As I continued to read more about one of my political heroes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I kept running across a name that stuck with me for several reasons.
Sometimes you can tell a lot about a person just by name alone, or at least give vent to flights of imagination. Long’s moniker was very WASPy and hinted at something slightly sinister and quite southern, although the two don’t necessarily go together.
I imagined him to be distinguished looking and conservatively attired, possibly with a high, starched collar. A member of the gentry that ruled America even after the melting pot deposited Jews, Irish, Italian, and Slavs on our shores in numbers large enough to alarm the very proper people they were expected to serve. (Of course, that was in addition to the blacks already here and considered a permanent underclass.)
And I wasn’t much off the mark. There, preening from his Wikipedia mug shot, was Breckinridge Long, high collar, aquiline nose, and a full head of brilliantined hair, exuding the innate smugness that only a Princeton grad (1904) and Washington U Law student, born to wealth and plugged into the old-boy network, could exude in those days. Someone who would litigate for big corporations, make money in his native Missouri, do government service in Washington, and then retire to a life of fox hunting, thoroughbred racing, and antiques collecting, which indeed he did in his adopted Maryland.
But that would give short shrift to his true legacy and gloss over the detriment and bigotry of his life. And those impulses, simply stated in their most xenophobic, racist, and nativist terms, converged to deprive European Jews of the visas and entry documents they needed at the time they needed it most, during Hitler’s rise to power and persisting through the most horrific years of the Holocaust.
Long and FDR became acquainted during World War I, when Long was assistant secretary of the navy and the latter worked in the Wilson administration. After the armistice, Long returned to Missouri and twice ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. But he contributed handsomely to FDR’s presidential campaign in 1932 and was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Italy. There, he showed his hand by opposing an embargo on oil shipments to Mussolini’s fascists. In 1940 he was appointed assistant secretary of state in a department known for its overt anti-Semitism. Early in his tenure, Long wrote in an interdepartmental memo: “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this simply by advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.”
Long pressed ahead with this tormenting obstructionism during the war, skeptical of claims about the extermination camps made by the World Jewish Congress and other organizations. He felt victimized by the Jewish press, and burrowed deeper into his belief that the Anglo-Saxon-Nordic stock of the nation was being diluted by the arrival of “others.” Even Teddy Roosevelt had sided with earlier proponents of specious eugenics theories and the need to limit immigration. A crescendo of sorts was reached in the 1920s when Congress imposed strict quotas and Asian exclusion acts. Long became the inheritor of this hysteria, and while estimates of the malign effects of his intransigent policies may be imprecise, unfilled refugee slots from Nazi and fascist countries likely involved many thousands of savable, redeemable Jewish lives.
As professors Richard Breitman and Allen J. Lichtman noted in their comprehensive “FDR and the Jews,” in 1944 the alarms and pleadings sounded by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the only Jew in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, convinced the president belatedly to create the War Refugee Board as a comprehensive approach to dealing with the crisis.
When a more complete picture of his obstructionism emerged, Long was demoted at the State Department and soon he resigned, but the damage had been done.
All of this brings me to the present and dreadful state of affairs with immigrants and asylum-seekers. Where Breckinridge Long acted as a chokepoint more than 70 years ago, Stephen Miller now fulfills that sullen and soulless function. He does it from an office in the White House as a presidential adviser and apparently is doing it well enough to have survived all the upheavals in the West Wing over the past two years.
And Miller is Jewish to boot, proving once again that members of the tribe are just as capable of doing distasteful things as gentiles, once they abandon the linchpins of chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam, and embrace a worldview based on exclusion, falsehood, and fear. The irony of having a Jew as an ideological descendant would not have been lost on Breckinridge Long, and it probably would have upset him, although he might have consoled himself with the fact that Miller looks particularly nondescript, with mushy features, a high forehead, and thinning hair, and that he seems capable of as much mischief and misery as was Long. Irony of ironies, Miller probably would have failed every sham phrenological test in existence at the time.
Miller’s forebears on his mother’s side escaped pogroms in Belarus and emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. His father was a real estate investor, and Miller was raised with two siblings in Santa Monica, California. He displayed conservative leanings as early as high school, and while at Duke University (political science, 2007) could be found championing the right-wing commotion du jour. He also made common cause on several projects with white supremacist Richard Spencer, who was a Duke graduate student at the time, although Miller denies that association.
As a Washington congressional aide, Miller helped engineer the behind-the-scenes defeat of the Gang of Eight’s bipartisan attempt at reform for DACA dreamers. He also was communications chief for then-Senator Jeff Sessions and authored most of the pointed “nation-state populism” speeches for Sessions, now attorney general and the president’s favorite piñata. When he joined Trump, Miller’s natural instincts as a provocateur were employed whenever a dog-whistle reference or lowball effect was needed during the general campaign.
I first observed Miller on a Sunday morning talk show, just after Trump’s inauguration. He struck me as strident, bellicose, and bullying — slavishly and sycophantically devoted to his boss. In a tone and intensity that would have been more appropriate for Joseph Goebbels, he warned: “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and won’t be questioned.”
What followed has been well-documented and abundantly reported. The moves seem to have Miller’s fingerprints all over them and smack of his hubris: multiple attempts to restrict immigration from Muslim countries (finally allowed and modified by the courts), suppression of a report showing the beneficial domestic social and economic effects of immigration, proposed discontinuance of federal funds for sanctuary cities, defunding the State Department’s Refugee Bureau, quitting a U.N. pact on global migration, separating migrant children from their parents at the border (quickly rescinded by the courts but slow to be rectified), and threatening legitimate green card and visa holders with retaliatory action if they used food stamps or Medicaid (cruelly crafted so mostly children would suffer since parents would be afraid to expose them to sanctions).
This litany is far from complete. I can imagine Miller safely isolated in his White House warren devising new ways to hound, humiliate, and demean the approximately13 million undocumented aliens within our borders. I can visualize him analyzing the various U.S. district and appellate courts to find which places contain the most conservative judges. I can picture him poring over federal regulations to discover even the slightest wedge or vulnerability for his next assault. And I can practically feel him cradling scale models of the wall designs he dreams of constructing along the Mexican border.
In all likelihood, Miller played a pivotal role in Trump’s pronouncement that he was considering abolishing birthright citizenship with the stroke of his pen, something he clearly and constitutionally cannot do. Ditto on Trump’s decision to send thousands of troops to augment an already bulging portfolio of federal agents at the Mexico border to guard against the slow-moving caravan of immigrants and refugees who pose virtually no threat to our country but do provide Trump with a daily dose of agitprop to gin up the base.
In the wake of Tuesday’s election, in the aftermath of all the sound and fury, Americans showed once again how divided the nation remains. Although Democrats reclaimed the House, Republicans padded their Senate majority and added several governorships. Robust voter turnout failed to translate into a blue tsunami, even though health care outweighed immigration as a key decisor. After the dust settles, House Democrats will be able to withhold funding for a wall, but Senate Republicans still hold sway with judges.Expect more gridlock, Trump bombast, Robert Mueller’s report, and new investigations.
When I think of Stephen Miller, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” springs to light immediately. When I think of Miller in tandem with Breckinridge Long I veer into Hannah Arendt territory about the banality of evil. Perhaps a stretch, perhaps not. In these times, the parameters and paradigms constantly shift.
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, the spiritual leader of Beth Shir Shalom, the Miller family’s Reform synagogue in Santa Monica, became disturbed enough by his former congregant to call him out in a sermon on erev Rosh Hashanah. “Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole through your arbitrary division of these desperate families at our southern border,” he said. For speaking truth to power, Comess-Daniels provoked criticism in some quarters that a pulpit rabbi ought not single out an individual for condemnation but focus on larger, more generalized issues of immigration and the need for reforms.
I share a surname (but not the inspiration) with Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the “The New Colossus,” the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. In an interview, Miller contended the verses “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” bore scant relation to immigration since the poem was added later and was not part of the original statue. I can only count my blessings that neither Long or Miller were the gatekeepers when my mother and grandparents came to these shores and passed the lamp lifted beside the golden door.