In the condominiums along Florida's Jewish Gold Coast, Mark A. Siegel, a nice Jewish boy from East Flatbush and formerly of the White House, is exhorting "my people." He is excoriating the Middle East policies of his former boss Jimmy Carter, and crew.
His litany of "broken promises and betrayed commitments" is long, claims this man who says he quit the White House as chief liaison to the American Jewish community because he " refused to be used by the president."
Old friend Hamilton Jordan is attacked by Siegel for a quote that appeared in the The Los Angeles Times ("We have to get the California Democratic Party back from the Jews"). Siegel speaks caustically of Zibgniew Brzezinski for having said that the Israelis were "nitpickers about security" and for saying during the confrontation over arms sales to the Arabs that this would "break the back of the Jewish lobby once and for all."
Carter is "so weak as to be irrelevant. Jimmy Carter endorsed a palestinian homeland just weeks after we (American Jews) gave him 75 percent of our vote in the 1976 election. Jimmy Carter agreed to sell America's most advanced weapons to Irael's enemies. And Jimmy Carter, over the opposition of our good friend Ted Kennedy, caved in to Saudi Arabian oil blackmail. Jimmy Carter in an incredible misreading of the forces of justice likened the Palestinian liberation struggle to the civil rights movement, thereby setting off a chain of events leading to the shocking sight of some black leaders singing 'We Shall Overcome' with the murderer Arafat."
On and on went Siegel to a group of 150 elederly people and shouted as if speaking from the Talmud, "Let the word go forth." They could right the wrong of Carter by their votes this Saturday. The Arabs have their clout through oil, the Jews have theirs through their historically large voter turnout. "You are Israel's oil. Your votes on Saturday can and must be Israel's oil."
So all right, already. The blank and perplexed faces stare at Siegel, He seems to have convinced most of them. But what the hell is Saturday?
A national political event and media hype -- a tribute to insanity some say -- tomorrows's vote is a best kept secret to many rank and file Florida Democrats. Blank faces listen to pitches from both sides as scores of national operatives pour into this state to make it a first battleground test between Carter and Kennedy. They try to drum up votes, commandeer the buses, and are throwing at least $500,000 into Florida's election tomorrow. The White House has sent Miss Lillian and Rosalynn and Chip and Andy Young and Jody and Bob Strauss -- "everyone but the White House dog," says a Kennedy supporter.
In the last few days, the Carter White House has dropped a santa Claus bag of goodies in the form of several grants to florida projects. Meanwhile Kennedy operatives from as far away as Minnesota show up to kindle the Kennedy magic.
The caucus and convention are a case of reform run amok. They were created in 1975 as a way to attract new party workers but conveniently also launched Carter in that year's uncontested straw vote. Four years later, some of the Democrats who worked so hard to keep liberal candidates out of the 1975 convention so that Carter could have a clear shot to beat Wallace, are now on the other side, battling for Kennedy in this monstrous free for all.
Ritualized poormouthing and puffery is endemic as Carter and Kennedy forces float their positions to the national reporters who are staggerring over each other trying to write this story, lending a greater significance to the vote by their massive presence and ceaseless analysis.
The craziness is that Saturday's contest is being perceived as the first test of the campaign between Carter and Kennedy but it is more a test of organizational powers than of publicsentiment. The delegates chosen tomorrow will make up half of those picked for the Florida mini-convention in November. There will be a straw vote for their presidential preference at that time. But this is meaningless because yet another group of delegates will acually vote for a president in the spring primary.
Tomorrow the names Carter and Kennedy will be nowhere on the 800-name ballot. Voters will have to pick as many as 188 names, depending on what county they're in.
Somehow the Kennedy and Carter forces hope that the people will be able to translate their slate of names from a mock ballot they will hand out.
In one of the condos sits Ben Wachs, waiting for Siegel's speech to begin. Wachs has a secret. "I'm the only one here who can remember the magic numbah that we have to vote for -- 188 names." He smiles triumphantly "Now ask me why I know." He is asked. "Because it is the name of my alma mater.P.S. 188!" That is ben Wachs, Manhattan P.S. 188, class of 1918.
Every presidential election, national Democratic candidates come seeking the Florida condo vote. Some condescendingly lavish their speeches with Yiddish phrases, some wear yarmulkes. Most of the tenants are Democrats, Jewish, educated and aware. Transplanted from the wards and precincts of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York, they have brought their political memories, know-how and activism to their new homes in the sun. While many other Florida areas are lucky to get 23 percent of the registered vote, the condos get as high as 90 percent. The population of the three largest condominiums is more than 22,000 -- Jimmy Carter's margain of victory in the 1976 New Hampshire primary.
Along with Canasta and B'nai BRith and Hadassah and ceramic classes and dancing lessons, political and civic involvement makes growing old easier. Living is a social event. And so is voting.
They crowd into the auditoriums to hear a Bob Strauss or a Mark Siegel talk about faraway Israel -- women with teased white hair, wearing pant suits, men in double-knit slacks and white loafers; their senior citizenry hides behind a patina of perpetual tans. The condos of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties are Kennedy's major turf, since Carter is expected to take the rest of the state. And even here in miami some of the residents are staying with carter for the time being. But political observers feel Kennedy will be hurt the most because Saturday is a special memorial day for the dead as well as the Jewish sabbath, and many Orthodox Jews will not vote.
Mark Siegel is only 32, but he is at home among the elderly in these condos. His Yiddish phrases are not those of a studied politician but the effortless vestiges of a Yiddish-speaking childhood.
He is the most visible of the many former and present administrative officials expected to scramble to join Kennedy -- some as causists, some as opportunists, some as a combination of both. Siegel speaks intensely of issues, but when relaxed he reveals a Woody Allen style humor. Talking about Yiddish-soundin phrases, Siegel says, "For years I wouldn't use the word 'spatula' or 'tumult' around gentiles. I thought they was Yiddish."
Slim, neatly dressed in a pin striped suit, Siegel peers from behind horn-rim glasses. "I know you'll say my nose is bulbous," he sighed. Grandmothers in the crowd are taken with him and ask, "Is he married? Such a bright, nice young man."
Siegel groans, "i can see the headline now -- The Sweet Revenge of Mark Siegel. I an not vindictive," he protests. "I don't hate Carter," and then races off on a perfectly outrageous aside on Carter -- safe in the knowledge that a reporter for a family newspaper can't quote him.
Seigel, one not always afflicted with modesty, says he had known Jimmy Carter since 1973 when "Carter was nobody and I was executive director of the DNC (Democratic National Committee)." He remembers how hard it was to explain to Georgia peanut farmer Carter "about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. I didn't even know I was a Jew until I went to basic training -- everybody was a Jew in Brooklyn. And then I go to Fort Knox. In my company there were all Detroit blacks and West Virginia whites. The first day of training we worked hard. This white guy from West Virginia looked at me and said, 'I thought you said you were a Jew. I said I was and he said the I was lying -- 'because Jews don't sweat.' So I thought to myself, 'oy vey, do I have a problem,' I suppose the three Jews he ever encountered in his life were lawyers or something like that and didn't sweat.'
Siegel looks serious. "Because of that isolation, I lived for Friday night and Saturday services, and on Sundays I would go and visit Jewish families in Louisville. and it was the only time I felt alive."
Siegel sometimes reveals the little defensive insecurities of having been an outsider. "You'll have a problem explaining me. for someone 32 years old I am in the wrong generation. My parents were 44 and 41 when I was born, and they fled europe. mother walked from Odessa to the Hague in 1917. During that trip, which took seven or eight months -- they could only travel at night -- my mother's 2 year-old sister one night when they were running across a frozen lake fell through the ice and was never seen again. I know I know I would have had an aunt who would now be 63 years old but she fell through the ice running away from a pogrom." With a Woody Allenesque delivery of the macabre, he pauses and says, "That is not a normal experience for a 32-year-old American."
At times Siegel seems haunted by his White House experience and his quitting, the perception of him by some other Democrats that he is a less than loyal fellow in an arena where loyalty is not found in vulgar profusion. He has been called unethical by some of the Carter operatives down here. "This stuff hurts. I was loyal to him as long as i worked for him and left so I could be loyal to myself. Look at my background! can you imagine what it was like for my parents to come to the White House and see their son working there? My father who sold seltzer water door-to-door, can you imagine? It was a lot to give up. I'm not trying to be a martyr. I speak the truth, but the sounds very obnoxious."
He says on of the most frightening experiences when he resigned was reading a book about people who had resigned from public life in protest and what had happened to them. "No matter your positive reason you are typed; you are not a team player, people try to paint you as fanatice on the issue over which you resigned, that you have all kinds of social problems. The book was truly frightening. I'm the last person you would predict to break from the White House. I am the regular's regular. I had to feel very strongly to do what I did."
When Siegel left because he had "strong reservations" about the administration's middle east policy -- especially arms sales to Arab countries -- "I learned graphically who my real friends were, and they were all too few. I had political clap. I was a pariah."
He opened offices at 15th and H in the porn district, "right across the street from 'Debbie Does Dallas.' It was the best I could afford."
He now has a fancy suite of offices on Capitol Hill and is a consultant. His clients he does not name, but he says they include a university , a grain company, a midwestern shore manufacturer and an Israeli solar energy company.
Siegel's first involvement with a Kennedy was passing out bumper stickers for John Kennedy at age 13. He was pushing the Ted Kennedy draft as last January. He is one of the pro-Kennedy forces named specifically in President Carter's re-election committe complaint filed with the Federal Elections Committee alleging that the various draft-Kennedy groups are actually part of a coordinated effort.
Siegel denies this and says that he has spent a lot of his own money to get to Florida, but many of the Carter people like to point out that he operated out of the Florida draft-Kennedy headquarters. After a particularly bungled day, Siegel grumbled about the bad advance work and said, "i could have done 20 condos by now. This ought to disprove the myth of a well-orchestrated, coordinated event.A lot of Kennedy's staff are close friends of mine -- how could you be foreign to a Ted Kennedy and be executive director or the DNC? But we have not coordinated anything."
Siegel says he is supporting Kennedy as the best man not for any personal loyalty reasons.
"This attitude that some have about loyalty p---es me off. Loyalty means loyalty to party, loyalty to ideals, there is more than blind loyalty to one man. I can understand it when Hamilton and Jody don't understand -- they have no social commitments, no party loyalty, no ideology -- it's all Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy."
There was a time when Siegel was considered ultra-loyal to the man who gave him his start in national politics, Hubert Humphrey. And he still speaks of those days with pride. "I never made any bones about it, all through '76, and that was why I was surprised when the president asked me to come to the White House."
There is a now-famous story that illustrates Siegel's loyalty to Humphrey. During the credential hearings of 1972. Mark Siegel worked out of the Sheraton Park Hotel. So did Eli Siegel, who happened to work for George Mcgovern.One day, when the telephone operator put mcgovern through to Mark Siegel by mistake, Siegel never bothered to set him straight. He learned all about Mcgovern's credentials tactics, mumbling only "uh-huh" and "yeah." Today, with mocked contriteness, Siegel says, "If Mcgovern can forgive me, can't you people in the press?" Then with a chuckle, he adds, "We switched three votes on that call."
And where will the Kennedy campaign take Mark Siegel?
"I have no goal, other than to see Kennedy get elected. I am willing to help in any way, but I have never asked nor has anyone asked me, to work with Kennedy. I don't expect to play a major role. Seriously." There is just a slight pause before siegel says, "Obivously I have a lot of expertise." A smile is there as he says, "I don't know who knows more about delegate selection than I -- I say with all immodesty."