What Makes Cantor Run?
One of America’s most important politicians, from all angles
New York’s profile of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor focuses on how the Virginia Republican has rapidly ascended by presciently seeing where the political winds would be blowing, and how he now drafts John Boehner, positioning himself so that the Speaker takes any of the winds that come in the opposite direction. It is mostly about Eric Cantor, public figure, which is appropriate for a magazine like New York, which, its title aside, has national aspirations (the profile is duly called “Eric Cantor’s America”). Yet here and there, senses of Cantor’s otherness seeps in. “Cantor rarely socializes with his colleagues, and since he doesn’t golf or fish or have any hobbies, when he does find himself in social situations, he usually talks about work,” reports the writer, Jason Zengerle. “‘You’d get a lot of “Eric’s no fun,”’ recalls a former House colleague who tried to include Cantor in group dinners; as it turned out, Cantor usually declined the invitations anyway.”
Tablet Magazine strives to be, among other things, a place where Jewish readers feel that the things they talk about among themselves or even restrict themselves merely to thinking about in their own heads get full airing—that has the perspective that a magazine like New York does not. So the necessary complement to this profile is senior writer Allison Hoffman’s from February, which explicitly explores how Cantor perceives his Jewish heritage. Cantor grew up observant (he still keeps kosher), and is not a first-generation Southerner; his wife is Jewish, too, albeit of the more typical Upper West Side variant. Yet, as Zengerle reports, Cantor’s Jewishness may have given him his initial leg up—former House minority whip Roy Blunt (now a senator) put Cantor on the fast-track to leadership on the advice of his wife, a Jew who suggested Cantor could help with Jewish donors. Beyond that, as Allison emphasizes, Cantor has crafted a unique appeal to a predominantly and devoutly Christian constituency. “Eric is certainly able to connect to a national Republican audience more than most Jewish politicians,” explains Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. “He’s a social conservative, a traditional Jewish person with conservative social mores.” Allison concludes:
As a Jewish politician, he is an anomaly: a Southern conservative and the sole Jewish Republican to be seated in Congress. (Indeed, he has held that distinction since April 2009, when former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party.) Unlike other moderate and conservative Jewish legislators—Specter, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, or even former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman—Cantor was raised far outside the urban, liberal milieu familiar to most American Jews. His congressional district, Virginia’s 7th, once belonged to Absalom Robertson, the father of televangelist Pat Robertson, and his hometown, Richmond, was once the capital of the Confederacy. In a place where religion permeates the public sphere, Cantor has succeeded by turning his Jewish identity from an ethnic distinction into a signal of the values and civic commitment he shares with his gentile constituents.