Presidential contender Bill Bradley played it safe in his first foray into the Jewish community this week, steering clear of hot-button issues while persistently embracing his New York patron, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The former New Jersey senator told Jewish leaders he will take no position on clemency for Israel spy Jonathan Pollard during his campaign.
“Cases of espionage and questions of parole or clemency for espionage should never become mixed with domestic politics but should be settled on the merits of the case,” Bradley told some 40 communal officials at a closed meeting at UJA-Federation headquarters in Midtown, according to several participants.
Bradley also vowed to take his cue from Israeli leaders on the controversial subject of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
“Any declaration regarding the move of the embassy would have an impact on the peace process,” he said in response to a question. “The Israelis have signaled that they do not want a confrontation on Jerusalem. Any arrangement must be done in close consultation with the government.”
Bradley used language similar to that of Moynihan when he told the leaders that “Israel is far more than a strategic asset but a flesh-and-blood democratic ally. Assets can be traded.”
The remarks seemed consistent with a strategy by Bradley to avoid any appearance of pandering to Jewish interests as he vies with Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination. New York is a key battleground state in the 2000 campaign, and winning the majority of the Jewish vote is considered key to carrying the state.
But insiders say Bradley — who was widely seen as a supporter but not a leader on Soviet Jewry and Israel issues in the Senate — will make no attempt to portray himself as a better friend of Jews than Gore, who has a long history on Jewish causes.
Instead, Bradley seems to be determined to cast himself as a disciple of Moynihan, who has long been a darling of Jewish voters.
At an Orthodox Union tribute to New York’s retiring senior senator directly following the closed-door meeting, Bradley, who is gaining on Gore in national polls, spent nearly all of his 15-minute keynote address praising Moynihan. Even the minute discussion of policy squeezed into the speech was couched in Moynihan language.
In calling for legislation to prevent religious discrimination in the workplace — a signature OU issue — Bradley said “Americans should never have to choose, to use Pat’s phrase, between their conscience and their career.” In praising the diversity of American society, Bradley quoted from Moynihan’s book, “Beyond The Melting Pot.”
He also couched a warning against interference in Israeli policy by American Jews in Moynihan language.
“When he tells us that democracies are entitled to make their own mistakes, he is warning us of the self-fulfilling folly of interfering in their domestic political affairs,” said Bradley, who reminded dinner guests that he has served the state with the nation’s largest yeshiva (in Lakewood, N.J.) and with the second largest Orthodox population.
“Moynihan is his rabbi in New York,” said political consultant Norman Adler of Bradley. “If you want to refer to an authority to make your own views look good, you quote your rabbi.”
Bradley’s appearance had the feel of a scripted event that carefully avoided spontaneity. His staff repeatedly shooed away reporters, and even while signing autographs for young people, Bradley barely spoke to them.
When a reporter managed, while the candidate was eating his salad, to slip in a question about why Bradley expected Jewish support from a community that has a good relationship with Gore, he said, in a low-key voice: “I hope I will do well. I’m here to communicate with the Jewish community. I think the community will make that decision in terms of my record.”
Bradley was invited to the OU dinner in January — before he announced his candidacy — at the request of Moynihan, who has given the former New York Knick his most prominent local endorsement. The senior senator has called Gore “unelectable.” In his own speech, Moynihan praised Bradley as someone who “stays the course, listens and understands.”
Some attendees said they were left curious about Bradley’s own views. “It surprised me,” said one Jewish official. “I thought he would be talking about policy.”
But OU president Mandell Ganchrow said: “We didn’t expect to this to be a political evening. I think the things he talked about, Jerusalem and Israel, fall into character with his record in the U.S. Senate. [He’s] saying ‘I’m still the same Bill Bradley I was in the U.S. Senate.’ ”The OU dinner also honored Richard Stone, chairman of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs and the group’s Washington internship program, which places students in congressional and other offices.
“This obviously wasn’t intended to be a major policy speech.” said Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who has endorsed Bradley and remained for the entire dinner.
Several key statewide Democrats who might ordinarily attend an OU dinner were noticeably absent from the event, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Sen. Charles Schumer. Silver is known to be backing Gore, while Schumer has made no commitment in the race.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D- Brooklyn, Queens), who has made no endorsement, made a brief appearance. In greeting Bradley, Weiner recalled that he first met the senator in 1988 as an aide to Schumer, and later joined a committee to draft Bradley to run for president. At the tim, Bradley declined. Other guests included City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Public Advocate Mark Green.
A videotaped address was sent by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is hoping to succeed Moynihan in the Senate, but President Bill Clinton reportedly declined to send a taped greeting because of Bradley’s participation.