Forgive me for leaking the spoiler, but neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is Jewish. But Monday night, during the first of their three presidential debates, they embodied two of our communal archetypes: the businessman and the lawyer. Or, we might say in a snarkier vein, the gonif and the shyster.
Considering my personal history, I should have sided with the money-man. My late father was the sort of self-made capitalist hero whom Republicans love to extol. Starting with his own machinist’s talents and $1,500 that his older brother won playing cards on a troop ship coming home from World War II, he built an international biotech company.
As for lawyers, well, my ex-wife hails from a whole tribe of them. In fact, my former sister-in-law and brother-in-law went to Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Despite my father’s superficial pedigree, he was a left-winger from diaper days, the child of anarchists. So it comes congenitally for me to vote as a liberal Democrat. And watching Hillary Clinton botch and blunder and bungle her lead against a gleefully ignorant and flagrantly bigoted foe, I couldn’t help but attribute her failure to the self-selecting personality of a lawyer.
Allow me to digress for a moment to make that point. After my father died in 2010, I retained an attorney to deal with aspects of his estate. As I dealt with that lawyer over the succeeding years, it became apparent to me that he was not merely meticulous. In his obsession with trying to protect me against purely hypothetical scenarios, he was, to my unprofessional eye, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. But in the field of law, OCD almost qualifies as a professional credential.
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Similarly, with Hillary Clinton, her consistent liability as a politician has been her lawyerly tendency to walk right up to the line of legality or veracity. That approach might get you on law review and attract plenty of clients, but it alienates the rest of us civilians.
There are several other parts of the lawyer’s skill set, however, and Hillary Clinton persuasively displayed them last night: a commitment to research, the deployment of facts, calm and determination under pressure.
Throughout the debate, Clinton served as the fact-checker-in-chief, nailing Trump on his promotion of the birther lie about President Obama, his endorsement of the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk police policy, and a number of other subjects.
Donald Trump, in contrast, came off as the sort of businessman who might have been written by Rich Cohen or David Mamet. He is campaigning as the hondler and the shtarker – the negotiator, the tough guy. And, doing so, he ran himself off the road last night, showing the nation a sputtering, incoherent egomaniac.
Every international issue, in Trump’s telling, is nothing but a deal. He called the Iran nuclear agreement “one of the worst deals made by any country in history.” He complained of the United States’ NATO and Pacific allies, “They don’t pay a fair share.” He defended his companies’ multiple bankruptcies by saying, “I take advantage of the laws of the nation.”
That kind of swaggering braggadocio plays well on screen or stage or page; I think Alec Baldwin was put on earth to play Trump in a biopic. What 100 million Americans got to see last night, however, was the clueless arrogance of a mogul who inherited his father’s fortune and has been surrounded by sycophants his entire career. In other words: a very good argument against the whole concept of a family business.
Perhaps if Trump ran publicly held companies, ones that are responsible to stockholders and relatively independent boards of directors, he would not have evolved into the enormously self-satisfied specimen he is. But for the most part, Trump holds all the power in his business empire – if indeed it is an empire, not a Potemkin village – and the children and supplicants around him have cosseted him in a way that anticipated last night’s meltdown.
In the journalistic search for zingers going on as I write these words, I wonder if anyone will seize upon the line I think of as the most telling of the debate. My father always told me that people in business are no more successful than people in any other vocation. Some are lucky. Some are stupid. Some are immoral or amoral.
And, to extrapolate, it is a sophistry of Republican politics in America that someone who is in business will succeed in everything else. So quoth Hillary Clinton, the shyster, “Sometimes there’s not a direct transfer of skills from business to government.”
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.” Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman
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