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Jewish World Review August 11, 2000/ 10 Menachem-Av, 5760

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Consumer Reports

Jew Lieberman -- OKAY, so Senator Lieberman is Jewish. And an Orthodox Jew, at that. We think the press is overreacting to that. Consider the front page of the August 8th New York Times. Under a big, black headline reading "First Jew on a Major U.S. Ticket," the Times runs three separate front page stories that each remind us that Mr. Lieberman is, yep, a Jew.

The lead news story makes it virtually the first fact readers learn about the Lieberman pick, writing that Gore is "putting a Jew on a national ticket of a major party for the first time." This Jew factor is unloaded before we hear about Lieberman's views of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and way before we hear about his views on campaign finance reform, school vouchers or taxes.

A "news analysis" also on the front page reports that "In picking the first Jewish running mate -- and one who is Orthodox at that -- Mr. Gore hopes to underscore his willingness to break the political rules and display a dash of daring that has largely been absent from his campaign. But while the choice could energize Jewish voters (though they are overwhelmingly Democratic anyway) it could alienate others who might not be comfortable with a Jew in the White House."

A "man in the news" profile, also on the front page," describes Mr. Lieberman as "the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the Senate." The profile reports that the selection of Mr. Lieberman "also carries a risk, for he would be the first Jew named to a major national ticket. The weeks to come may show whether Mr. Lieberman's faith will raise questions in the same way that John F. Kennedy's Catholicism became a focus in the 1960 presidential election: whether religion might affect his performance as vice president, for example, or the policies of a Gore -- or Lieberman -- administration toward the Middle East."

So we are told four separate times on the front page -- three article and a headline -- that Mr. Lieberman is the first Jew on a major party ticket. But that's not all. There's also a sidebar inside the paper on Jewish community reaction to the choice, and there's an op-ed piece on what Mr. Lieberman means for American Jews. And, descending into self-parody, a fourth front-page story in today's Times, reporting on the fact that Howard Safir will resign as New York's police commissioner, says: "Spokesmen for Mr. Safir, the 39th man to hold the post of commissioner and the first Jewish one, refused to discuss his plans."

Our own view is that Mr. Lieberman's and Mr. Safir's policy views and public records are far more newsworthy that their faith. One note of sanity in the coverage was injected by a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Clifford May, who, asked about Mr. Lieberman's Judaism, replied, "I think it's irrelevant."

Mr. May's views, not those of the Times editors, are the ones that the founders put in this nation's governing document, the Constitution. Right there in Article 6 -- not even in the Bill of Rights, but in the original text -- is the phrase: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." No, ever, any.

A story in the national section of August 10th's Times runs under the headline "Fuel Bills Empty Poor Pockets, Left Unfilled by Boom." The story purports to describe a "crisis" of "millions of low-income Americans, the rural and urban poor alike, who are untouched by the flourishing economy and, as a result, unprotected from the effects of rising fuel and utility prices."

This story line starts falling apart almost immediately. First, by way of comparison, the article claims that "The middle class and the affluent -- despite significant increases in the cost of gasoline, heating fuels and electricity after years of relatively low prices -- in the main have not changed their driving habits or let their homes become uncomfortably warm." This sentence stops the reader for a minute, until it dawns that the energy "crisis" for the poor at issue here involves not heating homes in the winter but air-conditioning them in the summer.

So, for instance, we hear about the "vulnerable" poor folks in San Diego, where electric bills have more than doubled this summer. The truth is, San Diego is on the beach and has a relatively moderate climate as a result of the ocean breezes. Even the Northeast is having one of the mildest summers on record. Why should taxes from hardworking people go to people who don't work but want to live in air-conditioned comfort? grew up in a house without air conditioning, and when it got hot, we opened the windows and we sweated. Or we had a cold drink. We didn't go running to the government for assistance in solving our "crisis."

Now, sure, there are some climates, like South Florida, where the summer heat is oppressive and there are lots of elderly persons who are too frail to work or to withstand the heat. It might make sense for the government, or energy companies, to help them out a bit with their electric bills.

The story concedes that there is already a $1.1 billion a year federal program to help poor people with their heating bills, but it's not clear whether the program covers air conditioning, which seems to be the crisis of the moment. Also unclear is whether there is anyone who is eligible for the program but who is not being served; there is no mention of a waiting list for the program. The story says the budget for the program has shrunk, but that may just be because fewer people need the help in the midst of an economic boom.

The article is accompanied by a picture of an Iowa couple that claims it will starve to pay for gas and heating oil. "We can't get all the food we want," the man is quoted as saying. "We will probably cut back more on food." This is undeniably sad, but there is a food stamp program in America that prevents people from starving. The man is receiving a $1,300-a-month disability check from the government, and he got $300 last year from the federal fuel assistance program. He owns land and is building a house on it, spending $300 a month on "building materials," the article tells us at the very end. Why should the taxes of hardworking Americans go to subsidize this guy's air conditioning bill so that he can instead spend the money on building himself a new house? The Times story doesn't even come close to providing an answer; it doesn't even quote anyone who might raise that question. Instead, it relies on sob stories from poor people who want more government help, and it adds some quotes from the government officials who are making the case for expanding the budgets of their welfare programs. -- "Smarter than the Times, and almost as arrogant, but with only a tiny fraction of the circulation" -- is a daily report edited by Ira Stoll at Brooklyn, N.Y. Comment by clicking here.


© 2000, Ira Stoll