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August 14, 2018 4:33 pm

New York Times Suddenly Elevates Ronald Lauder To Sulzberger-Level Sage

avatar by Ira Stoll

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The headquarters of The New York Times. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For the past 30 years, The New York Times has been dismissive and condescending toward Ronald Lauder. Now, all of a sudden, he’s the newspaper’s favorite editorial voice.

What changed? The Times? Or Lauder, who, now that he’s willing publicly to lambaste the government of Israel, has miraculously been transformed in the view of Times editors to a Sulzberger-level sage?

Let’s review the record.

My own writing about Times nastiness toward Lauder goes back nearly 20 years. In a 2001 piece for Smartertimes.com, I wrote:

A news article in the metro section of today’s New York Times identifies Nelson Warfield as “a public relations agent whose corporate clients include Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir.” The Times could have identified Mr. Lauder as a businessman in his own right, as a former candidate for mayor of New York, as a leader of the Museum of Modern Art, as the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Again, a useful test is whether the Times would treat itself this way. Can you imagine the newspaper referring to its own publisher as, “Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the newspaper heir”?

A review of the Times archives finds instance after instance of Lauder being treated with similar derision.

During Lauder’s 1989 losing run for mayor of New York, a Times editorial faulted him for “fighting crime with wind.” Said the editorial: “Mr. Lauder mentioned the names of murdered police officers in a pro-death-penalty commercial, without getting approval from their families. The ad is now off the air, but Mr. Lauder continues to treat the death penalty as his political salvation, obviously convinced that it sells as well today as in 1977, when Edward Koch used it so blatantly. Neither Mr. Lauder nor the other candidates who support the death penalty bother to note that mayors have nothing to do with the issue.”

Also in 1989, after an employee who had worked for Lauder at the embassy in Vienna, Felix Bloch, was suspected of being a Soviet spy, the Times op-ed page ran a transcript of ABC’s “Nightline” program. ABC’s Ted Koppel: “I’ve spoken to some of the people who were in charge of the European division of the State Department at the time that Felix Bloch was serving under you. They say, to put it rather bluntly, that you were inexperienced and excitable. I’ve heard other people, in fact, who said that you were a laughingstock as ambassador over there.”

A Times campaign profile from 1989 had Lauder telling colleagues at his family cosmetics company “that he would someday be the first Jewish president of the United States.” The same article described him “dashing into Burger King for a quick cheeseburger” while campaigning.

A 1993 Times editorial opposing Lauder’s campaign to impose term limits on New York City officeholders said, “This proposal is the brainchild of Ronald Lauder, a disappointed office-seeker who has put up $800,000 to promote it. His well-financed pique is no argument for rewriting New York’s election laws.” A second Times editorial described Lauder as “the Estee Lauder cosmetics heir who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1989,” and concluded “Perhaps Mr. Lauder thinks voters can’t be trusted.” A 1996 Times editorial described Lauder as “a wealthy Republican.” A 2001 Times editorial about term limits described him as “Ronald Lauder, a wealthy Republican who has made this issue a personal crusade.”

A 1996 Joyce Purnick column said, “it is easy to be unflattering in print about Mr. Lauder.” A 1997 Times news article headlined “A Cosmetics Heir’s Joint Venture Is Tainted By Ukrainian’s Past” faulted Lauder for entering a business partnership with a Ukrainian who “spent nine years in a Soviet prison for theft and has been linked to a suspected Russian criminal figure.”

In 1999, when Lauder was about to become chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Times published an article about the man they identified as a “cosmetics heir,” questioning “whether Mr. Lauder told the truth when asked during the organization’s vetting process whether he had provided financial support for the Prime Minister’s election campaign.” It reported his accession under the headline, “Cosmetics Heir Named Chairman of Jewish Group.”

A 1999 Times news article reported, “Apparently in defiance of a United States policy that prohibits investment in Serbia, a company headed by Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir and former New York mayoral candidate, has entered into a commercial deal with Yugoslavia’s state-run communications company.” A 2001 Times article headlined “Lauder Media Company Faces a Federal Inquiry” began “A company owned by Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir and former New York City mayoral candidate, is under investigation by federal prosecutors over allegations that it paid at least $1 million in bribes to Ukrainian officials for a valuable television license, according to lawyers and Justice Department documents.”

In 2001, the Times wrote about Lauder, “RONALD S. LAUDER, pictured, shunned by the city’s Republican leaders for spending a multimillion-dollar chunk of his fortune on a failed mayoral campaign in 1989 and by other elected officials for pressing a term-limits initiative several years later, is now under fire from the Muslim-American establishment. Some of the largest and most influential Muslim-American organizations plan to announce a boycott of Mr. Lauder’s businesses, the Estée Lauder Companies, today.”

I should disclose here that a Lauder-led charity paid my travel expenses to accompany Lauder on a trip in the late 1990s to Berlin, Vienna, and Warsaw to learn about the charity’s impressive work rebuilding Jewish life in those cities.

Fast forward to 2018, and Lauder has published not one but two Times op-ed pieces in the past five months, both critical of Israel. The March piece, headlined “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds,” identifies him not as a “cosmetics heir” or as a “disappointed office-seeker” or as a “laughingstock,” but rather more respectfully as “the president of the World Jewish Congress.” The March 19 article warned of what it called “Israel’s capitulation to religious extremists and the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora.” It claimed, “the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish people.” The August 14 article, headlined, “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are,” re-plows the same ground. It identifies Lauder respectfully with the same World Jewish Congress title.

“When members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence,” Lauder writes. That’s nonsense, because there is no such “covenant” between Judaism and enlightenment. In fact, after enlightenment science led to Nazi race science and gas chambers, Jewish thinkers from Leo Strauss to Yoram Hazony justifiably raised doubts about the wisdom of the Jewish people linking their fate inextricably to the enlightenment.

Lauder adds:

Already today, the main challenge facing the Jewish diaspora is a deep — and deepening — generational divide. All over the world, and especially in North America, Jewish millennials are raising doubts that their parents and grandparents never raised. The commitment to Israel and Jewish institutions is not unconditional.

This, too, is nonsense. First, the claim that previous generations had unconditional commitment to Israel and Jewish institutions is false. Some American Jews, particularly Reform Jews such as the ones that used to manage the New York Times, opposed Zionism from the start. The Lebanon War and the election of Menachem Begin saw plenty of public criticism of Israel from American Jews — enough that already in 1992, before the millennials were even born, Edward Alexander was able to publish his classic work With Friends Like These: The Jewish Critics of Israel. If more of these parents and grandparents had really had the “unconditional” commitment to Jewish institutions that Lauder retroactively fantasizes, their children might be more committed, too. In fact the supposed erosion of support for Israel is a lot of hype. The reality is that the Birthright Israel trips have succeeded in showing many more young Americans a positive Israel experience. That is an improvement from the situation in earlier generations, before the trips existed.

Lauder writes, “We are one people, few in number, and we must stop sowing division among ourselves. Once we are united, our future will be boundless.” This shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Who is sowing division? Israel’s elected government? Or Lauder himself, who is publicly attacking that government’s policies and actions in a piece that itself draws divisions between Orthodox and “traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or completely unaffiliated,” between Israel and Disapora Jews, and between younger and older Jews? This also contradicts Lauder’s claim, earlier in the article, that “we all believe in … a pluralistic Judaism.” How this “pluralistic Judaism” is reconcilable with the “one people…united” is a question Lauder doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of, let alone attempt to answer.

On the term limits issue, it was disingenuous of the Times to suggest of Lauder, “Perhaps Mr. Lauder thinks voters can’t be trusted.” After all, New York voters approved the term limits in a ballot referendum. In the case of the nation-state law that Lauder denounces as “destructive,” Israeli voters elected the parliament that approved it. Yet instead of doubting Lauder’s commitment to Israeli democracy, the Times amplifies Lauder’s voice by publishing his views not once, but twice. I suppose it’s nice to see the Times finally treating Lauder with the respect he deserves. But it’s a shame that to get there, Lauder had to come out as a public critic of Israel’s government.

My own prediction? If Lauder ever returns to defending Israeli policy, as I hope he does, the newspaper heirs that publish the Times will quickly return to describing him as a “cosmetics heir,” “disappointed office-seeker,” or “laughingstock.”

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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