Power Soup for the Soul: Jews and the President

Blacks and Jews have often helped one another politically, and this has been the case in the Clinton scandals. We’re constantly being told about black support for the President. “Blacks Stand by a President Who ‘Has Been There for Us,’” The New York Times says. Or Toni Morrison declares that Bill Clinton is black, in The New Yorker . These statements do a kind of double duty by allowing the media not to have to talk about Jewish support for the President. But Jews have stuck by Mr. Clinton to nearly the degree that blacks have. A Quinnipiac College poll of New York State voters shows that while black approval of the President’s job performance has hovered over 90 percent since the Lewinsky scandal broke, Jewish approval has gone between 76 and 83 percent, far above the average.

Jewish support is actually more important than black support, and not just because Jeffrey Katzenberg has a house in Deer Valley, Utah. Jews are more powerful. Not one black person voted to acquit President Clinton of impeachment charges. But 11 of 100 Senators are Jewish and they each cast two votes on his side (22 of 105 acquittal votes).

No one talks about Jewish support for Mr. Clinton. For one thing because denial of the obvious is now the central mode of intellectual discourse when it comes to the Lipbiter-sorry, alleged lip biter. More important, because a discussion would require an acknowledgment of Jewish power. The Establishment is now heavily Jewish, from Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin on down. There are unprecedented numbers of Jews in the White House and in Congress, Mr. Clinton’s two appointees to the Supreme Court have both been Jewish, and, out from there, Jews are among the big winners in the economic boom and are all over the Ivy League and the statusy jobs of the information age, the news media.

The Clinton scandals teem with Jewish helpers. I will mention Sidney Blumenthal only once in this article. “Lewinsky’s Jewishness had become Topic A in Jewish circles,” Daniel Kurtzman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (a news service for the Jewish press) recently wrote, looking back on the scandal. “Jews have been there at every major turn-whether as Clinton’s confidants, steadfast defenders, repairers of the breach, or other bit players.”

When asked where he had first heard the name Monica Lewinsky, Mr. Blumenthal (oh, well), said that he had tapped into the Drudge Report while “I was at my parents’ house in Chicago for my young cousin’s bar mitzvah.” Monica gave the President a Yiddish book, Oy Vey , and her former lawyer, William Ginsburg, suggested that Monica wasn’t going to cooperate with Ken Starr because he and Monica and the President were all friends of Israel. Mr. Starr’s investigators asked several questions about a Passover seder attended by Clinton adviser Harold Ickes and Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon after Mr. Bacon had given out Linda Tripp’s confidential (and mendacious) file, in violation of law, to The New Yorker .

From my spot as a happily-assimilating-but-still-very-Jewy Jew, I lament the degree of Jewish support for Mr. Clinton. I grew up idolizing Jews of political conscience who battled the Establishment: Daniel Ellsberg, Victor Navasky. That’s what I thought Jews in public life stood for. Now they seem to stand for the view that we know all we need to know about this Administration, and anyone who asks questions deserves to have their motives examined. Of course, anyone who finds Bill Clinton as despicable as I do has lots of other Americans to deplore.

But smart liberal Jews have been particularly insistent, and stupid. Last August, after Mr. Clinton’s staggeringly terse admission, after seven months of lying, that he had had “inappropriate” relations with Lewinsky, Barbara Boxer congratulated him for taking “full responsibility” for the relationship and the American Jewish Congress offered that “It is time to set aside our preoccupation with foolish things and for the Congress together with the President to deal with those matters that count.”

I think Jewish thinking about Bill Clinton is distorted by two factors.

(1) The close identification of Jewish success culture with the Administration has made it all but impossible for Jews to separate their interests from President Clinton’s.

As Barbara Walters’ sadly debased excitement over Monica Lewinsky’s emotionally retarded affair suggested, there is a secret Jewish pride and security in the fact that Bill Clinton loves Jews and Jews love Bill Clinton. Absent of racism, Mr. Clinton is also absent of anti-Semitism. When he first met the then-very-seasick Robert Reich on a boat going over to England, Mr. Clinton brought chicken soup to his room and kept exclaiming what a marvel it was that the two of them were going off together to England.

My generation grew up fearing WASPs of the haut-George Bush variety. “Texas and Maine-Mr. Bush’s circle was very old-fashioned WASP and didn’t contain Jews. His air is cool, diplomat, detached colonial,” said Stephen Silverfarb of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Linda Tripp, who loved George Bush and sees virtue in ambitionless employment, evokes some of these same feelings. (Am I the only member of the powerful Jewish media who had to call his Protestant mother-in-law to find out what Linda Tripp meant by the furnishing she said she stowed the tapes on: a “huntboard”?)

By contrast, Bill Clinton is the kind of WASP Jews love. White-trash beginnings that allowed him to look up to us and us to look down at him. And (as my friend Dan Swanson frequently reminds me) Mr. Clinton was not, like most other Presidents, even Richard Nixon, on the high school football team. No, Bill Clinton went out for band (a decision Mr. Swanson assails because Mr. Clinton’s beefy body was needed on the Hot Springs High School line rather than “puffing on his tuba”). Band over football: That’s an important cultural signifier members of a cerebral culture unconsciously identify with.

The Jews and Bill arrived at the top at the same time, and his Administration is now filled with meritocratic Jews who adore prestige badges.

(2) The second factor distorting many Jews’ response is a noble tradition of identifying with persecuted outsiders.

Jews tend to think of the Bush Administration (with its lukewarm feelings toward Israel), the religious right and Ken Starr as elements of a goyishe anti-Semitic America that is far more powerful than the Clintons. Sidney Blumenthal (sorry, Sidney, let me take you to lunch) put this culture war most plainly when in his speech at Harvard last year he painted Mr. Starr’s deputy as a “religious fanatic,” apparently because he goes to church. Mr. Kurtzman, in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, invokes a parallel among some Jews that I have also heard among my friends: Monica is Queen Esther. If you remember your Bible, Esther is a Jewish woman, celebrated in the festival of Purim, who as a member of Persian King Ahasueras’ harem went to the king and convinced him to save the Jews from a genocidal plot by the evil Haman. In this reading, Ken Starr figures as Haman- Ken Starr the thin-lipped former Bible salesman, as Andrew Morton characterizes him in Monica’s Story (S.I. Newhouse Jr. and the Lewinskys agree: Hire English). I think there’s anti-anti-Semitism in these views, prejudice against Christians.

And while Anthony Lewis’ endless attacks on Ken Starr remind me of the nobility of Jewish conscience, there has always been something Bostonishly off about Mr. Lewis’ perspective, something preciously, quixotically out of touch. Wouldn’t he be more persuasive if he occasionally acknowledged the grave abuses by the executive branch that Mr. Starr was appointed to investigate? The F.B.I. files, say. Or when Mr. Lewis talks about Mr. Starr’s thuggish treatment of Monica, does it ever cross his mind that in the real world, U.S. attorneys are often meanies to felons, and that Ms. Lewinsky had lately committed a felony completely unrelated to a private consensual affair: She had pressured Linda Tripp to lie under oath about the Kathleen Willey matter, even supplied her with false testimony? Barbara Walters also ignored that crime.

Lately, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek that Ms. Lewinsky had been censored by Mr. Starr’s “henchmen.” He’s right; she was censored. But where is the sense of proportion? Is Monica someone who has had difficulty expressing her (trashily banal) thoughts? For that matter, when Victor Navasky’s Nation does a tab on the giant legal fees Clinton aides have racked up, why isn’t a central issue the pressure that these aides have faced, from an ethically degraded you’re-with-us-or-against-us crowd, to lie about matters of public concern, often by coordinating lawyers?

These points are ignored because they don’t fit the outsider paradigm. That’s why Juanita Broaddrick’s compelling story of sexual assault also must be ignored or rationalized. When someone on MSNBC suggested that he couldn’t wait till Alan Dershowitz cross-examined Mrs. Broaddrick, I was sickened to my stomach. Is this what Jews stand for now?

I don’t think it’s just coincidence that many of the most sniggering attacks on Bill Clinton’s accusers have come from Jewish members of the media. Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker calling Paula Jones a “pop tart.” Mr. Alter suggesting that while believable, Mrs. Broaddrick reflects as much disgrace on the Republicans as she does on Bill Clinton-(how’s that again?) just as years ago he worked to undermine Gennifer Flowers’ story as unreliable claims by a former cabaret singer. Anthony Lewis attacking a Trooper’s motives in an effort to undermine his story. (Essay question: How many meritocrats would like a job that includes procuring?) Michael Kinsley producing an on-line magazine, Slate , where Mrs. Broaddrick and other former Clinton women who have spoken of their fears are generally treated as a source of snarky titters. And let’s not forget The New York Times ‘ disgraceful treatment of Mrs. Broaddrick as a right-wing nut case.

Meantime, all the meritocrats ridicule rude types like Larry Klayman and Chris Ruddy, who, for all their right-wing ideology, have been asking probing questions about the powerful, going back to Vince Foster. (That is one good thing about doing away with the independent counsel law. Meritocrats so worship government that they have yielded all their investigative brain cells to government. Maybe the elimination of this job will force other aspects of professional culture to develop a little more independence.)

I’m breaking the rules here; it’s never cricket for Jews to talk openly about Jewish power. As proud as Jews are of their success, they don’t like to self-identify. “There is a Congressional black caucus, not a Congressional Jewish caucus,” Mr. Silverfarb points out. Jews downplay their influence in part because they don’t take it for granted, indeed they fear that such identification will unleash anti-Semitism and bring their so-far-brief success dream to a violent end. Remember when Alan Dershowitz justly blasted Bob Barr for talking about “real Americans”?

But Mr. Dershowitz got hysterical, a sign that those fears are overblown. And the refusal to talk about Jewish power is a sign of immaturity, drawing on the nostalgic belief that we are still outsiders. It’s a lot more stirring to be outsiders, but it’s a sociological delusion. Wake up. How many Ivy League presidents are Jewish? Mrs. Broaddrick, fearful of being destroyed as other Clinton women were, forced to lobby NBC to tell her story, slimed by The Times , is actually an American outsider.

Finally, I don’t want to leave the impression that Jewish opinion is monolithic. Several of the right-wing attorneys who cross-pollinated the Jones-Lewinsky matter, and whom The Times is constantly harping on, are Jews. Mr. Starr’s most thoughtful questioner is Solomon Wisenberg. The tradition of independent Jewish inquiry is alive if not well, if you read Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen’s brave and honest struggles over the Broaddrick controversy and Seymour Hersh’s report in The New Yorker that the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant had political motivation.

What’s more, the Clinton era has produced a fine book of Jewish conscience: Locked in the Cabinet , by Robert Reich. Mr. Reich spent four years as Labor Secretary trying to meet working people around the country to see how they actually spent their lives. (How many meritocrats do that?) Three decades after Bill Clinton brought him chicken soup, the tiny Jew confronted the President in the Oval Office and told him it was “insane” to cave in to the Republicans on welfare reform. Then Mr. Reich resigned.

Is that what Jews stand for? Alas, when I think about Jews and Bill Clinton, another book comes to mind. Monica’s Story represents the very worst values of the new establishment, materialistic, entitled, social climbing, self-absorbed, victimized, obsessed with appearances. What do Jews stand for in that book? They don’t, they are on their knees.