Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush observed during the last Republican debate — and repeatedly since — that “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.”
The wisdom of his remark, alas, has not been embraced by the competitor candidate to whom it was most immediately directed. The governor’s remark is true enough. Also indisputable, however, is the fact that attack ads, insults, and ad hominem invective do not preclude election. Nor are any of these unfortunate dynamics new to the political stage or the current election cycle.
Political mudslinging finds both its figurative and literal origins in the Hebrew Bible. King David was reviled by fellow Israelite and political detractor Shimei ben Gera, who threw dirt and rocks at the king and, according to modern translators, called him a “criminal,” a “villain,” and a “blood-stained fiend of Hell!” It is clear that these insults wounded David, as the most beloved monarch in Jewish history recalled them from his deathbed, instructing his son and successor, Solomon, to avenge the offense: “He insulted me outrageously… Do not let him go unpunished” (I Kings 2:8-9). Only after these final, vindictive words was David able to die in relative peace.
An early American expression of this phenomenon is to be found in the political career of Henry Clay, who served the state of Kentucky as senator from 1849 until his death in 1852, having earlier been a congressman, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State. He ran unsuccessfully for president three times. Abraham Lincoln so admired Senator Clay that he referred to him as his “beau ideal.”
John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, however — who had served in the House and Senate and as minister (we would say ambassador) to Russia — described Senator Clay as “a being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shines and stinks.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage,” President John F. Kennedy referred to this statement as “perhaps the most memorable and malignant sentence in the history of personal abuse.” That history, the ad hominem derogation of politicians in the pursuit of personal advantage and advancement, is long and unsavory, if at times colorful and entertaining. In Randolph’s defense, his verbal assault on his colleague was considerably more evocative and poetic than the crass execrations and vulgar vocabulary of the current crop of candidates for the nation’s highest office.
Senator Edmund G. Ross, also of Kansas, voted against conviction in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, who also was the object of countless insults both graphic and grievous. Ross cast the deciding vote for acquittal, despite the opposition of the defining majority of his constituents. According to JFK’s seminal book on political courage and principle, a Kansas editorial attacked Senator Ross in no uncertain terms, calling him “a poor, pitiful, shriveled wretch, with a soul so small that a little pelf would outweigh all things [therein] that dignify or ennoble mankind.”
Senator William Pitt Fessendon of Maine ended his political career by voting for Johnson’s acquittal together with his Kansas colleague. Some time earlier, he had written about the Senate and public service in terms approaching the prophetic:
“When… a man becomes a member of this body, he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed … of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends; the imputations of his motives; the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice; all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.”
The litany of libelous political barbs is extensive, and did not spare even the greatest of our leaders. General George McClellan called Abraham Lincoln “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”
Perennial Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, widely celebrated for his proper usage and the refinement of his verbal expression — gifts which may well have kept him from the presidency — famously said of the Republican Party: “If they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”
This is mild stuff compared to the biting sarcasm of Mark Twain, who published an essay beginning: “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. Now suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself….”
What explains this familiar trend? Why are politicians and national leaders, many of whom have distinguished themselves in the service of their fellow citizens, so regularly subjected to verbal abuse? Perhaps it is because, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad name.”
Or, far more charitably, perhaps as Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it: “It is the fate of princes to be ill spoken of for well doing.”
History records that Marcus Aurelius knew some of the leading sages of the founding period of rabbinic Judaism personally, and discussed scripture and spirituality with them. Perhaps he knew that the Torah conveys an explicit commandment prohibiting the reviling, cursing, and verbal abuse of office holders and national leaders. (It would be a violation of this scriptural obligation for me to speculate that Marcus probably knew the minds of the sages even better than our co-religionist Kissinger!)
“You shall not revile God. Nor shall you curse a leader among your people” (Exodus 22:28). The Hebrew word here translated as “leader,” nasi, means “president” in modern Hebrew. The Torah’s commandment might thus fairly be translated as “…Neither shall you curse (or insult… or verbally abuse) your nation’s president (or aspirants to that office).”
Rabbi Menachem Recanati wrote of this mitzvah in thirteenth century Italy. He presciently explained the verse by saying that public figures who are insulted and cursed and subjected to verbal abuse may well decide that public service is a thankless task, and as a result may resign from office. Recanati observes further that worthy aspiring leaders may be discouraged from seeking positions of public trust in such an inhospitable political climate, to the detriment of the entire community.
Maimonides explained that the Torah’s prohibition against cursing communal and national leaders is not to protect those leaders from harm and offense, but out of concern for the deleterious moral and spiritual effect of such behavior on the individual doing the cursing. We are diminished and coarsened when we speak ill of others, Maimonides taught. Especially when we revile those who serve the public. Perhaps even more so when we reward demagogues who engage in such offensive rhetoric with our political support and added public attention.
A modern biblical commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, points out the fuller context of this prohibition: You shall not revile God. Neither shall you curse a leader among your people.” Rabbi Plaut explains the dual formulation: “The law implies that undermining the stability of society [by cursing or reviling its legitimate leaders] is comparable to blasphemy.”
Surely, this oft-neglected prohibition of the Torah does not preclude either free speech or principled dissent or spirited debate. Nor even reasoned criticism of national leaders. That is no sin. It is, in point of fact, a patriotic duty, and speaking truth to power is a virtue to be commended and admired. The Torah merely commands that we do so without debasing our speech, without demonizing our opponents, without harshly derogating those with contrary views: office-holders, political aspirants, or their supporters — however misguided or ineffectual we may find them.
What a profound service the Jewish community would do for the American public, what a kiddush Hashem it would be, what honor we would bring to our religious tradition and its Divine Author, by recognizing our collective shortcomings in this area of Torah law and by renewing our fidelity to this biblical imperative: By exemplifying the principle of civil discourse and decrying its violation as blasphemous and disqualifying in the coming electoral cycle!
Is such a thing possible? As former Israeli president Shimon Peres (the Nasi of the Jewish State) said: “People who have no fantasies never accomplish anything fantastic.”
Some fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy said: “We live in an era saturated with communication of all sorts, and this has both radically democratized political speech and opinion and deprived it of any restraint or standard of responsibility.”
That was fifty years ago! The saturation he identified is far more extensive today. Our need to contain its consequences is commensurately more urgent.
As this election year of 2016 begins, may we strive to exemplify the moral restraint the Torah prescribes, and may we and our neighbors exercise the responsibility this season demands. In so doing, may we all become true politicians, as defined by President John Adams: those who are servants not of our own desires, not even of the people… but of our God.
To do anything less is to be (and to be content to be led by), at the very best, “mackerels by moonlight.”