Too Jewish?

Americans made "Seinfeld" one of the most popular TV shows ever. But are they ready to put a Jew in the White House?

By Jake Tapper
Published August 9, 2000 6:18PM (EDT)

In 1989, the late Brandon Tartikoff sat down with two fellow NBC executives to watch a pilot for a new sitcom, then called "The Seinfeld Chronicles."

"Too Jewish," he assessed.

The other two executives, both gentiles, didn't agree. But Tartikoff, a Jew, gave the show a thumbs-down.

Soon after, Tartikoff ran into Rob Reiner, the co-founder of the company that produced the pilot. Reiner "was yelling and screaming that I had made the biggest mistake of my life," Tartikoff later told Esquire magazine, in one of his last interviews before he died. "So I thought about it, and I decided to order the show. But I gave it the smallest order in TV history -- four shows."

Eventually, of course, the show, possibly the most culturally Jewish in television history, also went on to become one of the most successful and popular shows of all time.

The lesson, according to Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith: "A lot of us underestimate America."

Foxman and I are talking about Al Gore's selection of Connecticut senator -- and proudly observant Jew -- Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

It makes me, as a Jew, kind of uncomfortable. I don't like the fact that people are talking about whether or not America will vote for a Jew. There are a whole lot of voters out there, I think, who simply don't like Jews, even if they haven't met any. But also, sometimes, after they have. And anti-Semitism isn't restricted to the right wing; it's alive and well in black America -- not just fringe characters like Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad, but in "mainstream" black liberals like the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson, who will speak at the Democratic National Convention next week. The ADL has also reported that black Americans are three times more likely to hold anti-Semitic views than whites.

Whether it's white or black voters, I don't know that America is fully ready to accept a Jew in the White House, and that idea makes me uncomfortable, so I'd rather change the subject.

Lieberman's nomination is causing plenty of Jews discomfort, Foxman says. "There's a lot more insecurity in the Jewish community than I thought there was two days ago," he says. "A lot of people are very troubled by what this will mean."

If Gore-Lieberman loses, will Lieberman be blamed?

What ugly rhetoric -- already alive on the Web and talk radio -- will we be forced to confront?

But other Jews argue that this is just so much, er, paranoia. On the whole America accepts Jews, they say.

"I don't buy all the anti-Semitic arguments," says William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative Weekly Standard, who's also Jewish. "That's a small chunk of America, and they'll probably be voting for Pat Buchanan anyway."

Last Saturday, Ed Rendell -- the former mayor of Philadelphia, present chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and a Jew -- told reporters, "I don't think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket. If Joe Lieberman were Episcopalian it would be a slam dunk."

But Kristol thinks Rendell didn't mean that. "I think that was tactical so that Gore would get the credit for picking a Jew," he says.

I don't know about that. Rendell has said before that he thinks his Jewishness would be held against him if he ran for state office, even though Pennsylvania has elected Jews before. And I didn't necessarily disagree with him.

My mother, who grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., was raised Presbyterian. But she converted to marry my father, a Chicago Jew. I went to Jewish schools, camps and am more knowledgeable about Judaism -- if not more observant -- than most Jews I know. But, perhaps because of my mom's Christian roots and my Christian grandparents, I've always had a slightly outsider view of my people.

One reason is fairly simple: My mother's Scotch-Irish DNA has meant that I can frequently pass as a gentile. My private-detective name helps, too. And that means that sometimes people let their guard down and say things that imply ... well, not anti-Semitism, really. That conjures images of "Schindler's List" and skinheads. But something. A distaste. An acknowledgment that Jews are different, and not necessarily in a good way.

"I'm certainly the last one to tell you that there's no anti-Semitism in this country," reassures Foxman, whose career is built around the finding and decrying of bigotry in all its many forms. "But at the same time, America is a lot more tolerant today."

Foxman's basing his assessment on polls the ADL's conducted for years, which ask respondents various questions to see if they hold latently anti-Semitic attitudes -- whether they agree with statements like "Jews have too much power" or "Jews are more loyal to Israel than America." In 1964, 30 percent of the populace was assessed to be latently anti-Semitic. In 1992, it was 20 percent. Now, Foxman says, it's down to 12 percent.

Of course, he acknowledges, "that's still 25 million Americans ... But it's not like they get up in the morning and say, 'How can I hurt the Jews?' It's more like they get in his way, they're annoying, he just doesn't like them. But voters like that have other interests -- abortion, gun control, healthcare, who knows? People vote based on a basket of issues."

But those are polls, I say. Polls told John F. Kennedy in 1960 that his Catholicism wasn't going to be held against him as it was against Al Smith, that he was going to defeat Richard Nixon with 56 percent of the vote. Kennedy, it turns out, beat Nixon by only .16 percent -- a mere 120,000 votes. African-American elected officials go through this all the time; pre-election polls indicate support for them at a rate much higher than the vote ends up being, because voters don't want to admit (maybe even to themselves) that they're not voting for the black guy. Couldn't that be the case here?

"Sure, people tell you in polls what they think you want to hear," Foxman says. "But even if you discount that, the news is good. There was a poll that indicated that 92 percent of the American people would vote for a qualified Jew for president. Even if you discount 20 percent of that, it's still 70 percent, which is pretty good."

Foxman points out that the Senate has 11 Jews, a "minyan" -- a reference to the term meaning the minimum of 10 adult male Jews needed before a public Jewish prayer service when the Torah is read.

Jews in the Senate are, in addition to Lieberman, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of Michigan, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Chuck Schumer of New York, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and the lone Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Still, for every Jew who made it into the Senate there might be another who didn't. In 1996, independent and Republican voters in Kansas were urged to vote for Rep. Sam Brownback over his Democratic challenger, Jill Docking, through telephone "push polls" that helpfully reminded listeners that Docking was Jewish. And cited that as a good reason to vote against her. Come November, Docking lost.

Brownback insisted he knew nothing about the calls. But Docking's campaign communications director, Scott Swenson says that Brownback's campaign and the Kansas Republican Party constantly referred to Docking as "'Jill Sadowsky Docking' in press releases and in rhetoric. Many reporters commented on how offensive they found it."

Of course, that is her name, I say. "But what is the importance of it if not to put the name 'Sadowsky' out there?" says Swenson. "They were trying to call attention to the fact that Jill was Jewish." Docking agrees with this assessment.

Docking, reached in Wichita, Kan., says such push polls are "a reality of life in America, and I don't think it will change." She also doesn't think the calls changed the outcome of the election. "Those people that would have substantively changed their vote because the push pollers told them I was Jewish probably wouldn't have voted for me anyway. If someone were not tolerant of Jews they were not my voter. But it was very uncomfortable and ugly."

Docking says that such tactics will almost definitely be used against Lieberman. "It will exist, it will happen," she says. But what's more important is how Bush handles it. "I think it is just as important that George [W.] Bush take a stand as Al Gore. I think he should show personal courage as a candidate and address it" by condemning it.

How would Bush handle such a thing? Former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman has a few things to say about that. Rudman, a Jewish Republican who was one of Arizona Sen. John McCain's biggest backers, heard of a pro-Bush push poll that referenced Rudman as a McCain supporter, mentioned his faith and mispronounced his name -- I think it was "Rood-Mahnn" -- to make it sound more ethnic.

"Here were some phone calls that were made saying that 'John McCain's campaign manager is a New York Jew' -- which I took exception to since I'm from New Hampshire," Rudman says. "There was anti-Semitism there." And while Rudman says he doesn't think Bush himself knew anything about the calls, he faulted the Bush campaign nonetheless. On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Feb. 27, Rudman berated Bush advisor Karl Rove for the calls, saying, "There was certainly no one in that campaign who stood up and said, 'Let's stop it.'"

Added Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who was also supporting McCain, "I don't think Governor Bush is at all bigoted but he was willing to shake hands with the devil to make the deal to get himself elected in South Carolina and that's what's wrong."

When I reach Rudman, he tells me how happy he is that Lieberman's been named to Gore's ticket. "It's been 40 years since Kennedy won; it's taken 40 years to put someone of the Jewish faith on a ticket, and it's about time," he says. "Look, there is anti-Semitism in America. I ran into some of it in South Carolina. But anybody who tried that would be electing Al Gore" because of a backlash.

Plus, Rudman says, Lieberman is "a VP pick that might make a difference. He's a wonderful guy, a very moderate guy and a fine human being. And that's how the American people will look at him ... As a first-rate human being, as a good U.S. senator, as a man very devoted to his faith, who happens to be Jewish. For those people on the fringe that will vote against Joe Lieberman because he's Jewish, they are not the kind of people who would have ever voted for Al Gore to begin with."

Before Rudman had even met McCain, the era of modern Jew-baiting push-polling began. Coincidentally, or not, it started in South Carolina with former South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, who managed Bush's glorious South Carolina victory. According to a 1986 report in the New York Times, in 1978, when Campbell was running for the U.S. House against Greenville, S.C., Mayor Max Heller -- a Holocaust survivor born in Austria -- Campbell's campaign commissioned a poll to see if voters cared that Heller was "(1) a Jew; (2) a foreign-born Jew; and (3) a foreign-born Jew who did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior."

No. 3, they discovered, voters cared about.

Thirty days before the election, a third-party candidate, Don Sprouse, suddenly showed up. Days before election day, he announced that Heller should not be elected because he didn't "believe Jesus Christ has come yet"; Heller lost by 6,000 votes. (Campbell denied any collusion with the third-party candidate, though he acknowledged the questions on his poll.)

Lieberman's religion "might make a difference," Heller says in a phone interview on Tuesday. "There's always going to be some people that will do that regardless, let's not kid ourselves. There are people in this world who don't like anyone who's different from what they are ... If he were black, they wouldn't like him because he was black. We're kidding ourselves if we say otherwise. The question is, 'How many people will that be?'"

Heller says that during his 1978 race, there were evangelical churches that supported him since he was an observant Jew. "They said that I lived up to my religion," he says. "And the same thing might happen today with Lieberman. Even the so-called Christian right, they might say 'Here we have someone who lives up to his religion, and the fact is that the morals and the ethics are something that he observes."

"Things have changed," Heller says. "But I'm not saying it's going to be easy for him. I'm not going to say that the country is going to vote against him because he is Jewish; some will. But it's still going to be the issues. It's still going to be Democrat vs. Republican."

"Whether I lost the election because I am Jewish, I don't know," Heller says. "I never took a survey. And people wouldn't tell you, anyhow."

Note: This story has been corrected.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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