Beatrice Breger can't understand why anyone would blame her son Marshall for President Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery. She can't understand what they are saying about him in Queens.
"They're telling me things like, 'Oh, it must be his fault. He could have stopped it,' " she said the other night, shaking her head. "They don't understand his position. They don't understand at all. It makes me feel very badly. They place a burden of responsibility on him he doesn't have."
Marshall J. Breger is the White House liaison to the Jewish community. His role -- or lack of it -- in President Reagan's scheduled visit Sunday to a cemetery where 49 members of Adolf Hitler's Waffen-SS are buried has placed him in the center of an emotional debate.
Some have suggested that Breger, a law professor, resign in protest of the Bitburg visit; others say his limited role in the affair demonstrates that his office should be abolished. Still others have charged that he showed insensitivity to the Holocaust and to Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Breger, a former fellow at the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, says he was "involved in the process of the president's trip" and "at various times I communicated my views."
But he wasn't in Washington for the nine days before the stop at Bitburg was announced April 11, or the critical days that followed. He was in Israel celebrating the Jewish Passover with his family.
Breger, an Orthodox Jew, said the White House informed him of reports that SS veterans were buried in the cemetery, but "I thought it was appropriate for me to stay in Israel with my family for Passover. It was very personally fulfilling for me."
He didn't fully realize the furor over the visit in Washington until he returned April 17 (the last day of Passover was April 13). By that time the Bitburg visit was all but set in concrete.
"I certainly intellectually saw this was a serious problem, but you have to understand the rhythm of the Jewish holidays in Israel," he said in an interview in his apartment in the Kalorama area of Washington. "There are no newspapers. Israeli newspapers are not published on the first and last days of the seven-day holiday, but usually appear on days two through six. I don't turn on the radio during holidays. So in a certain sense you're sequestered. I talked to people, but look, some of the people Americans I saw in Israel weren't shrieking like they were shrieking when I got back here."
Wiesel and other Jewish leaders met with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, communications director Patrick J. Buchanan and political director Edward J. Rollins the day before Breger returned.
"The phone was ringing off the hook. There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anger, a great deal of pain," Breger recalled. "I shared the pain." But events were moving quickly. Breger said he had no time to devise a grand strategy.
Breger said he made his views known to White House chief of staff Regan, but never talked directly with the president. "I did see the president on this subject," he said. "I was with some other people. I didn't discuss it alone with him."
Breger is a large man. Friends, even those from his high school days, describe him as "an absent-minded professor type."
"He is a cuddly, pudgy fellow, the kind you want to pinch his chin," said Burton Y. Pines, vice president of research at the Heritage Foundation. "It takes two or three minutes to realize you're dealing with a great mind."
His background is that of an academic, not political operative. He has four degrees, including one from Oriel College at Oxford University. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Breger has been on the faculties of three law schools, most recently at the New York Law School. At one point he was the youngest member of the board of directors of the Legal Services Corp.
Some former colleagues said Breger was ill-equipped to deal with the Bitburg controversy.
"A shudder went down my spine when I heard he was involved in this," said Fred Konefsky, a professor at the State University of New York Law School at Buffalo, where Breger taught from 1977 to 1982.
"He is the kind of guy who listens, but doesn't always hear. He is not the most perceptive person in the world. He has kind of a narrow, tunnel vision, a weak political antenna."
"I don't think he's an off-the-wall guy. He's just off," Konefsky added. "The problem is that he could have sized up the situation wrong."
On the other hand, Breger is well-regarded among conservatives in Washington and many Jewish groups.
"I think he is an asset to the president," said Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and national president of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai B'rith. "It's my impression that he is better connected than some of his predecessors. He has credibility with the conservative wing of the Republican Party."
"I'm totally opposed to Bitburg, but I think it would hurt the Reagan administration and the Jewish community if he resigned or was forced out of office," said Thomas Dine, executive director of AIPAC, the principal Jewish lobbying organization. "He wears a conservative hat, and has been a bridge-builder. Breger shouldn't be fall guy in this."
It was Breger's work at the Heritage Foundation that won him his White House job.
At the foundation, Breger wrote articles defending Reagan's appointments to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and condemning media coverage of the war in Lebanon, arranged seminars between conservative and Jewish leaders, and led a group of conservatives, including Buchanan and neoconservative writer Midge Decter, on a trip to Israel.
Two events on April 19 in the hour before Reagan was to present a Congressional Gold Medal to Wiesel, the prominent writer and concentration camp survivor, have plagued Breger.
The first was a telephone call he made to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a friend of Wiesel, "for advice and hopefully assistance."
Wiesel had given the White House a draft of remarks he intended to make at the ceremony. The remarks were highly critical of the Bitburg visit and urged Reagan to call it off.
Breger said he told Lautenberg that if "Wiesel had a point he wanted to make if it wouldn't it be more effective" for him to make it during a private meeting with Reagan rather than in public.
"I considered the call an act of desperation," said Lautenberg, who relayed Breger's request to Wiesel. "What Breger was trying to do was modify, tone down and shorten his address. Of course, they were trying to censor Elie."
Breger also spoke to Wiesel. "I told Wiesel we had a scheduling problem and I could be sure that if he would talk for three or four minutes the president could stay," Breger recalled. "If he was going to be talking for much longer, I said that was okay but I wasn't sure if the president could stay because of his schedule."
Wiesel disregarded Breger's comments and a request by Regan to keep his remarks to under five minutes. In an emotional, 13-minute speech, Wiesel said: "Mr. President, Bitburg is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
Wiesel later said he resented Breger's remarks. "I don't like pressure," he said.
"To ask the silence of Elie Wiesel is sacrilege," said Mark A. Siegel, a presidential deputy assistant for political affairs and Jewish liaison under President Jimmy Carter. "He is the chronicler of the Holocaust. He is the witness."
Siegel, who resigned his White House job over the sale of F15 jets to Saudi Arabia, said Breger has lost his credibility with the Jewish community because of Bitburg.
This kind of suggestion has caused Breger and his family a great deal of anguish.
"My family has received phone calls. I've gotten hate mail. It's a misunderstanding because the fact is, my concern was to have the views of the community presented as effectively as possible in the White House," Breger said.
Breger grew up in a comfortable, religious, middle-class family in the Forest Hills section of Queens. ("Not the fancy part where Geraldine Ferraro lives," he said.)
He went to the Queens Jewish Center for Hebrew lessons five days a week until he was 16, and observes the Orthodox sabbath. The father of his wife, Jennifer, was for years president of one of the most prominent Orthodox congregations in Britain.
"Marshall has gotten a very bum rap," said Jennifer Breger. ". . . To say we don't understand the Holocaust is very, very unfair," she said. "I lost two uncles and an aunt in the Holocaust. We know all about the Holocaust. We have felt the pain."
A number of Jewish leaders agreed with her.
"Marshall has been maligned unfairly," Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said. "He is taking a bum rap. People are blaming him for something he didn't do. Sure, the long knives have been out for him, but I hope they're receding."
"Marshall is a bright, able guy. The problem with any White House adviser is where he stands in the pecking order," David Brody, Washington representative of the ADL, said.
That was the whole problem, according to others. "If he would have been anywhere in the loop, I don't think this would have happened," said Israel Singer, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. "Marshall Breger is a big umbrella that wasn't opened when it rained."
Breger said he has no intention of quiting. Reagan, he insists, "is the best friend of our community who has ever sat in the White House . . . . I feel proud and privileged to work for the president . . . . "