Could there ever be a Jewish president of the United States? That was a question that was raised repeatedly as I was growing up back in the sixties. On the one hand, we were told that here in the USA, anyone could grow up to be president. That idea was emblematic of the egalitarian foundation of American society, the basis of our democratic system of government. On the other hand, there was the practical reality that everyone who had been president came from a very limited demographic, all of them men, all of them white, most of them Anglo-Saxon with the occasional Dutch or German representative (e.g., Martin Van Buren, Dwight Eisenhower), and all of them Protestant.
So when it came to the question of whether we would ever see a Jewish president, the conclusion we typically came to was that it was possible, but unlikely.
This is not to discount the significance of the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry, defeated Richard Nixon. No doubt, the advent of our first Catholic president made the idea of a Jewish president seem at least a little possible, and served as a spur to the discussions that took place within Jewish circles about whether it could happen, and if it did, whether it would be good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. In some ways, we were more comfortable with a figure like Henry Kissinger, who became the 56th U.S. secretary of state, or more recently Rahm Emanuel, who served as the 23rd White House chief of staff. That sort of advisory or ministerial role has a long precedent in our history, reaching all the way back to Mordecai in the Book of Esther, and Joseph in Genesis. By way of contrast, we have the 19th-century example of Benjamin Disraeli, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom, but only after converting to the Anglican Church as a child.
And, as is well known, Kennedy tragically was assassinated before completing a full term in office, and while there have been several other Catholics who have seriously vied for the presidency, including his two brothers, the nine presidents who followed all have been affiliated with one or another Protestant sect. It is worth noting that the first Greek Orthodox presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1988, and had former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis defeated George H. W. Bush, his wife, Kitty Dukakis, would have become the first Jewish first lady of the United States. Here, too, we could find a precedent in the biblical personage of Esther.
Then came the year 2000, when Al Gore chose the U.S. senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, to be his running mate on the Democratic party ticket. And while Lieberman was the first Jewish vice presidential candidate to win the popular vote (albeit riding Gore’s coattails), the conservative-dominated United States Supreme Court decided the election in favor of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Gore and others harbored a degree of resentment towards Lieberman for not going all in, and running simultaneously for re-election as senator, a race he won. But in truth, with the economy still going strong under the Clinton-Gore administration, the election was Gore’s to lose. And he did.
Lieberman became a presidential candidate in his own right in 2004, and for a brief moment we came closer to the possibility of a Jewish president than ever before. But he was identified as a centrist at a time when the Democratic party was moving to the left, as the shock of 9/11 began to recede and the reality of Bush’s occupation of Iraq began to take hold. Consequently, Lieberman’s candidacy was not very successful, and the United States senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, a Roman Catholic just like the other JFK, gained the Democratic nomination, only to go down in defeat against Bush’s re-election bid. Whether Lieberman would have done any better or any worse than Kerry is hard to say.
Kerry’s defeat did not slow his party’s leftward tilt, which posed serious problems for Lieberman, especially given his somewhat hawkish stance on foreign policy issues. This came to a head in 2006, when he lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut, and decided to run for re-election to the Senate as an independent. While he won the election, he lost the support of many former colleagues in the Democratic party, including Gore and Hillary Clinton, who abandoned Lieberman and endorsed his rival. And while he remained more or less affiliated with the Democrats during his final term as senator, which ended in 2013, Lieberman in turn endorsed Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, and spoke at the Republican National Convention that year. Rumor had it that he had been considered a potential running mate for McCain as well, and perhaps might have served McCain better than former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Of course, the 2008 election was extraordinary, in that we elected the first African American president. And back in the sixties, conversation about whether there would ever be a Jewish president would sometimes also turn to the question of what would be more likely, that there would be a Jewish president or an African American president? The answer was far from clear, as both possibilities seemed altogether improbable. The fact that Barack Obama was elected and then re-elected is a great testament to the progress we have made as a society, and also a reflection of significant demographic changes within the population of the United States.
The 2008 primaries were also significant in regard to some of the other primary candidates. For example, for the Republican party, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had been a contender, and could have been the first Italian-American elected to the White House (many urged Democratic New York State Governor Mario Cuomo to run back in the 80s, but to no avail). Mitt Romney came close to taking the nomination away from McCain, and then became the Republican candidate in 2012, making him the first Mormon to come close to winning the presidency (whether Mormons are considered Protestants, or even Christians, is open to debate). Back in 2008, former United States senator from New York Hillary Clinton was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and had Obama not overtaken her in the primaries, she might have been the first woman to serve as president.
And so we come to the present moment, and the impressively diverse set of major party candidates set to run in the 2016 primaries. On the Republican side, this includes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Roman Catholic; former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Roman Catholic convert; United States senator from Florida Marco Rubio, a Roman Catholic of Cuban descent; United States senator from Texas Ted Cruz, whose father also was Cuban; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, an African American; and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India.
On the Democratic side, we have former first lady, senator, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton once again running as the heir apparent; former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a Roman Catholic; and the United States senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, born and raised, and bar mitzvahed, in Brooklyn, New York.
Although their politics are quite distinct, in tossing his hat into the ring to compete in the Democratic primaries, Sanders is following in Lieberman’s footsteps as a Jewish candidate for president. And the amazing thing is that Sanders is suddenly mounting a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton. I find this somehow ironic, given that Clinton and others turned their backs on Lieberman when he was down on his luck, because Lieberman was seen as too conservative. Now, along comes Sanders, who like Lieberman has independent party affiliations while remaining associated with the Democrats, but whose politics is significantly to the left of Clinton, to the extent that he identifies himself as a democratic socialist. So now it is Clinton who is losing ground among the party faithful because she is seen as too conservative.
I imagine that the success Sanders is achieving in the polls and in the all-important activity of fundraising is starting to give Clinton some cause for concern, maybe even an upset stomach? That’s why I would call what’s happening right now, with apologies to Montezuma, Lieberman’s revenge.
Could Sanders win the Democratic nomination next year? And if he did, could he beat whomever the Republicans pick out of their extremely crowded field, thereby becoming the first Jewish president of the United States of America?
It’s possible, but unlikely. But the really nice thing about all this is, it’s unlikely because of his politics, and not because he’s Jewish.