Speaking to a nearly full sanctuary at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said that he was happy to fulfill Stuart Eizenstat’s request that he deliver the annual Fran Eizenstat and Eizenstat Family Lecture.
“As all of you know, there’s been a very slow news cycle in Washington,” Blitzer deadpanned.
Blitzer’s appearance Sunday, June 11, came three days after former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony about his firing by President Donald Trump, the kind of high-profile event that the 69-year-old Blitzer has fronted often during his 27 years at CNN.
(Full disclosure: I worked at CNN for many years.)
Eizenstat, an Atlanta native and former U.S. ambassador to the European Union who served in the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, established the lecture series in 1987.
With both men seated on the bimah, Eizenstat’s questions allowed Blitzer to trace his life from his birth in postwar Germany to his “front-row seat to history” as a journalist.
Asked about the Trump administration, Blitzer threw up his hands, looked over the sanctuary for several seconds, then said: “It’s unique. It definitely is.”
Blitzer rejected the suggestion that too much is being made of reported Russian interference in the 2016 election. “At issue is a very important matter. The U.S. has to learn from what happened, from the Russian intervention in our democracy, in our election. … We’d better make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
On the subject of “fake news,” a frequent Trump barb, Blitzer praised CNN’s fact-checking operation. “We won’t put it on the air until we’ve checked it out and we think it’s credible and reliable,” he said. “We are the first draft of history. We’re journalists. We are to be as responsible, careful and precise as possible.”
To answer the most-asked question, Blitzer said Wolf was the name of his maternal grandfather, who, like much of his mother’s family, died in the Holocaust, as did Blitzer’s paternal grandparents.
Several months after he was born, Blitzer immigrated to Buffalo, N.Y., with his parents and older sister.
He received a bachelor’s in history from the State University of New York-Buffalo and, while pursuing his master’s in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, also studied at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I was a news junkie even as a little boy growing up in Buffalo,” Blitzer said. “I loved the news, but it never dawned on me that I would go into the journalism profession.”
When he announced his career choice, his father replied, “Journalist? Can you make a living doing that?”
Blitzer started in the Tel Aviv bureau of the Reuters news agency.
As the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post from 1973 to 1990, Blitzer garnered his share of headlines.
At a news conference during Anwar Sadat’s April 1977 visit to Washington, Blitzer asked the Egyptian president if he might engender good will by promoting exchanges between Israelis and Egyptians.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘I am ready to do that. I have no hesitation to do that, but my people are not yet ready because of all of the wars and violence,’ ” Blitzer recalled.
After announcing in November 1977 that he would travel to Jerusalem and speak to the Knesset, Sadat said he began considering the move after a reporter, later identified as Blitzer, asked that question seven months earlier.
Blitzer made splashes with his jailhouse interviews in late 1986 and early 1987 of Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who pleaded guilty in June 1986 to espionage and was in a Virginia prison awaiting sentencing by a federal judge.
“It was an awful moment in U.S.-Israeli relations,” Blitzer said. Pollard “felt that the U.S. wasn’t sharing critically important information with the Israelis, so he was going to do it” and was paid for doing so.
When the Israeli censor would not permit Blitzer’s article to appear in the Israeli press, it was published by The Washington Post in February 1987.
Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment in March 1987. He was released Nov. 20, 2015.
Blitzer said his first major story after joining CNN as military affairs correspondent May 8, 1990, was the most surprising.
In July 1990, as Iraqi troops massed along the Kuwaiti border, Blitzer and other journalists were told privately by the chief of naval operations and a senior CIA official that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein wanted to intimidate his smaller southern neighbor but would never invade another Arab country.
As he drove home about 10 p.m. Aug. 1, Blitzer was informed of a wire service report that Iraqi troops had crossed the border.
After learning how wrong that earlier assessment had been — “It was clearly a blunder on the part of the U.S. intelligence community” — Blitzer did a telephone report, then returned to the Pentagon, where he was back on television at midnight.
A highlight of Blitzer’s time as a White House correspondent from 1992 to 1999 was an interview with Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, during President Bill Clinton’s March 1998 trip.
Blitzer was amazed by Mandela’s attitude, despite his 25 years of incarceration on Robben Island. “He had no bitterness. He had no anger. A lot of people would have wanted to kill all those nasty apartheid guards who tormented and tortured him,” but to build a new South Africa, Mandela told Blitzer, the efforts of all races would be needed. “It was such a remarkable moment.”
Calling the 2008 president election for Barack Obama brought Blitzer an unexpected celebrity, he said. “In the weeks and months and years that followed … wherever I go, usually older African-Americans would come up to me, and they would hug me, and they would kiss me, and they would start to cry, … (saying) ‘We never believed we’d see an African-American president in our lifetime. We always thought it would be stolen at the last minute, they would do something. … Until we heard it from you, we really didn’t believe it was going to happen.’ ”