Gore Vidal’s Judenrein Politics
A Broadway revival of 1960’s The Best Man reveals a prescient take on presidential politics, but from era before Jewish issues played a major role
You know them—these clichés of modern politics. There is the front-runner, William Russell, a decent, thoughtful patrician—a former secretary of State who travels with a dictionary and drives his adviser nuts by quoting Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell. There is his hungry young challenger, Sen. Joe Cantwell, a conniving conservative opportunist who spouts platitudes about God, honor, and country but for whom winning is worth more than all of them combined. There is Russell’s weary, estranged wife, Alice, whose lingering admiration for her philandering spouse but disdain for politics has led them to live discreetly separate lives. Mabel, Cantwell’s ambitious wife, his female bookend, is a southern belle Barbie who would happily kill a competitor without batting one of her long false eyelashes. Art Hockstader is the ailing but wise, whiskey-swilling former president, a quintessential pragmatist whose endorsement will sway his party’s undecideds. And there is television, a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of an amoral press that loves nothing more than a political death-match with close-ups of the mortally wounded.
Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play about the descent of American presidential politics into gutter warfare, was written over 50 years ago. But it is all too prescient as another presidential election cycle intensifies. The play’s characters and themes feel utterly familiar in this striking revival at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Vidal, an American literary and cultural icon, the last literary descendant of the silver age of Edmund Wilson, seems to have foreseen it all—the rise of the Tea Party, negative campaigns, PACs and super PACs, the growing dominance of money in politics, battles over privacy and the disclosure of medical records, strained political marriages (real and those of political convenience), and the growing importance of such issues as women’s rights, abortion, and birth control. The images on TV monitors on the theater’s stage and the balcony may be black-and-white, but they resonate no less powerfully than those broadcast on today’s hi-def screens in living color. The politics on display, too, have become all too depressing: from the canned smiles and empty phrases to the incessant populist pandering to ever lower common denominators, and finally, to the nonstop polling. “I don’t believe in polls,” says Russell, an early tip-off in this tersely written political drama that the play’s intelligent, principled hero is doomed.
But if Vidal’s work feels disturbingly contemporary, there are striking differences between today’s politics and those of 1960 when the play opened, to great acclaim.
For one, there are no Jews in Vidal’s play—no Jewish candidates or political advisers, no references to the importance of attracting the Jewish vote or Jewish money. The state of Israel is never mentioned. The Best Man, as drama, is utterly “Judenrein.”
That, of course, was not quite the case in 1960. Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant and Bill Clinton’s pollster who saw the revival with me, notes that Abe Ribicoff, the Connecticut Democrat who was John F. Kennedy’s great friend and supporter, was being mentioned as a long-shot vice-presidential nominee and wound up as Kennedy’s first appointment to his Cabinet during the play’s initial Broadway run. There was also no shortage of Jewish donors, party leaders, and Jewish political figures under Kennedy, Schoen maintains.
Yet Vidal’s omission of Jews in a political drama was neither a serious reportorial nor dramatic lapse. Nor was it a function of Gore’s alleged anti-Semitism, as some critics would later argue (more on that later). Jews were not nearly as well-organized or politically powerful in 1960 as they are today. While Jews were integral to party machines in the cities, they were largely confined to Jewish law firms, investment banks, and the entertainment industry. They were not integrated into America’s broader culture. Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd wasn’t published until the late 1960s.
Only in the mid-1970s did Jewish activism, money, and organizational skills transform modern American politics, thanks, largely, to the perceived need to protect and defend Israel.
AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, barely existed as a political force when Vidal’s play appeared on Broadway. Though founded in 1951, it remained a one-man-band throughout the 1960s, not achieving the “financial and political” clout needed to sway congressional opinion until Jimmy Carter’s presidency, writes Michael Oren, now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, in his history of the Middle East.
There were no pro-Israeli PACs in Vidal’s day. The first was formed only in 1978. CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, dedicated to combating anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli bias in the media—was founded in 1982.
Jewish voices may have been heard in the early ’60s, but Jews still weren’t admitted to many of the elite social clubs and circles to which Vidal belonged. They were also rare in the upper ranks of the White House and the notoriously pro-Arab State Department. Though overrepresented in terms of their overall population, they were relatively uncommon in Congress, too. While Jews account for some 6 percent of representatives and 12 percent of senators in the current Congress, they were only 2 percent of representatives and 1 percent of senators in the 87th Congress in 1962.
America’s political landscape has indeed been transformed in other ways since Vidal last hobnobbed with the Washington establishment. In the current revival, former President Hockstader is played—brilliantly—by the incomparable James Earl Jones. That a black man would lead America was unthinkable in Vidal’s day. Yet after Barack Obama’s election, the casting of Jones in the role seems natural. And given the standing ovations that Jones’ play-stealing performance has received, theater critics, political mavens like Schoen, and audience members the night we saw the play, found the casting utterly plausible.
The Russian-Jewish indie star headlines a benefit for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an aging philanthropy seeking new attention