Romney’s Jewish Connector
How Dan Senor became the GOP candidate’s key emissary to Israel’s intelligentsia and the Washington policy scene
Senor was originally supposed to stay for 90 days and then return to a White House job in Washington. Instead, after the initial phase of the war was over, he was sent to Baghdad and wound up working for Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, as spokesman. Senor was an unlikely person to deploy to a war zone. For one thing, he keeps kosher. “He had more cans of tuna than anyone I knew,” said Mark Kimmitt, the general who served alongside Senor as military spokesman in Baghdad. “Anytime any of us thought we had a fever we’d grab him, because he had so much mercury in his blood.” (He’s also a picky eater; when we met, he ordered a hamburger with no onions and mustard and mayonnaise on the side, in the precise manner of Meg Ryan’s When Harry Met Sally character.)
But he also had relatively limited Middle East experience, aside from having spent time studying in Israel—not necessarily a plus when dealing with Iraqis—and spoke no Arabic, a common limitation among the young, smart set working for the Coalition Provisional Authority. People who interacted with Senor in various professional capacities said he was no less prepared than others, and several people who clashed with him in Baghdad pointed out that he had the advantage of being pleasant to deal with. Bremer, who describes himself as a fan, credited Senor for pushing him to start appearing on Iraqi television. “He was everywhere, and he was an energetic guy,” Bremer told me. And, in some ways, it gave Senor a breadth of field that would have been difficult to match in Washington. “There are really very few people who have that ability to see politics, policy, and media, but Iraq is really what developed him in all three directions at once,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was then on the National Security Council staff.
Senor had total faith in the Iraq enterprise. “I did believe the reaction to 9/11 could not just be a military one,” he told me. “It can’t just be whack-a-mole, you know, go find al-Qaida with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The only shot we had at reshaping the battlefield, metaphorically speaking, the battlefield that was producing people climbing into airplanes and blowing them up in the U.S., was to try to reform some parts of the Arab world.” And he genuinely believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “I had to do 8,000 different shots, inoculations against this chemical attack and that one,” Senor told me.
As the postwar environment deteriorated through the fall of 2003, Senor continued to do his job spinning the bad news, even as it took him to greater heights of truth-stretching. To his critics among the press corps and among opponents of the war, he was simply lying to save face for the administration. His most infamous quote, reported by the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, was: “Off the record, Paris is burning. On the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.” In Senor’s mind he was doing the best he could in very bad circumstances. But he wasn’t making friends back in Washington, either. He vividly recalled getting a phone call from a senior White House official in November 2003, when Iraqi representatives boycotted a live press conference he had arranged to celebrate an interim constitutional agreement. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “They were flipping out, because they’re sitting in the West Wing watching this and saying, ‘Do you realize what a disaster this is?’ ”
By the time he returned to the United States in 2004, Senor was near-toxic. (Bremer wound up retiring to Vermont to become a landscape painter.) He took a paid gig as a commentator for Fox and wound up back in New York, where he pursued his romance with Brown and started his business, Rosemont Capital, with Heinz. In the end, it paid off. “The real experience he got in New York was very helpful,” said Kristol. “He really understands business and the business world in a way he might not have if he’d gotten a cushy job in the administration.”
Senor’s name was back in the mix by April 2006. Josh Bolten, then Bush’s chief of staff, tracked him down on his honeymoon with Brown in Mauritius to see if he’d be interested in rejoining Team Bush. “Campbell was like, ‘What? Doesn’t he know it’s our honeymoon?’ ” Senor remembered. He decided to stay in New York, where Brown was then an anchor for CNN. A few weeks later, Romney’s chief of staff, Beth Myers, called from Boston to ask whether Senor would be willing to come talk to the Massachusetts governor, who was considering a presidential run. “The two of them hit it off immediately,” Myers said. “I can’t think of anyone who Mitt has ever met that he hit it off with so immediately as Dan Senor.”
Senor felt the same way. “We spent two hours talking about the world, the Middle East, everything, India, Pakistan, a whole range of foreign-policy issues,” Senor told me. “He was a different kind of political figure than ones I’d dealt with before. His approach to thinking through problems was so—well, his critics would say technocratic. But for better or worse it was refreshing.” By the following January, Senor was arranging to take Romney to the annual Herzliya security conference in Israel and helped prepare the governor for his debates during the Republican primary season.
At the same time, Senor and Singer were writing their proposal for Start-Up Nation. The idea, both men said, originated with a trip Senor organized for his Harvard Business School classmates after graduating in 2001. The notion of looking at Israel through a business lens was new to most people, but natural to Senor, whose father had moved on to run the Canadian affiliate of the Weizmann Institute of Science after his stint with Israel Bonds. (He also opened the Tehran office of the Joint Distribution Committee in the late 1950s.)
“Had I taken an administration job, the book never would have been written,” Senor said. They wound up turning in the proposal shortly after Romney dropped out of the 2008 presidential primaries. Start-Up Nation was picked up immediately by Twelve, the boutique imprint launched by Jonathan Karp, and came out the following year. It was an instant success, not just among Jews but in the general audience. “It’s a book about Israel that’s not for Jews,” Senor said. “I didn’t want it to be in the Judaica section of the bookstore, or the Israel or the Middle East section.” It wound up in the business section, right between Too Big to Fail and Superfreakonomics.
Senor’s attachment to the Romney campaign in some ways returns him to the place he might have imagined being when he came home from Baghdad in 2004. “I want to be involved in policymaking on issues that I care about,” Senor told me. He has input into some of Romney’s public speeches, including the one he will give on Sunday in Jerusalem, and is a regular surrogate across the cable news spectrum.
But while his involvement with the Romney campaign is steadily increasing—Senor said he visits the campaign headquarters in Boston at least once a week but expects to spend more time there after returning from this weekend’s trip to Israel—he continues to pursue his own business interests. He retains a financial interest in the firm he launched with Heinz, Rosemont Capital. Meanwhile, the Start-Up brand continues to grow: Rights to the book have been sold in 26 countries, most recently Croatia, and a film crew has already begun shooting a documentary based on the book in Israel. Senor is also developing a feature film version along the lines of The Social Network. Meanwhile, he and Singer are talking about doing a second book. “Dan, with Saul, has the opportunity to create a real business authorship brand,” said Cary Goldstein, now Twelve’s publisher. “And if I can stay in the Dan Senor business, I will.”
For Senor, it may be a better industry than Washington. He has two young sons at home, part of his publicly stated reason for not pursuing the New York Senate seat in 2010. He has the freedom to pick his projects and to do many different things at once, at home and abroad. “Dan,” his friend Heinz said, “has got it pretty good.”
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On my list of worries this Tisha B’Av: Iran, Egypt—and the ugly ways we Jews talk to one another