Among Washington's elite, a calling higher than work Government jobs, however demanding, come after their faith

July 24, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Jacob J. Lew is about to take a job that one senator proclaimed would make him "the second most powerful person in our whole government."

But Lew, expected to be confirmed soon as director of the Office of Management and Budget, will not spend seven days a week consumed with his job like so many senior officials in this Type-A, work-addicted town. As is his practice, he will head out of the office Friday evening while the phones are still ringing and the fax still humming, and leave work matters untouched all day Saturday.

An observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath, Lew is among a small number of high-ranking public officials who have defined strict parameters to their work life, however demanding and important their jobs may be, so they can devote themselves to religious pursuits and the obligations of their faith.

Whether Jews or Baptists, Mormons or Christian Scientists, these are people who defy the stereotypes of political Washington, where work is often considered the almighty, and where people are often uncomfortable with expressions of religious faith except as political theater.

In Cabinet-level jobs and elected office, they also defy the notion that an active political life -- often vicious, ugly and seemingly godless -- and an active spiritual life are mutually exclusive.

Dov Zakheim, deputy undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration and an ordained rabbi, says he often detects a "terrible uneasiness" among acquaintances when they learn that someone as religious as he is also "as educated, as involved in politics and as active in the real world as they are."

And as partisan. While Zakheim writes a monthly column for Defense News that is often bitterly critical of the Clinton administration, he says he never crosses the line into personal attacks. "I'm a very partisan person," says Zakheim, whose family has produced a rabbi every generation since the 17th century. "But one can make a distinction between [attacking] people and policy."

Defined by religion

Those who inhabit worlds both pious and political say it is their religious commitment more than anything that defines them and gives them what many of their colleagues do not have: a life outside of work, and perspective.

Sen. Daniel R. Coats of Indiana, a Presbyterian and member of the Armed Services Committee, often goes to the chapel in the Capitol before an important decision, as he did before voting to authorize Desert Storm and deploy troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican and Mormon, regularly kneels in prayer in a cubbyhole off his office. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an Orthodox Jew, has a mezuza by the door to his office and a well-worn prayer book by his phone that he turns to three times a day.

"My belief in God is the beginning of a lot else that I am and have tried to do," Lieberman says.

On Capitol Hill, there are regular prayer breakfasts and Bible study groups -- some for lawmakers only, some for spouses, some for staff -- and a chaplain in both the House and Senate.

But unless they bump theologies on their way in or out of the chapel or in a Bible class, political leaders are often unaware of each other's private spiritual life.

Seated next to each other on a congressional flight to Iraq after the Persian Gulf war, Lieberman, a Democrat, and Coats, a Republican, each reached into his briefcase at the same moment and pulled out a Bible. "As if by an act of God," recalls Lieberman.

The Orthodox Jew and the Presbyterian have been close friends ever since and now serve as honorary co-chairs of the Center for the Study of Jewish and Christian Values.

It's not easy juggling an active religious life with a career in which 12- to 15-hour days are the norm and weekends are often devoted to travel and talk show appearances. When there are conflicts -- especially obvious for observant Jews who refrain from work of any sort on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday -- there are often sacrifices.

Lieberman, for instance, did not go to the Democratic convention in Connecticut that nominated him for the Senate in 1988 because it was held on a Saturday. Instead, he taped his acceptance speech.

After consultation with rabbis, he decided that if there was a vote in the Senate during the Sabbath, he would cast his vote -- especially since it wouldn't require the use of anything electronic, only his voice. During the Sabbath, Lieberman either walks to his home in Georgetown or stays at a hotel on Capitol Hill to avoid driving.

"I made a judgment early on. I can't delegate my vote, and I owe it to the people of Connecticut to be here voting on the Sabbath," Lieberman said.

For Dov Zakheim, observing the Sabbath -- during which phones are off limits -- posed particular problems because his Pentagon job involved emergencies around the globe.

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