Being judged by the content of our character

I’m a liberal Democrat.

That’s not a surprise, of course, to any of my friends. And I strongly suspect it’s no surprise to anyone who’s been reading my column regularly, though I’ve tried, in the main, to stay away from partisan politics in this space (with emphasis on tried and in the main).

And it’s not partisan politics that I intend to discuss now either, though some of my readers may think otherwise.

Let me begin with a fantasy. (No, not that kind; this is a family newspaper.) This one concerns my receiving a telephone call from the White House at some time during the past 45 years. The staff member tells me that the president wants to spend a Shabbat lunch with an average Modern Orthodox Jewish family and has chosen mine. (Remember, fantasy.)

During that time, I almost always voted for the Democratic candidates. However, notwithstanding my policy disagreements with Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, I would have jumped at the chance and felt honored and privileged to host them for a meal at my home. Indeed, the same would have been true not only for the Democratic presidents (Carter, Clinton, and Obama), but also the runners-up — Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain, Romney, and Clinton (unfortunately, not II).

All were people of gravitas; people with a deep, abiding love of country and America’s powerful democratic (lower case “d”) ethos; people who believed they were, or wanted to be, president of all; people who brought, or would have brought, a sense of decorum, respect, and dignity to the office of president; people who genuinely wanted to do what was good, right, and just.

Of course, I sometimes disagreed with what they thought was good, right, and just; often, but certainly not always, my disagreements were with the Republicans. But I gladly would have welcomed all, both as individuals and as representatives of our country and the offices they held. I would have loved to talk to them, agree or not, and to expose my family to such leaders.

Until now. For the first time since 1974, I would have said no; I, like the US women’s soccer team, don’t want to share a meal with the current president, in my home or his.

Let me emphasize again that this is not a question of policy differences, although many exist. I can, and do, handle those easily enough with those whom I respect and who respect me. We debate, disagree, eat together, and remain friends.

So it’s not policy that concerns me here. Rather, it’s an issue of character, a question of what’s in a person’s heart and soul, not their mind. And as derech eretz precedes Torah, so character precedes policy.

You can see character not only in what a person says but also how they say it. You see it, or rather the lack of it, in someone who constantly talks in a manner that, if my children had spoken that way publicly, would have made me embarrassed and angry.

How many times do we tell our children — and ourselves — not to insult someone with whom we disagree? And yet the Oval Office inundates us with a constant barrage of dumbo, crazy, crooked, lying, sneaky, deranged, fat, cheating, and sleazy. I could go on, but it hurts too much.

How many times do we tell our children — and ourselves — to try to tell the truth? We don’t always succeed, of course; we’re human, and we have failings. But at the very least, we try to make truth an ideal, a target to aim for, and we feel regret when we miss the mark. And yet this Oval Office ignores truth on a daily basis. Why make truth a cherished value when you have alternative facts?

Every July 4th, I try to read the Declaration of Independence, which is printed on the back page of Section 1 of the New York Times. And as I read Jefferson’s immortal words and think about the inalienable rights enshrined not only in that document, but also in the Constitution and its Bill of Rights and Civil War amendments, I treasure the fact that we are blessed to live in this democracy, this medinah shel chessed (land of kindness), even with all of its faults that we still endeavor to correct.

So how can I set aside a seat at my table for a person, even a president, who doesn’t show any understanding of what American democracy means; who pals around and “falls in love” with dictators, while demeaning the leaders of our democratic allies; who replaces our cherished freedom of the press with demagoguery that the press is the “enemy of the people”; who believes that American justice translates into “lock her up”; who distorts the poetic beauty of “send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me” by telling American citizens elected by other citizens to “go back” to the “places from which they came.”

And it was this latest tweet, disgracing yet again the office once held by Washington and Lincoln, and even more so the chanting (“send her back”) by his base at a recent rally, that drove this point home to me. No, the president did not, as he later falsely maintained, tell them to stop. Just look at the video of the chanting and the president’s reaction, and remember Chico’s question: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

What immediately struck me was how an earlier Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, handled a somewhat similar situation. He was a true American hero, and considered as such by almost all Americans other than the current president, who, ignoring McCain’s acts of bravery and heroism during five-plus years as a prisoner of war under the most horrific conditions, claimed insultingly that he was a “war hero because he was captured . . . [and] I like people who weren’t captured.”

McCain, confronted more than once by supporters who called Obama’s character, religion, and birthplace into question, didn’t remain silent. He didn’t acquiesce in insult and defamation or turn opponents into “the other.” Rather he showed the stuff that presidents are made of and defended his adversary, saying “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

I had disagreements with McCain on fundamental issues and therefore didn’t vote for him. But in these answers he demonstrated what leadership is, what character means, what integrity entails. His simple words exemplified true American ideals and values.

I didn’t want McCain to be president, but I would have been humbled to have him grace my table. I wish I could say that about President Trump. It breaks my heart that I can’t.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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