Posted on September 11, 1995 in Washington Watch
Some prominent Jewish leaders are lamenting the political demise of two members of Congress who have been important supporters of their domestic and foreign policy concerns.
Democratic Congressman Mel Reynolds of Illinois resigned his seat last week, while Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon faces a likely expulsion vote from the Senate in the coming weeks. What is troubling to the Jewish community, of course, is not simply the loss of these two Congressional supporters, but the embarrassing controversies which have brought shame to both men.
After a lengthy public trial, Reynolds was recently found guilty of sexual misconduct, specifically a long-term sexual relationship with a campaign aide who was only 15 at the time. He has also been convicted of attempting to coerce the young woman (now 19) not to testify against him, and of misuse of campaign funds.
For the past two years while the Senate Ethics Committee has been investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against Senator Packwood, he refused requests to hold public hearings. He reversed himself on this issue only a few weeks ago, but by that time the Ethics Committee’s patience had run out, and recently unanimously recommended that the entire Senate vote to expel Packwood.
Packwood, the Chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, faces formal complaints filed by 19 women (at least two of whom were under 18 years of age at the time of the incidents) charging that he made unwanted sexual advances against and physically attacked them. Other charges against the Senator include using his position in the Senate to secure jobs for his former wife in an effort to reduce his need to financially support her; and of altering evidence related to both the sexual misconduct and abuse of position charges. This week, the Ethics Committee unanimously found Packwood guilty on all three charges.
If it were not for the fact that their careers and elections of both men presented such unique and difficult problems for Arab Americans, it would have likely been best to allow their watch their exits in silence. But both men, non-Jews, were so exploitative of their relationships with the American Jewish community that their pasts and their transgressions deserve to be understood.
Packwood, a moderate Republican on most issues, won reelection five times and has served in the senate for 26 years. During those years he has been one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, at times embarrassing his Jewish friends with his excess praise for Israeli policies.
Though liberal on many U.S. domestic issues (including, ironically, a long-term record of support from U.S. women’s groups for his strong abortion-rights position), he was more hard-line than the Likud when dealing with Arab-Israeli issues.
In 1979, speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Packwood denounced the Camp David peace process and the Carter Administration for attempting to “force Israel” to trade “land for peace.” In his fundraising mailings targeted to pro-Israel Jewish donors, he played on their Israeli sympathies using language that shocked many.
In one letter for his 1992 reelection campaign, he denounced the Bush Administration’s efforts to begin a dialogue with the PLO, engage Arabs and Israelis in negotiations based on a “land for peace” formula, and U.S. efforts to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. He urged supporters to help him so that he could help Israel, concluding his letter with the following appeal:
“Instead of spending all my time raising money for my own reelection campaign, I’d prefer to devote my time and energies to protecting and defending the security of Israel.”
In another letter, the Packwood became even more crass in his blatant appeal for pro-Israel funds. That letter reproduces maps, the first of which shows the image of the Jewish Kingdom at the time of Solomon (1,000 B.C.) which includes large tracts of Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian lands. He goes on to give the reader a shocking one-sided view of Middle East history in order to make the point that Israel had already given up land.
What troubled many, including some American Jews, about the Packwood letter was his constant use of the personal pronouns “we” and “us” to describe Israel and Israelis in such phrases as
”...only Egypt would meet with us…” or,
”...during the 1956 Sinai war we took the Sinai and then we gave it back…” and
“In 1967 and again in 1973…we were savagely attacked….”
Statements such as these prompted even some major U.S. newspapers to as, who is this “we”, to whom is Packwood referring? Nevertheless, these fundraising tactics worked well for Packwood, and pro-Israel money continued to fuel his campaign machinery. In PAC money alone he raised $110,000, placing third among the 1992 recipients of pro-Israel PAC support – despite the fact that during the first nine months of the campaign cycle he refused to take PAC money.
Shortly prior his last reelection campaign in 1992, however, women began to come forward with their accusations against the Republican Senator. (The newspaper which broke the allegations withheld the story until after election day for fear of influencing the election with facts of which it was not 100% certain.) While his former allies in the women’s movement abandoned Packwood when these allegations began to look serious, this was not apparently the case with some elements of the American Jewish community.
An article in a leading Oregon newspaper remarked that more than one-half of the funds raised by Packwood’s legal defense fund came from officers in leading Jewish organizations “including $9,000 from the Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and $2,000 each from several of AIPAC’s executive board members. When asked by a prominent Jewish newspaper to explain their support, some of those officials described Packwood as a friend of Israel deserving of their support.
Reynolds, an African American, has only been in Congress for three years, having first been elected in 1992. Although he has been a consistent supporter of Israel, his loss will be felt by the American Jewish community more deeply for domestic political reasons.
What Reynolds is best known for is his 1992 electoral victory over then-Congressman Gus Savage, also an African American who had represented this largely African American district for more than a decade. The 1992 campaign was Reynolds’ third attempt to unseat Savage, having also run against him in 1988 and 1990. It was the 1990 race that brought Reynolds national attention.
Savage comes from the nationalist wing of the African American community. He was an ally of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam movement and, at times, used racial themes to stir up the emotions of his constituents. The district represented by Savage and Reynolds is more than 70% African American and more than 20% Latino.
A few days before the March 1990 primary election (which is the most important race in the district since it is also more than 90% Democratic), Savage held a press conference and announced that his research showed that his opponent, Reynolds, had received significant amounts of campaign money from many Jewish voters from outside the district. Actually, more than 90% of Reynold’s PAC money came, according to a major U.S. newspaper, came from PACs directed by leaders of AIPAC.
Savage, who had served his district for more than 20 years in local, state and federal office, was outraged at the outside interference. What became a national scandal, however, was not Savage’s facts but how he presented them. The fact was that pro-Israel PACs and board members of AIPAC were sending large amounts of money to defeat Savage; but Savage’s presentation of that fact was too raw, too angry and to some sounded anti-Jewish.
Reynolds was cast in the national media as a moderate who could heal the “Black-Jewish relationship” while Savage was increasingly an angry and divisive figure who used his race to win support.
Reynolds lost in 1990, but in his victorious 1992 campaign he raise and unprecedented $542,000 to defeat Savage and his other opponents – compared to the $190,000 Savage raised to win in 1990. A great deal of Reynolds’s financial support continued to come from the Chicago Jewish community. A prominent national Jewish newspaper, lamenting Reynolds political demise last week, acknowledged the support Reynolds had received and noted that he had become a “symbol of the closure of the black-Jewish rift.”
While in Congress Reynolds did all the expected things, which Savage would not do. He voted for Israel’s foreign aid, and supported moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He received a position on one of the House’s most powerful committees – a nearly unprecedented reward for a freshman member of Congress.
But neither the powerful post nor the campaign war chest could stop his resignation once the Chicago jury convicted him.
Reynolds was an opportunist who sold himself to win political spoils, but he exhibited no control over his own behavior. It is interesting to note that when Reynolds first decided in the mid-1980s to run for Congress, he first went to the Arab American community for support. That was shortly after Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, on which Reynolds had worked along with a number of Arab Americans. When Reynolds realized that Arab Americans could not provide him with the support he needed, Reynolds dropped his contact with Arab Americans and turned to the American Jewish community.
Arab Americans in Chicago had never been fully comfortable with Savage’s behavior, his antics in Congress and his use of racial division and hatred. What troubled the community about Reynolds was not that he received support from the Jewish community, but that he shut his door to Arab Americans once he took that money – on one occasion even expressing discomfort at being seen with an Arab American leader. In a sense (as a far as Arab Americans were concerned), Reynolds’ behavior was as divisive and race-based as that of the candidate he eventually defeated.
What is troubling about both Packwood and Reynolds is how narrow their definition of service turned out to be. To not speak to Arab Americans, to be more pro-Israel than the Likud, to see the quest for power and position as an end in itself: these are not qualities of leadership.
Reynolds and Packwood are not losses to lament, they are examples of the tragic consequences of an electoral system and a political process gone awry. It was their abuse of women who brought them down – but it was their short-sighted abuse of their political positions and the amoral quest for power they shared that laid the groundwork for their later actions.
That is what we should all be lamenting.
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