Eric Cantor, Ready for Primetime
On ’60 Minutes,’ high-ranking Jewish Republican mostly stays on-message
It’s hardly any surprise that when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the only Republican Jewish member of Congress, went on 60 Minutes Sunday for a potentially career-advancing interview, he went out of his way to highlight his comfort with mainstream America—which is to say, Christian America. As both he and his mother told me last year when I profiled him for Tablet Magazine, he grew up keeping kosher while also attending chapel and acting in the annual Christmas pageant at his private school in Richmond, Virginia. While the 60 Minutes segment featured snapshots of Cantor reading Torah at his bar mitzvah, the congressman shrugged off any suggestion of awkwardness. “I’m sure there were times I was very aware of not being like others,” he said, elliptically. But when Lesley Stahl asked point-blank whether he’d been uncomfortable, Cantor gave a half-smile and protested, “Naw.”
Then there’s an online-only segment where Cantor says of Jews voting Democratic, “This has been the bane of my existence for a long time.” Clearly, he means it as a joke, but Stahl—herself Jewish—chose to go after Cantor, asking repeatedly whether there isn’t “something in the faith” that pushes Jews toward the Democratic Party. It’s not really clear what she was after; there are plenty of people who point to the harmony between, say, Democratic concerns about the environment and Talmudic principles, but no one who seriously argues that voting Republican somehow makes someone a bad Jew. Cantor deftly parried, saying that the principle of tikkun olam could encompass Republican-style private charity (remember compassionate conservatism?) as well as government safety nets—and then immediately got back on message, noting, “It’s that way in the Christian faith and others as well, that you give back.”
Cantor, already a favorite of the right, also clearly tried to transcend the image Democrats have painted of him as Washington’s obstructionist-in-chief. His message with the Jewish stuff was that he knows how to go along to get along. In Richmond, he invited Stahl to speak with his wife, Diana, who allowed that she is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, and with his mother-in-law Barbara, a longtime stalwart of Florida Democratic politics who said—diplomatically if a little dubiously—that, when she met Cantor, “I saw that it’s good to be Republican, too.” His son Michael added that his dad likes rap, and Cantor responded that his favorites are Jay-Z, Lil’ Wayne, and Wiz Khalifa. He wore a sweater and went biking around a manicured lake in the exclusive suburban development where he lives.
But that soft-focus footage came after a tense interview in Cantor’s Washington office, in which he gave his highly emotive eyebrows a workout and displayed an unfortunate tendency to roll his eyes skyward while thinking through his explanations for why Washington gridlock isn’t his fault. Things really went off the rails when one of his staffers interrupted Stahl to dispute the premise of a question about Ronald Reagan’s record of compromising on tax increases. On camera, Cantor and his wife froze on their couch; in the edit room, Stahl retorted with a clip of the Gipper himself talking about the need to make compromises in Washington. “We’ve seen the two sides of Eric Cantor,” Stahl says in closing: the ambitious would-be Speaker of the House and the friendly Southern gentlemanone sometimes at odds with the other.