An e-mail landed in the inboxes last week of many of Barack Obama’s prominent Jewish supporters in Hollywood.
The message was a note from the campaign itself, including a set of instructions on how to tamp down the unending stream of e-mails aimed at Jewish voters casting doubt about the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The mobilization is test of how well the candidate’s campaign can counter a narrative that Obama is weak on Israel and, by extension, national security. His opponent John McCain is capitalizing on such notions, particularly in wooing former supporters of Hillary Clinton.
Few would argue that Obama will dominate support in the entertainment business — a stronghold of Democrats and of supporters of Jewish causes. To Obama backers, the stream of viral rumors and misinformation lies at the heart of his Jewish “problem” — in quote marks because, after all, a Gallup poll on June 26 showed him favored nationwide by Jewish supporters 62% vs. 29% for McCain. But the level of support could make a difference in certain battleground states.
Perceptions of candidates in the age of the Internet can’t simply be addressed by a 30-second ad spot or even a press release. Rather, Obama’s camp is looking to the grassroots to take it upon themselves.
The GOP continues to seize on the fact that Obama is new and untested, and in their eyes, a blank slate.
That is particularly resonant when it comes to Israel, which Cal State political science professor Raphael J. Sonenshein wrote recently in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles is “the all-purpose mantra of embattled Republicans.”
In another article, Sonenshein wrote, “McCain offers the Republican brand identification on foreign policy and on Israel, years of familiarity to the Jewish community and the help of independent, former Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Obama is still making himself known.”
On June 16, entertainment figures like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Lynton and Mike Medavoy, as well as politicians and other business leaders, gathered at the Beverly Hills home of longtime Democratic activist Carmen Warschaw in the first meeting of the Obama Los Angeles Jewish Community Leadership Committee, a campaign-sanctioned effort created in part to stem what they say are misperceptions.
“There has been a persistent effort to undermine and distort (Obama’s) record early on,” former Rep. Mel Levine, who presided over the meeting with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Los Angeles), told Variety. “Our goal is to get the facts out, and as they get out, his support in the community will grow.”
Even though the e-mail rumors have abated in recent months, the day after the meeting at Warschaw’s home I got a message that linked to an article in the Israeli Insider in which Obama’s half-brother is quoted as stating that the candidate was raised as a Muslim, something that the Obama camp has repeatedly dismissed.
Obama’s team is requesting that committee members alert them of such e-mails, direct people to the campaign’s “stop the smears” page on its Website and distribute a video of Obama’s recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Distributed at the Beverly Hills gathering was a set of “talking points.” Among them: refuting notions that Obama supports former President Jimmy Carter’s recent meeting with Hamas, or distancing the candidate from the Carter administration’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has also urged direct talks with Hamas.
“Our campaign does not call him an advisor, nor does he call himself one,” the flyer states, noting that the candidate and Brzezinski have spoken about the Iraq War, but that Obama does “not share his view on Israel.”
That’s a distinction that doesn’t bear weight for some of McCain’s Hollywood backers, who say Obama’s problems are more substantial than rumors and can’t be solved by forming a committee or battling e-mails.
Obama “continues to do things that trouble many members of the Jewish community, and beyond that members of the Christian community and others as well,” says writer-director Lionel Chetwynd. “The people who are around him just seems troubling.”
So far, though, there are few indications that many of Clinton’s prominent Jewish supporters in the industry are ready to bolt for McCain over Israel, even though some of her fervent fund-raisers, like Haim Saban, have yet to publicly declare what they are going to do. Such politically active figures as Ron Silver and writer-director David Zucker left the Democratic party, but they did so years ago, after 9/11 and the national security debate that followed.
Instead, the effort may say more about the campaign itself and its ability to match nuance with nuance as supporters and donors “look to see if they are organized for every potential challenge,” notes Donna Bojarsky, a public affairs consultant to those in the industry. A Jewish community leader who supported Clinton in the primaries, she is now backing Obama.
“If he is being virally pilloried, it makes sense that they nip it in the bud,” she says. “It could be a textbook example in how they run a campaign.”