With New York’s congressional delegation overwhelmingly Democratic, it’s not unusual to hear partisan snipes at a Republican administration at the annual Jewish Community Relations Council legislative breakfast.
But the tone and tenor of Sunday’s address by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, which was followed by a rebuttal by Republican Chris Shays of Connecticut, was unusually strident, and left some guests of the organization – strictly nonpartisan, by law – reeling.
“Nobody believes anything this administration says anymore,” said Nadler, who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.The congressman, who voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, accused President George W. Bush of lying to the public and to Congress about intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“The Bush administration knew it wasn’t true and lied to get us into a war that we can’t figure out a way to get out of.”
In contrast to other representatives — who mostly reserved their ire for Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran — Nadler in his 10-minute speech took on the president not only on Iraq but for not supporting measures to ensure that millions of cargo containers entering the U.S. are inspected for dirty bombs; failing to facilitate the removal of leftover nukes in former Soviet republics; detaining terror suspects without trial and seeking unprecedented investigative and surveillance powers to root out terrorists here.
“This president claims the power to point his finger at anyone in this room and say you are an enemy combatant because I say so, and because I say so we are going to keep you in jail forever.”
His comments about civil liberties and some about Iraq drew applause from the crowd.
In perhaps his most pointed jab, Nadler said that “no executive in an English-speaking country has claimed such radical authority since before the Magna Carta in England. We rebelled against George III for far less than [preservation of] habeus corpus.”
Attacking the president for what might be his greatest strength in the Jewish community – his support of Israel – Nadler then rapped Bush for pressing Israel to negotiate with Syria and said, “By eliminating Saddam Hussein we have liberated Iran to be far more dangerous.”
Nadler’s comment that Bush “lied” about the WMDs implied he believes the president knew the reports were false and went to war anyway. But in a later phone interview the congressman said the commander in chief “knew he had no proof and misrepresented the intelligence as fact. He wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein.”
He declined to speculate on the president’s motives.
Neither of the two downstate Republican congressmen invited by the JCRC – Vito Fossella of Staten Island and Pete King of Nassau – attended the breakfast.
That left the lone GOP presence to Shays, who eagerly rose immediately after Nadler’s speech to deliver a rebuttal.
“When George Bush goes to Israel, they believe him and respect him tremendously,” said Shays, who was invited to last year’s breakfast and asked to return this year. That comment drew some applause, but less than Nadler had.
Taking on the notion that the president alone swayed Congress, Shays quipped, “I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton voted to go into Iraq because George Bush said it was a good idea. I think she listened to a different president.”
Taking sole responsibility for his vote in favor of the war, Shays said he decided it through discussions with officials of Israel, France, Britain, Turkey and Jordan.
“Only France said they didn’t [have WMDs],” said Shays. “When we didn’t find WMDs, Israel went through the same agony we did … The difference is when they determined that they were wrong they didn’t say anyone lied.”
A JCRC vice president who introduced the speakers, Richard Stone, who is a Republican, gently chided Nadler for his remarks. He later said: “Jerry might have gone a little far for that occasion. The JCRC is a bipartisan group. To compare Bush unfavorably to King George, against whom a revolution was launched, was certainly hyperbolic, but that’s Jerry’s style. And the list of times he called the president a liar is too long to count.”
A source close to JCRC later said that, as a result of Nadler’s comments the group would discuss whether to issue guidelines for future breakfast participants.
But Nadler on Tuesday insisted his remarks went over well. “A lot of people agreed,” he said. “No one said anything negative, although some said people at their table weren’t happy.”
He added: “I wasn’t trying to be partisan. I said we must have rotation of power and elect Democrats and Republicans … but right now the Republicans have a lot of problems and while they are not in Congress they should look for reasonable alternatives.”
Back in 1999, Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester graciously bowed out of consideration for an open Senate seat in order to pave the way for Hillary Clinton’s historic run.
So it may have crossed her mind that if Clinton is elected president next year, she might get another shot at the vacated seat.
At the JCRC breakfast, Lowey told us she’s backing Hillary for president but said, “I’m not even considering that,” when asked about the seat. “I am chair of the Foreign Aid Committee. There is no open seat. I’m trying to do the best I can with what I’m doing.”
A vacancy would be filled by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, but there is bound to be plenty of maneuvering by a slew of candidates to win his nod. The appointee, all but certainly a Democrat, would not face re-election until 2012.
Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman was in town last week, where the Brooklyn native spoke to guests at a Manhattan benefit for the West Bank town of Beitar Ilit.
Considered highly vulnerable next year because of his close ties to unpopular Bush, Coleman’s presence seemed to signal some daylight between him and the president: The administration opposes West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
“Whatever happens with other settlements I don’t think there is much dispute over Beitar,” Coleman said after his speech. “It’s in a different category. There are some challenges out there but people recognize its existence.
Beitar Ilit made headlines in 2002 when then-New York gubernatorial challenger Carl McCall visited and was photographed taking target practice there with an assault rifle. The town now has about 30,000 residents.
Former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken has declared a Democratic run for Coleman’s seat. Since Minnesota is the state that elected wrestler Jesse Ventura governor, prior government experience is not a likely issue.
“I wake up worried every day,” Coleman told this column in a way that made us wonder if he was serious. “I do my best and hope it’s good enough.” Asked to size up his opponent, he declined, saying, “It’s too soon to go head to head.” Reminded that unlike him, close to 80 percent of American Jews oppose the war in Iraq, Coleman said, “That’s a shame. If they had been at the AIPAC conference they would have heard Prime Minister Olmert say if we don’t succeed in Iraq it’s going to hurt Israel.”
And what of the notion that the war empowers Iran? “Iran is empowered irregardless,” he said. “It is the great enemy, the great challenge we face. Israel’s fate is tied to our ability to deal with Iran.”
Coleman opposes the president’s troop surge in Iraq but supports maintaining the current troops until the job is done. Can they do it without reinforcements?
“I worry about being in the middle of a civil war,” he said. “But the idea of simply leaving the region, for al Qaeda to say we beat the Russians in Afghanistan and now threw the Americans out of Iraq … that will have a destabilizing effect on countries like the Muslim population of India.”
In the presidential race, Coleman said he likes his colleague, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and has “heard good things” about Mitt Romney. But he added that “Rudy [Giuliani] is my personal friend.”
Asked if he’d run on Rudy’s ticket, Coleman said, “I don’t think that’s a possibility.”