Four years ago, feeling bludgeoned by all the campaign propaganda being directed at us as the presidential election came down to the wire, we did something a little different. We asked ourselves and some people we knew, “What if you could pick anyone who ever lived, excluding the 2004 candidates – or even who never lived – to be president of the United States? Who would that person be?”
The answers were illuminating, and even fun. Among the choices were Moses, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Yitzhak Rabin, Elie Wiesel – and one respondent’s wife. Because Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek’s “Next Generation” made the list, we headed the story “We seek the ideal president across time – and space.”
This time around, because the role of the vice president has been so much in the news, we put out a bulletin for a “dream team,” the best imaginable (and imaginative) pair to lead this country at this troubling moment in its history. (Contenders in the current electoral cycle were off limits.)
Interestingly, no one, either four years ago or today, suggested moshiach, the messiah – a natural (or supernatural) choice, for both roles. The human race is clearly not ready (although some evangelicals feel we are already in “the end days”).
Meanwhile, some of this year’s choices are the same as the earlier ones, showing staying power. Also, a number of people made the same choices, showing that great minds think alike.
Here are the answers, in alphabetical order.
Rebecca Boroson, editor, The Jewish Standard and the Jewish Community News: I asked myself: What does this country need most at this particular, fractious time? The answer was clear: harmony. Who best to create harmony than a conductor? First I thought, oh boy, Lenny – not only Jewish, but a genius. But no, I decided; he was too show-offy. We need a conductor who puts the music first. So I nominate for president James Levine, the celebrated maestro at the Metropolitan Opera, who can meld brass and winds and percussion and the human voice into glorious sound. And for vice president, I choose Placido Domingo, who in addition to being a great tenor is also a conductor, so he can do the president’s job, if need be. Besides, his name means “placid Sunday,” and we could all use some placid Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays….
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author, media personality, and columnist for this newspaper: For president I’d choose King Solomon. Great leadership requires wisdom and Solomon was the wisest of all men. He had some serious relationship challenges that might not play that well with the electorate, but his genius would more than compensate. For vice president I’d choose Eleanor of Aquitaine. She helped to invent courtly love and was the mother of Richard the Lionheart. Mind you, she could be pretty ruthless. But I’d want a woman on the ticket to balance raw masculinity with some feminine nurturing, and in an age of serious male bravado, she somehow held her own, having been the wife of both the king of France and the king of England. I’m not sure about her policy on Israel. Oh yeah, there was no State of Israel then. OK, then, she’ll have to do.
Leonard Cole, political scientist, teacher, Jewish activist, and author: I nominate Abraham Lincoln because of his historical record. It proves that he could exceed the wisdom and courage of every other person who’s been president of the United States. I like to go with demonstrated ability. One additional marvelous quality of his is that he would readily seek advice from others and given the financial crisis we are facing today he would be on the phone or e-mailing his vice president, Warren Buffett, several times a day.
But of course he would have no familiarity with the financial system that has evolved and gives us such headaches today. For that, the man who has best demonstrated knowledge of the system – and a fundamental integrity – is Buffett.
Ruth Cole, Partnership 2000 chair for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and national chair of Hadassah magazine: For president, Albert Einstein. He had the right mix of brilliance and vision and strength and understanding of the human condition. Also, he recognized that technology was advancing much faster than humanity was maturing, and he was able to adjust his thinking under new conditions. Originally he had believed in the peaceful resolution to problems, but given the rise of Nazism and ant-Semitism in his homeland, he was able to say that pacifism under some conditions was not a workable solution.
For vice president, I nominate Deborah, the biblical judge who recognized that the Jewish tribes’ divisions weakened them. Celebrated for her ability to bring people together, she unified them so that they overcame the Canaanites. Today we need a leader of her strength and abilities.
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, teacher, religious leader of Temple Israel in Cliffside Park, and a columnist for this newspaper: My choices are Nechemiah ben Hacaliah for president and Joseph ben Jacob as vice president.
Nechemiah, a high official in the court of Artaxerxes I, was made governor of Judah. He showed great skill in improving the security of the state and in rebuilding its economy and infrastructure. All three areas need improving in the United States. He also showed tremendous ability in dealing with “foreign powers,” namely the governors of Samaria, Ammon, Arabia, and Ashdod, who sought to thwart his efforts to fortify Jerusalem. He had the courage of his convictions, talked straight to the people, knew when to defer to experts on matters beyond his ken, and was unwilling to go into hiding when threatened with assassination.
Joseph would make an excellent No. 2 for Nechemiah, just as he did for his pharaoh. Not only did he have the ability to “read” people, he was a consummate politician who made the most of opportunities when they presented themselves. Moreover, he used those opportunities for the public good. Above all, though, faced with a looming economic crisis of catastrophic proportions, he came up with a workable plan and acted quickly to implement it.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League: For president, Albert Einstein. [Foxman nominated Einstein for president four years ago – noting that he “was a philsopher, a scientist, and a pragmatist who valued freedom and … America” – and is “sticking with him.”] For vice president, Emma Lazarus, the 19th-century poet and activist for immigration reform. She continues to inspire us today as we grapple with similar issues in the 21st century. Through her poems and essays, she spoke out against intolerance, anti-Semitism, and was an advocate for equal treatment for all people.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood: If I could have my dream ticket, it would be Abraham Lincoln for president and Alexander Hamilton for vice president. Lincoln exemplifies the best in American civilization. He was principled but flexible, and wedded to his strategic genius was an extraordinary empathy.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Tolstoy: “Lincoln’s supremacy expresses itself altogether in its peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.” According to Goodwin, Tolstoy also said of Lincoln, “We are still too near to his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.”
George Will points out that we worship at Jefferson’s America but we live in Hamilton’s America – a strong country with a central government. Hamilton was also a man of great principle and extraordinary genius, and the economic strength of America was based on his conception of America. No one is better suited to confront the economic crisis we are in now.
Eric Goldman, teacher, film distributor, and film critic for this newspaper: I nominate Darryl F. Zanuck for president of the United States. Zanuck’s 20th Century-Fox movie studio always was run like a tight ship. He recognized a good story and knew how to produce it – always made on or under budget. Heaven knows, we need someone who, with leadership, can manage a happy ending to our current crisis. There’s the added plus that Zanuck had no Jewish blood, yet was both philo-Semitic and a lover of Israel.
For vice president, I go with up-and-coming Jewish film writer/director/producer Judd Apatow. He’s just 40, and knows what it takes to make things happen while making you giggle. His “40 Year Old Virgin” was a hoot. Together with Scott Rogen and Katherine Heigl, he got us “knocked up” a few years back, but knew how to deliver the baby – with humor yet. These days, America needs a rebirth, change, and a good laugh to go with it.
Lois Goldrich, associate editor of this newspaper: My aunt is 93 and says she will vote only for a woman president. “Look at the mess men have made,” she says. In my aunt’s honor (and because she may be right), I nominate a woman. Granted, this woman is no longer alive, but her impact on this country was immense, and we could use someone with her vision (yes, the vision thing) at the helm today. So ““ I nominate Eleanor Roosevelt, tireless champion of social justice and equality. She overcame personal slights to fight for the rights of others, and she knew how to use her position for the public good. To help her out on the administrative side, I would choose Bill Clinton, whose deceptively folksy manner cloaks a mind like a steel trap. He knows the issues and digests data for dinner. She would put others first; he would help her work the system.
Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey: For president I nominate Golda Meir; for vice president, Dr. Martin Luther King. Both were exceptional leaders and inspirational visionaries. They shared the qualities of commitment and devotion to their causes and sacrificed a great deal for what they believed in.
Abigail Klein Leichman, correspondent for this newspaper: My first inclination was to nominate that eminently intelligent and articulate Harvard duo Ruth Wisse and Alan Dershowitz. These professors’ collective brain power, chutzpah, informed world view, and well-honed classroom management skills (think Congress) makes a combo that can’t be beat. However, Wisse does not qualify as she is European-born – and besides, two Jews in the White House would not exactly be representative of the U.S. population, of which Jews compose just 2 percent.
Instead I nominate the late, great Paul Newman (Jewish dad, Christian Scientist mom). The actor/producer/writer/director/humanitarian/entrepreneur/restaurateur/philanthropist/race-car driver/naval veteran had the necessary charisma, business and interpersonal skills, and heart of gold that I’d want to see in every leader. (O.K., he also had the looks I’d want to see in every leader.) Married faithfully to the same lucky woman for 50 years, this was a guy who oozed trustworthiness. And who better to steer the Middle East policy ship than the guy who portrayed Ari Ben Canaan at the helm of the “Exodus”?
Favorite quote: “If you don’t have enemies, you don’t have character.”
For Newman’s running mate, I nominate Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. The first female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the smart, outspoken, and pro-Israel Kirkpatrick was conservative on foreign policy but liberal on many domestic issues. While I prefer her in the No. 2 slot because I do not agree with every one of her positions (supportive of some Latin American totalitarian regimes) or political alliances (cozy with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger), she certainly knew her way around the corridors of power and was fluent in Spanish and French – a definite asset in our multilingual world. One has to wonder what would have happened had the Democrat-turned-Republican not abandoned her idea of running for president in 1988 against George H.W. Bush.
Favorite quote: “What takes place in the [U.N.] Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving.”
Josh Lipowsky, assistant editor of this newspaper: With a tarnished American image, threats of global terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and a world financial crisis, we need a super president. Who better than Superman?
He’s an alien, you say. He wasn’t born on Earth, let alone in the U.S., you say.
Well, you’re right and you’re wrong. In 1991’s Action Comics Annual #3, an energy being looks into Superman’s future and discovers that he will become president. Scientists grappled with the issue of his heritage and determined that Superman had in fact been born on Earth after emerging from a birthing chamber in the spaceship that carried him here from Krypton. Problem solved.
If there’s anybody who could unite our country and the world behind a common vision for peace and prosperity, it’s the Man of Steel. He’s the only one who can look down at our planet and see all of humanity as one, instead of as a hodgepodge of different religions, creeds, sects, etc., fighting against each other.
And, to make him an even better candidate, his Kryptonian name, Kal-El, is Hebrew for “All is God’s.”
As for vice president, we need somebody who can step in at a minute’s notice if there’s too much Kryptonite around. This person has to be able to stand up to the most powerful man on Earth and break ties in the Senate. That’s a lot of chutzpah. Captain Kirk is an excellent leader but would never accept a desk job. So we must turn to his faithful No. 2, Mr. Spock. Aside from his high intellect, he can look at the problems facing this country and reach the necessary, logical conclusions. But even the emotionless Vulcan knows that the good of the many does not always outweigh the good of the few or the one, which make him an even-handed but compassionate (for a Vulcan) candidate.
Rep. Steve Rothman, (D-9): For my dream ticket, I would choose Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president because he put in place the policies that got us out of the worst economic crisis in American history and then rallied the nation to defeat fascism and the Nazis. For vice president, I would choose Golda Meir for her strength of character, experience in foreign relations, and fearlessness in the face of adversity.
Edith Sobel, lecturer and former editor of the Jewish Community News: I think that when we read (and learn) and eat (and enjoy) we will have a wiser, wittier, and happier country. So I would suggest as president one of the great exponents of food, M.F.K. Fisher, who came to the sensible conclusion that hunger brings on international misunderstandings that eventually lead to world conflicts. “It is impossible to enjoy without thought,” she wrote; “when we exist without thought of thanksgiving for food we are not men, but beasts.” And we need look no further for a suitable vice president than Philip Roth, who has encapsulated America’s dreads and dreams more succinctly in his books than any other recent writer. In his work he forces us to reflect on our shortsightedness and urges us to return to America’s original communal protectiveness of all people. So it’s Fisher and Roth – a dreamy team for America.
Larry Yudelson, author and publisher (Ben Yehuda Press): For president, Irving Brecher, the last living Golden Age screenwriter. At 94, he’s got decades’ more experience than any other candidate, and no one has dealt with tougher customers – from vaudevillians to Hollywood producers and directors, from the 1930s on. Having written comedy for everyone from Milton Berle to Jack Benny to the Marx Brothers, Irv knows how to keep the country out of a depression. Dubbed “The Wicked Wit of the West” by his pal Groucho, Irv has the smarts to navigate the ship of state. [Ben Yehuda Press is publishing Brecher’s memoir, “The Wicked Wit of the West.”]
His running mate, Margaret Dumont, is an amazing diplomat. She kept her cool through making movies with the Marx Brothers – and no one gets any more “Gotcha” than those characters.
Tzvee Zahavy, author, rabbi, teacher, and consultant: My nominee for my dream team president is the ancient Israelite general Barak.
I have always admired the biblical Barak, the military leader who along with the prophetess Deborah defeated the Canaanite armies led by Sisera and who ended 20 years of oppression.
The song of Deborah in Judges 5 extols him, “Arise, Barak, and take away your captives, O son of Abinoam.” His triumph was long-lasting, as we are told, “And the land was undisturbed for 40 years.”
Thirty-one years ago, my wife Bernice and I named our second son Barak. Barak means “lightning” in Hebrew. We chose the name for our son both because of its heroic connection to the biblical figure Barak and because my son’s birth came quickly, like lightning, after a very short labor.
My nominee for vice president is the ancient Israelite forefather Joseph. He combines many of the virtues that current candidates have touted as desirable.
According to the biblical narrative in Genesis, Joseph showed his precocity by dreaming great and colorful dreams. He then spent a good deal of time as a prisoner, thus proving his bravery. He was drafted to position of authority where he demonstrated his far-sighted economic insight and honed his political acumen in tough negotiations. And he showed appropriate compassion even for those who had wronged him in the past.