A Jewish President?

You hear a lot of excited talk these days about the prospect of a woman in the White House. Bill Clinton got wild applause in his State of the Union address when he referred to his successor a hundred years hence as “he–or she.” Not wanting to wait that long, Liddy Dole is said to be pondering a presidential bid. Meanwhile, a nonprofit group called the White House Project is inviting people to vote for one of 20 “accomplished women from a variety of fields” in a mock presidential election. Ballots are being distributed in Parade, Glamour, Jane, and People magazines. Skimming the group’s press release, Chatterbox noticed that at least one of the women on the ballot–Dianne Feinstein–is Jewish. Yet, Chatterbox mused, if Feinstein were to become president (or–more likely in the immediate future–vice president), nobody would think of Feinstein as the first Jew in the White House. They’d think of her as the first woman in the White House.

Chatterbox grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as an extremely secularized Jew, but nonetheless remembers being invited to ponder on a fairly regular basis the prospect that a Jew would be president in his lifetime. Well, Chatterbox’s lifetime is about half over now and there still hasn’t been a Jewish president. Yet nobody seems to give this much thought anymore. There was some comment, Chatterbox recalls, when Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp, a Jew, ran for president two decades ago. Shaap would be the first Jew in the White House! commentators exulted. But when Arlen Specter ran for president earlier in this decade, there was zero comment about his being Jewish. (Though, as Boston Globe Washington bureau chief David Shribman pointed out when Chatterbox phoned him to muse about this, “His candidacy also attracted zero comment.”) Similarly, Chatterbox doesn’t recall much being made of the fact that Kitty Dukakis nearly became the nation’s first Jewish first lady in 1988.

Chatterbox thinks the last time American culture gave any thought at all to the dream of a Jewish president was 1978, when David Halberstam’s late brother Michael wrote a best-selling novel about the first Jewish president called The Wanting of Levine. In Michael Halberstam’s fictional scheme, the year Americans would elect the first Jewish president would be 1988. Instead, Americans that year elected the most WASPy president of the last half-century.

Chatterbox sees two possible explanations for why American Jews no longer brood about when they’ll get the presidency. The first is that, especially with the rise of Christian fundamentalism as a force in American politics, it just ain’t in the cards, so why think about it? This might be called the “vestigial but stubborn fragment of anti-Semitism” theory. You can’t be president, little Moyshe? No sweat. You can still be CEO of a major corporation, or president of an Ivy League university, or occupy some other former goyische stronghold. What’s so great about being president, anyway?

The second, opposing possible theory is that anti-Semitism is such a dead letter in American life that when a Jew finally becomes president no one, not even Jews, will think it worth mentioning. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and the son of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, says he’s more inclined to lean this way. Jews, he says, are now “so prominent in the mainstream that who even thinks about it?”

Chatterbox is agnostic on this question. But, interestingly, he can’t think of a Jew (besides Feinstein) who seems a likely bet for the Oval Office anytime soon.

Timothy Noah