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The Counter-Life | The Nation

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The Counter-Life

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One of the achievements of The Plot Against America is showing how fear slowly infects the very weather of one's life, tightening each swallow of breath. The Family Roth and their neighbors ricochet from fearing the worst to telling themselves maybe-it-won't-be-so-bad to realizing that their first dire instincts were right and maybe it's time to prepare a getaway. "The fear was everywhere, the look was everywhere, in the eyes of our protectors especially, the look that comes in the split second after you have locked the door and realize you don't have the key. We had never before observed the adults all helplessly thinking the same thoughts...devastated by the speed with which everything dreadful was happening." Seeing their parents afraid makes the children doubly afraid. Phil, a stamp collector, wakes up howling after dreaming that the stamps for every national monument in his collection have been defiled with a swastika--from the Grand Canyon to the Great Smoky Mountains, nature itself has been Nazified.

About the Author

James Wolcott
James Wolcott is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants:...

American Jewry's chief morale officer in those ominous days--the one crackling voice that keeps them from forming a refugee line from here to Canada--is gossip columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell, who leans into the microphone and guns his motor as if he had a fire to catch. "America's best-known Jew after Albert Einstein," Winchell isn't cowed or conned by this cardboard messiah. He has Lindbergh's anti-Semitic number and will perforate this phony full of whistling holes with the staccato put-downs that are his Western Union trademark. Thinks the young Phil, "Walter Winchell had only to disclose Lindbergh's 'pro-Nazi philosophy' to his thirty million Sunday-evening listeners and to call Lindbergh's presidential candidacy the greatest threat ever to American democracy for all the Jewish families on blocklong little Summit Avenue to resemble once again Americans enjoying the vitality and high spirits of a secure, free, protected citizenry instead of casting themselves about outdoors in their nightclothes like inmates escaped from a lunatic asylum."

Not every Jew bugs out at the prospect of President Lindbergh. The influential Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of B'nai Moshe, the first of Newark's Conservative temples, greets Lindbergh's candidacy with petaled words of assurance to his followers. Fear him not, Bengelsdorf says. Put away your parochial concerns, and don't be such a peasant. Lindbergh only wants what's best for America, and what's best for America is what's best for the Jews. "I want Charles Lindbergh to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew--an American Jew." Smoothly buttered with social grace, Rabbi Bengelsdorf is Roth's deadeye portrayal of a proto-neoconservative, an early-model Ravelstein who purrs at the mention of his cozy political connections and perfumes the air with his all-around erudition ("My uncle Monty liked to say of him, 'The pompous son of a bitch knows everything--too bad he doesn't know anything else'"). This pillar of wisdom testifies to Lindbergh's noble intentions at a Madison Square Garden rally as the Roth family take turns tearing out their hair. What the hell does he think he's doing? cries Roth's father. "'Koshering Lindbergh,' Alvin said. 'Koshering Lindbergh for the goyim.'" Giving them permission to vote for an anti-Semite.

It is the vulgar, untutored, hot-pastrami Winchell and shrewd cousin Alvin who have the better bead on the unfolding disaster than the courtly Jews conning themselves that it can't happen here. Rabbi Bengelsdorf is only the most conspicuous prow ornament of a Jewish upper crust so prim, snobbish and complacent that it disdains any rumblings from below as bad manners, poor form. Raised voices offend their notions of civic decorum. After Winchell is axed by his radio sponsor, Jergens Lotion, for lacing into President Lindbergh, the New York Times--"a paper founded and owned by Jews," whose editorial policy opposes Lindbergh's appeasement of Hitler--commends this act of corporate and journalistic hygiene. Free speech entails responsibility, and this rabble-rouser went too far. "With accusations so far-fetched that even a lifelong Democrat may find himself feeling unexpected sympathy for the president, Winchell has disgraced himself irredeemably. Jergens Lotion is to be commended for the speed with which it has removed him from the airwaves." (How accurately Roth renders the editorial drone of the Times, its Olympian snore.)

To reassure themselves that they still live in the America of their civics books, the Roths take a sightseeing trip to Washington to pay homage to the Founding Fathers. "One reason my parents decided to keep to our long-laid plans to visit Washington was to convince Sandy and me--whether or not they themselves believed it--that nothing had changed other than that FDR was no longer in office." They stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, an epiphany moment, "the raised statue of Lincoln in his capacious throne of thrones, the sculpted face looking to me like the most hallowed possible amalgamation--the face of God and the face of America all in one.... What ordinarily passed for great just paled away..."

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