A Conversation with Eliana Benador

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It is 2:30 pm, and the diminutive Eliana Benador is sitting in the corner of the sumptuous Astor Court at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. It is the perfect spot for someone who wants to see rather than be seen. Her black hair is swept back in an immaculate bob, and her eyes are painted with thick black eyeliner, giving her the appearance of a pocket Cleopatra. She is wearing a pristine tea-green suit; a thin silk scarf of the same hue is draped over her shoulder. A thick pearl choker is wrapped around her neck, four metal bracelets of increasing worth adorn her wrists, and two large golden rings resemble erupting carbuncles.

A classical guitar is being plucked at the far end of the room, its melody dipping in and out of the murmured conversations emanating from the handful of tables still occupied. The lunch hour has passed. On the linen-clad table in front of Mrs. Benador are a pager, two cell phones — one encrusted with tiny gems — and a large silver coffee pot. Leaning incongruously against one of the pillars that holds up the cloud-dappled ceiling above is a pair of metal crutches. Mrs. Benador contracted polio as a child.

With the jewels, the rounded nose, and the impossible-to-identify accent, Mrs. Benador seems quite Middle Eastern. “I always think, ‘There must be something, we must be connected.’“ But her connection to the Middle East is solely a professional one. Mrs. Benador was born in Peru and lived much of her life in France and Switzerland, although she doesn’t like to talk about it. “I don’t give much importance to that part of my life. When I do interviews I try and stick to the most important parts.” A fresh pot of coffee is called for. “I had lunch with a friend here,” she says.

Mrs. Benador is the president of Benador Associates, a public relations firm whose clientele are predominantly those hawkish bureaucrats known to the general public as neoconservatives. Founded, with what Mrs. Benador calls “serendipity,” on September 10, 2001, Benador Associates has ridden the rising demand for such strident voices. If you read something that advocates regime change in the New York Post, or if you see a “political adviser” on Fox News suggesting that Israel hasn’t gone far enough in its attacks on Hizbullah, there’s a good possibility that the appearance has been engineered by Mrs. Benador. She arranges speaking events for her clients, places articles in newspapers for them, and helps them address problems with their public image.

Which is good for them, as Mrs. Benador’s fifty-plus clients are hardly a lovable bunch. Benador Associates’ first member was the late AM Rosenthal, an executive editor at the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who, in the wake of the attacks on September 11, called for the bombing of the capital cities of Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Sudan. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA and the consummate Washington insider, was next to sign up. He had been calling for an invasion of Iraq since the early 1990s and has been one of the most vocal proponents of the United States’ bombing of Syria. Richard Perle, the fabled “Prince of Darkness,” soon followed. The former chairman of the Defense Policy Board had been a warm espouser of preemptive attacks on North Korea, Syria, and Iran for years. With three such conservative heavyweights at its base, Benador Associates rapidly began to attract more and more of the same. While there are some right-of-center doves among the ranks, like the erudite Arnaud de Borchgrave (“The real war on terror is about culture, ideas, and perceptions as much as roadside bombs and suicide bombs”), more commonly found are those like the happily beastly Michael Ledeen (“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small, crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”) With former clients including the disgraced former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose misleading reports on weapons of mass destruction helped pave the way for the invasion of Iraq, is it any wonder that Eliana Benador has been accused of preparing the ground for World War III? Mrs. Benador, however, refutes this idea.

“The Middle East is a section in the world I love,” she sighs, “because I have a lot of affinities with the Muslims and the Arabs. They are very warm people, very kind people, very expressive people, and I like that. I like that. I just came back from Dubai, and I was in Abu Dhabi… It was just very refreshing to have this direct contact with the Arabs and Muslims. It is also worrisome because you see all these people dressed like Osama bin Laden walking around, but the beauty of this is that that part of the world has this acceptance and tolerance of everything!”

Mrs. Benador’s preferred mode of responding is in a breathless stream of consciousness that elides all questions in her path. Certainly her love of the Middle East would seem a great positive, considering the knee-jerk hostility so many of her clients seem to bear towards the region. What does she in turn think of the obvious dislike the region bears for the United States, and the hostility its people feel to Americans who espouse the views of her clients?

“I think they [the people of the Middle East] should care about possible things, they should say what they feel. I really think they should think about becoming better themselves. Everything they do, they should do the best they can. The artists should have exhibitions, the musicians should show how beautiful Arabic [sic] music there is. And I think this is what one has to promote. That’s what’s going to strengthen them. I want to look for what’s common. Nobody wants terrorists, no one wants bombs. I mean, who wants terrorists? We’re not getting into anything sophisticated here, it’s just common sense.”

Indeed, no one would accuse Mrs. Benador’s clients of being overly sophisticated, for when faced with the Middle East, it seems impossible for any of them to shake free of well-worn Orientalist preconceptions. Given her own open-minded temperament, does Mrs. Benador perceive a lack of subtlety and understanding in her clients’ viewpoints?

“Eliana, Eliana!” Two men from a nearby table have spotted her and approach. One of them takes from his pocket a velvet cloth and, unwrapping it, hands it over to her. Inside the cloth is a choker strung with diamonds as big as frozen peas. “It’s so beeeeewtiful,” Eliana purrs, her brown eyes lit up by the luster. The jeweler offers her his business card. “Ohmigod! You have almost the same card as me!” she squeals. “We have to get together another time.” The jeweler insists that his work is better than that of even the esteemed jeweler Graff. Mrs. Benador is awestruck. “Really?” she asks, batting her eyelids. The jeweler, touched by her amazement, invites her to his store, and she asks demurely, “You will remember me?” “Why, of course!” roars the jeweler, and Mrs. Benador smiles, her hand reaching to her throat, her pearls shuddering at their sudden obsolescence.

There is a pause as she waves goodbye before turning back to me. “So. You saw me in action!” And yes, it’s true, here was Mrs. Benador at work: the flattery, the coquettishness, the finding of common ground with people she needs, and most of all, the making certain she’ll be remembered when she comes calling.

“The Middle East is a section in the world I love,” she sighs, “because I have a lot of affinities with the Muslims and the Arabs. They are very warm people, very kind people, very expressive people, and I like that. I like that. I just came back from Dubai, and I was in Abu Dhabi… It was just very refreshing to have this direct contact with the Arabs and Muslims. It is also worrisome because you see all these people dressed like Osama bin Laden walking around, but the beauty of this is that that part of the world has this acceptance and tolerance of everything!”

Mrs. Benador distractedly picks up the thread of our previous conversation: “That’s why I do the work I do, because it’s not only the glamour of public relations, it’s the human side of things. I do my small part in this whole machinery… I believe that communication can make our world better. I don’t want to become too idealistic, I’m very down to earth, but it’s also very difficult to follow the other path, where people keep complaining about everything. I had polio when I was a little baby. I could spend my life complaining, and I never do. I have no time for it. I travel the whole world alone, I have my life, I am a positive person, and I hope this will be a good example for everybody.”

Talking to Eliana Benador feels more and more like talking to a press release. Yet with all her exhortations to “be the best one can be,” and her belief in the power of communication making the world a better place, she sounds, at times, strangely far-out. On her website (benadorassociates.com) there is, amongst the company’s many accomplishments, a section called “From Eliana’s Desk,” in which Mrs. Benador has written down some of her own most personal thoughts.

“Today, sixteen years ago already, in Geneva, Switzerland, I gave birth to the most beautiful baby boy… it was so unbelievable, after the full-term pregnancy of nine months, and I was well and walking around till the day before… it was a miracle for me… my way to tell the world that I am a normal woman, blessed by G-d with a son, my own flesh and blood.”

Such moments as this make one wonder whether Eliana Benador is the hollow hub at the center of a wheel of influence. But a glint of steel does show through the affable exterior on occasion, especially when she is asked how Benador Associates finances itself.

“I don’t talk about finances. It’s just that I can’t. Remember I come also from Switzerland. It’s just too complicated and gives misconceptions. There is no funding by any governments, and there will not be. Nobody pays me. I’m glad that you’re asking this question because this [Bidoun] is going to the Middle East, and it’s very important they understand that I am not being paid by anybody.”

In the hall of mirrors that is political PR, such a vehement denial would seem to suggest that there is obviously something questionable about her funding. Yet with Mrs. Benador, it’s hard to tell whether she’s really hiding something, or whether she’s a sphinx without a secret. This is a woman who, on the one hand, can state four times over an hour that she “loves Muslims and Arabs,” yet can also manage to get her calls promptly returned by Dick Cheney’s office. Is she all surface, or all depth?

“Eliana! Eliana!” The jeweler is back, this time with a middle-aged blond woman in tow, sporting heavy eyeliner and no eyebrows. She shows us a diamond ring the size of a cockroach, eliciting a sharp intake of breath and another heartfelt “It’s beeeewtiful” from Mrs. Benador. “The best part is,” says the blond woman, “I bought it for myself!” Upon hearing this Mrs. Benador looks disapproving. “You shouldn’t tell anyone, you know.” She looks about her to make sure no one overheard. “But I’m very proud of it,” replies the chastened blond. Mrs. Benador, looking at the jeweler, admonishes him. “You know what you have to do, you have to get her a husband.” An explanation is not even attempted. Business cards are exchanged —this time no similarities are found — and the blond is ushered out.

Speaking of which, how does Mrs. Benador feel about being female in the predominantly male arena of power politics? Has she ever suffered because of her gender?

“When I stop to talk to my guys, and it’s very serious, I tell them we have to talk ‘man to man.’ I mean I don’t see any difference. I concentrate on my work, and that’s my only interest, and I think if we could all concentrate on what we are doing and do the best we can, the world would be better.”

Does she ever disagree or argue with her clients?

“Well, I’m very sweet. I’m always sweet when I have to say horrible things.”

What would those horrible things be?

“Well, sometimes I have to say that you’ve put on too much weight. Either you buy a new outfit, or we go to my weight-control person.”

The profile of Benador Associates has been soaring in recent months following an article written by one its members, Amir Taheri. In May of this year, Taheri, the former editor-in-chief of Kayhan — one of Iran’s oldest newspapers under the Shah — wrote of new sumptuary laws that would see all Iranian Jews forced to wear yellow insignia. Taheri’s story was immediately discredited as a fabrication, but by then it had been picked up by wire services and disseminated across the globe. Taheri had long been a critic of the present Iranian regime, but this article was seen by many liberal detractors as an attempt to prepare America’s hearts and minds for the invasion of Iran, through likening it to Nazi Germany. When The Nation asked Mrs. Benador about the veracity of the story, she responded, “As much as being accurate is important, in the end it’s important to be on the side that is right.” Does she still stand by these words?

“The guy [from The Nation] called me on the phone, he didn’t want to talk to me but to Taheri, and I said to him, ‘I would love to speak to you one day so that you and I can talk, because we are human beings living together’… But he was bugging me and bugging me and bugging me, and at one point I had enough — because I have a lot to do — and he was not saying he was going to write on me. So it was not fair, as he put it in a totally different context.”

So you don’t deny you said those words?

“Listen. I think we have to have a message for the people in the Middle East — they are wonderful people, bright people; they are brilliant people, they are committed, they are passionate, they are warm, they are welcoming, they have everything running for them to make something wonderful of their lives and their countries. When people tell me about American imperialism I say, America is not imperialist. When you are talking about McDonalds and Coca-Cola. I always say produce something that’s appealing. Who stops you? Who’s saying don’t do that? Arab art should be exported, Arab music should be exported, they may produce some great products, for God’s sake, there’s a lot they can do good.”

What does Mrs. Benador mean here? With her unique position as a filter for government policy, what is she trying to say? What insights is she offering into the well of neoconservative opinion? Does she not realize that worries of American imperialism might come from the many armed forces located in the Middle East? Does she not think her tone is somewhat patronizing? Is she really suggesting that all the Arab world needs is its own Coca-Cola? It is almost impossible to tell whether the difficulty of getting answers to such questions is due to an impenetrable professional wall Mrs. Benador has thrown up around herself, or whether she simply has the intellectual weight of a shuttlecock. The latter possibility, at times, seems the more likely, but then…

Mrs. Benador’s pager peeps and spurts. “One minute,” she says. “I don’t want this story going to Newsweek.” Suddenly there seems no doubt about her professionalism. Suddenly she is playing different news services off one another, editing her writers’ work in a breakneck burst of double-fisted cell-phone play, scrabbling to get her clients better positions from which to shout their loud and ominous message. Suddenly she is finished with her call, and continuing her spiel.

“When this guy in The Nation said I was not accurate, what he doesn’t know is that during the last presidential election, one of my friends is this guy who is an Iranian in finance, and he says there is a problem and says there is another Iranian guy who is attacking him. Well…”

And so it continued. One would think that anyone who has the clientele that Eliana Benador has would be some terrifying commingling of Henry Kissinger and Karl Rove, a homuncular Machiavelli whose words drip with insincerity and whose gaze fills one with fear. But this is not the case. In fact, Eliana Benador is really quite pleasant. She loves Muslims. She loves Arabs. Some say Eliana Benador is about to start World War III. You don’t have to be a genius to do that.

This is the corrected version of the interview with Ms. Benador and George Pendle.