WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It's 10 p.m., somewhere in the bowels of the vast Washington Convention Center, and Howard Friedman - after a long day of speeches, flesh-pressing and high-level schmoozing - is still a smiling bundle of energy.
He leans his husky frame forward in his chair as he describes his lofty goals for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby. At 40, the Baltimore-born Friedman is about to become the youngest president ever of the organization, which faces enormous challenges.
Chief among them is the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, whose president has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, and the ascendancy of the militant Hamas faction in the Palestinian territories. Friedman also must help AIPAC recover from a scandal involving key former staff members that has left a stain on the group and raised questions about how it wields its power in Washington.
Vice President Dick Cheney chose AIPAC's annual policy conference yesterday as a forum for ratcheting up the Bush administration's rhetoric against Iran, promising "meaningful sanctions" if the country does not abandon its nuclear program.
"We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," he said.
Shortly after Friedman is to take AIPAC's helm April 1, former staffers Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman are scheduled to go to trial on federal charges that they received classified information about terrorism from a Pentagon analyst, Lawrence A. Franklin, and passed it to a journalist and an Israeli official in violation of the Espionage Act.
The case has called into question AIPAC's greatest asset - its high-level connections with officials throughout the U.S. government - and sparked bitterness among some pro-Israel activists and American Jews who believe AIPAC is being unfairly targeted for tactics that are commonplace among top lobbyists in Washington.
Friedman brushes aside questions about the case, contending that AIPAC has never been stronger and noting that the group's membership has swelled by 25 percent over the past two years. Its annual policy conference this week drew a record 5,000 people, with prominent speakers from the Bush administration and congressional leaders from both parties.
Countering Iran's nuclear push and cutting off U.S. aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government are AIPAC's top issues, said Friedman, a longtime Jewish activist and veteran of Maryland politics.
"My goal is really to lead this organization at a historic moment," he said.
The AIPAC employees accused in the leak case were fired by the organization last March, six months after they were implicated in the case, for what Patrick Dorton, an AIPAC spokesman, called "conduct that was not part of their jobs and was beneath the standards required of AIPAC employees."
Despite AIPAC's contention that Rosen and Weissman acted on their own, the lobbying powerhouse has hired a law firm to scrutinize the way it does business and advise its leaders on any changes that might be needed "to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again," said a person close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the review.
It will be Friedman, in conjunction with the group's other 48 board members, who ultimately decide whether - and, if so, how - AIPAC needs to change to avoid legal trouble in the future.
On the move
Friedman, an observant Jew who wears a yarmulke on his head and rimless spectacles on his boyish face, rarely stands still. As he stood to applaud the many speakers who paraded before this week's gathering to praise him and declare solidarity with Israel, Friedman would shift his weight from side to side, seeming to sway to the beat of his organization's clout.
A wealthy hedge fund manager who started his first business, a publishing company, at 19, Friedman has been an active fundraiser for Democrats in Maryland and around the country. AIPAC's first Orthodox president, also known as Tzvi, is kept busy at home by two sets of twins, Aryeh and Gabby, 11, and Alex and Daniella, 5. His wife, Karen, called Chaya, is a judge in Baltimore orphans' court.
Savvy but not slick after years of fueling the political ambitions of others, Friedman is just learning what it means to head an organization with AIPAC's reputation and influence. He laughs warmly and makes small talk as aides squirm, quietly but insistently informing him that he has someplace else to be. He is not used to being handled, they say.
'Stronger than ever'
But he is relentlessly on message. Friedman used the phrase "stronger than ever" three times in as many minutes as he talked about AIPAC. The climate for his organization's activities is ideal, he added, saying that it is "working hand in hand with the administration and Congress."
Indeed, there are few signs that the leak case has undercut AIPAC's influence. If anything, said many attendees this week, it has strengthened the group's determination to make its voice heard.
Michael D. Goller said he had come to the conference from Cincinnati in part to demonstrate his loyalty to an organization under fire.
He made the trip, he said, "to show that I'm not worried about the impact of this. I don't believe that it should cast any aspersions on the association," said Goller, a software designer. Using the Yiddish word for "craziness" to describe the case, Goller added, "I believe [AIPAC's] mission, despite all the newspaper headlines and all the meshugas, is the right mission, and the good mission, and it's not going to deter me or the organization from pushing forward for the cause that we believe in."
The leak case wasn't on the official agenda of the policy conference, and most of those interviewed about it said it rarely came up in informal chats among attendees.
Praise for Friedman
The gathering group drew a who's-who of Washington officials, many of whom sang Friedman's praises.
Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland said AIPAC had "moved beyond" the leak case, adding that the group "has a lot of credibility with the Congress, and I think Howard will only help to enhance that credibility."
"Howard knows more congressmen than I do, and he's more effective than I am in their offices," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is running for the Senate. AIPAC "is very effective on its agenda, and I don't think that's going to change" in light of the Franklin case, he added.
"Howard will be conversant with it, will be able to communicate AIPAC's position effectively to people who raise the issue and are concerned about it," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, who said he has discussed the matter with Friedman.
"He acknowledges, clearly, that part of his job is conveying AIPAC's position on every issue," from how to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran to the leak prosecution, Hoyer added.
Abbe Lowell, Rosen's lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment on the case yesterday, and John N. Nasskikas III, Weissman's lawyer, declined to discuss it.
"I have every faith that this guy is going to do an incredible job, just because of his compassion and his enthusiasm," said Deborah Adler of Clarksville, the campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of Howard County. The looming trial "will make it difficult," she said, but Friedman will "do the right thing by AIPAC. I don't think it's going to be a large deterrent."
The headline on an article in Wednesday's editions about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee incorrectly referred to the group as a PAC, or political action committee. AIPAC does not give money to political candidates.The Sun regrets the errors.