November 11, 2004
When We Elected Lindbergh
Phillip Roth adds an allegorical spin to the Bush presidency in "The Plot Against America."
"The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, $26).
Reading "The Plot Against America," I thought of two other demented visions of the country, Mad Magazine, and Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," a speculative history like Roth's, about America after the Germans and Japanese have won the war, when collectors of Mickey Mouse memorabilia are looking for fakes. Mad may be a weird association, but this is nothing if not the weirdest time of our lives, and there is a great long Roth sentence in "The Plot Against America" that no writer born after the war is capable of writing with a straight face. It's on the third page, "The men worked 50, 60, even 70 or more hours a week; the women worked all the time...." In the 1950s, Mad Magazine was a vaccine against the lies of official America; it gave commercial-free clarity about the manipulations we suffered, to those of us driven mad by the times, but with the terrible side effects of bitterness, irony, skepticism and, finally, disgust with the country -- and then with our parents.
But Roth was born to a generation that believed in America, and although some of them were like the undertaker in the first scene of "The Godfather," who also believed in America, but went outside the courts for justice -- Roth's parents love their country, or what they remember of it.
In the novel, after the fascist Charles Lindbergh's election as president, they bring 7-year-old Philip and his 12-year-old brother, Sandy, to Washington, D.C., where they visit the monuments, out of love for the threatened promise. And for being a loudmouthed Jew, Herman Roth is thrown out of his hotel. It is impossible to imagine a Baby Boomer writing a book so critical of America and still write, without irony, about the sincerity of Herman Roth's love for America, his faith in the promise he could already see was broken.
This is the most cynical time in American history. In such a time, endless injustice leaves little room for private emotions like sadness and disappointment, only frustration and outrage. No novelists since the pre-war generation, except the artists of outrage, the specialists in horror and crime, and those who understand the private worlds of the powerless and helpless, the fantasy and romance writers, have found the sources of emotional energy necessary to fill shelves with as many books as Roth has. This is why "The Plot Against America," a book of social outrage in response to a country losing itself to fear, is the first of Roth's novels to brush against genre, and why he had to write about today in the frame of pure imagination, and also why a fiction had to be narrated by Philip Roth and not David Kepesh or Nathan Zuckerman, his literary alter egos.
Zuckerman's books include "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist" and "The Human Stain," books about the changes in American history and how we live with them as private traumas. Roth follows Kafka and Orwell in 1984, who never named the specific politics that they abstracted to create parallel universes of pure allegory, so a novel about the Bush administration, to make something real out of our current unreality, had to be set in some other universe. A fictional character narrating a fantasy would have lost the novel's special poignancy, the unexpected emotions of a coming of age story, so Philip Roth, real at least in name, narrates instead of Zuckerman.
The story isn't too complicated. Philip is a precocious third-grader in 1940. He lives in a small apartment in Weequahic, N.J., with his father, mother, brother and 21-year-old cousin, Alvin, his parents' ward. Everyone in his world is Jewish, and almost no one is religious. Everyone is patriotic: "Our homeland was America. Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed."
Lindbergh is elected on a platform to keep America out of the European War. The East Coast establishment of the Roosevelts mock Lindberg's appeal to the people who don't live in the big cities, and are surprised at the landslide. The red states win.
The book follows the expected structure of a speculative history, the entertainment is the flow of differences between what really happened and what the book describes, every change ringing congratulations for our recognizing it. That Walter Winchell is the book's political hero, the voice of opposition, is delicious only to readers who remember the name. I suppose that younger readers will recognize what remains of him in Howard Stern, already harassed away from commercial radio, as though his vulgarity is unique, as though the reasons aren't political.
Life is normal, then it changes a little, and then everything changes: "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or I hadn't been the offspring of Jews."
Herman Roth loses his job to anti-Semitism, gets a night job through Jewish gangster connections and protects his family. The government establishes the Office of American Absorption, and Sandy is shipped to live for a few months with a family of tobacco farmers in Kentucky as part of the Just Folks program, spreading Jews harmlessly around the country. Cousin Alvin runs to Canada to join the army in its fight against the Germans and comes back with a missing leg. Some Jews emigrate.
Combo showing different cover versions
of writer Philip Roth's latest novel
"The Plot Against America" on display
at the Frankfurt Book Fair Oct. 8, 2004.
At Bottom is the version for the
German and Hungarian markets in which
the swastika on the cover has
been replaced by a cross.
Photo by John Macdougall/AFP
Two years into office, Lindbergh disappears on a solo flight, and with his vice president, Burton K. Wheeler, come the pogroms, murders and mass arrests. And then history reasserts itself, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and the world we live in now is re-established, although broken.
So all of this would be unexceptional, amusing but remote, if Roth had not invented one of the greatest characters in literature, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, and it's through him that Roth establishes the book as his response to the present disaster. Bengelsdorf, the town's Conservative rabbi, is Lindbergh's apologist. He speaks at the Republican convention to calm the fears of the Jews "koshering Lindbergh for the goyim," cousin Alvin screams at the radio. "Don't you see, Uncle Herman, what they got the great Bengelsdorf to do. He just guaranteed Roosevelt's defeat!"
Bengelsdorf marries Philip's Aunt Evelyn, and at a state dinner in the White House, she dances with Hitler's foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop. This is either an insane digression into bizarre Jewish self-hatred, or the key to the book. Which reminds me of a story.
At a Wexner Heritage retreat in Utah some years ago, Elliott Abrams was speaking about his work to forge a bridge between the Jewish and evangelical communities. Some of us who were there didn't like being used as Abrams' moral laundry. Abrams had been assistant secretary of state for human rights in the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan, and later was assistant secretary for international affairs. A group of us wanted to question him, or at least remind the assembly about his denial of the El Mozote massacre in 1982, when Salvadoran death squads murdered 900 people. At the time, he said that reports of the hundreds of deaths "were not credible." We wanted to remind the Wexner Heritage fellows that Abrams had been indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony about illegal funding of a group that had been banned by Congress. The director of the program, a rabbi, refused to let us talk, and when asked why the best person that he could come up with to represent the Jewish alliance with right-wing Christians was a criminal who had to be pardoned by the first President Bush in 1992, the rabbi said that he didn't know about Abrams' history. So the rabbi had either slept through the Iran-Contra hearings, or he was lying. Bengelsdorf is not an exaggeration.
He stands for all those who know that George W. Bush is surrounded by a crowd who know that scientific creationism is superstition, but support him anyway. After all, their children get a private education based on science, not the public schools' program of de-enlightenment. But they have sold their piety and conscience because he cut their taxes, or because they think he's good for Israel -- as though lowered taxes or chimerical support for Israel are worth the catastrophe in Iraq, the catastrophe in our drinking water, the catastrophe in public education or the catastrophe in the national debt. For this last catastrophe, his supporters are happily sacrificing their children and grandchildren by giving them the bill, and leaving them a future for this country that could look like Argentina without much more effort.
The only satisfaction that any Jew who voted for Sen. John Kerry can feel about any
"Life is normal, then it changes a little, and then everything changes."
Jew who voted for Bush is that you'll wake up one day, like Bengelsdorf and the rebbetzin, and discover the truth, because the truth will come. Christian fascists are never friends of the Jews.
They will be reminded then of the Rev. Martin Niemoller's poem:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Put the Jews last, substitute liberals for communists, and start it with, "First they came for the gays...."
This isn't the usual note on which I'd end the review of a great novel by as great a novelist as any, but these are weird times.