Life has come full circle for W. Michael Blumenthal, former U.S. Treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
Born into affluent circumstances in Germany in 1926, Blumenthal fled the country with his family at age 13, abandoning all their possessions to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews. Today, he rubs shoulders with Germany’s highest-ranking politicians as president and chief executive of the Jewish Museum Berlin, the largest such museum in Europe.
Blumenthal spent his teenage years struggling to survive inside a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, disparaged and ignored by authorities. Now, he looks back on a career as a senior U.S. official and business leader, during which he negotiated with some of China’s most influential figures.
“I ask myself, ‘How can this happen?’ ” Blumenthal told a small, captive audience at the Ojai Library in Ventura County last week, outlining how the events of the past century impacted his life. “Not how can it happen to me … but how can it happen in the world in general that these things occurred? How is history made?”
The 87-year-old ruminated on this topic and dozens of others — from presidential leadership qualities to the country’s new health care law — during a one-off talk on Nov. 19 to promote his new book, “From Exile to Washington.” Almost 50 attendees packed the cozy library, a community hub in this small town of about 7,500 people.
On the surface, Ojai seemed a surprising choice of locale for such a prominent visitor. Blumenthal — who splits his time among Princeton, N.J.; New York; and Berlin — planned just one other talk during his California visit, at a private event in Pacific Palisades. However, Blumenthal’s daughter, Jill Borgeson, lives in Ojai, and she encouraged her father to share his book and life story with residents here.
“I have grown up my whole life hearing [his stories],” she said. “I felt no matter what he might talk about, I knew he’d have something interesting to say.”
Blumenthal’s life and his book constitute a rare insider’s journey through major events of the 20th century. Born in Oranienburg, Germany, he witnessed the brutality of the Nazi regime as a child and experienced firsthand the desperate plight of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Arriving in postwar America at age 21 with just $60 in his pocket, he lived the ultimate immigrant success story, working his way through college and eventually earning a doctorate in economics from Princeton University.
In the second half of the 20th century, Blumenthal worked for three presidents, serving as John F. Kennedy’s deputy assistant of state for economic affairs and as a United States trade ambassador for Lyndon Johnson prior to his cabinet post under Carter. Blumenthal also headed two major U.S. corporations — the manufacturing and engineering firm Bendix, and business equipment and information technology company Burroughs (now Unisys).
Blumenthal said the 20th century embodied both the best and the worst of humankind, from dramatic improvements in living standards and advances in technology to the horrors of two world wars and subsequent conflicts.
“Man’s inhumanity to man is demonstrated again and again in the 20th century,” he noted.
Working for three presidents, Blumenthal said he saw up close how the character traits of individual leaders impact government decision-making and, ultimately, the course of history. To be successful, leaders need to have certain traits Blumenthal believes are inborn, such as courage and toughness, as well as the ability to choose good advisers and delegate power, he said. President Carter fell short on the latter, the former treasury secretary opined.
However, Blumenthal said his most keen insights into the nature of leadership came earlier, during his time in Shanghai. There he observed how people, stripped of their social position and possessions, responded differently to harrowing circumstances. Some found ways to improve their lives and organize others to tackle the difficulties of living in the ghetto, while other people flailed under the stress, he said. It illustrated to him that true leaders are not necessarily people with important titles and wealth.
“Time and again, when I rubbed shoulders with big, important people in [the United States] … and I saw pride and position, pride in who they were, what goes through my mind is, ‘I’d like to see you in Shanghai,’ ” Blumenthal said.
Outside circumstances can also play a role, Blumenthal acknowledged. He noted how access to affordable education in the 1940s and ’50s allowed him to pay his own way through university by working odd jobs. The former treasury secretary lamented the spiraling cost of university tuitions today and said it hampers the ability of young people to better themselves, with negative implications for society.
As for modern-day politics, Blumenthal said Washington has entered a dangerous era of dysfunction, unlike anything he’s seen in the past. He attributed the problems to the emergence of what he says is a third party — the Tea Party — and its unwillingness to negotiate. Blumenthal criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the health care rollout and the National Security Agency spying scandal but said he believes the president will ultimately go down in history as a successful leader for pulling the country through the economic crisis and prioritizing health care reform.
Blumenthal said his current role at the Jewish Museum Berlin — which he’s led since 1997 — has been a rich experience, particularly as he never expected to return to the country after fleeing as a boy. He’s learned a great deal about German-Jewish history and culture, he said, and he’s been heartened by a resurgence in Germany’s Jewish population. Today, some 250,000 Jews live in Germany, up from 25,000 in the 1950s, he said.
“That’s closing the circle for me,” Blumenthal concluded.