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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Channeling C.J. Cregg


There I am she is, C.J. Cregg, the most phenonemal Presidential Press Secretary ever, my professional role model. I loved everything about C.J. - her name, her clothes, her intelligence, her knowledge, her ability to stand up and speak intelligently her point of view, her deft handling of the media, knowing when to talk and when to shut up. 

More broadly The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite shows, certainly about leadership and definitely about the White House. It's not just C.J., of course, or the other professional whose career path meshes with mine (Tobey Ziegler, the Communications Director). 

No - the show inspired me in a way that is hard to describe because of the character of the president, Martin Sheen as Josiah ("Jed") Bartlet. His character was clearly inspired by the Clinton presidency and politics - let's just say there's a reason my kids look back at the '90s as a golden time. 

It was a golden time, just as the '80s were under Reagan. 

This isn't a manipulative endorsement for Hillary. Or a suggestion that America in the '80s and '90s was perfectly governed, or lacked scandal. No and no.

But Bartlet, as played by Sheen, and as fictitious as he was, embodied the full range of qualities and emotions that I want to see in an American president. He was deeply, deeply, deeply patriotic. There was no question that he loved America, loved this country beyond belief, and loved every citizen in it. His character had the same impossible dilemmas as any leader does, the crises and the screwups. He had to deal with things you must say, can say, and can never say.

I was not alive when JFK was President, but I have seen portrayals of the country's shock and mourning at his assassination. I would venture to say that Sheen generated that kind of emotion in-character.

As Press Secretary, C.J. was unflinchingly loyal. But I do not recall her saying the kind of stupid things Josh Earnest does. My guess is, he's being forced to say them. But C.J. would never have let it fly.

C.J., instead, would have called on Tobey. And they would have discussed it. Would have engaged this country in an intelligent conversation about the President's vision.

Here's just one example of how the White House press secretary just can't seem to get it right - and this is after he tried to convince us that the Taliban are no longer "terrorists," rather they are really "insurgents." (Oh, okay!)

Last week the country was moved by "America's Mayor," Rudy Giuliani, the Rudy Giuliani who shepherded us through 9/11, Giuliani saying that President Obama does not seem to love America. I say this because as soon as it happened, the emails started flying in to me: "Must see!"

Many called Giuliani unpatriotic for this, many called him disloyal, but do you know what? His words had the ring of truth. 

It was up to the White House to explain why.

Because I understand what Giuliani means, and if I were the President's Press Secretary, I would respond to those remarks in a much more intelligent way than "we feel sorry for him." 

The reality is - and this is nothing to be ashamed of, to cover up, or to distort - President Obama did have a very different upbringing than many Americans did. He did live in another country, for a time. He does have relatives who are Muslim, and he does find holiness in that religion. 

So what? So do I. And I am Jewish. I value the fact that we are a diverse nation, that I interact with Muslims all the time, that our views sometimes differ but often are exactly the same.

Why can't the President talk about this more openly? Why can't he come out of the closet, so to speak and own his complex identity in full?

If the President does not seem to love America, that comes from a place authentic inside of him. His press secretary ought to elucidate on that. For example, I believe he is very troubled by the way America has thrown its weight around over the years, at times wrongly.

His press secretary needs to talk about that, if he believes it.

People accuse him of being influenced by Communism. I'm not sure that these people have been around a Sociology 101 class lately, but one of the foundational theorists in sociology is none other than Karl Marx. The father of communism, if you will.

I would put the President on TV and have him explain, directly, who he is and what he believes - unfiltered. 

But they can't.

Why doesn't Josh Earnest talk about the President's roots in the Ivy League?  You've heard the word "colonialism" and its partner "post-colonialism." There is a place to talk about these words. It's pervasive in graduate schools to blame and shame America for its mistakes.

Why can't the President talk about it?

The fatal mistake of the President's PR machine is to underestimate the intelligence of the average American. It reflects contempt, even. 

To the point where the ordinary average person is actually incredulous at what they are saying.

Why can't the President talk about it? Surely many would agree with a genuine opinion, genuinely expressed and grounded in reason.

Because the truth is, PR doesn't work unless it's actually the truth. Not propaganda, not spin, not wordsmithing, not messaging, not psychological operations, none of it.

I was watching an interview that Steven Seagal did with RT News. He was in Russia, and he was saying that he disagrees with the current regime in America. He used the word "regime." 

Seagal is a patriot. It's obvious. And yet there he is, sitting in Russia. I didn't doubt for a second that his intentions were good: He is shouting from the rooftops that something is wrong, and that he wants to do something about it.

In his case, he believes that the U.S. and Russia don't have a bone to pick with one another, but that conflict is being fomented. He also said the President uses the media as a tool.

This is what C.J. would point out to the President.

People will support your support for a lot of things. But they won't support you lying about what you support to begin with.

I can understand the President feeling very angry about America's mistakes. I can envision him talking passionately about correcting them. 

I can understand if he is angry at the legacy of colonialism and racism. It would be amazing to talk about that at the massive, mainstream level and show us a vision of the future where we're all different countries sharing one view of peace and cooperating.

But I cannot understand the President hiding his true motivations in any matter with broad impact. And this is where C.J. would have a problem.

Here is one example close to my heart.

I believe that the President is comfortable with Israel being eradicated. Not necessarily with Jews being harmed. But the elimination of Israel as a state. The transformation of it into a country that is not owned or administered by Jews, period, not even a speck of land. Perhaps a space that is benevolently owned by some international body, or absorbed into another country. To which Jews have only token access, if at all.

This is what the President doesn't seem to want to talk about. 

C.J. can't do anything with that.

If it is true that the President doesn't really care if Israel survives, it follows that he would have no problem with policies detrimental to Israel's survival. 

As a private citizen, I have a huge problem with that. 

For one thing, eliminating Israel is not in the strategic interests of the United States, since Israel is effectively America's outpost in the Middle East.

For another, I am a Jew and a Zionist who passionately believes that Jews have the religious, historical and political right to Israel. Even if it is only a small fraction of the land we were promised in the Bible. 

As both a private citizen and a public relations professional, I would urge the President to talk about his vision, his beliefs and his intentions, so that the public can debate them. That is the definition of democracy. But even Saturday Night Live jokes that with all the Executive Orders flying around, it sometimes doesn't feel that way.

C.J. Cregg supported the President. But she had enough integrity to put democracy first. And if I were her, I know what she would say: Despite its many laudable achievements and ideas, the great disappointment of this Presidency is its lack of transparency.

Democracy cannot work in hiding. And there is no question that this Administration is plagued by an anti-Semitism you can feel almost palpably. One that cannot be justified, rationalized or explained in light of anything I can understand. 

Worse is the flat-out refusal to face up to reality, which is that radical Islam is a very real ideology that endangers us all, a religiously rooted ideology, and one which we must fight.

The failure of leadership associated with ignoring radical Islam endangers all of us, Muslims included. The evil you do not face only grows stronger by growing roots, leaves and branches in the dark.

Muslims themselves know this. They are forming human chains around Jewish synagogues in Denmark because they know that it is unspeakably wrong to commit acts of hate in their name.

I always wanted to be C.J., it's true. But it seems I am not destined in this lifetime to be her.

* * * 

On March 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister is supposed to address Congress regarding the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran. The day coincides with my birthday, the fast day of Ta'anit Esther, when the Jews prayed that Esther would be successful when she told the king of Haman's evil plot against them.

Sadly I am not going to be Esther, either. But I can throw my hat in the ring with my people and pray. 

May G-d save us from those who seek our destruction. May He grant us peace in our time. May he turn the heads of our leaders toward good influence and away from evil. May we never know war, or its weapons, ever again.

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All opinions my own.