Jews and the Lincoln bedroom: quandary of policy and access

WASHINGTON — Monte Friedkin was caught in a bind.

As chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Friedkin last year suddenly found himself without a political star for a scheduled NJDC briefing when Leon Panetta, President Clinton's then chief of staff, was forced to cancel after his boss called on him to mediate the baseball strike.

So Friedkin, a multimillion-dollar contributor to the Democratic Party, called the White House.

When Clinton overheard his chief public liaison discussing the problem, he took the phone and agreed to step in. Within an hour, 24 NJDC leaders arrived at the White House for a presidential briefing.

"Did he do it because I raised money for him?" Friedkin said. "I don't know."

That is the same question asked across the country as revelations pour from the White House about perks given to Clinton's big donors.

Just what did they get for their money?

Jewish Democrats raised tens of millions of dollars for 1996 elections. Of more than $200 million raised overall, about one-quarter came from Jews, say Democratic Party sources.

In exchange, many givers got overnight visits in the White House. Of the 938 people who stayed during Clinton's first term, about one-third were Jewish, according to a JTA analysis of White House documents.

Others rode along with Clinton on Air Force One to the Middle East. Still others were invited to White House dinners.

But the emerging White House influence-peddling controversy points to the larger question about the need for campaign finance reform.

On this, many Jews face a quandary. While many Jews find that the current campaign finance system breeds excess, the organized Jewish community has profited from it.

Friedkin and politicians speak of two types of donors. For most Jewishly involved donors, the key aim is gaining access to promote issues of concern — from policies toward Israel to welfare reform.

Money means access. And virtually all political activists agree that Jewish access at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is disproportionate .

"I'm not here to pass judgment on whether the system smells bad," said a Jewish lobbyist in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The fact is that we have access under this system far beyond our numbers."

Such success has paralyzed much of the organized Jewish community as debate rages over reform.

Steve Grossman, national chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, declined to comment on the Jewish angle, but echoed the need for reform.

"The biggest risk we face is a lack of credibility for the entire political process among Americans from every constituency."

Meanwhile, other Jewish groups, still mulling their position on reform, are facing pressure to stay on the sidelines from pro-Israel political action committees that favor the current system.

Although reform legislation is now stalled in Congress, proposals under consideration would ban political action committees, which have been one of the most effective ways of channeling money into congressional campaigns.

Meanwhile, Clinton's defenders remain steadfast. Grossman asked for proof that Clinton "compromised the public interest for the special interest."

Grossman, who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats, was one of the more than 900 people to stay at the White House.

Money buys power and access in the private sector as well. In the Jewish community, the size of one's contribution has long been a factor in determining position and status.

In a twist, Clinton himself was the prize for a handful of contributors to the United Jewish Appeal a few years ago.

After about 100 people raised $32 million for UJA, Clinton accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at an elegant State Department reception.

"Fund-raising is fund-raising and one uses all the tools at one's command to raise funds," Richard Wexler, UJA national chairman, said.

But unlike the private sector, elections and public policy are at stake in fund-raising for public causes, say those seeking reform.

"People are troubled by the impression that giving money amounts to a night in the Lincoln bedroom," said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement's Reglious Action Center in Washington.

Not all the visitors to the White House were there because of money. Some guests at Clinton's numerous coffees were prominent Jews, such as columnist Leonard Fein and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, both Reform officials invited to discuss policy issues. Last March, Rabbi Eugene Levy of Little Rock, Ark., enjoyed a one-night stay at the White House .

Levy stayed in a third-floor bedroom because the Lincoln bedroom was occupied by former Clinton counsel and Jewish activist David Ifshin and his family.

Clinton invited Ifshin after he was diagnosed with cancer. That was the last time Clinton saw Ifshin before his funeral four weeks later.

"Clinton told the kids bedtime stories and was very emotional because he knew these kids would not have a father soon," Levy said.

Ifshin's stay "had nothing to do with politics."