Monday, January 22, 2001

That’s how some of my small friends pronounce the name of our new president, drawing out that squishy final consonant. It’s a lot more fun to say “Bushhhhhhh” than “Clinton” or “Gore.”

“Bush” has definite Seusslike possibilities; “Do you think Dubya will always lubya?”

Laura Bush, the new librarian-teacher in residence at the White House, told the New York Times she has “a lifelong passion for introducing children to the magic of words.” She can start indulging that passion with the family surname. The kids can learn about two Presidents Bushhhhhhhh, as Bill Clinton might have said, for the price of one.

The new first lady is noted for her love of literature, so there were some grumbles among our aesthetes that no poet was invited to read his poesy at this inauguration. But only two presidents, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, invited poets to read their works and the results were decidedly uneven.

On Jan. 20, 1961, with the reflection of the sun on a foot of newly fallen snow so bright that he couldn’t see his poem for the glare, Robert Frost instead recited “The Gift Outright,” a lyric he had written and memorized in the 1930s. As it turned out, it was considerably better than the poem he had written for the occasion.

Maya Angelou, Bill Clinton’s choice to read her poetry at his inauguration in 1993, got a little carried away with fashionable multiculturalism. In cataloguing the diversity of the men and women who built America, she listed Asian, Hispanic, Jew, African, Native American, Sioux, Catholic, Muslim, French, Greek, Irish, rabbi, priest, sheik, gay, straight, preacher … and so on through Pawnee Apache, Seneca, Cherokee, Turk, Arab, Swede, German, Eskimo, Scot, Ashanti, Yoruba, Kru. She overlooked only the Anglo-Saxon Protestants, men like the Founding Fathers and even the new president.

Robert Frost celebrated “Washington, John Adams, Jefferson and Madison” as “consecrated seers.” He might not get away with that today. Forty years ago there was no academic fashion of dissing as politically incorrect all the Dead White Men.

But now “merit” is making a comeback. Martin Luther King would be pleased that George W. has chosen men and women for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin in assembling his Cabinet. Some of them happen to be black, Hispanic, Asian, and even Lebanese-American. Several of them are female.

Nevertheless, as has been duly noted, the new president appears to have chosen the men and women he wants without counting beans. He has even felt free to overlook a prominent category. There’s no Jew in the Cabinet. (Ari Fleisher, as press secretary, doesn’t count.) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust was so loaded with men of the Hebrew persuasion that he was accused by mean-spirited people of creating “the Jew Deal,” and Bill Clinton’s Cabinet read like a list of contributors to B’nai B’rith, which in fact it might have been. Mr. Clinton didn’t mind so long as they were contributors to his campaigns as well. So what happened?

“Just as men don’t count men in the Cabinet or white people don’t count whites, so Jews have become so secure in America that they no longer seek the assurance of a representative who can get the president’s ear,” writes columnist Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. True enough, but that’s only half the story.

Measured by the harsh arithmetic of politics, Jews hold no IOUs drawn on a conservative Republican president. Most Jews, like most blacks, are liberal Democrats and always vote that way. There are exceptions: Orthodox and some Conservative Jews are conservative on social issues. But it’s hardly a stretch to say that a majority of American Jews are more likely to practice their liberal ideology than the traditions of their religion. During the High Holy Days a rabbi is far more likely to take his text for a sermon from the New York Times or The Washington Post than from the Bible or the Talmud.

As a Jew I observe this in sorrow and fatigue. I’m weary of being asked, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing hanging out with conservatives?” Conservative politics, as my Orthodox grandmother would have told me, rattles the Richter scale of Jewish outrage with the force of drinking a glass of milk with a ham sandwich.

Jewish political opinions ranges from the safe to the predictable. What was refreshing about Joe Lieberman the senator was that he wasn’t afraid to take unpredictable positions on school vouchers, Hollywood sex and violence, immoral behavior in the Oval Office. Once he became a candidate for vice president his being an observant Jew was less important to Jewish pride than his credentials as a card-carrying liberal. Jews have to believe that despite all of the above Dubya will lubya, anyway.

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