The Gentleman From Virginia: The Rise and Fall of Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, hails not from the urban melting pot but from a Southern, explicitly Christian America
In early 2009, a few days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Cantor, then minority whip, was invited to a bipartisan White House meeting. Cantor was the lowest-ranking person in the room, but he was also enjoying his first moment of national exposure as a fierce opponent of the bank bailout and the TARP plan. He brought handouts listing his policy objectives for the new Congress. After some back and forth, Obama reportedly cut him off, saying, “Eric, I won.” (Cantor repeated the story in his book last year.) At this year’s State of the Union address, things were less clear: As majority leader, Cantor, wearing a bipartisan fuschia tie, walked into the House just a half-step behind Obama and remained in the frame as the president made his way down the aisle, shaking hands as Obama let them go. Earlier in the day, the Beltway blogs had run snarky items about how Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker turned minority leader, had turned down Cantor’s late invitation to sit together—he wound up sitting with his fellow Virginian, Democrat Bobby Scott—that made him look like the sad-sack left out at the end of musical chairs. But in the end, Cantor was the only member who got what amounted to a personal appeal from the president: Midway through the speech, when Obama raised the issue of health-care legislation, he stopped, looked Cantor’s way, and quipped, “Now, I’ve heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law.” The pool camera stayed fixed on Cantor as the chamber erupted in laughter. Cantor cracked a satisfied smile: Yes, Mr. President—I won.
Early the next morning, when I arrived at Cantor’s plush office on the third floor of the Capitol, he was still full of buoyant energy. He came marching rapidly down the hallway fresh from a hit on CNBC’s Squawk Box, and as he approached, he asked, “Are you here to see me?” I said I was. He stuck out his hand and grabbed mine, without slowing down. “OK! See you in a second,” he said, and disappeared. An aide explained Cantor was taking his makeup off. A minute later, he reappeared, looking exactly the same. We went into his office and sat down on a pair of formal chairs, and his two press secretaries sat down on either side of him. I asked if he’d seen the footage of his entry the night before, and he coyly said he hadn’t yet, grinning broadly.
He knows that it’s good branding to be known as the only Jewish congressman in the new House majority—if nothing else, it gives him a monopoly of sorts. “It increased his influence a thousandfold,” said William Daroff, a lobbyist for the Jewish federation system. When he lends his name to events like a Capitol Hill screening of a new anti-Iran movie, Iranium, produced by the conservative Clarion Fund, “it just gives it much more of a hechsher,” Daroff said. But his efforts to combat earmarks and budget waste come before any ethnic solidarity: Jay Ipson, the head of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, told me Cantor had proven unwilling to secure federal grants for the organization he’d helped get up and running. “He was at one point thinking about getting us financial help from Washington, but then when the economy started looking not so good, he swore off any assistance for anybody,” explained Ipson, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania who is known for wearing a cowboy hat everywhere, including synagogue.
I remembered Ipson’s comment a few days later in Cantor’s office, where a red-white-and-blue-bordered placard labeled the “Cantor Rule” is prominently displayed on an end table next to his sofa. These cards, printed on faux-aged paper with a faint watermark of “We the People” are scattered on desks throughout Cantor’s new quarters. They read: “Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it … Why are WE doing it?”
“You know, my faith goes with me in everything I do,” Cantor told me when I asked about his sole Jewish-Republican status. He talked about his upbringing in a traditional Jewish home and his efforts to raise his children with strong Jewish identities. “You know, again, I don’t think you ever go far from sort of the moral compass that you were given when you were brought up in faith,” he said. “So I can only say that I grew up in a very active and vibrant Jewish community, and then a larger civic community in Richmond that didn’t happen to be Jewish also contributed to who I am and what kind of officeholder I hopefully am.”
Many Jewish politicians, when they find themselves speaking to Jewish audiences, find it tempting to toss off one-liners like they’re in the Catskills or drop other sorts of yiddishkeit. But, as one Richmond observer pointed out, Cantor “doesn’t come across as ethnic.” Instead, he pitches his affiliation as a religious one, just like a Catholic might: His model is not Joe Lieberman, but his mentor Tom Bliley. “We live in a country that is built on the Judeo-Christian traditions, but most important we are people that believe in religious freedom,” Cantor told me. “And I lived that. I was honored to have served in the Virginia House of Delegates, and I looked every day at the plaque on the wall, the marble etching on the wall in the House of Delegates chamber in Mr. Jefferson’s capital, of his Statute of Religious Freedom, that obviously was then built into the Bill of Rights.” He paused. “You know, when you live in a community in which Jews are in the minority, you also begin to understand the beauty of our framers and the Constitution and the fact that there is no state religion, nor should the state preclude anyone from practicing his or her faith. It goes back to sort of the equality that we thrive on.”
Cantor’s main task, these days, is to set up the legislative calendar in a way that maximally weakens the Obama Administration and improves the chances of the next Republican presidential nominee. At the moment, that means pushing for cuts in federal spending—and trying to cancel Obama’s health-care reform legislation. But almost no one who talks about Cantor fails to mention him as a potential future Jewish presidential candidate. “Republicans don’t have a lot of Jewish elected officials, so it’s hard to get people at that level,” said Tevi Troy, a senior White House aide in the George W. Bush administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “The conservative thing makes him kosher for the Republican Party, and the Jewish thing makes him kosher to a wider audience.”
Many of Cantor’s most ardent supporters aren’t Jewish. When John McCain called Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, in the summer of 2008 looking for advice on who to pick as a running mate—at a time when Joe Lieberman, who campaigned for McCain, was being mentioned as a contender—Land suggested the Arizona senator look at Cantor, who was already doing Jewish outreach for the campaign. (The other person Land recommended in that call was Sarah Palin.) “Cantor would have helped tremendously in states which would be a very close race, in Virginia, obviously, but in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and he’s the only Republican in Congress who’s Jewish and pro-life,” said Land. “He stood out as a comer from the very beginning—he’s very bright, very energetic, very concerned about the issues we care about.” When I spoke to Juanita Duggan, the former Philip Morris lobbyist, she echoed Land’s comments and told me a story about spiriting Cantor into a Tax Foundation dinner when he was still in freshman orientation, after the 2000 election. “He knew just what to do,” Duggan said proudly. She joked, “I am the honorary chair of the Eric Cantor for President 2012 committee.” When I asked her why, she said a Jewish nominee would cement the idea of the GOP as “the pro-Israel party”—just as it would also ease the path of a Southern conservative to the White House.
“Having the first Jewish president be a Republican,” she said brightly, “would be a wonderful thing.”
As Israel’s premier national-security conference concludes, events in Egypt grow still more chaotic, and attendees depart mulling scenarios for the post-Mubarak era