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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

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The Best Man at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. (Joan Marcus)

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.

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Jamieos says:

Yes and the two contenders’ actions are very reminiscent of the way Obama got his job as senator.

“Vidal’s play endures because he knew not only
what made Washington tick, but also what makes people tick. The plot
revolves around the race between Russell, whom the playwright clearly
favors (played with stately if slightly tedious elegance by John
Larroquette), and Sen. Cantwell (played with charismatic raw energy by
Eric McCormack). To defeat the more-experienced, contemplative Russell,
Cantwell seeks to publicize some documents he has bribed a hospital to
obtain that describe Russell’s nervous breakdown many years ago (shades
of Thomas Eagleton, who was briefly George McGovern’s vice-presidential
running mate in 1972). If Russell refuses to withdraw from the race and
steer his delegates to him, Cantwell threatens to distribute the report
on Russell’s medical frailty to convention delegates and to the
piranha-like press.
But Russell’s adviser, a role superbly played by Michael McKean, has
dug up some dirt on Cantwell too—a homosexuality charge that could sink
the senator’s presidential bid. But should Russell use it?”

41953 says:

Why does Judith Miller use the phrase “Judenrein,” which is associated with Nazism, to tell us that Gore Vidal’s play does not have any Jewish characters?

The overuse/abuse of Nazi references in the public arena is disturbing–and this is another example.   

Agree with 41953. OK, so it was from before Jewish participation in politics. Fine. It’s not as if they exterminated anyone, which is what ‘Judenrein’ implies. Can we call Godwin?

waterballoon says:

The 1986 Vidal essay in question was written as an indignant response to Midge Decter’s own wildly homophobic essay, and In it he does not accuse most Jews of being disloyal Americans. It is fair to say Vidal strongly dislikes the state of Israel and has said and written some offensive things in his time however.

yevka says:

 I know, it really is totally inappropriate.

I found this article/review interesting, but I share the objections made here to the gratuitous use of the term “Judenrein” to refer to the mere fact that Vidal’s play has no Jewish characters.

Carl Rosenberg
Vancouver, BC

jacob_arnon says:

Vidal’s antisemitism is not new. 

He wrote the forward to a libelous nazi like book  about Judaism: 

That the author Shahak lived in Israel doesn’t make him any less of an antisemite. 

yevka says:

Use of the term was in a low and bad taste.

 No, he called Podhoretz an Israeli Fifth Columnist because he said the Civil War was as remote to him as the War of the Roses. That’s crass and racist, and his endorsement/forward for Israel Shahak’s book shows that’s he an ugly, withered relic who time should have forgotten years ago.

This used to be an interesting source of news and information. But something happened when it turned right of center. The ugly title is yet another stark reminder of that turn.

The late New York radio personality Barry Gray told this story:

When Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” first ran on Broadway, so did Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man.”  As the curtain dropped one evening on the first act of the Chayefsky play about a Long Island congregation struggling to gather a minyan, one theatergoer turned to his wife and said,”I like it. But tell me. Which one is Nixon?”


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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