Maybe in the Czech Republic, poets can become president, but not here. Maybe in France they like their presidents to be descendants of historians, education ministers, and even kings, but not here. Here, if you spring from the loins of the upper classes, like Bushes 41 and 43, you need to remember to gnaw on pork rinds, “clear brush,” and drop your g’s. (Oh yeah, and say “nuke-u-ler”).
American Jews, by a wide margin, prefer intellectuals—actual or imagined—to cowboys or warriors when it comes time to vote for a president. But time and time again, when the votes are counted, they are disappointed. In America, even if you are a member of the intellectual elite, like Hillary Clinton, you want to make a point of challenging your opponent to a bowling match, or slugging down a boilermaker with the boys at Bronko’s Lounge.
Yes, Jews always vote for the candidate who is spun as intellectually elevated. The only exception to this is when that intellectual is a Republican—then he still loses the Jewish vote. Such was the case in the Nixon-Kennedy contest of 1960: Kennedy, had two (ghostwritten) books to his credit, and was successfully sold as the worldlier, more intellectual of the candidates. Nixon, though, was a superior student, a deeper thinker, and later the (actual) author of nine well-written and well-received books. Kennedy received 82% of the Jewish vote in that election, but among all voters, split the popular vote almost evenly with Nixon.
Perhaps no candidate in modern history has earned more Jewish adulation as an intellectual than Adlai Stevenson. Cultivated, witty, and urbane, Stevenson sure looked the part. But his presentation was more likely a consequence of patrician birth and upbringing rather than any real interest in ideas. In fact, Stevenson was a miserable student at Princeton and failed out of Harvard Law School.
He talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk: Biographers suggest that he could go quite happily for months or years without picking up a book. On the day he died, the only book on his nightstand was the Social Register. Stevenson got 64% of the Jewish vote against Eisenhower in 1952, and 60% in 1956.
I have the same suspicions about Al Gore, John Kerry and particularly Joe Biden—they have the patina of intellectualism, but after the windy orations are done, I’m wondering, “Where’s the beef?”
In this fall’s presidential election, we again have a Democrat senator from Illinois (though this one actually graduated from Harvard Law School, as president of the Law Review) running against a Republican military hero. Barack Obama takes the stage and sounds like nothing less than a constitutional law professor. He even drops his g’s when the demographics of his audience demands it.
John McCain takes the stage and sounds like Patton on Valium. History suggests that McCain’s the winner, and I agree with history. That is, unless Obama starts chewing on pork rinds, which he can’t do because he’s a Muslim. Just kidding.
Over the last century, probably only one American president has really deserved the title of intellectual—Woodrow Wilson.
And maybe that’s okay. While Jews respect intellectualism for its own sake, it’s not the core quality that seems to get American presidential candidates elected. Ideas are great things, but it’s the ability to articulate even the simplest of them (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), and then to forge the will to execute them, that is the stuff great presidents are made of.