The presidential election of 1928 is seen by most political historians as something of a demarcation line in the history of Jewish voting loyalties.
It was in that election that the Democrats first began polling landslide numbers among American Jews, as New York governor Al Smith, a Roman Catholic of immigrant stock (whose campaign manager happened to be Jewish) captured 72 percent of the Jewish vote.
Despite his overwhelming Jewish support, and the equally strong backing of fellow Catholics, Smith carried only 8 states against Republican Herbert Hoover and failed to win his own home state of New York. (Jews throwing their support in large numbers to presidential candidates who were decidedly unpopular with the general electorate would become something of a political phenomenon in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the country as a whole shifted to the right.)
The trend of lopsided Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates solidified four years later when another New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt, won the votes of better than 8 in 10 American Jews.
Roosevelt, whom Jews idolized more than any other politician before or since, went on to win 85 percent of the Jewish vote in 1936 and 90 percent in both 1940 and 1944.
Harry Truman was the next Democrat to benefit from Jewish party loyalty, though his share of the Jewish vote in 1948 slipped from the Rooseveltian 90 percent to a “mere” 75 percent, thanks to the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace, whose left-wing campaign attracted those 15 percent of Jewish voters for whom Truman apparently was not liberal enough.
Whether Roosevelt or Truman was deserving of such Jewish support is a painful question that most Jews were reluctant even to ask until relatively recently. As the journalist Sidney Zion wrote several years ago, Roosevelt “refused to lift a finger to save [Jews] from Auschwitz…. Then, in 1948, the Jews helped elect Harry Truman, who recognized Israel but immediately embargoed arms to the Jewish state while knowing that the British had fully armed the Arabs.”
The Republican share of the Jewish vote – an embarrassing 10 percent in 1940, 1944 and 1948 ? improved significantly in the 1950’s as Dwight Eisenhower won the support of 36 percent of Jews in 1952 and 40 percent in 1956.
Eisenhower’s opponent in both elections was Adlai Stevenson, a one-term governor of Illinois whose persona of urbane intellectualism set a new standard for the type of candidate favored by Jewish liberals.
Actually, Stevenson was not at all what he seemed: his biographer, John Barlow Martin, conceded the fact that Adlai hardly ever cracked open a book, and the historian Michael Beschloss, in a New York Times op-ed piece (“How Well-Read Should a President Be?” June 11, 2000), noted that when Stevenson died, there was just one book found on his bedside table – The Social Register.
Fortunately for politicians, though, perception is at least as important as reality, and John Kennedy followed in Stevenson’s footsteps as a non-intellectual who, with the help of compliant reporters and academic acolytes like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., managed to come across as a Big Thinker – in marked contrast to his well-earned reputation as an intellectual lightweight that dogged him throughout his years in Congress.
Despite the fact that his books were ghost-written (the journalist Arthur Krock was in large measure responsible for Why England Slept, while Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen was the primary author of Profiles in Courage) and his choice of reading material ran mainly to spy novels, Kennedy like Stevenson benefited from the perception that he was made of sterner intellectual stuff.
This was particularly true when it came to Jewish voters, who gave Kennedy 82 percent of their votes in 1960 and continued to support him in similarly high numbers for the duration of his presidency.
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org