In Washington anyone who has caucused and conversed with the powerful and the legendary has a wall of photographs to document it. Hyman Bookbinder, who arrived here in 1951 and has been the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee for the past 19 years, has the wall (or walls) to top all others.
Among the rows of photographs, you can find Bookbinder with Presidents Truman and Kennedy, Ford and Carter, and Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. There's Eleanor Roosevelt on one side of the room and Golda Meir on the other. He's dancing the hora with Betty Ford in the White House. He's picketing the White House with Joan Baez on behalf of immigrants and, in another photograph, he's picketing Glen Echo Amusement Park in the early 1960s with Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph in efforts to desegregate it. Outside his office, there's a 1984 picture of him with a group lighting candles in front of the South African Embassy on Christmas Day.
"I said to [D.C. Del.] Walter Fauntroy, 'Take the day off and spend Christmas with your families and we'll organize a Jewish group to picket.' Fauntroy wanted to come anyway."
He smiles at the picture. "So I've had some fun in my life, huh?"
Last night, members of Congress turned out at a reception sponsored by the AJC in the Russell Senate Office Building to honor Bookbinder, who retires in August. Among the guests were nearly two dozen senators, including Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), Don Riegle (D-Mich.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
At 70, Bookbinder -- known by the nickname "Bookie" since high school -- is arguably the best-known advocate in Washington of the various Jewish interest groups. A longtime liberal -- a label he's not ashamed of -- but a moderate in approach, he's won high marks for credibility and integrity. "To some, their perception of me is that of a wimp," he was recently quoted as saying in Washington Jewish Week.
A former AJC president, Maynard Wishner, recalls a meeting at the White House with Mondale at which Bookbinder was present. "The subject turned to Bookie," Wishner remembers, "and Mondale said, 'We're accustomed not to have everyone agree with us . . . but when Bookie and the AJC raise their voices, we think we ought to go back to the drawing board.' "
Two of the AJC's main issues are the security of Israel and the rights of Soviet Jews to either live in the Soviet Union as Jews or emigrate.
"At the risk of sounding maudlin about it," Bookbinder says, "between Israeli Jews and Soviet Jews we have 6 million Jews again for which we have to feel a sense of responsibility." Bookbinder lost 80 relatives in the Holocaust. Still, he says, defense of Israel "is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for getting Jewish support." He warns political candidates that they shortchange Jewish voters when they talk only of Israel and he decries lobbying groups who make Israel their sole issue.
Bookbinder attributes his influence to a broader interest: "If I enjoy some kind of acceptance in this community, if people think I'm a reasonable fellow, not only is it a matter of style . . . I really have believed that the most important single Jewish issue is the preservation and the strengthening of our American democratic pluralism . . ."
Neither he nor his organization is confrontational in style. He spends much of his time on the phone in his Dupont Circle office and little time walking the halls of Congress. He speaks and writes on issues, dispensing advice, attempting to be a "political ombudsman" of sorts.
"I am very distressed at the amount of incivility that's come into our public discourse," he says. "There's much too much shrillness, much too much alacrity with which people are condemned as Nazis or communists or fascists or warmongers or peaceniks."
He gives an example: "Whereas some others in the Jewish community have called Jesse Jackson an anti-Semite, I have never called him an anti-Semite . . . He has done some hateful things, he's said some outrageous things . . . He is I think unfair to us in many ways . . . but I think he's trying to correct that."
This year, Bookbinder and Jackson shared a platform in Ebenezer Church in Atlanta on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
Bookbinder came to Washington, beckoned by a "compulsive interest" in public policy. Born in New York City of Polish immigrant parents, he graduated from City College and did graduate work in economics, sociology and political science.
He's been a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, a special assistant to the secretary of commerce in the Kennedy administration, and he's worked with the President's Commission on the Status of Women headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. He embraced the Johnson administration's war on poverty and worked at the Office of Economic Opportunity.
A longtime civil rights activist, he counts among his most prized possessions a now-faded banner from King's 1963 March on Washington that proclaims "I Was There." He was. And when the Senate voted to approve a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Bookbinder was invited by Coretta Scott King to join her in the gallery along with singer Stevie Wonder and her son, Martin Luther King III.
The informal alliance of blacks and Jews that was so often cited during the civil rights days, says Bookbinder, "was never as great as some people imagine it to have been. And the present disarray is not nearly as serious as some people say it is . . . [We] realized then, as we should now, that Jews and blacks are really among the main victim groups of bigotry and discrimination . . . But it's wrong to imagine there were no differences in priorities between blacks and Jews."
The American Jewish Committee supports affirmative action goals and timetables but not quotas.
"There have been issues where Jews have defined the world a little differently from blacks," says Roger Wilkins, a civil rights activist and commentator who has known Bookbinder for two decades. "There are some people with whom you can have a civilized dialogue when these things happen and some you can't. Bookie is one you can."
Bookbinder's antidote to a job in which progress is measured on the most long-range of scales is to retreat to his Bethesda home, where he cooks up such tangible results as tomato sauces, soups and potato kugel.
He also sews his own bow ties and has a vast collection.
He spends much of his free time with "the woman of my life," Ida Leivick, who lives two blocks away. Both Leivick and Bookbinder are widowed. "She and I and our respective spouses were the four closest friends." Bookbinder had two children with his wife Boscha, who died 10 years ago. "After some months of our respective losses, we started to comfort one another and be with one another often and it was soon very obvious we needed one another and wanted one another. So, it's like a grade B story."
And he will continue some AJC work after retirement. "I've said often if I were born a rich man I would have chosen to do the kinds of things which I was able to earn a living at doing. Well, how much luckier can a man be?"