominated several Jews to other White House positions. Ari Fleisher, who served as a Bush Campaign spokesman, has been selected for the visible role of White House press secretary, and Josh Bolten was picked as deputy chief of staff.

Additionally, former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith, a close Bush adviser, is being considered for a new White House office of faith-based initiatives.

Linda Chavez, tapped to head the department of labor, was a hopeful among Jewish Americans because she is married to Christopher Gersten, a former executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But because of a highly publicized scandal involving an illegal immigrant she may have employed in her home, Chavez was forced to withdraw her name from consideration.

But even though there will be no Jews in Bush's cabinet, RJC members have boasted they will still have access to all levels of his administration.

Meanwhile others are waiting to see who will be selected to fill other key positions such as under secretaries and assistant secretaries. And two important positions, UN ambassador and CIA chief, remain unfilled. Paul Wolfowitz, who lost out to Donald Rumsfeld for defense secretary, is still considered to be a serious candidate for either position.

Weighing in on the nominees

As with any new administration, Jewish groups are keeping a close eye on the new administration. By digging into the voting records and past associations of Bush's choices, many are predicting how each will bode for their community and for the state of Israel. High on their list is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was confirmed this week by a senate committee. Powell is said to be fluent in Yiddish and a friend of the Jewish community.

They have also said they have no problem with Spencer Abraham, who was also recently confirmed by the Senate to head the department of energy. Abraham, the grandson of four Lebanese immigrants, is said to have strong ties with both Jews and Arab Americans.

"We had a good working relationship with him," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a recently published interview. "He had a close relationship with the Jewish community in Michigan, and his voting record was good on Israel-related issues."

Still some are quietly worried about Abraham's recent refusal to sign a letter urging President Clinton to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was also one of only two senators who refused to sign on to a letter to Clinton, which squarely placed the blame for the recent violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Perhaps the only vocal opposition any secretary designate has faced from any Jewish group is Sen. John Ashcroft. The National Council of Jewish Woman formally came out against the nomination and other Jewish groups have considered jumping into the fray, partly because of pressure from coalition partners in the areas of civil rights and abortion.

But some have said Bush's picks have been met with uncharacteristic silence from the Jewish community. These traditionally vocal groups are holding their fire because they want access, wrote James Besser, Washington correspondent for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles in a recent article. "Jewish leaders fear -- and not without reason -- that they will be shuffled to the end of the line when they seek meetings with important administration officials."


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