How a black president was imagined as a Jewish one, more or less
In 1978, a cardiologist and author named Michael Halberstam imagined 1988 in a fast, funny novel titled The Wanting of Levine, in which a man named A.L. Levine is poised to become the first Jewish president of the United States. Can Levine, a former electronics salesman and Washington Democratic insider, overcome the forces of prejudice, both from the Beltway establishment and from the great unwashed masses? Can he be a credit to his people? Can he be a credit to all people and by doing so erase the sense that his people are somehow separate?
The questions—and the book—are worth raising because now, 30 years after its publication and 20 years after the events it imagines, somewhat similar events may be written into reality. There’s no point in reading The Wanting of Levine as a shadow history of Barack Obama’s candidacy. But there’s also no point in detaching it entirely, not when an author has gone to all the trouble of speculating on the national reaction were a major party to nominate a minority candidate.
Of course, The Wanting of Levine is not exactly a resource guide. It’s a comedy—at times a very broad one—with a lusty Jewish hero, more allied with Heller than Bellow or Roth. Good as Gold, in which Heller’s hero imagines that he—Kissinger notwithstanding—will be the first Jewish secretary of state, was published the following year, but in the way that one twin follows the other. From its first pages, Halberstam’s book lives or dies by its protagonist, and for the most part, it lives. Levine begins his career as a traveling salesman, and it is on the road that he learns nearly all the lessons that he needs as a politician: the importance of assimilating into local culture while still acknowledging the impossibility of truly understanding it, the trickiness of trustworthiness, and above all the sales pitch. This is never incidental for Levine: he learns to sell himself, and to do so by cannily pricing parts of the cultures through which he travels. Early on, there is a pointed but poignant scene where he learns to drink as a form of masculine currency: he picks tequila, which impresses nearly everyone.
Early on, in fact, there are a number of wonderful scenes, many of which have to do with Levine earning his party’s nomination after a front-runner unravels violently. There is resistance, much of which centers on Levine’s Jewishness, but Halberstam goes to great lengths to explain that Jewishness means at once many things and nothing to Levine and his people, just as blackness means at once many things and nothing for the Obama campaign. Levine encounters some outright anti-Semitism, but for the most part its blatant nature comes as a kind of relief. Working in Texas, Levine meets a “quick lively fellow” who sizes him up immediately. “Jew, ain’tcha?” he asks. Levine nods. The man continues:
“Me and the boy, we’re from Arkansas. Use to be Jews there coming to Hot Springs. Hell, when I was a kid, they’d used to stop us on the road and ask directions. Arkansas warn’t much on road signs in them days. Other kids and me, we’d always give’em fuck-up directions.” Suddenly conscious of the proprieties, he added, “Nothing personal.”
That is the tone of the prejudice, more often than not—nothing personal—and soon enough the two men are out on the water. The old man has as much disdain for Texans (“Texans are afraid of the water. They don’t think nothing’s pretty unless they can get oil or pussy out of it”) as he does for anyone else. At times this movement from suspicion to acceptance seems too easy, but in part that’s because Levine’s Jewishness is less religious than cultural: he is as much Northerner as Jew, as much city-dweller as Jew, as much businessman as Jew, and while there are frequent mentions of the physical characteristics of the Jew—the nose, mainly—the racial lines blur nearly as soon as they are drawn. This would not, and could not, happen if Levine were Chinese or Hispanic or, say, black.
At one point, Levine is questioned about his heritage by a particularly curious young woman, New Englander by region, Christian by faith. “Look,” he says, “I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m just a twentieth-century American Jew. That’s the last person you ought to ask to explain Judaism.” He elaborates: “We were taught that we were the same as everyone else at the same time we were being taught that we were different from everyone else. We had a history of always being strangers in whatever country we were living, but America stumped us.” This may well be the Jewish experience, but it is not translatable to the black experience. Oddly, it may be the Obama experience—he was raised in a white family in a place where there were few other African Americans: the same as everyone, but different. In this regard, at least, Obama is more like Levine than nearly any other black candidate imaginable.
Because the book promotes a certain beneficent idea—that people are eventually accepted for their humanity rather than rejected for the minor distinctions between different types of humanity—it uses its best political material early, before this liberalism sets in. There are thrilling minor set pieces about how Levine, as a Jew, polls in the South. Will old Southern Democrats vote for him? Should he downplay his religion or admit it forthrightly? How will he be received at a NASCAR event? At one point, his campaign manager tries to dissuade him from roaming the streets in Indiana without his security detail. “You’ll get shot,” he tells Levine.
“Jews don’t get shot,” Levine says. “They have heart attacks, mostly.” This is a tossed-off joke, but it strikes a chord across a three-decade span: it uses 1978 to imagine 1988 while remembering the tragic events of 1968, when both Catholic and African-American leaders died, and not of heart attacks either. Now, in 2008, in the week after a skinhead plot to murder 102 African Americans and then assassinate Barack Obama, it is clear that it is still faintly audible. (It also resonates tragically for the author. Halberstam, the older brother of the noted journalist and author David Halberstam, was shot and killed during a burglary attempt at his home in 1980. He was 48, a year older than Obama is today.)
The other day, on the subway, a man reading the Atlantic was explaining to his girlfriend that Obama is not exactly black, but that he is exactly African American—half African, half American. “Bill Clinton’s still the only black president we’ve had,” the man said. He was black. Clinton, first elected governor of Arkansas the year that Halberstam published The Wanting of Levine, looms large in the novel, not as an actual character, but in spirit. This is true not only because the American South is a central character in the novel—in some ways, this is a romance between Levine and the South—but because Clinton and Levine share a key proclivity. Unlike Obama, but very much like Clinton, Levine is an unrepentant, compulsive, highly successful womanizer. He discovers the benefits of extramarital sex early in his career—in a way, the book is as much a traveling-salesman joke as a Jewish joke—and while there is undeniable pleasure in reading about a series of young women in various states of undress, Levine’s sexual odyssey distracts from (and finally detracts from) the political core of the novel.
What is that political core, finally? At one point, Levine is speaking to a crowd about the American Dream, and his role in activating it, when he spots a tall Puerto Rican man. He senses the man’s goodwill, and his heart goes out to him, and all at once Levine understands that what unites us is our otherness, that America is, by definition, a country where common cause depends upon acknowledging and then obliterating difference. Outsiders don’t need to become insiders to be central to the national identity. This plays out repeatedly in the book, just as it has played out repeatedly in the Obama campaign.
In fact, the novel’s most trenchant moments, whether read against current events or on their own terms, are those that explore the ties between the black and Jewish communities. Early on, Levine receives a particularly clearheaded lecture from a black politician about the link between civil rights and economic power, but for the most part the ties are personal. When Levine first comes to Washington in the early seventies, a rich man looking to get into the political game, he hires a beautiful young black secretary, Miss Simpkins, as a means of establishing his liberal bona fides. Soon enough they are lovers. Miss Simpkins is a tough case, though. She prevents Levine from thinking of her as an exotic by trumping him back: she has had plenty of white lovers and even a few Japanese, she explains, but never a Jew. One day, fresh from another tryst, she gives Levine an extended lecture on the peculiar intimacy between blacks and Jews. “The Jews, they’re the comedians, and the niggers, they’re the musicians,” she says, “and they’re both sticking sand in the white man’s ass.” Levine likes what he hears.
“Did you think that up yourself?”
“That’s a dumb fucking question. If you hadn’t just screwed me, I’d be insulted. Of course I thought it up. What do you think I did—read it somewhere?”
“People don’t write shit like that. All they write is wars and poetry. Which I don’t read, anyway.”
“People do so write that. You ever heard of Norman Mailer? Lenny Bruce? James Baldwin?”
“We read Baldwin in college. How come you know him—he’s black, isn’t he?”
“Sure. But everyone reads black authors.”
“Not me. I read Ann Landers and the ads for Woodies. And Five Smooth Stones—that’s a real book.”
“Okay. Let’s make a deal.”
“Very Jewish,” she murmured.
“Let’s make a deal. You say you’re going to teach me about blacks. I say I’m going to teach you about Jews. But except for screwing, all my teaching begins and ends right now. And I’ll do it in one word.”
This is a light moment, protected and post-coital, but perhaps Levine does not know as much about the Jews as he thinks. Later on, he’s brought before a Jewish group to seek their approval. They don’t grant it. Fineberg, the head of the group, explains:
“The board feels—and I think I can safely speak for the majority—given the historic place of the Jews in this country, given the ever present possibility of a reemergence of anti-Semitism, that a candidacy such as yours would only tend to focus people’s resentments on the Jews as Jews. Historically, we have worked behind the scenes in politics, kept a low profile. While we hope that this will change, today is not the time for it. Those of you who are a bit older may remember a somewhat similar problem we had with Arthur Goldberg, when he wanted to be governor of New York.”
Levine asks a naïve question that is also prophetic. “Well, suppose the campaign goes along and I get elected. Wouldn’t that square it?”
Fineberg smiled. That’s Halberstam’s sentence, “Fineberg smiled,” and it’s eloquently nondescript, even menacing. “We considered the possibility,” Fineberg says. “Again, while it would be a great tribute to the American Jewish community to have one of our leaders elected president, it would still be a great danger to the community at large. As opposed to a candidate whom people fear because of what he might do, a president can become hated for what he does do. That hatred would inevitably reflect onto other Jews.”
It is at this point, specifically, that The Wanting of Levine weds itself to the Obama candidacy—the Obama presidency—for better or for worse. Halberstam’s narrative rolls on. Plot contrivances are brought forward and dismantled; toward the end, the book trips a bit over all the obstacles it has erected. Because it is a comedy, everything works out for the best, or seems to. But this spectre—kein ayin hora—remains.
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