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The Love Affair Between American Presidents and Jewish Artists, and Why It May Be Over

The historical relationship—and the proximity to power it afforded—enabled wider acceptance of Jews in America

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President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to musician Bob Dylan during a ceremony on May 29, 2012, in the East Room of the White House. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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By the 1980s, a Jewish artist even felt comfortable enough to upbraid a president in the White House. In 1984, Ronald Reagan had promised German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that he would visit Bitburg Cemetery, which included the graves of 49 SS storm troopers. When the trip was announced in April of 1985, Reagan was roundly denounced, and most loudly in the Jewish community. On April 19, the iconic Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel criticized the president in person and in public while receiving the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, saying, famously, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” (To be fair, in addition to Wiesel, Reagan also had some far more supportive Jewish writers, including the economist Milton Friedman, whom Reagan loved to cite.)

In our own day, presidential comfort with Jewish entertainers, and even entertainers in general, is so high that the presidents perennially appear at the White House Correspondents Association dinner where, according to First Lady Laura Bush, “the president sits and listens while comedians and members of the press crack barbed jokes about him.” In 2011, the Jewish comic Seth Meyers said to sitting President Obama “Mr. President, look at your hair. If your hair gets any whiter the Tea Party is going to endorse it.” Similarly, as the Jewish book-giving to Obama suggests, Jewish writers are now so ubiquitous that sometimes they don’t even care about the presidential imprimatur, at least if the president in question does not share their politics. When George W. Bush was reported to have read and enjoyed the book Salt, by the Jewish writer Mark Kurlansky, Kurlansky’s reaction was dismissive: “Oh, he reads books?”

The dismissal has gone both ways. In August of 2009, for example, Obama’s staff told the press that he was reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Unfortunately, Obama was also reported to have been reading that very same book in September of 2008. When asked about this discrepancy, Friedman gave Obama cover in the Daily Beast: “Given the pressure of a campaign, I doubt that the president got to read anything cover to cover. And for most of his presidency, the Great Recession has really swamped debate and discussion about climate and energy. So, I was very pleased to hear that he is diving into it again.” It is hard to imagine Friedman’s taking such a charitable view if George W. Bush had he been caught in the same kind of literary double accounting. Consider the irony: Poor President Bush was insulted by a Jewish author he had read while Obama was defended by a Jewish author whose book Obama hadn’t fully read.

This defense of Obama should not come as a surprise: Jewish actors, producers, musicians, and performers of all kinds have also displayed great affection for him. In his presidential campaigns, support for Obama even became a form of performance art. In 2008, comedienne Sarah Silverman engaged in “The Great Schlep” southward to encourage elderly Jewish grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama, whom Silverman called “the goodest person we’ve ever had as a presidential choice.”

Obama is an interesting case not only because his intense interest in pop culture brings him into contact with so many Jewish artists, but also because he is the first non-white male president. Before Obama, the presidency was a white male bastion, and in earlier, less-enlightened eras, Jews may have been seen as a “safer” ethnicity for presidential patronage than other, less-Caucasian ones. Jewish artists and the presidents developed a symbiotic relationship: Jewish artists could provide presidents with a dash of ethnic color without forcing presidents to weigh in on complicated and complex subjects having to do with race.

This symbiosis, however, may be changing with Obama. Obama is not only an African-American male, but he has also opened up the White House to African-American artists in unprecedented ways. Just to take one example, rap has long been seen as a largely untouchable musical genre for national politicians, but Obama has freely admitted to having hip-hop songs in his iPod and welcoming hip hop artists to the White House. He has even weighed in on the behavior of Kanye West, famously telling David Samuels that West is brilliant but a “jackass.” Since Obama has broken so many taboos about how presidents deal with artists, it remains an open question if in doing so he will have obviated the symbiosis of Jewish artists and presidents.

What happens after Obama notwithstanding, the experience of presidents and Jewish writers presents a unique window into these artists’ comfort as Jews and their strength in shaping the culture. In all of these periods, the president of the United States served as an entry point for Jewish artists to demonstrate their relationship with American society at the time. The artists, of course, deserve credit for their artistic efforts and contributions. But in this area, it was the American presidents who have given Jews the signals concerning their level of acceptance in the goldene medina. For this reason, the ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship between our presidents and the American Jewish community will continue to help indicate where things stand for the American Jewish community, and it bears continued watching.

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This article is adapted from What Jefferson Watched, Ike Read, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.

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The Love Affair Between American Presidents and Jewish Artists, and Why It May Be Over

The historical relationship—and the proximity to power it afforded—enabled wider acceptance of Jews in America

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