A roman a clef sounds like a very fancy, French kind of novel; if you have the key that unlocks the code, you can know the real identities of the people masquerading behind those unfamiliar names.
A political satire — well, you have some vague high-school memories of Jonathan what’s-his-name? Swift! eating babies.
In reality, a roman a clef is just a book about real but semi-disguised characters, and a satire makes fun of real or at least sort-of-real people. Often romans a clef and satires combine, because out of all the people in this wide world who open themselves up wide open for mockery, politicians stand out.
“Big Guns” by Steven J. Israel is one such book; in fact, some of its dialogue came not from Mr. Israel’s imagination but from his memory. During his 16 years in Congress he became a party leader; from 2011 to 2015 he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now he is the director of the nonpartisan Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University and he often provides political analysis on MSNBC. He listens — and he hears a lot.
Mr. Israel, who lives in Huntington, in Long Island’s Suffolk County, will speak at the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on January 30 (see box). He was the Democrat who represented New York’s second and then redrawn third congressional districts from 2001 to 2017 — that’s much of Long Island’s north shore, from eastern Queens to western Suffolk. During that time, he paid attention to what he saw and heard. And then, in 2016, “I figured out that in this polarized environment I would never write a law that could pass, so I might as well write books that would make the same point.”
Because gun safety always was a major issue for him, and because “so many of my constituents, and so many American in general, do not understand why Congress does not pass sensible gun safety laws, I wrote ‘Big Guns’ to explain why.”
His insights come “not only from the inside, but from the front row,” he said. “I would hear the most absurd statements from many of my colleagues, and some of it became actual dialogue in both of my books.” (“Big Guns” came out in 2018; his first novel, “The Global War on Morris,” was published in 2014.)
He won’t say who said what, as quoted in his books, in a mere interview; if you want to hear exactly which horse it was whose mouth provided those words, you have to go hear him speak. He’ll reveal some of his sources there, he teased.
Meanwhile, there is serious thought underneath what he calls his book’s “frothy surface.” “One of the themes in ‘Big Guns’ is that despite the unrest that we see, Congress can be a place of cooperation, where there are personal relationships. In the book, there is a relationship between the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader. They’re from different parties, and they’re sitting on the balcony in the House, trying to figure out what to do.
“There were times when I would sit there with my Republican colleagues, talking about strategy and politics. I try to convey not just the farce of politics, but how it can work in a decent way.”
But that was then.
“It still may be true, but it is getting more and more difficult.” Why? “Because of gerrymandering,” at least in the House. (The Senate cannot be gerrymandered; each state’s two senators represent the whole state.) “Most challengers are far left or far right, so members of the House have to protect themselves. In this environment, most incumbents do not fear a general election. They fear that they will lose to someone from their own party who is more extreme than they are.
“The Senate was always supposed to be the place where there can be compromise, but when you throw in the intensely tribalized media— Rachel Maddow versus Sean Hannity — and social media platforms, that also is creating divisions that make legislating and compromising more difficult.”
This is not symmetrical, Mr. Israel said. “The right has gotten a very nice head start on the left. I appear on MSNBC one to three times a week, and when I go on I know that people want to understand what is going on, and that I have an obligation to analyze it — but that’s becoming harder and harder, because particularly under President Trump, people are locked into their positions.”
The looming presidential elections now just 10 months away certainly are no exception. “Eighty percent of the electorate have already made up their minds,” Mr. Israel said. “That leaves only 20 percent that can be persuaded.
“Eighty percent is the highest percentage of locked-in voters of any recent presidential election, but there still are 20 percent of the population who perhaps are not as engaged, not watching cable news, not as ideological on either the left or the right. There are quite a few people who voted for Obama twice and then for Trump. These definitely are swing voters — and the election rests with them.”
What does he think will happen? Mr. Israel pauses; after all, it’s not as if he possibly can know. “It will be exciting and unpredictable — and I will go into it at some depth at the talk,” he said.
The Jewish community continues to be divided, as it has been throughout the Trump presidency, he said; “It continues to lean toward the Democratic candidate, but unmistakably there are significant numbers, particularly in the Orthodox and pro-Israel communities, who feel that President Trump deserves re-election based on the issue of Israel. So I think that it is fairly certain that a significant majority of American Jews will vote for a Democrat — but we have to see which Democrat. It depends. It really depends.”
He’s just come home from an AIPAC conference in Miami, where he’d given a speech, talked, and listened. “Jewish Republicans were saying that ‘If it’s someone like Biden, I will vote for him.’ Many Jewish Republicans said, ‘I would have a hard time voting for Donald Trump, but if the Democrats don’t go with someone like Joe Biden, I will have to reconsider.’
“I do think that the American Jewish voter is going to be pivotal in the election, and particularly in the primary,” he added.
“This is the most contentious and divisive time in this country since the ’60s,” he continued. “That’s not the 1960s. It’s the 1860s.” That’s the decade that included the cataclysmically bloody Civil War. And that perspective — that we’ve been through awful, hateful, nightmarishly divisive times before, and we’ve not only lived through them but emerged able to laugh — “is one of the reasons I wanted to do the book,” Mr. Israel said. “I want to shed some light on politics, and I wanted to do it not by forcing people to gnash their teeth and curl their fists. I want them to be able to laugh at the foibles.
“I want to provide some comic relief in what is a pretty serious political environment.”
He’s working on a third novel; this one is “a historic spy thriller involving Albert Einstein.”
One thread that’s obvious throughout his books is his deep Jewishness; they all have Jewish characters and a specific Jewish worldview, hard to define but even harder to miss.
Yes, that’s right, Mr. Israel confirms. “Jewishness is in my DNA. It’s throughout my writing; it reflects my Jewish values and also my exposure to Jewish humor. I think that there is an inherently Jewish humorous way of looking at the world, and I try to reflect that in my satire.”
Mr. Israel sums up. “I had three goals as a child,” he said. “One was one day to serve in the United States Congress. One was to one day publish a novel. And the third was to play outfield for the Mets.
“Given my inherently inferior baseball skills, I was able to focus on goals one and two.”
He’ll talk about them at the JCC U. “If you are fatigued by politics,” he said. “If you are depressed by politics, this is a rare opportunity to discuss politics with a smile.”
Who: Former congressman and now author Steven Israel (D-NY)
What: Will talk about his career in politics, his new book, “Big Guns,” and the issue of gun safety
When: On Thursday, January 30, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 412 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly
Why: For the opening of the JCC U’s spring semester
What else: MSNBC’s legal analyst Lisa Green will talk about legal issues in the news for the JCC U’s second session, after a break for lunch
How much: $36 for JCC members, $44 for non-members
For more information: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to www.jccotp.org and follow the links through adult learning to the JCC U.