There are two people running against me in the Republican primary for New Jersey’s Ninth district and recently I had an interesting lesson in politics from both. Call me naïve, but I really thought we could have a primary where people respected each other and treated one another as friends. For that reason I invited my main challenger to my home for Friday night Shabbat dinner and sat him right next to me in a place of honor at our home. There were about 40 other guests that night, many of them members of the national media, so it was good exposure for this candidate as well. We had a rollicking time. We teased each other, we laughed, and, as happens on the Sabbath, we toasted each other’s health and future. Many of our close friends who were in attendance asked me why I had invited him. He was my political enemy, someone who had already lost the Bergen and Hudson County Republican conventions to me but still decided to run against me. I answered that politics did not have to be dirty or unfriendly. We could run against each other as gentlemen, focused on the issues, disagreeing without being disagreeable. Besides, the man in question is a devout Catholic who had shared with me how central faith was to his life, which is one of the reasons he was running, to promote policies in accordance with his religious principles.
Little did I realize that one of those convictions must have been backstabbing and ingratitude. About two weeks later, during the Passover holiday, I received a call from my campaign manager that this same person had filed a motion to get me off the ballot by challenging the signatures on my campaign petition. Not content with just one avenue to get me knocked out, he actually went so low as to challenge the way my name was spelled on the ballot. MY campaign manager and attorney had to spend all of the next day in Trenton, New Jersey, responding to his claims and fighting to keep me on. Needless to say, we won, thank Gd.
OK, I was fooled. I thought politics could be elevated, especially when dealing with a religious man. So I wrote him an email where I asked how he could behave this way, especially since his challenge to my petition seemed intentionally timed to the festival of Passover, rendering me incapable of properly responding. He wrote, “These are also my holy days, too. Believe me, I will always remember this holiday weekend as the weekend I spent fighting for the truth at the cost of missing sleep and family time. It was a lot to give up. I hope that whatever happens, we can still be friends. Again, nothing personal. Whatever God’s will is, is.”
So, trying to knock me out of the contest made him into a crusader for truth. It’s not his fault. He was just doing G-d’s will. Indeed, he even had to give up time with his children in his noble crusade of knocking me out of the race. I wrote back. “You are no martyr so please stop the foolishness. You are someone who simply is prepared to win at any cost. People like you, in my strong opinion, are the problem with the political process. Actions like yours are what turn the public off of politics. I made the mistake of showing you an inordinate amount of trust, friendship, and respect. I have learned my lesson.
“Please do not insult me by writing to me of G-d’s will. You and I revere the same Hebrew bible. G-d wants us to be above-board, ethical, honest, and righteous, to the best of our ability. You make a mockery of religion by your behavior. You compound your errors through your justification and excuses. I will defeat you G-d willing without these games and gimmicks. I am sorry that in your desperation you have chosen to forego your values. I ask that G-d give me the strength throughout this campaign never to repeat the kind of political ruthlessness you have exhibited.
“After all, what does it profit a man to win an election and lose his soul?
“Be a gentleman and do the right thing. Win based on merit. Or lose with dignity. It’s not too late.”
OK, a little melodramatic. But I made my point.
Then, at a campaign event where my other challenger appeared, I got up to speak and wished him the best in his candidacy, promising to support him fully if he won. I praised the family man he was and his readiness to serve. I was rewarded with him following me to speak, telling the audience that the last thing the electorate needed was a Rabbi representing them. He ended by publicly calling me an extremist.
Thanks, man. Really appreciated.
As a young Rabbi in Oxford, England, I remember spending a Saturday-Sabbath afternoon reading an incredible essay by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the great British philosopher, whom I would later come to befriend at the University. The subject was Machiavelli’s The Prince where the Florentine political philosopher famously says that is better for a person in power to be feared rather than loved. Berlin explains Machiavelli’s enduring influence by arguing that he forced a choice on us between power and ethics. Mind you, he never said which one to choose. If you want to be a nice guy living a moral life in the suburbs, minding your own business, that’s your choice. But if you want to be in power, then stop fooling yourself. You’re going to have to use ruthless methods to get into power and stay there.
I have thought alot about Machiavelli and Berlin since running for office. Was Machiavelli right? That without ruthlessness there could be no political success? Must we largely forego our values, get negative, and go on the attack to win? The New York Times did an interesting story a few months back about how Newt Gingrich was surging until Romney unleashed an avalanche of negative ads against him. Negative ads, all the studies show, work far better than positive ads. Gingrich was a sitting duck.
The public complains constantly that they want positive politics. They say they want inspiration but respond increasingly to mudslinging and attacks. Indeed, one of the things I’ve discovered since I started running is that a heck of a lot of people seem much more interested in defeating the other party than seeing theirs win. Some of the political experts who have consulted with me have urged me to go negative. I don’t plan to. I know that every politician makes the same pledge. But every politician isn’t a Rabbi. And my hope is to impact on politics rather than being impacted by it.