Our man in Washington, James D. Besser, is hanging up his spikes, so to speak, after nearly 20 years with The Jewish Week. Six years before he took up his post for this paper, he covered Washington for the Baltimore Jewish Times when Gary Rosenblatt, this paper’s editor and publisher, was editor of the Baltimore weekly. That makes about a quarter century that Jim has been working his sources on Capitol Hill, attending conferences and keeping a watchful eye on the workings of the Washington operations of the major American Jewish organizations. Along the way he became a keen observer of how Jewish power was exercised in the nation’s capital, and an important figure in Jewish journalism.
From James Baker’s “F— the Jews” to Jonathan Pollard, from the Evangelical preacher John Hagee to Peter Beinart, from the rise of Orthodox influence in the corridors of power to the emergence of J Street, Jim has chronicled Jewish politics as few journalists have, with deep knowledge, curiosity and integrity.
His beat was politics, but he was really telling a story about the American Jewish psyche — where its values lay, what its priorities are, the push of a liberal narrative and pull of a conservative one. In his hands it was a gripping tale. He resisted the standard analyses of how the Jewish winds were blowing, he fought off the spin masters and he was constantly calibrating where the Jewish establishment came down on things and where the Jewish rank and file came down.
Over the last few years, Jim put Washington ever so slightly in the background as he became our point person in navigating the paper’s transition to web journalism. The Jewish Week website you read – from its look to its content — bears his indelible stamp.
The folks who know him best know that in Jim’s other life, the one away from the American Jewish scene, he is an expert concertina player. He and his squeezebox have played for Morris dancers and sword dancers all over the East Coast, music being a sustaining passion of his. And when you called him at his home in suburban Washington, from where he plied his trade, more often than not you could pick up Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt playing softly in the background, a calming note for a reporter forever on deadline.
The deadlines are over now, but we’ll remember the sweet music Jim made with his words and his sharp insights into an ever-complex community. We wish him well and will miss him, personally and professionally. Jewish journalism will be diminished by his absence.