Matt Nosanchuk is checking his watch. He’s not being rude. In fact, he’s sat for more than an hour’s worth of questions from a reporter at this point. But he’s got opera tickets tonight — Carmen is opening at the Kennedy Center — and he doesn’t want to miss the famous overture. He’s taking his mother to this performance for her birthday, and they’ve got good seats. In fact, they’re sitting in President Barack Obama’s private box, a favor from the boss.
Tonight is a rare night off for the 50-year-old associate director of public engagement in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement and former administration lawyer. To hear Nosanchuk discuss his work during the last two months, trying to explain and sell the Iran nuclear deal to an anxious and divided Jewish community, it sounds like he’s earned it.
Iran still weighed heavily on Nosanchuk’s mind, though, as he sat for an Oct. 1 interview at the White House. Here are highlights from that conversation:
When you took this job, informally known as the White House Jewish liaison, did you face skepticism given that you hadn’t previously held a Jewish communal position?
Many different types of people have held this role. Remember that I wasn’t hired to be the Jewish community’s liaison to the president and the White House. I am the president’s and the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community. Not coming from a Jewish communal role meant that I had no vested agenda in the [Jewish] community. I wasn’t identified on the spectrum of pro-Israel organizations. I had — and have — very strong relationships across that spectrum.
Did you have any doubts yourself? You were known in Washington for your outreach to the LGBT community and for your work on civil rights legislation, such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, when you worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. But this must have felt like a leap in some ways.
People would say ‘congrats and condolences’ two years ago when I took the role. But they thought I had sufficient policy chops and understood the policy issues necessary for this [job]. Still, I didn’t have any idea how intense the debate [over Iran] would be, how divided the community was. I had a pretty tough job.
This role has always sounded a little amorphous, and was held by half a dozen people during the George W. Bush Administration. What did you do today?
Today I had a 3.5 hour briefing with AJAS, the Association of Jewish Aging Services. Various administration officials, including Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff, briefed them on topics such as technology and healthcare and careers in geriatrics, training young people to care for the elderly. We had Health and Human Services here. Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb from Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) spoke, as did Rabbi Jack Moline from the Interfaith Alliance. Among the groups in the audience were Hillel and the [Charles and Lynn] Schusterman Family Foundation. Then, in the afternoon, I went to the USDA’s second annual Sukkot celebration. The USDA [Department of Agriculture] built a sukkah on the Mall. Speakers tied the meaning of Sukkot to climate change, ending hunger, welcoming the stranger.
That doesn’t sound too tough. So take us back a few weeks and months ago, to the height of the Iran deal controversy.
The period from June to early September was the most intensive work period I have ever had. It was a full campaign, in pedal-to-the-metal mode, our effort to engage with and inform the American Jewish community about the facts of the Iran deal — dispelling red herrings and pushing back on factual errors, misreadings of the deal. We engaged the entire community, not just those who agreed with this. Our efforts were predicated on the strong belief that the facts were on our side, that a good deal will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons while strengthening Israel’s security and predicated on intensive monitoring and inspections. We had a war room we called the ‘peace room.’ There were two colleagues there all the time, in order to have information for members of Congress. We used e-mail, Twitter and social media to [get the word out] and we traveled, going out into the community.
What kind of reception did you get on the road? I imagine you encountered some tough audiences, given the things that were said both about the president and Jewish supporters of the Iran deal like Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who was called a ‘traitor’ for his position.
In Detroit, for example, we spent more time answering questions outside the synagogue we visited than in our presentation. I’m a strong believer in civility. You have to talk to people even when you’re talking about something they will disagree with you on or disapprove of. Three of my colleagues spoke to AIPAC in July [the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby group spent millions to oppose the Iran deal], and AIPAC was represented in an Aug 4. Cabinet meeting. We engaged with AJC [American Jewish Committee] which ultimately came out in opposition to the deal. After the Aug. 4 meeting, the leader of a major Jewish organization opposed to the deal said to me that the president was ‘amazing’ for his command of the facts and the passion with which he made the case.
Has the White House done enough to make the case, especially with respect to how the Iran nuclear pact affects Israel’s security?
A leader of a major Jewish organization opposed to the Iran deal told me that the White House has done more outreach to the Jewish community in the last year than in the last 25 years. The president said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support of the Jewish community in Chicago. He believes in Zionism. He believes we have shared values. He shows strong, unwavering support for Israel. He says he did the Iran deal partially to protect Israel’s security, that it would be a “moral failing” not to protect Israel’s security. He said this from the bima of Adas Israel Congregation, making him only the fourth president in history to do a speech at a synagogue. He wanted to do the webinar on Aug. 28 with the federations and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He wanted to explain the deal and his reasoning directly to the community.
Did you ever find your own views in conflict with your boss’?
I have zero dissonance in this role. I am fortunate that this role connects directly to who I am.
What’s next for you? Are you staying on until the end of the Obama administration?
Right now I am focused on doing the best job I can for President Obama as part of his public engagement team. It’s an incredible honor to work in the White House, and we all are committed to making the most of the days that remain in President Obama’s second term. I have always believed that by making the most of and putting my all into the opportunity at hand, I will find my way to next one.
Geoffrey W. Melada is a former editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week.