This weekend, I had a chance to observe the proceedings at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s spring leadership meeting from the press gallery. It was my fourth time attending the annual RJC event, though my first as part of the media.
There was unusual media interest this year, as four potential GOP presidential candidates addressed the conference. And it was fascinating to watch mainstream journalists at their craft: knocking Republicans.
The media had set up the RJC gathering as the “Sheldon Adelson primary,” suggesting that the casino magnate, who hosts the event at the Venetian complex in Las Vegas every year, controls the levers of power in the GOP.
Then they spun the idea that because questions for the potential candidates were being submitted in advance to the moderator–a regular, if dubious, practice–that the RJC was protecting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
It was amusing to note the journalists’ surprise when RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks asked Christie two very tough questions, one about “Bridgegate” and the other about allegations that he is “pro-shariah” after his appointment of a Muslim judge with controversial ties.
So much for softballs–in both directions: Christie answered the latter question by suggesting that the criticism could only arise from prejudice against Muslims.
Later, several journalists mobbed Morton Klein, the newly-re-elected president of the Zionist Organization of America, when he wandered over to the gallery to express his irritation that Christie had used the term “occupied territories” in describing the “disputed territories” of the West Bank. “Chris Christie is hardly a friend of Israel,” he told them, an attack duly noted by the New York Times in its write-up of the event.
Of course, it’s hardly the media’s fault if Republicans hammer each other. An RJC source vented: “Isn’t it nice when the head of another organization crashes your event?”
Yet the media were happy to oblige: it was what some apparently came to do, anyway.
When Ohio Gov. John Kasich spoke about the problems of drug addiction and mental illness, the universal consensus in the press gallery–duly reflected in their coverage–was that he was pandering to Adelson and his wife Miriam, a physician who specializes in treating addicts.
When President Barack Obama acknowledges an event’s hosts, of course, he’s just demonstrating a personal touch.
The speeches, it must be said, were somewhat underwhelming. In touting his record of accomplishments as governor, Christie performed his usual trick of bashing Democrats while exhorting Republicans to work across the aisle.
Kasich focused on explaining how government can help the poor and desperate, as he has done in his push to expand Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare–an effort he did not mention in his remarks at the conference.
Ambassador John Bolton connected most readily with the audience, ripping into the Obama administration’s ongoing foreign policy problems and proposing a return to Ronald Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength.”
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin focused on domestic policy and his achievements in turning his state’s finances around, describing a foreign policy vision in which resolute leadership at home translated into strength abroad.
All of these performances were worthy–but not quite presidential. They were more convincing as auditions for someone else’s cabinet: Walker as Vice President, Bolton as Secretary of State, Kasich as Secretary of Labor and Christie as Attorney General. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who spoke at a private RJC fundraiser on Thurday, might make a solid Secretary of Education.
A stronger presidential candidate has yet to emerge in the GOP field.
Indeed, the candidate who loomed largest over the RJC proceedings was one who was not there: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose criticisms of the National Security Agency and of American intervention abroad were the frequent, albeit indirect, target of many of the speeches from the rostrum (he was never mentioned by name).
Regardless of who rises to the top of the Republican polls, however, one thing is certain: the media will be there to attack him (or her), disproportionately.
That will be the case whether Republicans accommodate the media, or not; whether the Republican National Committee follows withdraws presidential debates from the networks, or not; whether the nominee is friendly to journalists, or not.
For some in the media, it’s a point of pride.
Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP