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How Jewy Should We Want Our Presidents To Be?

Just how thoroughly ignorant of the world beyond Crawford, Texas is George W. Bush? How steadfastly determined is he to remain so ignorant? Enough, in both cases, that seven years after he came to Washington seeking to chart a new … Read More

By / May 19, 2008

Just how thoroughly ignorant of the world beyond Crawford, Texas is George W. Bush? How steadfastly determined is he to remain so ignorant? Enough, in both cases, that seven years after he came to Washington seeking to chart a new course of humble, non-interventionist foreign policy, only to have his presidency to hijacked from the outset by a cabal of Jewish war-mongers (that is what happened, right?), he could describe his daughter's wedding to two Israeli journalists this way:

It was — as my Jewish friends tell me, there was mazel tov.

Was there, George? Was there really?

To be sure, fluency in basic Yiddish and Yinglish phrases isn't a sufficient condition for a good presidency, nor even a necessary condition. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower† would have stuck out in a minyan of chosen persons like a bacon-and-shrimp cheeseburger at Zabar's, but they all did a fine job. (The Freemasons among them might have picked up a bit of crappy liturgical Hebrew.) Harry Truman, the first president for whom relationships with Jews was a high-profile matter of foreign affairs, acquitted himself well in his correspondence with Chaim Weizmann and inaugurated an unbending policy of near-total cooperation with Israel. But it's still hard to picture the man from Independence, MO feeling at home on the Lower East Side. And of course, despite our strategic commitment to Israel, it was still possible in 1968 and 1972 for a deranged, pathological antisemite to be elected president. Only in the Reagan years did pictures like this one start to pop up, let alone this one or this one.

However, it took a half-Kenyan, half-undifferentiated white candidate with Luo-Swahili Christian first and last names flanking the middle name "Hussein," to make the matter of whether the probable next president (the bid/ask spread on Intrade is 57.1/57.4 as I write) can really connect with Jews an issue of high salience in our political coverage.

One of the highest-trafficked items in Jewcy last week was my annotated clipping of Barack Obama's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. I said at the outset that the interview demonstrated Obama's deeper and richer connection to American Jewish and Israeli experience than anyone who has been in his position before. Which is a sword with two very sharp edges, a point both Obama's supporters and opponents missed in interpreting the Goldberg interview.

To borrow a couple of aphorisms from David Samuels' recent work here, alone among other constituent groups in the American experience, "Jews and blacks…[often] embrac[e] an alternative historical narrative that at times trumps the mainstream narratives commonly accepted by our fellow citizens."

Obama in particular embodies that common thread between my community and his by being (again from Samuels) "a self-made man, part con artist, part performer, living in an imaginary future that will make him and his audience whole."

The flip side is that, truly unlike any potential president since the early days of the Republic (except Lincoln, maybe), he is a person of the book, and of books, and of philosophy and literature. If he does get to be president, his memoirs will be vastly more penetrating in their insights than anything a president has produced since Ulysses Grant more than a century ago, and radically unlike any president's literary output since presidents stopped writing for themselves sometime last century. That literariness is balanced by an Ivory Tower-trained analytic intelligence — as the Clinton campaign found out to their chagrin, he was in fact a fairly skillful and accomplished legal academic.

All of which means that if elected, Obama will be the first president in ages (if not ever) to suffer from what Joyce called the agenbite of inwit (from ME, meaning "remorse of conscience"), the near-universal soul-sickness of introspective literary and intellectual types in the modern age, grasping for and unable to find concrete, stable concepts of identity and historical progression by which to gain a foothold on their world.

The condition is a two-edged sword for scores of reasons. For example, on the positive side of the ledger, it can provide fuel for empathy, for a creativity in problem-solving, and for just enough misanthropy to motivate the enlightened governance that rejects crude, short-sighted populism (his stand against the gas tax pander, his connections to and education from people like Austan Goolsbee and Lawrence Lessig are the encouraging data points here). And on the negative side, consider that Woodrow Wilson was the closest precedent in this regard, and one of the worst presidents we've ever had, and Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon are next closest. Intellectuality, especially when self-aware, can be a straitjacket and an amplifier for mistakes.

But more to the point here, the agenbite is, if not a Jewish condition, then more pervasive among Jews than any other group, by a wide margin. (It wasn't merely for the sake of wordplay that Buck Mulligan described Stephen Dedalus as "a jesting jew jesuit," nor was it coincidental that the greatest song ever written about the suffering and dispossession of American southerners in the Civil War was written by a half-Jew half-Mohawk from rural Ontario.) Virtually every significant feature of Obama's biography — from his name, to his twice-over paternal abandonment, to the clash of skin colors with all his relatives, to his drug years, to his Ivy League education, to his admission to modern day Talmud study in a law faculty — scream of the agenbite, and through it, to a connection with the experience of overwhelming numbers of post-Haskalah Jews (which may or may not come to the same thing as the Jewish experience).

The connection includes, moreover, his spiritual wanderings from inchoate ecumenicism in Indonesia, to a default atheism, and finally to the liberationist Christianity of a turbulent priest preaching an improbable amalgam of social conservatism, theological pacifism, and racial resentment (the first two in vastly greater proportions than the third, incidentally). How many of the Jews who took the greatest offense to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright belong to congregations that feature a regular call for a bloodletting of Arabs or Persians? A lot. How many of them are among those calling regularly for a bloodletting of Arabs or Persians? Also, a lot. Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright makes him more rather than less Jewy, in this case for ill, no matter how it affects the feelings of some Jews about him.

His reflexive detractors, especially his reflexive Jewish detractors, would make better use of their time criticizing the Obama that actually exists, with all his numerous flaws, instead of wrestling against some phantom existing only in their minds. But then his election would raise certain disquieting questions about their pat conception of the American character, and indeed, of the American Jewish character, so I wouldn't hold my breath expecting them to decide to be relevant.

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