Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign was in full-blown crisis mode this week, rounding up Jewish leaders, organizations and politicians to denounce a report that the first lady called a former aide to her husband a "f—g Jewish bastard" in 1974.
Clinton dismissed the report as a "particularly offensive false charge that cuts to the core of who I am and what I believe," and Jewish organizations promptly accepted her denial, while three Democratic members of Congress from New York attacked Clinton’s Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, for fueling the controversy.
On Tuesday, Clinton’s campaign struggled to gather enough Jewish elected officials to hold a City Hall press conference but scuttled the idea because of logistical problems, sources said.
At the center of it all was Karen Adler, a longtime friend of the Clintons who has become her most trusted Jewish adviser. On Tuesday, Adler faxed a memo to a list of Clinton supporters asking them to call two reporters, at The Jewish Week and the Forward, to express "your outrage about what was said about her."
Adler, who seemed to be responding to the crisis via cell phone from a business trip in Minnesota Tuesday, requested that callers not reveal that they have been prompted, according to one recipient.
Among the callers were a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Seymour Reich; UJA-Federation leader Jody Schwartz; a Yale law school classmate of Clinton’s, Ronnie Heyman; and Sen. Charles Schumer.
"In my 25 years in public life I think I have a pretty good nose when someone is sending signals," said Schumer. "Hillary doesn’t have a scintilla of anti-Semitism floating around in her bones."
It’s been a tough week for Adler, a full-time business consultant and volunteer on the Clinton campaign who is said to have more clout than much of the staff when it comes to Jewish outreach.
On July 12, her memo blasting the general and Jewish media for unfair coverage of the campaign was leaked to the New York Post. A day later, a rosy photo op with Queens Borough president Claire Shulman turned controversial when an audience member’s question reignited the infamous Suha Arafat incident, in which Clinton kissed the Palestinian first lady after she slurred Israel.
Then came the clincher: the allegation in an upcoming memoir about the Clintons’ marriage that a then-24 year-old Hillary Rodham used the epithet to attack a staff member of Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful Arkansas congressional bid, Paul Fray, in a post-election argument. The memoir, by Jerry Oppenheimer, was leaked Friday on the Drudge Report Web site. Fray, a Baptist, has given varying accounts of his Jewish ancestry.
"This is what campaigns are all about," said Adler in a phone interview. "I think New Yorkers are smart enough to see through this and make their own decisions about Hillary and her record."
But Adler acknowledged that rather than leaving the story alone and perhaps having it collapse on the weight of its flaws, she was among the adsvisers who counseled Clinton to summon reporters to her Westchester home in Chappaqua and angrily deny the report: a decision that may have given the story legs.
"It would have been debunked anyway," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "The sources are not credible, and the Clinton administration has hired more Jews than any other in history. This was overkill."
Other Jewish Hillary supporters may have disagreed with Adler’s advice: had they been given the chance to weigh in on the subject. But several Jewish Democrats, elected officials and party activists complained that at a time when building Jewish support is crucial, Clinton is relying heavily on Adler’s counsel, to the detriment of her campaign.
"Karen Adler is a very nice lady, but she’s totally inadequate for this job," said one well-known legislator from New York City. "She doesn’t have the reach within the Jewish community they need."
While none of those interviewed could point to specific issues on which they disagreed with Adler, each said that the adviser, a board member of the Israel Policy Forum, was well-known in left-wing Jewish circles but not regarded well enough in other segments of the community.
"She is extremely left wing and proud of it," said a person interested in promoting Clinton in the Orthodox community. "That reinforces worries that Hillary will be a left-wing senator. People do not want to take a hand that is reached out to them if they believe she is diametrically opposed to what they believe in."
Another Jewish official, an active Hillary supporter, said those with differing opinions than Adler’s had become dissuaded from offering advice because of Clinton’s closeness with her.
"There is a feeling by some people that they are frozen out," said the official. "I think there is a reluctance to disagree with Karen because she has the first lady’s ear. People don’t want to ruffle feathers."
One official faulted Adler for writing the memo leaked to the Post. "You don’t put something like that down on paper," he said.
But none of Adler’s critics questioned her commitment or intentions, and several praised her devotion to the campaign. "No one works harder than Karen," said Paul Adler, the Rockland County Democratic chairman, who is not related to Karen Adler.
"But Hillary needs to be doing more retail politics in the Jewish community. She needs to go to men’s clubs and sisterhoods and communities like New Square and Kaiser [chasidic communities in Rockland.] The Jewish community is very diverse. You need a very diverse kitchen cabinet."
Adler, who was in charge of Jewish outreach during the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and was later named Northeast director of the federal General Services Administration, said the notion that she had Clinton’s ear exclusively was a "gross exaggeration."
"I’m sorry they feel that way. It is absolutely absurd to say that I am keeping her from talking to anybody," she said. "They ought to pick up the phone and call her. I encourage them to do that."
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Adler played a "central role in the campaign, but we welcome advice from all our supporters."
The criticism of Adler comes at a time when Clinton, with three months until Election Day, has a solid lead over Lazio among Jews, 54 to 35 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll. But she is still short of the two-thirds majority Democrats have traditionally needed to win statewide, with an unusually high 12 percent of voters undecided. If Lazio picks up half the undecided Jews, he would have the 40 percent that propelled Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato to victory in 1986 and 1992.
Clinton, who has sought a meeting with conservative Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, recently entertained his brother, Moshe, and sister-in-law, Libby, at the White House.
Lazio recently hired the Jewish liaison to Gov. George Pataki, Jonathan Greenspun, as an adviser. Both candidates were expected to attend Shabbat services at the tony Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach: Clinton this week and Lazio next.
Several right-wing Jewish activists who have been critical of Clinton, including Dov Hikind, held a protest outside her campaign headquarters Monday.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg of the nature of the person that we’re dealing with," said Dr. Joseph Frager of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project. "She’s always been with the PLO; her campaign is funded by the PLO."
Hikind said that while he doubted that Clinton was anti-Semitic, "the Jewish community is very concerned about her record."
But in statements issued Monday, the Anti-Defamation League said it "takes [Clinton] at her word that the accusation … is false," while the American Jewish Committee said the allegations were "highly suspect." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Clinton’s former Senate rival, cited Clinton’s "long relationships" with Jews Tuesday and said he did not believe Clinton was anti-Semitic.
Supporters of Clinton and the media pointed to holes in the report and the credibility problems of four people who have backed up Oppenheimer’s account, including Fray and his wife. Fray has surrendered his law license and has a history of eccentricity.
Former Arkansas State Trooper Larry Patterson, however, told a local WABC radio program Tuesday that he had heard both Clintons utter repeated anti-Semitic and racist slurs while guarding them during Bill Clinton’s tenure as governor of Arkansas.
Early this week, Lazio called the alleged comment "very disturbing," adding "I don’t know who to believe, quite frankly." New York Reps. Nita Lowey, Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Wiener wrote Lazio asking him not to use "a false allegation for political purposes."
Whether or not the allegations have any credibility, it is clear that the time Clinton spends on damage control will divert her from controlling the agenda. At a press conference Monday on Ellis Island, only one reporter asked about the new funding to refurbish the island’s neglected south side Clinton was announcing before the rest unleashed a torrent of questions on the "Jew bastard" controversy.
"This is only July," said Clinton, predicting that the accusations against her would get uglier. "I have no illusions about what the weeks ahead will hold. This is an election that is very important to a lot of people."
Associate editor Jonahtan Mark contributed to this report.