Hating the President: A New American Tradition?

Sermon given January 16, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

A decade ago, when I was still a relatively new Rabbi in town, I was invited to address a local civic organization. Before I was introduced to speak, a member of the club came to the microphone. To my shock and dismay, he proceeded to tell a string of vile, hateful, and sexually demeaning jokes about the President of the United States and his wife. I sat in stone-faced silence, pointedly not laughing. Observing the club members, though, I saw that they rather enjoyed this particular brand of humor, which apparently validated the feelings of most of the folks in the room.

Upon reflection, I was even more disturbed by the jokes that had been told. The club meeting had opened with the pledge of allegiance and the singing of the national anthem. Apparently, the members saw no contradiction between their professed patriotism and their hatred of the President.

Today, we have a different President of a different party. Finding myself in groups of people who share my own particular political leanings, I occasionally hear some rather unsavory and demeaning comments about our current President. Rather than remaining silent, though, I will tell my friends that, as much as I may share their politics, and am happy to rail against policies that I abhor, expressing hatred of the President himself seems disrespectful, even downright unpatriotic.

To be sure, the situation is different from what it was ten years ago. Thankfully, one does not hear nasty jokes about the sexuality of the current First Lady. Nevertheless, hating the President seems to have become a new American tradition. Indeed, pundits tell us that a visceral negative reaction to President Bush himself is a significant motivating factor in the Democratic Primary campaign.

Perhaps there are other differences. Many conservatives felt justified in their hatred of President Clinton. Because of his condemnable personal behavior, they viewed that President as a disgrace to the United States. Indeed, for them, supporting President Clinton was disloyal to our country. Today, with our nation’s war on terrorism, at home and abroad, many of these same conservatives view vilification of President Bush as an attack on America itself.

Many liberals feel similarly justified in their disdain for President Bush. They deny the very legitimacy of his presidency, beginning as it did with a flawed and disputed election. They argue that he hoodwinked the American people, running as a centrist and governing from the far right. And they felt, all along, that conservatives who constantly attacked President Clinton were simply using whatever ammunition they could find to push their right-wing agenda.

Despite these differences, the similarities are much more striking. During the Clinton presidency, and now with President Bush, attacks from the opposition are very often personal. Conservatives continue to nurse their hatred of President Clinton, and liberals are hot with animosity toward President Bush. While opinions about policy may underlie these reactions, the rhetoric pervading our society is all too often personal, hateful, and downright rude. And, lest you think I’m suggesting that “the conservatives started it,” during the Clinton administration, let none be so naive to think that one party is guilty and the other innocent in this regard. As we teach our children: “two wrongs do not make a right!”

Our Jewish tradition offers deeper guidance about how we should react to a leader whom we do not support, and even stronger guidelines about how we should not respond.

The Torah tells the story of Korah, who leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korah makes no specific charge, and does not critique any particular action or policy of these divinely-appointed leaders. The rebels say: “‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?’” The rebels’ populist language is attractive. Indeed, we are all an am kadosh, a holy people. And yet, the rebels don’t really think that the people should be leaderless. Instead, Korah and his group want to be in charge. The Rabbis make clear that Korah’s revolt is no more than a power play. His group wants to usurp the power that God has entrusted to Moses and Aaron, and which Moses and Aaron have discharged faithfully. Ultimately, God intervenes. The Earth opens up to swallow Korah and his band, together with their families. The Rabbis tell us that the lesson is that we must not speak ill words of a leader personally, for the purpose of taking his position. Objections to leadership must be based on issues and actions.

Perhaps another biblical story comes even closer to our current American situation. Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, do not like Moses’ wife. They speak unkind words about her, and they criticize Moses for his choice of a wife. Furthermore, like Korah and his band, Aaron and Miriam make clear that they want power. They say: “‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?’” As a punishment, Miriam is stricken with leprosy, and Aaron is forced to see his sister suffer for their shared sin. We learn that ad hominem attacks are wrong. We are taught, once again, that seeking power for its own sake is not appropriate.

Our biblical prophets offer a better example of how to criticize a leader. Elijah rails against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, specifically because they have led the people of Israel astray to the worship of idols. Jeremiah predicts the coming destruction of the Temple, accusing the King and Priests of having led the people to disaster through their evil and idolatrous ways. In the famous passage we read on Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah indicts the entire leadership of ancient Israel, charging them with oppressing their workers and ignoring the needs of the poor in their midst. None of these prophets is motivated by the pursuit of power, but only by the search for justice.

Perhaps our democratic system in America today does not permit presidential challengers to be like prophets. Indeed, our tradition teaches us to understand that our leaders will, of necessity, possess a strong yetzer hara, evil inclination, because successful leadership requires a strong drive for personal success. David, for example, was the greatest King in the history of Israel, but he was also an adulterer. History teaches us that the American people do not prefer a President who is excessively humble. Put more colloquially, we don’t tend to elect wimps. We are choosing a President, not a prophet. The President, unlike the prophets, and more like King David, must be Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces. The President serves at the call of the people, and is not, like Moses and the prophets, appointed by God.

Moreover, whatever our political philosophy, we should hope that presidential candidates challenge the current President with vigor. Even if we support the current President, now or a decade ago, we know that our government is strengthened by energetic debate. We absolutely need a good airing of the issues that face our nation, at least every four years.

We find ourselves, this very week, at a critical moment in the presidential primary season. For those of us struggling with the choice of the right candidate to challenge President Bush in November, may our selection be based on the search for righteousness and justice, for the peace and security of America. For those who plan to vote to re-elect President Bush, may they be motivated by love of country and a firm belief that the President’s policies are the best for our nation.

Sadly, I fear, the Democratic primary process has degenerated into a search for the candidate who can best express outrage at President Bush. The question seems to be, “Who hates President Bush the most.” If the Democratic candidate is elected in the fall, a similar question will surely be asked in the Republican primaries four years from now. Hating the President of the opposite party has become the sad heritage of both Republicans and Democrats alike.

Let us discuss the righteousness of the war on Iraq. Let us the security of our own nation in the face of terrorism. Let us debate economic justice, with issues ranging from tax cuts to medicare reform. Let us forthrightly express our positions on the separation of church and state, including such heated issues as reproductive freedom and equal rights for homosexuals. Let us concern ourselves with the environment. Let us struggle with the best policies for our nation’s economic future. Let us argue about the Patriot Act. Let it all be fair game.

But let not our political war of words degenerate even further into a public political hate-fest. President Bush is not an evil man, any more or less than President Clinton was before him. If either were a Haman or a Hitler, Judaism would permit us to denigrate him with abandon. We are cautioned to remember those who have persecuted us, to wipe out their names. And yet, few are truly wicked. Our President is not an evil man, nor was the last one, no matter how deeply one may disagree with one of them or the other.

In the months ahead, may our nation choose a President who will best bring peace and security to our nation and the world. May we select a President who will protect the very weakest among us, the young and the old, the sick and infirm, the hungry and the homeless. May each of us vote for the candidate whom we believe will best protect the rights of every American.

Traditions die most easily when they are relatively new. Let the new tradition of hating the President die on the vine. Let us respect the office of President, and the person who leads our nation, even when we disagree. May we ever reflect the example of the prophets, seeking not power, but righteousness, for our nation and all the world.