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An Unexpected Leader

A politician who broke the mold (it’s not who you think)

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Silhouette of a politician speaking at a podium
Illustration based on Obama addresses the crowd by Ben Stanfield; some rights reserved.

This election, I’ve been thinking a lot about an unlikely political superstar. He belongs to a historically oppressed minority group, and faced down intense prejudice from a political establishment who never believed a man like him could rise to the top. He skyrocketed to the leadership of his party, bringing down a much more established party leader on the way, and prompting questions about whether he was ready for the highest office. He is a writer who bared his soul in print in a way no ordinary, cautious politician would dare, then used his writerly imagination to capture the imagination of a country.

He is Benjamin Disraeli.

Of course, he is also Barack Obama. Indeed, the similarity between Obama and Disraeli, whose biography I recently wrote for Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, is striking. Disraeli was the first Jewish prime minister of England, and Obama, it now appears, is likely to become the first African American president of the United States. Like Disraeli, Obama belongs to an ethnic minority that has traditionally been abused by the majority he seeks to lead. If he does win next week, it will represent a triumph of democratic openness and equality, just as Disraeli’s career did in the eyes of many of his contemporaries. Indeed, as one French statesman joked, the greatest triumph of English liberalism was that a Jew could rise to lead England’s Conservative party.

But the most significant thing Obama and Disraeli have in common, despite all the differences in their characters and politics, is that they were both writers before they became politicians. Disraeli published his first novel when he was just 21, more than a decade before he entered Parliament, and his early fiction was heavily autobiographical—a laboratory in which he could experiment with his persona and ambition. Likewise, Obama published an autobiography, Dreams from My Father, years before he entered politics; and his book, like Disraeli’s, is surprising coming from a politician, both for its high literary skill and its honest wrestling with issues of identity and belonging.

Both men turned first to writing to explore the question that would eventually define their public lives: is it possible to genuinely belong to, and even lead, a society that shuns people like you? In his autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming, Disraeli made his alter ego an Italian living in Scandinavia, rather than a Jew living in England, but the parallel is clear. Contarini complains that he does not look like other boys, and he dreams of returning to Venice, his mother’s homeland, and restoring it to its ancient glory. In his next book, Alroy,

A carved ivory cameo of Benjamin Disraeli

Disraeli would create an explicitly Jewish fantasy, imagining a medieval hero-king, David Alroy, who conquers the Middle East and restores the Jewish state in Palestine. Dreams from My Father is far less romantic and fantastic, but it, too, is a workshop for its author’s identity, as he struggles with the legacy of his idealistic white mother and his absent African father. In his book, Obama writes about traveling to Kenya to confront and reclaim his African heritage, just as Disraeli made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in 1831, to come face to face with the Jewish past.

When Disraeli entered English politics in earnest, he abandoned his youthful dreams of becoming a Jewish national leader. But he never stopped making his Jewishness central to his public and political identity. In the novels he wrote in the 1840s, as he was rising to the top of the Conservative Party, and in his speeches during the debates over whether to allow Jews into Parliament, Disraeli advanced very provocative ideas about Jewish power, Jewish racial identity, and the spiritual debt Christians owed to Judaism. These ideas were actively detrimental to his career—members of his own party thought them bizarre or blasphemous—yet Disraeli never tried to mute them, to become simply a mainstream Tory politician. Knowing that he would always stand out from his surroundings, he decided to stand out vividly and memorably—even his clothes were extravagant.

* * *

Still, it’s risky to press the comparison too far. For there is a deep and treacherous gulf between 19th-century British politics and 21st-century American politics. Disraeli’s Conservatives, who like him believed in tradition, social hierarchy, and class deference, have nothing in common with conservative Republicans, whose belief in small government and free markets hews closely to the platform of the nineteenth century’s Liberals. By another irony, liberal Democrats, like Obama, would find much to admire in Disraeli’s program of social welfare legislation. As prime minister, his environmental, labor, and education policies led one British labor leader to say that the Conservatives had done more for the working man in the five years of Disraeli’s government than the Liberals had in the previous fifty. Yet the policy that was perhaps most important of all to Disraeli—maintaining the glory of his country’s empire—finds no resonance at all in American politics, where even the most hawkish politicians discuss war as a dire necessity rather than a glorious adventure.

Even more important, when it comes to comparing Obama and Disraeli, is the very different status of Jews in England and blacks in America. When Disraeli was born, in 1804, there were about 15,000 Jews in the whole of Britain, out of a population of some twelve million. Jews may have loomed large in the English imagination, thanks to Jewish villains imagined by Chaucer, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, and to the role of the Jews, for good and evil, in English Christian thought. But in real life, there were too few Jews to make much impression on English politics or society, and there was certainly no such thing as a Jewish voting bloc for Disraeli to appeal to. (In fact, the few Jewish voters generally supported the Liberals.) There is no comparison to the absolutely central role of African Americans in the history of this country, from before its founding down to the present. Historically, politically, demographically, and culturally, African Americans are at the heart of American life, in a way that Jews never were in England. Above all, the legacy of slavery and racism is infinitely more poisonous in America than anti-Semitism ever was in England.

But there is another, more significant difference between the two men. As he gets closer to the presidency, Obama is becoming less and less like Disraeli—that is, less vivid, less imaginative, less original as a thinker and speaker. To put it in one word, Obama is deliberately making himself less of a writer.

Since his great speech on race and racism in March, delivered in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama has tried earnestly and with surprising success to downplay the significance of his race in the election. He prefers, when possible, to shrug off the whole question, as when he remarks that he doesn’t look like the presidents on our currency, or alludes to his “funny name.” The reason for this, of course, is that Obama recognizes better than anyone just how momentous his election would be as a milestone in American history. The issue of race is so terribly freighted that he does not need to add another ounce to it. In this sense, contrasting Obama’s reticence with Disraeli’s loquacity shows how much more serious American racism is than English anti-Semitism.

The less he dwells on race in his campaign, Obama has apparently calculated, the more likely he is to win. In other words, the less he challenges voters to make the election about racial progress, the more likely he is to strike a terrific blow for racial progress. Disraeli grew up in a Romantic age—Lord Byron was his idol—and what he wanted more than power was to impress himself on the world, to become known on his own terms—which were inevitably Jewish terms. Obama, a more pragmatic man, is willing to efface some of the self we can glimpse in his writing, if that is what it takes to rise to the top of the greasy pole. This calculus seems to be working; but ironically, it may end up making Obama, whose achievement promises to be greater than Disraeli’s, a less memorable historical figure.

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An Unexpected Leader

A politician who broke the mold (it’s not who you think)

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