On Monday I posted an article about the strong feminist vibe at the J Street convention. After posting I got hit with a wave of anxiety writing about feminism as a 25-year-old male. I couldn’t quite tie everything together, but it’s worth a read. You can find it here.
Not long after posting that I got a chance to interview a couple who would end up being my last interview subjects at the J Street conference: Ambassador Sam and Sylvia Kaplan.
The Kaplans have been major players in Minnesota politics for years. The list of politicians they’ve supported reads like a Who’s Who of hip progressives: Wellstone, Ellison, and Franken are the big ones from Minnesota. Also Obama during his 2008 reelection campaign. They’re what’s known as “bundlers,” big donors who also get their friends to donate, because individually they’ve reached the legal donation limit. And as a thank you, President Obama named Sam Kaplan Ambassador to Morocco in 2009.
Andrew Jackson once said, “To the victor goes the spoils;” and the Kaplans got spoiled in Morocco. They also got front row seats to the entirety, at least to date, of the so-called “Arab Spring.” Now here’s the classic line about how you’d think that a wealthy, high-ranking diplomatic power couple would be jerks, and here’s the clichéd, But they’re not!
Actually, what I discovered was that even well into their 70s they have more energy than I do, they’re both incredibly smart and articulate, and yeah, they seem like really nice and caring people.
They just recently returned home from Morocco, and I got to talk to them about J Street, and why they came to the convention.
“We met [Jeremy Ben-Ami, Executive Director of J Street] in ‘08 in Denver when we were there for the nominating convention for Barack Obama, and we were impressed. But because we were involved in [Obama’s] campaign—and once Sam became the ambassador—we couldn’t get directly involved.”
“One of the things that’s particularly impressive is that we’ve witnessed many well intentioned organizations that, as they begin, have their ups and downs; some years are better than others. This is an organization that has only gone up, by any statistical analysis… In every instance the number each year has been greater than the previous year.
The Kaplans have an easy give-and-take with one another that allows them to share focus to a masterful degree. Sylvia would talk at breakneck speed while Sam just stood there patiently, until he’d chime in with a perfectly complimentary thought that took just enough time for Sylvia to recharge and say more.
They both said how encouraged they were to see so many young people, and especially college students, at the conference. Sylvia talked about how she used to work for the “Minneapolis Federation for Jewish Service” (I’m too young to puzzle that one out). “And in those years anything to do with Israel would energize young people, but today that’s not so.”
Sylvia went on to talk about her generation and how the Kaplans have been involved in various other progressive organizations over the years, and somewhere in the middle of this Sam just walked away from the conversation. No explanation, nothing. It was a little weird. But Sylvia finished her thought, and then this happened:
Me: “So, I uh, I’m curious— I just want to ask you, uh, did you have any, you know, any expectations going in and—“
Sylvia: “Oh, that’s Al Franken over there. Want to talk to Al Franken?”
There are three things you should know about me: I’m Jewish, I have a moderate interest in politics, and I have a large interest in comedy. Oh, and this bit.
So I said, “Yeah! Absolutely!”
Sam brings Al over. Al knows my parents, they’ve met a few times at fundraisers and other events, and my dad was actually in the same Confirmation class as Al at Temple Israel.
I introduce myself, he recognizes the last name, and suddenly Al Franken knows me—kind of. Sylvia says to Al, “[Bradley] writes for a blog, so you never know, but these are good people.” (Sylvia, I completely agree with all that.)
It’s a sweet intro, and the perfect opportunity to ask Al—someone I tried to get a one-on-one with but couldn’t quite arrange it due to the government shutdown—“So Al, any quick thoughts on J Street for TC Jewfolk?”
But instead a second of silence goes by, then another second. Listening back on the recording it’s SO OBVIOUS that everybody is waiting for me, the journalist, to ask Al something, anything! Yet I’m just standing there and thinking, “Wow, he has a much more striking appearance in person.”
Of all the people I could’ve possibly interviewed while I was in D.C.—the cool, funny, Jewish Minnesota senator was clearly at the top of my list, and when the chance came I got distracted by his waxy salt-and-pepper hair!
So Sylvia asks him a question about the shutdown, and now I’m just standing there, in a circle with Al Franken, and the former Ambassador to Morocco and his family, and they’re talking about the shutdown in a wonky language that just goes right over my head.
Al eventually leaves, and the interview with the Kaplans is over, but Sam gives me one final thought: “Most of all I want you to understand the infectious enthusiasm that’s present here. The cheering that goes on, it’s something that’s really, very compelling.”
A few minutes later I run into Al and his staff person again. I finally muster the presence of mind to ask him for an interview. His staff person gives me his card and tells me to email him and it’ll happen.
So I do. I go back to my hotel, the government shuts down, I don’t hear from him that night, or the next day, and I just assume that things got crazy with the shutdown. Fine. I get on the plane, land back in Minneapolis, turn on my phone, and of course, I have an error message that I had misspelled his email!
But seriously, for wealthy diplomats, the Kaplans are still very nice.