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The Last Resort: A Century of Demagogues

Al Vorspan
July 3, 2016

by Al Vorspan


THE CLICHE that truth is stranger than fiction is sometimes really right. About thirty years ago, my brother-in-law Sid was en route from New York City to Hillsdale, New York to visit with me and my family at our country place. He stopped off at a diner and, sitting at the counter, overheard two young people chatting about their career plans. One was a writer, and he said that he would like to write about issues of social justice from a Jewish perspective like this guy Vorspan; in fact, he said, if he could work with Vorspan, that would be just about perfect.

Sid asked the fellow, Would you like to talk to Al Vorspan? The young guy was a little stunned by the coincidence when Sid put him on the pay phone with me. We had a great conversation, hit it off right away, and within a month he and I were co-authoring a forgettable book entitled Rooftop Secrets (and Other Stories of Anti-Semitism). He would spend the next thirteen years as a writer for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC, the Reform synagogue movement), of which I was the senior vice-president for decades.

Now that once-young guy, Larry Bush, the editor of Jewish Currents, has invited me to become the only (we should all hope) 92-year-old columnist of a Jewish journal in America. I am grateful and excited (though at my age I shouldn’t get too excited) to be the alter kocker of the Jewish Currents team.

So who am I? My wife Shirley and I just celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary. We raised our kids on Long Island, and when they grew up and flew the coop, we lived for twenty years in New York city while summering in Hillsdale. For the past two years, we have lived in a continuous-care retirement home in New Paltz, New York. Woodland Pond is a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains, filled with caring and smart people -- lots of teachers and social workers and artists, probably a quarter of them Jewish -- with lots of intellectual candle-power and an atmosphere of warm support.

One summer day, Shirley and I were having dinner on the patio with our daughter Robby, who lives in New Paltz. The sun was setting and the mountains were flame with purple glow, the air was fragrant with flowers, and our dinner was delicious. As we sipped our wine, Robby, who had been most responsible for persuading us to move to Woodland Pond in the first place, said, “You know, you’re not really living in a retirement home. You’re living in a stunningly beautiful resort.”

“Right,” I said. “But the trouble is, it’s a last resort.”

So this column will be called “The Last Resort.”

I’M GOING TO BEGIN with the subject on everybody’s lips (often with spittle): Donald Trump.

In this season of our discontent, when every person I know is aghast at the rise of a seemingly powerful demagogue terrorizing American politics, it is important to remind ourselves that we have confronted similar tests in recent American history, including several fearsome challenges in my lifetime.

In that history, I would include the American legend, Charles Lindbergh, who used his popularity to nearly succeed at keeping the U.S. out of World War II by invoking the spirit of “America First,” his movement, which relied on a potent brew of isolationism, anti-Semitism, and hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (What the Lindbergh phenomenon portended was the scary basis for Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America.)

I would also include the ugly chapter featuring Father James Coughlin, the bombastic renegade Catholic priest from Detroit, whose weekly radio messages amplified the Lindbergh scenario but with vicious and undisguised tirades about the international Jewish bankers whose avarice, he contended, was manipulating America into world war. I remember my father lamenting the silence of the Church hierarchy, and I remember myself as a teenager in St. Paul, Minnesota, muttering a curse every time I walked downtown past the majestic cathedral that was the home of the archbishop. I must have done a lot of cursing, because the Twin Cities were known as the capital of anti-Semitism in that era, as Hitler was emerging in Germany.

Aside from Richard Nixon, who would conduct a coup against the Constitution from within the Oval Office in the White House, the most scary demagogic threat in post-war America was the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), an obscure politician who launched a campaign proclaiming that communists had infested the State Department. This mortal threat, he thundered, was the result of years of Democratic rule, but he would name them and cleanse the government, the press, Hollywood, colleges, publishing houses, and all of America of this massive conspiracy. Using his Senate investigating committee to ridicule and tarnish ambassadors, writers, military leaders, even an obscure army dentist, McCarthy wielded the weapon of television and the power of government to persuade a majority of Americans that the biggest communist threat came not from Moscow but from New York, Washington, Los Angeles and who knows where else in America. McCarthy and his two young Jewish henchmen, Roy Cohn and David Schine, implemented a campaign of terror that silenced even the venerated President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

I was then a young man, a Navy veteran of World War II, and had been hired in 1953 to develop a social justice program for the UAHC. My partner, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, and I had put together an extraordinary team of Jewish leaders, including Arthur Goldberg, the future justice of the Supreme Court; Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, a hero at Iwo Jima; Kivie Kaplan, savior of the NAACP at the dawn of the civil rights movement; and Joe Rauh, lawyer for the United Auto Workers and a major player in the civil rights movement -- and a defender of many McCarthy victims.

The president of the UAHC was Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who was driven by a prophetic vision of a just society -- but was greeted by a nervous board that wanted to support the launching of our social-justice program but was nervous that it was a dangerous and risky moment to launch such an effort.

Eisendrath acknowledged the risks, but reminded the board that the Hebrew prophets arose in precisely such dangerous periods when the most profound values were at stake. He prevailed -- and, parenthetically, my life work was put into place.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, the dark cloud that had settled over the country. I remember that a large majority of Catholics and a smaller majority of Protestants approved of Senator McCarthy’s doings, but a large majority of Jews saw him as an unmitigated menace. I was so proud of the Jewish response that I boasted about it in speeches all over the country. It was not because we smelled anti-Semitism -- after all, his two dark knights of terror were Jewish, and some Jewish agencies, like the Anti-Defamation League, played footsie with them. Overwhelmingly, however, American Jews responded to the alarm bells run by our own long and tortured history.

In the end, it was a handful of brave individuals who brought down the demagogue. The respected television commentator Edward Murrow awed the nation into an awareness that the assassin wore no clothes, and a handful of senators who exposed the bully at long last shamed their craven Senate into a motion of censure that ended McCarthy’s reign. The first and strongest voice of opposition in the Congress was the soft-spoken Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), whose “Declaration of Conscience” (June 1, 1950, only four months after McCarthy’s infamous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia) could well have described the rise of Trump: “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

McCarthy responded in true Trump style through name-calling, referring to Margaret Chase Smith and the six senators who supported her “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”

IN THE 1960S, in the early stages of the civil rights movement, George Wallace earned his place of dishonor in the long list of American demagogues. The governor of Alabama became the voice of millions of angry white Americans, north and south, who felt threatened by the civil rights revolution, which promised to transform the country. By standing in the doorway to block integration at the University of Alabama, he personified the losing cause of states’ rights, which stood against the invincible demand for equal rights for all Americans.

Wallace was shot and crippled in 1972 during one of his noisy but fruitless runs for president. Interestingly, my organization invited all of the candidates in that election to come to our offices at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC to explain their positions. To our surprise, Wallace accepted, though he had to know our liberal views. He navigated his wheelchair and proceeded to defend states’ rights and to castigate the feds for overreach, but he avoided outright bigotry -- and made an eloquent shout-out for “little Israel, which should get whatever weapons they want because they ain’t afraid of no one.” Ultimately, the voters crushed his presidential hopes -- and in his fading years he tried to make some amends for his racist legacy.

Of the demagogues I have known, only Wallace recanted some of his views. The rest carried their beliefs straight to yener velt.

Albert Vorspan is the senior vice-president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and former director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. He was integral in the establishment of the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of several books on Judaism and social justice, as well as a numbe rof books of Jewish humor published by Doubleday. He has written for the op-ed page of the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine, as well as Time, Moment, Reform Judaism, and many other periodicals. During World War II, he served in the Navy as a gunnery officer on a destroyer escort in the Pacific. In 1984, he received the Allard Lowenstein Memorial Award of the American Jewish Congress; in 1987, he was honored with the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award by the Reform synagogue movement.