Last week, the Obama Administration’s official liaison to the Jewish community, Jarrod Bernstein, left the White House to return home to New York. In an email sent out Friday, his last day on the job, Bernstein said he’d be handing his responsibilities over on an interim basis to Zachary Kelly, a special assistant in the White House chief of staff’s office who grew up in Chicago, but several people close to the administration said they expect a search to begin soon for a full-time replacement.
The liaison role is not, by itself, especially well-compensated, and as a result traditionally has fallen to either mid-level staff or people with other jobs to do. (George W. Bush had seven liaisons in his eight years as president.) But in Obama’s first term, the president was able to rely on a deep in-house bench of Jewishly connected senior advisers to help manage the president’s sometimes fraught relationship with the organized Jewish community: Rahm Emanuel, Dennis Ross, Jack Lew. All of those people have now moved on. At the same time, Obama seems determined in his second term to bypass official channels and take his policy fights directly to the public.
We at Tablet respectfully submit that the White House Office of Personnel Management put on its Jewish liaison shortlist someone who not only knows his Federations from his Committees, but knows more than most about what what it’s like to be a White House staffer: Joshua Malina.
For four seasons, Malina, 47, played Will Bailey on The West Wing—the pragmatic realist foil to everyone else’s patriotic idealism. At the moment, he is employed playing federal prosecutor David Rosen on the Washington drama Scandal—but when I pitched him on the idea over the weekend, he said he’d be open to making a temporary career change. “Part of me has to address it in a tongue-in-cheek way, but part of me feels like I would be good at that,” Malina told me. “It would be a challenge to leave the world of fake D.C. to embrace the real thing, but life is about balance.” Obama’s first-term team included the comedian and actor Kal Penn, so integrating a Hollywood celebrity into the West Wing would be nothing new, and playing Will Bailey taught him everything he needs to know about enduring hazing as an outsider arriving at the start of a president’s second term. Plus, Malina added, “Yair Lapid has done well for people on TV who want to go into politics.”
Which is true and also illustrates exactly the kind of global Jewish awareness that makes Malina a perfect candidate for the gig. When we spoke, he was getting ready to head to South Florida to headline a Jewish federation fundraiser. Earlier this month, Malina launched a viral campaign asking his fans to donate money to Mazon, the Jewish anti-hunger group, for his birthday. He said proudly that he’d raised nearly $18,000—“a thousand chai, as I think of it”—and in the process also managed to Twitter-bait NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth wing, into putting up another $10,000 in exchange for his making an appearance at the group’s annual convention.
Malina goes to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, Isabel and Avi, but grew up Conservative in New Rochelle, just outside New York City, and attended Westchester Day School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, as a boy. He went on to study theater at Yale and got into show business thanks to a stellar coincidence of Jewish geography: His cousins had gone to high school in Scarsdale with Aaron Sorkin. “I knew I wanted to be an actor, and my mother said, ‘Call Aaron Sorkin,’ ” Malina said. “It seemed dubious that I’d make it as an actor by calling Jews I knew, but it worked.” He played the Marine on trial for murder in the Broadway version of A Few Good Men and then appeared as the Jewish producer Jeremy Goodwin on Sorkin’s Sports Night before taking on the role of the decidedly not-Jewish speechwriter Will Bailey in the fictional Bartlet White House.
In 2001, after the outbreak of the second Intifada, he agreed to appear at a pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles sponsored by the city’s Jewish federation but was surprised to discover that he was the highest-profile celebrity there. A year later, he gave a blunt interview to the Jewish Journal dressing down Jews in Hollywood who shied away from talking about Israel; after that, he told me, he began getting invitations to appear in front of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. “It only confirmed my first impression that there weren’t enough people involved,” he told me.
Malina knows it’s dangerous for actors to presume they have the same expertise as the characters they play; he told me how embarrassed he’d been as a 24-year-old when people asked him what he thought of the Gulf War at the stage door of A Few Good Men. “I said, ‘I’m just a guy playing a part in a play about Marines,’ ” Malina told me. When he gives federation talks, he said, it’s not about Israel or politics—it’s about “the only topic on which I’m a certified expert, which is my own Jewish background, my acting background, and the intersection of the two.” But he grew up in a politically active family, and the time he spent inhabiting Sorkin’s idealized civic universe left him with a keen sense of responsibility. “I would never walk onto any real stage and pretend to be Will Bailey, but I do think I have the disposition and the intellect to communicate complex thoughts and positions,” Malina said.
We couldn’t agree more. The chief task of the Jewish community liaison, which dates back to Eisenhower, has traditionally been managing the people in charge of major Jewish organizations, from the American Jewish Committee to the Zionist Organization of America—in other words, a cat-herding position. Picking someone who’s famous would give the administration a double-edged sword: a built-in fan base, and the capacity to make even the grumpiest Washington hands excited to get their phone calls returned by a bona fide TV star, and one, no less, who seems to earnestly care about the same things people who have devoted their careers to Jewish issues care about.
Plus, he’s a genuine mensch. For all his (read: our) enthusiasm, Malina seemed sanguine about the possibility that he might not get a desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even though he voted twice for the president—but said that, on reflection, he was so intrigued by the possibilities of the role that, in the mold of Hillary Clinton, he’d be willing to take a diminished title just to have the opportunity to help Team Obama get its message across. “There are lesser ways in which they could use me,” Malina told me. “I’m a strong supporter, and I do care about the perception of the president in the Jewish community.”
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