Only In New York, Kids

Along with the glamorous perks that come with the Chatterbox column (the Malibu beach house, Microsoft stock options at the 1989 price and, yes, the secret de-coder ring), there is also one solemn obligation. Chatterbox, despite his ever-shifting earthly guises, is always obsessed with welfare reform. Which brings us to the bizarre tale of how Jason Turner, New York City’s new welfare commissioner, ended up accused of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi sentiments. Turner’s crime: Uttering six common English words in a TV interview, none of which was derogatory.

As welfare-reform groupies know, Turner was the architect of Wisconsin’s acclaimed welfare-to-work program, who was named to his current post by Mayor Rudy Guiliani in January. It is comparatively easy to prune the welfare rolls in white-bread Wisconsin, a low-unemployment state with a laudable progressive tradition. But can Turner replicate this success story in New York, the mother church of hide-bound welfare bureaucracies? The self-confident Turner, in taking the job, clearly agreed with Frank Sinatra’s view of the Big Apple: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.”

That’s why it probably didn’t surprise Turner when a municipal labor leader likened the city’s workfare program to slavery. Even in the provinces, Turner had some first-hand experience with the incendiary rhetoric that surrounds the welfare debate. So Thursday night when a TV interviewer asked about the slavery comment, Turner had a ready riposte. “It’s work that sets you free,” he replied.

Those six words made Turner seem like a card-carrying member of the German-American Bund. Amid the hot-house ethnic sensitivities of New York, it was soon pointed out that Turner’s glib remark was the English translation of the infamous German slogan, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz. In his efforts to wiggle out of a slavery analogy, Turner inadvertently unleashed the Holocaust. This being New York, no one, of course, laughed it off as an unfortunate coincidence.

Turner quickly issued an apology: “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks.” But the damage was compounded when the New York Times, New York Post, and Newsday all ran follow-up stories filled with what-do-you-expect-from-an-insensitive-Cheesehead quotes from Jewish leaders. The hat-trick award for eternal vigilance on the anti-Semitic front went to Adam Segall, the director of the New York office of the Anti-Defamation League, who artfully managed to get himself quoted in all three papers. Segall’s comments ranged from calling Turner’s comments “extremely offensive” in the Post to a far more nuanced, “I’m not saying that he used it intentionally as an anti-Semitic remark” in the Times.

After this ridiculous flap, Turner can now rightly describe himself as “anti-semantic.”

Walter Shapiro