1) Mr. Roth Meets Mr. Lindbergh
When I got the news that a galley of the new Philip Roth novel was available, I raced down to the Union Square offices of Houghton Mifflin. It was late in the day, so by the time I got there, the offices were closed, but they’d been kind enough to leave an envelope for me leaning against the locked glass doors.
It’s been a long time since I felt this kind of urgency about getting hold of a novel. Maybe not since Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon or Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate . Philip Roth’s astonishing streak of late-life literary sensations is a phenomenon of sorts, and he’s one of the novelists who still have the power to make you feel you need to know what they’re up to as soon as possible . But to me, the subject matter made getting my hands on it more imperative, more personal.
You may have read some of the advance reports on the Roth book, his alternative-future novel in which Charles Lindbergh, in real life the figurehead for the isolationist and (in part) pro-fascist America First movement, runs for President in 1940, beats F.D.R. and-soon after his inauguration-makes a pact with Hitler.
It was the night of that Lakers-Pistons overtime game. I mention this because as soon as I got home with the Roth galley, I proceeded to read all 390 pages straight through the night, with only one interruption: watching that amazing last-quarter Lakers comeback, capped by Kobe Bryant’s stunning game-tying, buzzer-beating three-point shot. It’s not like Roth has to make a comeback or Kobe has something to prove (wait, that’s not completely true), but there’s at least a surface analogy there: Both the game and the reading experience were, in some primal way, unbearably suspenseful.
The novel’s distinctiveness derives not just from suspense-although I have to say, Roth proves himself capable of weaving ominous intimations into the texture of his narrative, creating compelling suspense with the best of them.
I feel constrained about what I can say about a pre-publication galley (the book won’t be out till early October), but before I get to my High Concept here, which links Lindbergh, Spielberg, A. Scott Berg and Philip Roth, let me talk about Roth’s title a little bit-that’s not forbidden. Some Pynchon scholars have told me they still recall the essay I wrote in these pages on the title of Pynchon’s closely held new novel ( Mason & Dixon ) before I-or anyone-had read the book. An essay in which I predicted that, knowing Pynchon’s thematic concerns, one focus of Mason & Dixon would surely be the “Transit of Venus” and its metaphorical resonances-as indeed was the case. (But not enough Pynchon scholars have taken notice of the delicious hoax on postmodern Pynchon scholarship I uncovered, the one David Bromwich and Edward Mendelson authored under a pseudonym in Raritan .)
But I turned out to be wrong, at least in part, in the extrapolation I’d made from the Roth title. The book is called The Plot Against America . When I first heard it, I took it as another instance of Roth’s deliberate doubleness. Doing pastiche and sending it up, as he did in his 1998 title I Married a Communist , a send-up of deadly earnest 50’s F.B.I. Story – I Led Three Lives pop lit and an Amazing Tales comic-book adventure mindset. But this new novel wasn’t just doing pastiche and sending it up. This was transcending it, all the while enjoying the genre-pleasure of manipulating narrative seductiveness (as in the espionage plot of Mr. Roth’s Operation Shylock , for instance).
What is the “Plot Against America”? I ain’t tellin’, but it gets freaky toward the end and scary throughout: There was just no way I was going to get to sleep without finishing the book. I hope the serious-minded literati among you will forgive me for dwelling on the confluence of the Kobe Bryant shot and the Roth novel, but the Kobe shot had something of a similar quality, a jaw-dropping last-quarter gamble that pays off and leaves you astonished. A long rainbow arc. Nothing but net.
This is not a review; as I said, I’m not going to spoil the plot, or share my many complex feelings about the choices Roth makes, until a later column. But I do want to share an idea that came to me at the groggy end of the night, see if it survives the light of day. It was then I saw a connection to something I’d been thinking of writing about Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson. About Mr. Spielberg’s silence on the question of The Passion of the Christ , a silence pointedly remarked on by Frank Rich at a panel I’d moderated the week before.
It was then that I remembered Steven Spielberg and his ill-advised Lindbergh project. And then I had an idea about Spielberg and Roth and Lindbergh.
But first, to put my idea in context, a little more about the Lindbergh of history and the Lindbergh of the Roth novel. Did you notice Mr. Roth actually felt compelled to write a letter to The Times (which ran on March 5, 2004) trying to clarify the distinction-or, in this instance, lack of one-between the Lindbergh of history and the Lindbergh of his novel? The Times ‘ initial report on his novel had read, in part, “His [Roth’s] Lindbergh blames Jews in a radio address for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany.”
No, Roth wrote to The Times , it isn’t just “my” (fictional) Lindbergh who attacked an alleged Jewish cabal, it’s the Lindbergh of history. Mr. Roth quoted from the actual speech attacking Jews (and British agents and F.D.R., all part of the sinister cabal), a speech Lindbergh made at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 11, 1941, in which he said, “No person of honesty and vision can look on [the Jews’] pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them …. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.”
This may explain Mr. Roth’s decision to include, as an appendix to his novel (at least in the galleys), the full damning text of Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech-more about that speech later-as well as a passage from A. Scott Berg’s biography of Lindbergh, in which the aviator’s fear of “inferior blood” and other Master Race idiocies are described.
It’s fascinating the way that Lindbergh-who could well have won the war for Hitler, even without running for President, if his isolationist campaign had succeeded-nonetheless still occupies a niche as that great American archetype, the “deeply flawed hero.” (As does Henry Ford, peddler of The International Jew , a four-volume Americanized riff on The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that became a key inspiration for Adolf Hitler.) This is essentially how A. Scott Berg’s biography-a book written with some cooperation from the Lindbergh family-portrays Lindbergh, and most of the media have been inclined to follow.
Roth’s novel is likely to open, or re-open, a salutary historical debate over the degree of Lindbergh’s culpability, and the role that anti-Semitism played in his willingness to be, in effect, Hitler’s stooge in America. (Yes, I know that he flew some combat missions for the U.S. after Pearl Harbor-it doesn’t excuse the time he spent as a fascist dupe.) Perhaps it will raise the question: At what point in one’s support for a genocidal tyrant does one stop being a “flawed hero” and become, say, a “sinister creep exploiting his celebrity on behalf of a mass murderer”? Just asking.
Anyway, to return to Roth’s Lindbergh. What Roth knows is rage, what Roth writes about in many of his peak moments is rage-often rage against those who have false reputations for probity-and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that rage at the continued lionization of race-haters like Ford and Lindbergh (Ford serves in President Lindbergh’s cabinet in the novel) might have impelled Roth to embark upon this risk of a novel.
I’ve said enough, but I just can’t resist mentioning one touch of genius in Roth’s Lindbergh novel: After the hero aviator wins the 1940 election, he makes his pact with Hitler to keep us out of the war (and a similar one with the Japanese, in effect making America a silent partner in the Axis takeover of the rest of the world).
It’s got frisson of Sinclair Lewis’ forgotten pre-war classic It Can’t Happen Here. But Roth’s focus is on the Roth family in Newark and how the Lindbergh Presidency affects them, as seen through the eyes of 9-year-old “Philip Roth.” One particularly divisive issue in the family is the Lindbergh administration’s program to have Jews in American cities first visit, then get transferred to isolated rural areas, ostensibly to help their “American Absorption.” The ultimate goals of the program are troublingly unspoken. The subtly sinister touch of Rothian black-humor genius is in the name he gives the program: “Just Folks.”
Of course, I had a special interest in reading Roth on this subject. I’d excerpted a chapter from Roth’s equally astonishing Operation Shylock in my new anthology on contemporary anti-Semitism. The chapter in which Roth’s tricky doppelgänger, “the Diasporist,” speaks of his apprehension of a “second Holocaust” in the Middle East. Back in April of 2002, when I’d come upon that passage, I wrote a column speculating about whether the Diasporist’s dire conjecture could come true. Uttering the words “Second Holocaust”-even quoting a Roth character-touched off an interesting debate about whether one was permitted to examine “worst-case scenarios,” or whether doing so was forbidden because it was “alarmist.” Among other things, the new Roth novel is a meditation on some of the same questions raised by Operation Shylock : How should we know whether or not to be alarmed, or whether one is being “alarmist.” Over the “Just Folks” plan, for instance.
2) Mr. Spielberg Meets Mr. Lindbergh
I have to admit the Spielberg side of this notion was set off by an Internet rumor. After I heard Frank Rich’s impassioned comments on Spielberg’s silence on the Passion issue, I Googled Spielberg and Mel Gibson and came upon this strange Internet rumor. Did you catch this? It was fake, but it had a certain appeal.
Spielberg was going to “fight fire with fire” when it came to Mel’s Passion , as one version of the widely circulated e-mail had it. The director was going to respond to the anti-Semitic animus of Mr. Gibson’s Passion in the way he knew best: by making a counterfilm, a counterhistory.
If Mr. Gibson insisted on defining his film as “history,” well then, Steven Spielberg, Jewish auteur warrior, would take on Mel the Crusader by making a film about the Crusades, followed by one about the Inquisition. If Mel wanted history, Spielberg would give him history-the history of the slaughter of the Jews, perpetrated by Crusader bands often inflamed by the same anti-Semitic notions embedded in The Passion . This is the “history” Mel ignored in blithely making a film that will for centuries ever after shape the vision of Jews with its vile stereotypes for untold millions. Mel’s Passion -already popular in the Middle East and Asia-will be poisoning the already poisoned history of relations between Jews and non-Jews on film, DVD and whatever technology succeeds it, nurturing hatred ever after.
So Spielberg was going to strike back, “fight fire with fire,” as the Internet rumor had it. A showdown over the crucifix at the cineplex. The W.W.E. doesn’t offer that kind of titanic drama. It’s reminiscent of the “disputations” of the medieval era, when Jews were forced to “debate” Christian theologians over which religion was “right” about God. This time, the fight wouldn’t be fixed. It would be the rumble in the Hollywood jungle.
The Internet rumor that Mr. Spielberg would make a movie about the Crusaders’ casual slaughter of Jews (followed up by one about the Inquisition’s persecution and torture) turned out to have no foundation. A fantasy.
But I have a better fantasy: Steven Spielberg drops the Lindbergh biopic he’d planned, and instead makes a film out of Philip Roth’s sensational (but more truthful) portrait of Lindbergh in The Plot Against America . The Roth novel won’t come out until October, but that shouldn’t be any bar to Mr. Spielberg, who bought A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh biography without reading it.
It’s going to make a great movie by someone, and it would be perfect karma, a bold act, if that movie were made by Steven Spielberg.
I’m not saying Mr. Spielberg hasn’t paid his dues. He’s already done something of far more lasting importance than any single movie in creating the Shoah Foundation, which documents on videotape the personal stories of the last surviving victims of the Holocaust. All the more important when a Holocaust denier like Mel Gibson’s father Hutton is given a nationwide platform because of his son’s movie. (And I’ve read he is making a movie about the 1972 Munich Olympics attack on Israeli athletes.) But the Internet rumor suggested that, in some subrealm of the collective unconscious, people wanted a response of some kind from Steven Spielberg to The Passion .
As I said, the Google search that disclosed the Internet rumor was inspired by some impassioned and acerbic comments The Times ‘ Frank Rich had made during a panel discussion at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West side on May 24. The panel was composed of writers-Mr. Rich, Jonathan Rosen, Marie Brenner, Harold Evans-whose essays appeared in the anthology I just published, whose title (if you must know) is Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism . (Full disclosure: In addition to excerpting Operation Shylock , Mr. Roth’s 1993 novel, in the anthology, it’s also the case that my agent once submitted a project to a DreamWorks executive. Further disclosure: I’m not looking for a Graydon Carter–type “finder’s fee” in bringing these two together.)
Anyway, at the Barnes & Noble panel, Mr. Rich spoke of the way virtually the whole of Hollywood had been silent about The Passion . (Almost as if there had been a “gentleman’s agreement”-my phrase, not Mr. Rich’s.) He spoke about the way virtually the entire media had given Mel a pass, despite the film’s unmistakable deviations from the Gospels that further demonized Jews.
And then Mr. Rich brought up Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg’s silence was particularly regrettable, he said, at a time when the director was out there making a big to-do over the release of the Schindler’s List DVD.
Has Mr. Spielberg been silent? The only response to The Passion I’ve seen from him was a brush-off he gave an interviewer earlier this spring, just after The Passion came out. “I think it’s much too important,” he told a questioner, to speak of the film before seeing it. “I’m too smart to answer a question like that,” he said. And when he did see it, he added, he’d reserve his comments for Mel Gibson himself.
We have no indication that this heart-to-heart with Mel has occurred, but it would be good, after he shared his thoughts with Mr. Gibson, to share them with us as well.
As for Mr. Spielberg’s Lindbergh project, he himself has conceded that he’s had second thoughts about it. Here’s what Mr. Spielberg told a reporter from The Observer (London’s, that is), on March 21, 1999:
“Later,” the Observer reporter wrote, “I ask Spielberg what happened to the film about Charles Lindbergh that he had planned to direct. He replies by explaining how Schindler’s List and the Shoah Foundation have reshaped his thinking. ‘They’ve given me more of a moral responsibility to make sure I’m not putting someone else’s agenda in front of the most important agenda, which is trying to create tolerance,’ he says. ‘We’ll probably make Lindbergh , but one of the reasons I’ve considered not being the director is that I didn’t know very much about him until I read Scott Berg’s book and I read it only after I purchased it. I think it’s one of the greatest biographies I’ve ever read but his ‘America First’ and his anti-Semitism bothers me to my core, and I don’t want to celebrate an anti-Semite unless I can create an understanding of why he felt that way. Because sometimes the best way to prevent discrimination is to understand the discriminator.'”
This is somewhat puzzling: He doesn’t “want to celebrate an anti-Semite”-well, not unless he can find some other director who can do it and/or he can make Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism “understandable,” so to speak. Call me crazy, but I don’t see that a movie whose purpose is to help us understand how little Charlie learned to dislike Jews is likely to get off the ground.
Which is why I suggest that he abandon the project altogether (Mr. Berg has already been paid a reported $2 million fee for his book, so it’s not taking money out of his pocket) and instead make Philip Roth’s Lindbergh novel.
Clearly one can feel the discomfort in Mr. Spielberg’s remarks to the Observer reporter about the Berg book (some call it a masterpiece; some call it a whitewash), but making movies with the solemn burden of “creating tolerance” is not always the best way of evoking an artist’s best work. A dip into Mr. Roth’s rage might be just the thing for Mr. Spielberg, fire him up again. While there are other directors who could make this a great film, Mr. Spielberg’s feel for the Amazing Stories pastiche mystique of the period, his intuitive feel for communicating the emotion beneath the surface of pop-culture obsessions, make one hope he could bring some of the sizzle to Mr. Roth’s steak that would make it a powerful film, an event. No rides, no toys, but an event.
3) Mr. Lindbergh Makes a Speech
Why is all this important? Because Lindbergh was a kind of “Manchurian candidate” in “real” history: a figurehead for pro-fascists. It’s important for that reason, yes, but its also important because the record isn’t clear on who Lindbergh really was; one can imagine something worse: that he wasn’t entirely a puppet. That he was a knowing smooth operator and agitator playing on popular prejudice to advance himself. He could indeed have become President.
Lindbergh’s famous “Who Are the War Agitators?” speech, the one Mr. Roth added to his galleys, was one that Lindbergh delivered at a pivotal moment in history: Sept. 11, 1941, when the U.K. alone was still holding off Hitler, in what increasingly looked like Churchill’s futile fantasy of resistance now that Nazi armies were sweeping towards Moscow. If Lindbergh had succeeded in his aim, Hitler may have had a solid foundation for his Thousand Year Reich, rather than the 12 years he got.
By that time, in real (as opposed to alternate) history, Lindbergh had been the figurehead for the Hitler-friendly America First movement, which was doing everything to prevent not just the U.S. entering the war, but providing any life support to the U.K., the only regime in the West that was fighting the genocidal Third Reich. The fighting in the East, just begun, made it seem like the Soviet Union was about to collapse. The Holocaust had begun, but while giving lip service to his opposition to the “persecution” of Europe’s Jews, Lindbergh warned against American Jews, whom he depicted-along with F.D.R. and British agents-as a sinister cabal trying to manipulate America into opposing Hitler. Perish the thought, Lindbergh told his audience in this speech, given in Des Moines. It’s a speech that demonstrates just how canny and effective a politician he might have been, the deceptively “just folks” smooth operator that Roth depicts his President Lindbergh as.
Here’s the great hero Charles Lindbergh warning what he saw as a sinister cabal of American Jews: “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”
The veiled threat here-we know what kind of “consequences” the Jews in Europe were already feeling-is, “Shut up or you’ll be blamed for the war and given a taste of Hitler’s medicine.” It is utterly repulsive in a slimy insinuating way. It is also remarkably similar to some rhetoric you hear in certain quarters today.
Lindbergh goes on to speak, in that subtly sinister way, of “tolerance”: “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations.” So the lesson from Lindbergh is that it’s better to be silent about Jews being slaughtered elsewhere than speak up for them, because if they speak up, they’ll be slaughtered here too. Cut the Jews of Europe loose if you want to feel safe in America.
Recently, I was privileged to attend a dinner honoring the distinguished historian David S. Wyman, who now has an important Holocaust education institute named after him (wymaninstitute.org). Professor Wyman was the author of the ground-breaking investigative history, The Abandonment of the Jews , about the indifference and hostility of the U.S government (or most parts of it) to those attempting to escape Hitler’s slaughter. Wyman was also the author, with Rafael Medoff, of another important subsequent book, A Race Against Death , the utterly heartbreaking story of the valiant efforts by legendary U.S. writer Ben Hecht and messenger-from-Europe Peter Bergson to attempt to awake America to the Holocaust as it happened. Both books cumulatively demonstrate that although Lindbergh’s America First, objectively pro-fascist politicking did not propel him to the Presidency as in Roth’s alternate history, those Lindberghian attitudes prevailed in the bowels of the U.S. government and served to cost the lives of hundreds of thousands who could have been saved. In a way, Lindbergh-like Hitler-won.
Lindbergh’s speech goes on to tell us that the Jews’ “greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government …. “
Again, I don’t think I need to tell anyone that we’re seeing the same kind of rhetoric in certain quarters these days. If anything goes wrong with a policy that is unpopular in some quarters, it’s “the Jews” collectively who are at fault if there’s any Jew involved.
All the more reason I can’t wait until this fall, when I’ll no longer be bound by pre-pub discretion from further discussing the choices Philip Roth makes in his portrait of America under a Lindbergh Presidency, the reign of the Hitler-Lindbergh pact.
In a way, the novel is as much a novel about Jews and the choices they make as it is about Lindbergh and Hitler. There are those who say, “Don’t panic; don’t speak up against the mistreatment of fellow Jews-it will only make things worse.” And there are those in the novel, like Philip Roth’s father and Walter Winchell(!), who do speak up. The fate of those who make such choices isn’t something I think I can reveal, but Mr. Roth’s novel has the makings of a thrilling, suspenseful and profound movie. Steven Spielberg, have your heart-to-heart chat with Mel Gibson after you see his sickening movie.
Then switch Lindbergh projects. The Plot Against America could be your finest hour.