Older Israelis are familiar with the name Daniel Webster by virtue of Stephen Vince Benet’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which was part of their high school English curriculum. The plot revolves around a trial in which Webster, renowned attorney and gifted orator, represents a frustrated farmer who sold his soul to the devil. Although the agreement between the farmer and the devil is legally ironclad, Webster’s eloquent speech and appeal to American patriotism and inbred morality – including the censure of slavery – convinces the jury to release the farmer from his commitment to serve as the devil’s slave.
In reality, Webster’s attitude to slavery was more complex. The veteran senator from Massachusetts, who concurrently served three times as secretary of state, placed the unity and well-being of the United States above all other considerations. Contrary to the wishes and demands of his slavery-abhorring Northeastern constituency, Webster voted for the Compromise of 1850, which allowed newly acquired U.S. territories to decide for themselves on slavery and also obligated U.S. officials to return runaway slaves to their “rightful owners.”
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Many historians credit the 1850 Compromise with delaying the outbreak of the Civil War for a few years, which nonetheless erupted a decade later. but Webster paid a steep personal price: He was thrashed in his efforts to secure a presidential nomination in 1852, his glorious political career came to an abrupt end and he died forlorn within a few months at his Marshfield Estate in Massachusetts. In U.S. history, he is cherished as an unvarnished hero.
By virtue of his courageous 1850 vote, Webster was included in the best-selling book “Profiles in Courage”, written by then-Senator Kennedy, also from Massachusetts, during his long hospitalization in the mid-1950s for unbearable spinal pain. Together with seven other senators, Webster is hailed in the book as a paragon of legislators who put their principles above their politics and careers. Most elected representatives fail to live up to Webster’s bravery, Kennedy admits, though his view of their behavior is lenient, to say the least.
In the preface to the book – most of which was authored by one his assistants, it later emerged – Kennedy elaborated on the extenuating circumstances that justified his colleagues’ lack of courage. He rejected Walter Lippmann’s claim that brave politicians are “miracles of nature” while the overwhelming majority are “insecure and intimidated men.” Politicians are made of sterner stuff, Kennedy reasoned, but are nonetheless mere mortals, made of flesh and blood.
Kennedy listed the valid reasons that compel most politicians to perpetually toe the line: Their understandable wish to be liked; their voters’ inability to accept that compromise, rather than principle, is the instrument of choice for a functioning legislature and government; their ongoing loyalty to the party that made them; and their eternal wish to be reelected and to remain a member of one of the most exclusive clubs on earth.
Unlike medicine, the law and business, Kennedy wrote, politics in the only profession whose practitioners are expected to sacrifice their future and career for the sake of a single moment of standing on principle.
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In what sounds today like prescience or prophecy, Kennedy diagnosed the growing difficulty for politicians to muster courage in an age when mass communications are wielding increasing influence and political strategists determine their content. These have made the pressures exerted on politicians who stray from their voters’ demands virtually intolerable. The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Kennedy noted, increases political polarization and cements the politicians’ fealty to their party line.
Nonetheless, there are critical moments in a nation’s history that demand of every politician to leave his comfort zone, vote his conscience and confront his own constituents, Kennedy wrote. After all, he reasons – a tad optimistically perhaps – representatives aren’t elected to office with an expectation that they adhere to any and all demands made by their voters or party, especially when these are deemed harmful to the national interest. Voters assume, Kennedy asserted, that in moments of crisis, their politicians would find the courage and good judgment to ignore them and their desires.
The United States and Israel are concurrently facing the kind of critical moment Kennedy was referring to. Both are led by recalcitrant leaders whose conduct poses an existential threat to the future of democracy, the rule of law, good governance and civic morals. And in both countries, the ruling parties, Likud and the GOP, have failed to produce even one solitary hero who ignores the moment and rises to the hour. They deserve their own dedicated book: “Profiles in Cowardice” or “Profiles in Spinelessness”.
If I am allowed to cite myself, the term “Profiles in Cowardice” was part of the headline to an article I wrote exactly two years ago in the wake of President Reuven Rivlin’s courageous speech, which was also prescient, at the opening of the Knesset’s 2017 winter session. This was before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the final stage of his self-centered, scorched-earth war against democracy and the rule of law. Rivlin noted his own staunch opposition to what is commonly described as former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak’s activist “Judicial Revolution,” but now he railed against the right-wing’s counterrevolution, which aims to neuter the gatekeepers of democracy and to decimate the concept of Israeli “statehood,” he said.
Rivlin felt compelled to speak out against the constant all-out assault by Netanyahu and his allies on the courts, the legal system, the civil service and even the hitherto sacrosanct Israeli army, for one reason alone: No one else dared protest. Not even one Likud official found the courage to speak out against Netanyahu’s wish to undercut the democratic system of checks and balances and to replace it with unhindered majority rule. No one in Israel’s ruling party took exception to that fact that Netanyahu had harnessed his august position, his political party and his ruling coalition to his effort to escape the long arm of the law. This effort has escalated ten times over after the attorney general announced his impending criminal indictments.
Rivlin was duly lambasted by the very same right-wingers he tried to shame. “The president today harmed the concept of Israeli statehood like no previous president dared,” noted Likud firebrand Miri Regev at the time. But in the end, he did not risk his own position or career. His recent so-called “president’s framework” – which would have kept Netanyahu on as prime minister, despite his legal travails, and may have actually derailed Benny Gantz’s efforts to form his own national unity government – has raised suspicions that Rivlin may have lost his spunk. In the next few days, Rivlin may very well get an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
But in Israel’s ruling party, Likud, which often boasts of its past grandeur and cherished liberal principles, one is hard put to find even one just and principled man (or woman). Gideon Sa'ar, who has recently broken silence to criticize Netanyahu, kept his silence until the moment it served his political ambitions. Many if not most Likudniks are well aware that Netanyahu is causing irreparable harm to Israeli democracy and the rule of law and may be risking civil unrest, but they continue to bow their heads in unison and to allow the prime minister to torment his country to his heart’s content. They are all waiting for an all-clear signal that would allow them to raise their voice without risking retribution.
The heebie-jeebies that have paralyzed the Republican Party in the face of Donald Trump’s reckless presidency are even more disgraceful, for two main reasons: Unlike their counterparts in Likud, whose careers are totally dependent on a party which is completely dominated by Netanyahu, American lawmakers have a semi-independent power base, at least in theory, by virtue of their direct election. And Netanyahu, despite his unconscionable transgressions, is still a model of restraint compared to the wanton mayhem perpetrated by Trump, whose words are far more vulgar and divisive, whose policies are determined by his gut instincts and heart’s desires, whose collision with democracy and the rule of law is far more violent and dangerous and whose overall potential for devastation makes Netanyahu look tame in comparison.
Nonetheless, the Republican contingents in the Senate and the House of Representatives follow Trump blindly, bow to his every whim and facilitate his malicious destructiveness down to their very last member, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney, who never goes all the way. Those who found the courage to condemn Trump, such as former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, are compelled to leave politics or to eject themselves in resignation and disgust.
The rest prefer to kowtow shamelessly to Trump, as they showed in their collective refusal to even acknowledge his malfeasance during the recent impeachment hearings. Their sycophancy is so extreme it now includes blanket whitewashing of Russian President Vladimir Putin and complete disregard for his ongoing efforts to destabilize the U.S. and isolate it on the world stage.
Kennedy might have pointed out that the “mass communications” he warned against six decades ago have since proliferated exponentially, first through television and now via the internet and social media. The rage directed at politicians who stray from their voters’ or their party’s demands is far more swift, powerful and overwhelming than their predecessors faced in Kennedy’s era.
But it may very well be the case that the virus that is debilitating politicians on both sides of the ocean has less to do with the modern era and is more in line with the political reality that preceded Kennedy’s times: The indoctrination and exploitation of the masses as a key to gaining and staying in power, which was the main objective of the angry right-wing rally convened by Netanyahu at the Tel Aviv Museum this week.
This was the modus operandi of most of the fascist and totalitarian upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s: A charismatic leader who enthralls the often lower class and relatively ignorant masses and incites them to attack the foundations of democracy – separation of powers, rule of law and free speech – in order to take it over from within. The current euphemism for such masses is the party “base,” the hard nucleus of driven supporters, which power-hungry leaders use to subdue any thought of insurrection and to mete out a sentence of political death to stray representatives who think independently. The “base” has been turned into a modern-day version of the biblical pagan god Moloch, commanding the slavish devotion of politicians who fear being sacrificed on its altar.
In the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham negotiates with his God in an effort to save the sinning cities, or at least their undeserving righteous, from divine destruction. Abraham secures a pledge from the Almighty to spare the transgressing population if only 50 just men can be found among them, and then he bargains God down to just ten. But Abraham knows that even ten just men don’t exist in Sodom and Gomorrah, so he is left with no choice but to abandon them to their fate. In the end, there was only one righteous man in Sodom, Lot, who God extracts from the inferno.
At this point in time, in our contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah, even one just man is impossible to find. As Bonnie Tyler wondered in her 1984 hit song from the soundtrack of Footloose: “Where have all the good men gone? And where are all the gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?”
The answer, sadly, is a big fat no. Like the title to Tyler’s tune, we are all holding out for a hero, who, as things stand now, may never come.