THE CONVERSIONS OF ANTHONY LAKE
By Robert S. Greenberger
** How Bill Clinton's National Security Advisor became an Obama-man — and a Jew **
Wearing a green blazer, turtleneck sweater, and khakis, Anthony Lake settles into a chair in his small office on Georgetown University's leafy campus. Behind him is a bookshelf stuffed with memorabilia and works on foreign policy -- including a biography of Nikita Khrushchev and a small, white sign reading "NATO Expansion" that calls to mind his years at President Bill Clinton's side as the Cold War wound down.
Lake, 69, is the grandson of a clergyman of the Church of England who came to the United States from Oxford to teach New Testament studies at Harvard. A second generation New Englander, Lake wryly acknowledges that his grandfather's journey to America was "not a classic immigration story." Indeed, the bespectacled, wispy-haired Lake is the very picture of a high-born WASP raised in prosperous New Canaan, Connecticut, and educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Princeton.
So it is noteworthy that the former National Security Advisor converted to Judaism three years ago, becoming Jewish not once but "twice," he recounts with a grin.
The first time was not his doing. In 1997, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright belatedly discovered her Jewish roots, the Washington Post inaccurately reported that Clinton's entire national security team was Jewish. The Administration, taking the Post's words as gospel, began sending Lake invitations to White House Hanukkah parties, which he was delighted to accept.
Two years later, Lake learned that this wasn't the first time the White House had been confused about his religious affiliation. A 1999 Post story, reporting on a fresh release of Nixon White House tapes, described a Watergate-era conversation between the president and his chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, in which they debated whether Lake was Jewish. Nixon disliked Lake because, while a young aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1970, he had resigned from the State Department in protest over the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. "Is Tony Lake Jewish?" Nixon asked, concluding, "Well, I'm not so sure, but he looks Jewish."
"Now I can trace my heritage all the way back to Nixon!" crows Lake, who takes both a serious and joyous view of his Jewishness. He throws out Yiddish words with enthusiasm and interrupts a serious discourse on religion to say that Jewish music is "not quite as exalted as some of the Christian stuff, but that's a minor kvetch." An avid sports fan, Lake mentions that he used to get nervous sitting in Boston Garden when Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, would light up his victory cigar before the game was over. "I think," he offers, "it's called giving it a kinahara," and then exults, "See. I'm learning, I'm learning. I'm getting it."
The only son of a New Deal Democratic father and Republican mother, William Anthony Kirsopp Lake began his diplomatic career in the State Department in 1962 during the heady days of John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier" and immediately arranged to be assigned to Vietnam so that he could be on what he called the "frontlines of democracy." He served as an ambassador's aide in Saigon and then as vice-consul in Hue, and like many diplomats of his generation who cut their teeth in Vietnam, his idealism was soon tempered by the trauma of an unwinnable war.
In 1969, Lake returned to Washington with his wife Antonia (who had turned against the war before Lake) and their young son. Lake promptly became a trusted aide to Henry Kissinger, then Nixon's National Security Advisor. Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson writes that Kissinger saw his special assistant as "his fair-haired young intellectual, an idealistic foreign service officer with the brains and breeding that Kissinger admired." The relationship faltered over Vietnam, ending in Lake's quiet 1970 resignation to protest the Cambodian bombing and an equally quiet, but successful, suit against Kissinger for placing wiretaps on his phones after he left.
After earning his Ph.D. at Princeton, Lake eventually signed on as a foreign policy advisor to Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign and was rewarded with a job as head of the State Department's in-house think tank. During the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush, Lake retreated to Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, and during this interregnum, published one of his six books, the 1984 Our Own Worst Enemy: The Unmaking of American Foreign Policy, co-written with I.M. Destler and Leslie Gelb. The book argued that the ideological polarization of the United States had a destructive influence on the country's foreign policy. "We need," its authors wrote, "to seek to recapture the good that the old Establishment represented -- namely, a centrist political force that can help the country stay on a steadier and publicly supportable policy course."
In 1991, Lake's old State Department colleague, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, introduced him to presidential candidate Bill Clinton who invited Lake to join his campaign as a foreign policy advisor. On winning, Clinton asked Berger, his long-time friend, to be his National Security Advisor, the senior White House position that advises the president on a daily basis and controls access to the president on foreign policy matters. But when Berger demurred, Lake was given the job. He faced a dramatically changed world: With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States was suddenly the world's only superpower in an era when instantaneous round-the-clock cable TV coverage made quick decision-making paramount.
Lake disagrees with critics who claim that the Clinton administration wasn't sufficiently focused on foreign policy early on. "God knows, for me, it was inaccurate," he said in a 2000 interview on PBS. "We were working 18-hour days, including Sundays, with a large number of very difficult issues that were very hot that January and February. There was Bosnia, Haiti with refugees streaming out, Somalia where we had inherited a mission that we had to figure out . . . so we were very busy.
"Bosnia," Lake continued, "was a very large crisis and the one we concentrated on right away." It would take several years to bring the Bosnian Serb's slaughter of Bosnian Muslims to an end. Not until after the 1995 massacres in the United Nations safe havens of Srebenica and Zepa, did public outrage help bring about the Dayton Accords, for which Lake and Richard Holbrooke, then special envoy to Bosnia and Kosovo, are generally credited for laying the groundwork.
The challenges that arose in Clinton's first term were many. The government in Haiti was killing citizens who spoke out against it and reneged on a diplomatic agreement requiring American military intervention. In Somalia, 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in 1993, and Americans watched CNN in horror as a ranger's body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. With far more serious implications for world security, tensions erupted in 1994 over North Korea's nuclear programs and their threat to South Korea. In 1996, China launched a provocative mock military exercise in the Straits of Taiwan. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was pushing the envelope, even planning to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush, for which the Clinton Administration fired two missiles at the Iraqi intelligence agency in retaliation. Eritrea and Ethiopia were fighting a bloody war, and the fledgling democracy in Russia and its mercurial leader Boris Yeltsin required constant attention.
The Oslo Accords also took place on Lake's watch and were signed at a 1993 White House ceremony by Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas in the presence of Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yassir Arafat. Lake likes to tell the story of how he counseled the president on how to politely avoid a potentially embarrassing hug with Arafat. The solution was to shake Arafat's hand with one hand and grab his elbow with the other, holding it so tight that it "would look like a limited hang-out embrace."
Lake left the White House in 1997, and his deputy, Berger, took his place. Bill Clinton then nominated Lake to head the CIA but the nomination got bogged down in partisan infighting in the Senate Intelligence Committee (according to the Congressional Record, Senator John McCain sent a letter to the Committee in support of Lake's nomination, calling him a "knowledgeable man of principle and integrity"). But Lake withdrew and has since taught diplomacy at Georgetown University.
Looking back, Lake assesses the foreign policy failures and successes of the Clinton administration's early years. "With Haiti and Somalia we initially could have done a whole lot better than we did," Lake told PBS. Clinton's main foreign policy legacy, Lake believes, is the many trade agreements brokered and in broader strategic issues. "Here we made an important beginning on NATO enlargement, on the creation of the Partnership for Peace [a NATO project aimed at strengthening relationships between NATO members and other states in Europe and the former Soviet Union] in Europe."
Although Lake supported a range of military interventions, the former Vietnam State Department hand came away from those years with the opinion that the United States must be cautious about nation-building. What America can offer countries in conflict, he said, is "a period of time in which [they] can [build their society and reconcile] for [them]selves. And if [they] can't do it in some reasonable period of time, whether it is two years, five years, 10 years, then we have done what we can and we're going to leave. Otherwise we are going to end up with peacekeeping missions around the world without end."
The 18-hour days at the office took their toll on Lake's marriage, and in 1995 he and Antonia, the parents of three, separated. They eventually divorced and five years ago, Lake began dating Jewish investment banker Julie Katzman.
Lake had embarked on his spiritual journey as a young man, when he shocked his parents by leaving the Congregational Church in which he was raised to join the Episcopalian Church. "I believe that no one religion has absolute truth," says Lake, "and what's important is that whatever religion you embrace is the one that helps you work through your relationship and thoughts about God and your own faith."
Lake says he had long been drawn to Judaism, so his relationship with Katzman, then 41, didn't so much determine his decision to convert but provided an impetus. It was also nudged along by an epiphany Lake experienced a few years ago when he was asked to light a Hanukkah candle at a party. "I suddenly got this extraordinary, very vivid sense of all the people who had lit their candles over so many centuries and under such unimaginable circumstances," he recalls, "and I began to feel strongly that I wanted to be part of that community."
In 2004, Lake attended a meeting of the Washington-based Carnegie Council of Ethics and International Affairs where sessions open with a brief homily offered by rotating clergy. At this meeting, it was a rabbi's turn. After the rabbi spoke, Lake walked up to meet him. "I've met this Jewish woman and I want to look into converting," he ventured. "Do you know a rabbi in Washington that I can talk to and study with?" The rabbi answered, "Yes, me." He was Arnie Resnicoff, a conservative rabbi and retired U.S. Navy chaplain.
"The first thing that impressed me," Lake recalls, "was that he said, ‘I'm not going to try to convert you. We don't do that. We can talk it through but it's up to you.'" For about a year, the two met every Monday morning for breakfast in Washington's elegant Wardman Park Hotel.
"We would argue and discuss, mostly the Torah portion, and I loved it," says Lake. "I love faith through argument and discussion, which is to my mind, a deeper faith than one that says: This is what you believe, and don't you dare not believe it because the penalties could be eternal."
For his part, Resnicoff emphasized the centrality of such give-and-take to Jewish spirituality. "I would tell Tony that his feelings were like a springboard for wrestling with these ideas," he says. "I told him that the image of Christianity is the Prince of Peace, but in Judaism, it is Jacob wrestling with the angel. He liked that."
Lake converted in 2005. A bet din, the Jewish court of law of three rabbis overseeing conversions, including Resnicoff, observed as Lake was submerged three times in a mikvah. Although Lake had been circumcised as an infant, a mohel was nevertheless called in to draw a symbolic drop of blood. In April 2005, standing under a huppa at a Dominican Republic resort, Lake and Katzman were married.
Lake offers what he calls a "foreign policy-nerd analogy" about his conversion, a concept he believes he learned from Kissinger: "If you force parties into a peace agreement, it won't last. It needs to be based on their perceptions of their interests. Similarly, if I had converted to please my wife or my new family, it might not last. It wouldn't be real."
Unlike other veterans of Bill Clinton's Administration -- such as Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke (Lake's equally ambitious rival in the foreign service class of 1962 who is considered to be a frontrunner for Secretary of State in a Hillary Clinton administration and is also Jewish), Lake chose not to support Hillary Clinton.
Instead, he threw his weight behind Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, to whom he is now senior foreign policy advisor. Lake was one of the first members of the Washington, D.C. Democratic foreign policy establishment to notice Obama. He heard about him in 2002 while in Chicago to give a speech about civil liberties with Federal Appeals Court Judge Abner Mikva, a former congressman from the Chicago area. "Somebody asked me if I would talk to this guy who was a state senator who had decided to run for the U.S. Senate but had no chance," Lake remembers. "Would I talk to him about foreign policy? I said, ‘Sure.'"
This guy was Obama. Although the two men didn't meet, they began to chat on the phone from time to time. "My impression of him was that he was smart as hell. Confident." Lake who enjoyed the way Obama learned through discussion and argument, periodically reviewed international issues with Obama staffers and talked through ideas with Obama for his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. "I was impressed that a senator would be writing his own stuff rather than having the book ghost-written."
On one of Obama's early visits to Washington, Lake introduced him to former Clintonites who would later form the nucleus of the campaign's foreign policy team. These included State Department staffers Gregory Craig (a lawyer who represented Clinton at his impeachment trial and was director of policy and planning under Albright), and Susan Rice (an expert on Africa and terrorism at the Clinton White House and a former senior advisor to the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign). When Obama arrived in town as a junior senator, joined the Foreign Relations Committee and, unlike Hillary Clinton, came out strongly against the Iraq War, these and other Democrats who were against the war, began to coalesce around him.
In mid-2006, when Obama asked if Lake thought he should run for president, Lake answered: "Absolutely." In late December, Obama called to tell Lake that he had decided to enter the race, and asked Lake to co-run the campaign's foreign policy team with Rice. "Since I had encouraged him to run, I could hardly say no," says Lake.
Obama also had given Lake a copy of the now-completed Audacity of Hope. "My wife and I were leaving on vacation to Mexico, and as I was walking out I saw it on the stack of books so I took it with me. And then I sat down on the beach and opened the book, thinking, ‘Why am I ruining my vacation by reading some politician's book?' But it was a page-turner. That helped seal the deal for me.
"This wasn't an anti-Clinton thing," Lake says. "It was a pro-Obama thing, because I had been so impressed by him." Lake was struck by what he saw as Obama's promise as a global leader who would protect American interests as well as change America's image in the world. "I was very moved by this notion of bringing America together," he says. "Unless a president has gotten elected trying to bring people together, he's never going to be able to convince Congress to go along with the changes we need in our policies.
"The question isn't which candidate is strongest in his or her support of NATO or Israel, or which candidate is opposed to terrorists -- because all three are, absolutely. The question is: Which America is the strongest friend of Israel? Which America will be the strongest adversary to those who would do us harm?' And, clearly the answer is an America that is unified rather than torn apart by the politics of the last 20 years. And it is in Obama's DNA to be a unifier while having clear views."
Lake's religious and political conversions have landed him smack in the middle of controversy brewing over Obama's positions on Israel. As the 2008 campaign has heated up, so has the widespread innuendo -- including strings of emails "revealing" the candidate's middle name, Hussein -- suggesting that Obama, a Christian, is a Muslim as well as a secret supporter of the Palestinian cause.
In fact, Obama's public record on Israel is as unblemished as that of Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee McCain, according to Harold Friedman, the president of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the influential American Jewish lobby. In its analysis of Obama, the National Jewish Democratic Council, which has remained neutral in the primary race, reports that Obama co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and signed several letters urging actions on behalf of Israel. One called on the European Union to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist groups; another urged President George W. Bush to press Palestinian leadership to bar terrorist groups from Palestinian elections; and a third expressed solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism. The Council also reported that Obama voted multiple times in favor of aid to Israel and has led in the push for divestment from Iran by investors and state and local governments.
However, with the close battle for Jewish votes, questions about Obama's stance toward Israel continue to resurface and the blogosphere is abuzz with false accusations that members of Obama's foreign policy team are pro-Palestinian. Some of these allegations (as well as the mantra that Hillary Clinton has more foreign policy experience than Obama) have been attributed to the Clinton campaign, others to conservative Republicans, both Jewish and Christian. According to the New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, a vociferous supporter of Israel as well as an Obama supporter, neoconservatives are partly to blame. "They are afraid because they think Obama can win the election" against McCain, he says. But much of the suspicion, theorizes a senior Obama advisor who asked not to be named, boils down to demography. Unlike younger Jews, he says, "Jewish Democrats over 40 have an instinctive sense of vulnerability, a sense that bad things can happen."
Lake's job and those of other Obama advisors is made more difficult by the fast-pace of Internet chatter. In addition to advising the candidate on foreign policy matters, Lake finds himself standing at Obama's side as the candidate addresses the Jewish community in an effort to dispel rumors. In February, Obama spoke to an audience of about 100 Jews in Cleveland's Landerhaven Banquet Hall, pulling out all rhetorical stops in his unequivocal support of Israel. Promising to bring to the White House "an unshakeable commitment to the security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel," he spoke glowingly of visiting the country two years earlier. Obama cited Israelis' "courage and commitment to democracy every day that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye -- or argue about politics in a local café," observing that there's a "strain" in the American Jewish community that equates unwavering support for Likud Party policies with support for the nation. This "cannot be the measure of our friendship with Israel," Obama intoned.
While Lake understands the anxiety, he deplores the result. "To Jews," he says, "it's natural that there's an instinctive vigilance, but there is a difference between vigilance and them just spreading lies."
He and Obama have never discussed their personal reactions to the innuendo. Lake, himself, finds many of the allegations vile. "But I keep reminding myself that, as much as they anger and sadden me, they do not compare with all the horrible things that have happened over the years to Jews."
Lake, of course, is not the only influential Jew in the Obama camp. The campaign's extraordinarily successful finance chair, Penny Pritzker, is Jewish. (Lake himself is a major "bundler" for the campaign, raising at least $200,000, according to the Washington Post.) Obama counts among his major supporters numerous Jewish philanthropists, and his chief media guru is David Axelrod, who is also Jewish.
Yet another Jewish advisor is Dennis Ross, a seasoned Middle East hand and foreign policy specialist in both Democratic and Republican administrations. Ross cites Lake himself as evidence of the candidate's sincerity on Israel, although some Jewish Republicans remain suspicious of him due to his association with the Clintons. Says Ross: "Certainly Tony Lake's record on the Middle East and Israel is very good and should be reassuring to American Jews" who have qualms about Obama.
Lake finds himself in yet another quandary as Obama has come under fire from another quarter of the Jewish community, this time for inflammatory statements made over the past two decades by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., the recently retired pastor of the African-American church where Obama worships -- Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
Like everyone else in the country, Lake has watched the video loops in which Wright voiced his anger against whites, and read the articles iterating Wright's praise of Louis Farrakhan and his remark, according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that the United States "supported Zionism shamelessly while ignoring the Palestinians."
Although Obama has never supported these positions, Wright's comments have inflamed some conservative Jewish groups, including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). "Wright has been preaching hatred for 20 years based on lies," says ZOA President Morton Klein, "and Obama not only listened to these speeches, but he brought his daughters to hear them. He sat there and said nothing."
Lake is disturbed by the controversy -- which has stoked tensions between Jewish and black voters, and fears by some Democratic insiders that if Obama loses the primary, the rift between two of the Democratic party's most loyal constituencies could deepen. "I find it painful when you see ties between the Jewish community and the African-American community, which were so strong in the 1960s, becoming frayed," says Lake. "These two communities were both the subject of double prejudices and have a community of interest."
Obama declined to sever his relationship with Wright, or his church, and sought to quell the anger with a seminal campaign address on race, "A More Perfect Union," in March in Philadelphia. Likening Wright to "an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with," he said he could "no more disown him than disown the black community." He went on to acknowledge the anger about racial injustice that pervades parts of the black community, as well as deep-seated racial biases on all sides. "The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced . . . reflect the complexity of race in this country that we have never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."
Says Lake: "You could argue that a president who is African-American but who shares so many of the views of the Jewish community -- both about civil liberties and about the security of Israel -- could help bring us together."
Anthony Lake could have chosen to sit out this turbulent primary contest, as have some former Clinton associates -- including Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, and Vice President Gore himself. But Lake, whose name has been proffered as a potential Secretary of State in an Obama administration, means to move beyond the polarization of American politics, which he adds, is exacerbated by exit polls, one of his pet peeves. "They drive me crazy," he says, "because then everybody gets categorized and it reinforces the categories for people."
Obama, says Lake, is not a wedge between Jews and blacks, or even between Jews and Jews, as some insist. "Obama is passionate in his belief that our society has to preserve our wonderful ethnic diversity while not letting that diversity create fissures that politicians can then take advantage of to divide us."
In his quiet Georgetown aerie on this break from campaigning, Lake, very much the consummate diplomat, sounds a bit like the young idealist who entered the State Department nearly 50 years ago. Although known for being fiercely competitive, he has a whimsical, self-deprecating air.
For a moment, Lake sets aside politics for a yet another jocular comment about his conversion to Judaism. Although he loves his mother-in-law's Jewish cooking, there has been one disappointment.
"One of my regrets after converting is that now I am approaching an age at which I thought that I could be initiated into the Elders of Zion," Lake says with a twinkle in his eye. "Nobody has approached me yet."