Eleana Benador wants right-wing hawks to look nice on television.
“I’m very meticulous,” said Ms. Benador, a diminutive woman in her 40’s who is a publicist to neoconservative stars. “Clothing. Attitude. Hair style. I’m always fussy about it. Some of them, if they’re putting on weight, very gently I will go to them and say, ‘You have two choices: You go to my doctor who makes you lose weight, or you buy a new suit.’ Very gently.”
Ms. Benador, a Peruvian-born New Yorker who runs a one-woman publicity firm for experts on national security, foreign policy and the Middle East, noted that her star client, Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, had shown marked improvement.
“I think we have seen that he’s losing weight,” she said in her heavily accented English. “I’ve looked at him.”
Arriving at the Mark Hotel on East 77th Street on March 28, Ms. Benador was wearing an elegant brown dress, a floral scarf and heavy black eyeliner. She walks with the aid of two titanium crutches, the result of childhood polio. She stowed the crutches against the wall of the café, ordered coffee and smiled. “I must say that I had polio when I was 7 months old-that’s one of the reasons why I have this strong character,” she said, breaking into laughter.
Since she started Benador Associates a year and a half ago, Ms. Benador has assembled a Who’s Who of Iraqi-regime-change pundits, including former C.I.A. director James Woolsey, Daily News columnist A.M. Rosenthal, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Ledeen, National Review contributing editor Frank Gaffney Jr., former Washington Times editor in chief Arnaud de Borchgrave, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr. and Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis professor who advocates regime change in the pages of The New Republic .
With 300,000 coalition troops in the Iraqi region, the hawks are soaring, and the influence of neoconservative thinkers like Mr. Perle on the Bush administration has boosted Ms. Benador’s stock.
“I know that my roster is very high-level,” she said. “I like to say it’s like choosing a horse-a purebred, you know? Take your time, look at the muscles, look at this, look at that.”
Ms. Benador spends her days mediating with TV producers and newspaper op-ed editors to get her clients’ messages out. “One of my greatest goals is to just promote views regarding Iraq,” she said. “For instance, helping to understand that we are having a military success.”
“I think it’s safe to say we’ve used everyone on her list,” said Tunku Varadarajan, the op-ed editor of The Wall Street Journal . Mr. Varadarajan said that Ms. Benador calls him nearly every day.
“Whenever there is a political group that feels strongly about something, the most effective way to get it out is to work the media,” said Mr. Varadarajan. “The conservatives are fairly new to the game. Liberal political groups are well versed in media recognition.”
Ms. Benador has been taken to task by partisan critics for acting as a kind of public-relations firm for the war. A column by Brian Whitaker in The Guardian characterized Benador Associates as a tool of the “creative destruction and total war” crowd-referring to phrases used by Benador client Michael Ledeen, who has advocated “the kind of warfare that not only destroys the enemy’s military forces, but also brings the enemy society to an extremely personal point of decision.”
“Several of her experts regard the fall of the Iranian regime as a certain consequence of war in Iraq,” wrote Mr. Whitaker.
Some of Ms. Benador’s clients do indeed have a like-minded message to promote. Mr. Woolsey and Mr. Perle signed the now-legendary letter to President Bill Clinton in 1998 which declared that United Nations inspections had failed in Iraq and urged regime change. And while the Bush administration has been famously close-mouthed about its vision for the Middle East, Mr. Perle is often viewed as the unvarnished id of its foreign-policy mission.
Playing in such a big sandbox seems to be reward enough for Ms. Benador: Some of her flashier clients, like Mr. Perle and Mr. Woolsey, don’t pay her a dime.
“For me, this is more than just a business,” she said. “There are some things I just do because they need to be done. In some cases, people pay me very well. I’m not a business woman with a flat fee; sometimes I go by the budget of the client. If it’s somebody really amazing, I have some kind of advantage-an intellectual or emotional reward.
“Mr. Perle doesn’t reward me financially,” she added, “but it’s a very positive and constructive relationship.”
“She came to me and said she was putting together a speakers’ bureau and could she represent me, and I said yes,” said Mr. Perle. “What she has done since then is to call me frequently to suggest TV appearances. Sometimes I’ve done them and sometimes I haven’t.”
On the day she spoke to The Observer , Ms. Benador was cheery despite the fact that Mr. Perle had resigned the day before as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a quasi-governmental organization that advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The New Yorker ‘s Seymour Hersh had reported that Mr. Perle was embroiled in a conflict of interest, because he was serving as managing partner in a technology venture that stood to benefit from a war in Iraq-a war Mr. Perle has heartily advocated for a decade.
Would Mr. Perle’s resignation affect his standing as a hired lecturer?
“Practically speaking, yes,” said Ms. Benador, “because he’s no more the chairman. But I don’t think it will have an impact as far as the rest. He’s a personality by himself. He doesn’t need a title.”
In the months before the conflict started, Mr. Perle was shilling heavily for the war. Ms. Benador said that she arranged TV appearances for him on ABC, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News. On March 17, two days before the war, Ms. Benador featured Mr. Perle at a seminar she’d organized at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., billed as an event to “support the fight for the liberation of the people of Iraq and the fight for democracy.”
Ms. Benador denied being the unofficial publicist of the pro-war crowd.
“First of all, for the record, nobody asked me to do anything,” she said. “This was totally a private initiative. There was nothing paid by the government. Absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing. So it coincided that this group of people accepted to be represented by me. And the others asked me to do so. It coincided also that our views were the same.”
Ms. Benador sees her clients as really just a bunch of sensible peace-lovers.
“All of them in my group, they wanted peace,” she said. “Nobody was asking to go to war per se. That was not the goal. The goal was to disarm Saddam Hussein, to go for total regime change.
“You see, what I believe is, I am the intermediary,” she continued. “And because I understand them so well, sometimes I’m even the one who suggests they write a couple of articles on this or that subject. I am more able to present the case. In some instances, some bookers have said, ‘I can’t take that piece.’ And I say, ‘Oh, how can you do that? Because look at the facts, look at the format of the piece.’ And I would say something like, ‘If I was you, I’d take the piece.'”
When she was 7, Ms. Benador’s family moved from Peru to France. Her family, she said, were “mostly doctors,” although her father was in the Peruvian navy. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, she studied psychology and political science at the Sorbonne and the Université Catholique de Lille. She did stints as an editor at the Peruvian Times and as a translator at the United Nations in Vienna. Through the years, she said, she has lived in Paris, Geneva and Vienna, where her closest friends were the princes of Liechtenstein.
She married a Swiss named Emmanuel Benador in 1989, and they moved to the United States. He is the director of graphics at the Jan Krugier Gallery on East 57th Street.
In 1997, Ms. Benador did some publicity work for Bezalel Narkiss, an Israeli art-history professor at Hebrew University who lectured on Zionist art. She first made contact with the neocon crowd in 2000, when she started working for Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based right-wing think tank dedicated to strengthening ties between the U.S. and Israel. He was looking to build a political presence in New York when he received a call from Ms. Benador, who was looking to get involved. She became his media liaison and got to know the leading players of the neocon crowd.
“From the beginning, she was enthusiastic about what we stood for,” said Mr. Pipes.
Maybe too enthusiastic: Mr. Pipes said Ms. Benador left after a year and a halfbecause of an ego conflict.
“She has a very strong will, and that is good, but it makes it difficult to be her boss,” he said. “So we amicably parted with the understanding that she would do better on her own.”
Mr. Pipes said that Ms. Benador’s new firm was unique in its focus on neocons. “It seems pretty unusual to me,” he said. “She’s invented her own niche.” He added that Ms. Benador had grown in influence in the neoconservative crowd, to a degree.
“She’s an agent-and, as such, she’s more of a player,” he said. “But she’s not someone who has opinions on the record. So, she’s facilitating and having an ever-larger role in getting people into the right places-but she herself doesn’t opine.”
Ms. Benador said that she has a serendipitous way in social settings.
“I’m supposed to go to a dinner, and all of a sudden I end up invited at the main table, and I don’t even know why,” she said. “Some people ask me, ‘How did you get invited?’ Because I was supposed not to know anybody, but it was just like that. I have a very good conduct with people. I’m patient.”
It was Mr. Woolsey and Mr. Rosenthal, she said, who helped her start her client list-first by becoming clients, then by introducing her to others. Mr. Woolsey was reluctant to tout his relationship with Ms. Benador. He said he had signed on to do a few speaking engagements and that he last saw her nine months ago. “I like Eleana, but I really just know her as someone who was committed to getting into this business and to set up some speeches,” he said.
Another client, Amir Taheri, an Iranian intellectual living in London, was surprised to find that his name appeared on a list of clients on Ms. Benador’s Web site. And he was even more surprised-and flattered, he said-to hear that Ms. Benador considered him as something of a mentor. “She hardly knows me!” he said. “I met her just a year ago. I’ve talked to her altogether about 50 minutes.”
Nevertheless Ms. Benador did place two op-ed columns by Mr. Taheri in The New York Times -so far, her only Times coup. “I don’t give up on The New York Times , although they are a very acute case,” she said.
Like Mr. Woolsey and Mr. Taheri, Mr. Perle gave the impression of knowing Ms. Benador only slightly.
“I don’t recall where I met her,” he said. “It may have been at a luncheon address.”
But Ms. Benador remembered it vividly: Last year, when Mr. Perle flew to New York for a private social engagement, she said, “I went to the airport and picked him up and spent the whole day with him.”
Mr. Perle also dismissed the idea that there was an orchestrated effort by like-minded right-wingers to campaign for their views.
“I don’t think there’s been any orchestration,” he said. “Not that I’ve been aware of. If there was some orchestration there, I would know it. And I don’t think there has been.”
Ms. Benador was clearly enamored of her clients. But she said that while “part of my heart is in Washington already,” she felt New York still needed her. “I have been hosting events here because the city needs something like that-intellectual activity,” she said.
Ms. Benador said her job was not only to work the phones for her clients, but sometimes to help polish their message.
“There are some things, you have to just state them in a different way, in a slightly different way,” she said. She described meeting with a new organization that plans to explore which rogue regime will be next in line for U.S. intervention following Iraq.
“They said their agenda is to see who is next after Iraq,” she said. “And I said, ‘I don’t think that’s the right position, because ” Who is next?” is like you’re asking for more war.’ And I said, ‘So you can ask, ” What is next? What is going to happen next?”‘ So I made them change that slightly.
“See, it’s a little word,” she said, “but it makes a difference. If not, people get scared. And that’s not the point. I’m just there looking after small details. Trying to avoid trouble for people and trying to make communication a little bit easier.”