Essay

Romney and the Jewish Vote: What I Learned From My 1994 Interview

By | August 20, 2012

Mitt Romney visits the Western Wall on July 29, 2012 in Jerusalem's old city, Israel.

(Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Flash back to summer, 1994. Mitt Romney strode down the corridor, aide in tow, and greeted me in the cramped newsroom. He was eager and fresh faced. He wanted to talk about his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in a race against incumbent Edward “Ted” Kennedy, to share a bit about his Mormon faith, to tell me—and my readers—why he felt he was being maligned in the press, and why he felt a kinship with Jews.

Romney was 48 years old. We met at the office of The Jewish Advocate, a weekly newspaper where I worked as editor, just a short walk from the Massachusetts State House with its resplendent golden dome.

Fast forward to summer, 2012: The catalyst that sets forth a cascade of my memories is a photograph of Romney at the Western Wall, taken during his July pilgrimage to Israel. I find the photograph jarring. While the Western Wall is a symbol of reverence, it is also one of destruction, harkening back to when Jerusalem was vanquished in 70 CE by Roman conquerors. When Romney posed there wearing a yarmulke, I was reminded of his numerous appearances at Boston-area synagogues as he tried to court the Jewish vote in 1994. As evidenced by his trip to Israel, he still craves support from Jews despite the fact that Massachusetts’ Jewish voters steadfastly rejected him in his Senate bid, and, nationally, Jewish voters tend to support Democrats. I wonder: will Romney’s message resonate with Jewish voters? Or will they reject him again, as they did when he ran for Senate?

While some in the Jewish press praised his recent trip to for his “bold approach” regarding Israel, Iran and the Palestinians, other journalists like Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times, derided his visit. Friedman wrote: “I mean, it was all about money anyway—how much Romney would abase himself by saying whatever the Israeli right wanted to hear and how big a jackpot of donations [Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon] Adelson would shower on the Romney campaign in return.”

By taking a backward glance at the Romney-Kennedy contest of 1994 and contrasting that with Romney’s current race for president, there are lessons to be learned about what works for Jewish voters—and what fails.
 

IN THEIR 1992 BOOK The Death of an American Jewish Community, authors Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon noted that courting the Jewish vote was once considered de rigueur for candidates running for elected office in Boston. Candidates would belly up to the lunch counter at the G & G, a deli in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, and rub shoulders with potential Jewish supporters. “A dashing hopeful for a seat in Congress,” Levine and Harmon wrote, “John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had no trouble winning Irish hearts in Charlestown and South Boston. At the G & G the future president made eye contact and munched french fries smothered in kishke grease … Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower, too, made direct appeals for the Jewish vote at the G & G.”

In 1994, Romney and Kennedy knew they, too, had to woo Jewish voters in Massachusetts, but the G & G deli had long been closed. The Jewish neighborhood that spawned it had long been dispersed to the suburbs. Both candidates had to search for ways to play the Jewish heartstrings.

So, Romney, like Senator Kennedy, reached out to voters through The Jewish Advocate. And they both appeared at Jewish “town hall” meetings sponsored by several Massachusetts-area synagogues. Romney dispatched his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, to speak on his behalf at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1994, at a forum sponsored by several Jewish groups. George Romney, aged 87 (he died a year later), declared that Kennedy, a 32-year incumbent, was “out of step” with the issues, including foreign policy (namely Israel). None of Romney’s attacks were lost on Kennedy, a shrewd and tenacious politician, who could work synagogue crowds as easily as he worked the pols in the halls of government. For his part, Kennedy enlisted Harvard Law School’s Alan Dershowitz, who appeared on his behalf at a similar forum held at Brandeis University that same year.

During my interview with Kennedy, conducted at his invitation in August of 1993, he courted my readers by invoking the age-old Jewish fear of anti-Semitism. He described the confirmation hearings for Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had been selected by President Clinton to replace retiring Justice Byron White on the Supreme Court. “Her history is extremely important to her,” he said in an interview later published in The Jewish Advocate. “Her grandparents came from persecution and prejudice. I was impressed with her response to my questions to her about issues of discrimination. She said, ‘I am sensitized to discrimination. I grew up at the time of World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in the car with my parents and driving places … and there was a sign in front of a resort and it said, ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’”

During my visit with him, Kennedy directed an aide to make a photocopy of Ginsburg’s testimony to present to me. He knew that my readers would relate to her personal story. He knew that Jewish voters would endorse an incumbent who declared how proud he was that the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he was a member, later unanimously approved her nomination.

Mitt Romney could cite no similar achievements, having never been elected to public office. A year after my interview with Kennedy was published, Romney’s team contacted me to do a similar piece, since he was now competing for the 61-year-old senator’s seat. What he had going for him was his claim that he was a man of faith (Kennedy was often portrayed as a lapsed Catholic), as well as his deep love for Israel.
 

WHEN ROMNEY SAT DOWN with his aide at the The Jewish Advocate’s office in the summer of 1994, he did not play the anti-Semitism card. Instead he decided to reach Jewish voters by speaking glowingly of then-Republican Governor William F. Weld’s efforts to establish a Massachusetts trade office in Jerusalem (an outpost that subsequently failed and was later shuttered). He had not traveled to Israel at that juncture, but promised he would visit when he was elected, and said he had been briefed by AIPAC during a visit to their offices in Washington, D.C. He also praised Haifa-born Orit Gadiesh, his colleague from Bain and Company, who had been frequently lauded in the press for her business acumen. He said he admired her service to her country—she, like all Israelis, had been required to do a stint in the Israeli army as a young woman and Romney said this was the hallmark of the Israeli spirit: triumph over adversity. It’s interesting to note that Ms. “She grew up in Israel, served in the army, and represents the spirit of Israel to overcome adversities and to become successful.” Gadiesh—later appointed to Romney’s transition team in 2002 after he was elected governor—has not publicly praised or discussed at length her friendship with Romney during his run for president.

In the article I later published in The Jewish Advocate, I quoted Romney as saying, “Our success in weakening Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror in the Middle East has helped the nation of Israel. If not for the great success of the Gulf War, we may not have witnessed the recent historic Mideast peace process.” But this was a broad statement, typical of many Romney made during his senatorial quest. Kennedy, too, had made a similar statement in a story the newspaper ran two years before, in 1992. Kennedy could do one better and boast that he had made efforts on behalf of Israel by backing certain bills and criticizing others while in Congress. What had Romney accomplished?

Romney primarily identified with Jewish voters on the basis of being a religious minority. “I don’t believe a person running for public office should have to defend his faith,” he told me. “Mormons have fought hard to attain the right to pray in houses of worship and to be free of persecution. I think this is why Jewish voters relate to me. Mormons, like Jews, have been persecuted for their religious beliefs.” When I asked him to expand on this statement, he restated how the press, particularly The Boston Globe, had repeatedly portrayed Mormons in a negative light. “Mormons were expelled, just like Jews were expelled, from their homes,” Romney said. “They endured a hunger winter on their forced march out west. They were forced to live in hiding. Mormons, like Jews, have paid a high price for their faith.”

I then posed a challenge to candidate Mitt Romney. “Are you familiar with the statue of Mary Dyer at the State House, it’s just up the street, about a five minute walk from here?” I asked him.

He said he was familiar with the statue of Dyer—known as one of the four “Boston Martyrs”—who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 as punishment for her Quaker beliefs.

“If you feel as strongly that, as a Mormon, you have been maligned in the press,” I said, “why not hold a press conference at the site of the statue and say that in 1994 men and women should never be subjected to persecution and death like they were in Boston in 1660? I promise you I’ll report on it for this newspaper. I’ll urge my colleagues in the press to attend.” Romney smiled. Soon after, he gave a nod to his aide, indicating the interview was over.

Some weeks later at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel in the ornate ballroom where many Jewish groups still hold posh events, I approached Romney. He was standing on the sidelines with an aide, surveying the swells busily sipping cocktails. “Have you given my idea of a press conference more thought?” I asked him. This time he extended his hand to shake mine, smiled, and walked away.
 

NOW, EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER, I am left with several lasting impressions about candidate Mitt Romney. It is true that while he served as Massachusetts’ governor he balanced the state’s budget and introduced a health care reform law that became a model for Obamacare, a model he now avoids trumpeting for political reasons. It is also true that he has been a steadfast man of faith, has raised millions of dollars for the Mormon Church nationally and in Massachusetts, and has been a dedicated and devoted family man and citizen.

Yet I am still haunted by the photograph of him standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem wearing a yarmulke that graced the front page of many newspapers and websites. The overarching message to Jews is not one of unity or spirituality, but instead seems to be one focused on obtaining financial support, as Thomas L. Friedman wryly noted in his New York Times column. His embrace of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—despite their mutual disdain for one another that dates back to Romney’s campaigns in Massachusetts—is just one illustration of this. It has led astute observers like David M. Shribman to write, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that Romney “has revealed almost nothing about himself and his views,” but instead, as “Franz Liszt said of Frederic Chopin,” he is “‘prepared to give anything, but never gave himself.’”

In 1994, Romney was roundly defeated by a tenacious Sen. Kennedy. Kennedy demonstrated to both Jewish and non-Jewish voters that he would represent them in the halls of government by fighting to preserve and strengthen the fabric of democracy that binds us. He could cite how he helped “refuseniks” (Soviet Jews) to immigrate to the United States. But he also cited how he assisted Asian families, like the Trucs in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who found safe haven and now operate a restaurant there.

Instead, Romney, then and now, seeks flash-in-the-pan photo-ops, like the one taken at the Western Wall that provoked Friedman to write that it looked so phony it should have been taken in Las Vegas. “They could have constructed a plastic Wailing Wall and saved so much on gas,” he quipped.

Looking back to 1994, the Massachusetts electorate rejected him. He was affable, but unable to produce the record that Jewish voters—and others—were looking for. In 2012, this same deficiency casts a shadow on his candidacy. It may yet prove to be his undoing.

Robert Israel, a former editor of The Jewish Advocate, is a writer and editor who contributes to several online and print publications. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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