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Jewish World Review March 3, 2000 / 26 Adar I, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Company They Keep

Both presidential front-runners aren’t above pandering to their party’s extremists -- RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT is a difficult proposition. It requires forming national coalitions of supporters of varying beliefs and backgrounds and uniting them behind a cause and a candidate.

Inevitably, in a country as diverse as the United States, it usually means that mainstream figures form some strange alliances.

Though each side will do its best to blackguard its opponents and whitewash its friends, the political facts of life oblige us to acknowledge some basics. Historically, no candidate for either party has won without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of his party’s extremes. Each of our two major parties has elements of its governing coalition that are, shall we say, unsavory.

For the Republicans, it is their intolerant right wing.

For the Democrats, it is their hard left wing, composed, in part, of radical racial hatemongers.

The 2000 presidential campaign is no dirtier than previous campaigns. But it has brought to the forefront the issue of just how far a candidate for national office can go in mollifying his less presentable supporters before being branded as an appeaser of extremists or an extremist himself.

In South Carolina, both major GOP candidates, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, failed to oppose the flying of the Confederate flag over the state capital. They should have condemned the use of this symbol of racism and treason, even though it is fair to ask why no one condemned Bill Clinton’s acceptance of a similar symbol when he was governor of Arkansas.

Bush compounded this folly by choosing to speak at Bob Jones University, a racist, anti-Catholic institution. The “Shrub” then allowed his Christian-right supporters to bash McCain backer Sen. Warren Rudman of Vermont as a “bigot” because of his opposition to their intolerance. Senior Bush advisor Marvin Olasky then slammed three prominent journalists who are supportive of McCain as being “Zeus” worshippers with “holes in their souls.”

It did not escape notice that the three men Olasky (who is a convert from Judaism to evangelical Christianity) singled out were all Jewish, as is Rudman.

The symbolism of the Bush campaign on these issues has been all wrong — despite apologies for the Bob Jones event — and has to concern his Jewish supporters. The Bush campaign spin, which has been to condemn McCain for his condemnation of Bush’s tolerance for intolerance, hasn’t helped.

Add the fact that Bush was quoted as saying that he wouldn’t oppose funding for programs associated with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and we are presented with the fact that the man who stands for “compassionate conservatism” has an extremist problem. Given his general ignorance on non-Texas issues, my guess is the Shrub actually had no idea what the Nation of Islam is. Even if that is true, such ignorance does not speak well for him. But, lest we think this election is solely about the nastiness on the right, we should remember that there is something unsavory simultaneously unfolding on the left.

Both major Democratic candidates, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, have chosen to spend some time on bended knee before one of the most disreputable figures in contemporary American political life: Rev. Al Sharpton.

Need we remind ourselves that it was Sharpton — who first earned fame as a co-conspirator in the Tawana Brawley hoax — whose anti-Semitic speeches helped incite the Crown Heights pogrom, during which a Chasidic Jew was lynched by an angry mob. It was also the same Al Sharpton who incited violence in 1995 against a Jewish-owned business in Harlem that resulted in several deaths.

Yet, this has not prevented either Democrat from fawning all over this slick street hustler and treating him with the respect that past presidents were wont to show African-American leaders of far higher repute and accomplishments.

Sadly, Jewish Democrats have been noticeably silent about this development. Astonishingly, Gore even praised WLIB, a hate-spewing New York City radio station associated with Sharpton and even worse characters.

Why do they do it? The same reason that Bush the younger chose to accept the blessings of Bob Jones. They think he has the potential to bring in votes. Both Gore and Bradley are thus willing to grant him a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve in order to win them.

Democrats will argue that the religious right is numerically far more important — and thus politically influential — within the GOP than Sharpton and his constituents. But Republicans can reply that however important the Christian Coalition may be in primary season, the hard left that Sharpton represents has historically had more concrete influence on Democratic administrations than Pat Robertson has ever had on Republican White Houses.

While all of these alliances are troubling, it is also important to remember that besmirching a person solely on the basis of which set of rotten apples he can be linked to is the classic definition of McCarthyism. No one can fairly accuse any of the major candidates of really being personally bigoted. They all seem to be basically decent men who have been asked to make small compromises in order to achieve a larger goal. Yet, we have a right to ask what these small sellouts will cost our country.

We are all judged by the company we choose to keep. If a candidate chooses to align himself with the likes of Bob Jones or Al Sharpton, then it must be understood that this act will aid these extremists. We also have a right to ask whether such persons will have an IOU in hand after the election and just what the level of their possible influence in a future White House might be.

Our choice may then become one of deciding which type of low-life could have access to the president — as much as it is picking a chief executive. So whom do you fear most? By whom are you most repelled?

Pat Robertson or Al Sharpton? Pick your poison.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin