Presidents Day: Our Annual Salute to A.L. Levine


Re-posting this from last year, because even back in February 2008 I couldn’t have predicted how prescient this novel was in many important ways. And looking back now, I am tempted to say there’s a striking similarity between A.L.’s years in sales and our current chief executive’s experiences in community organizing. Whatever. In the interim A.L. has started getting some more love — Ben Greenman at Nextbook had a nice appreciation just after the election saying what I had suspected back in Iowa: that a novel about a Jewish President prefigured many aspects of the Obama candidacy. I only hope more people come to appreciate in the coming years.

Barack Obama may very well become the first African American President, or alternately Hillary Clinton may become the first woman elected President. It is even possible that John McCain may become the first, well, really really seriously old white guy to be elected President (72 on inauguration day). It is safe to say however, that the first Jewish president is yet to be on the ballot.The Wanting of Levine

So for the time being Jewish Presidents belong to the realm of fiction, which brought to mind Michael Halberstam’s 1978 bestselling novel The Wanting of Levine. It is long out of print, though it appears in the catalog of the Montgomery County Public Library system. When I went seeking a copy this weekend, the librarian I consulted noted the book had not circulated in five years and was probably long-gone from the shelves. Lucky for me, she was wrong.

Set ten years in the future from its publication date (and twenty years before our current quadrennial contest), the novel presents a United States that is well on its way to being a second-rate power. Energy rationing is in effect, standards of living are declining, racial violence is increasing, individual states are involved in border wars over trade and tariffs — there’s a general sense that things are going to hell very quickly. To top it off, the Democrat’s front-runner for the nomination has just stabbed his wife to death in a drunken rage. Enter the mercurial figure of A.L. Levine, until now a back-room DNC committeeman after a fortune made in sales and real estate development. When circumstances thrust him into the spotlight, Levine begins his own unlikely candidacy.

The novel is one-part political insider fiction, one part-late seventies sex romp, one part liberal Jewish wish-fulfillment and one-part a canny take on the rhythms of political enthusiasm and what Americans want from a President. Written as it was in a pre-AIDS, pre-Reagan, pre-Internet and pre-collapse of the Soviet Union (just to mention a few epoch shaping “pre’s”) era, the novel obviously has limits when applied to today’s political landscape. Certainly, Levine, with a libido Bill Clinton could only envy, would not be electable, never mind even runnable in today’s climate.

But certain aspects of Levine’s character — his “firstness” to coin a phrase, his lack of governing experience, his personal charisma do bring to mind the current campaign. In one stump speech he says:

This is the first time I have run for office. It’s an advantage not to be a politician because like all occupations, politics puts a mark on a man. Politics is a worthy, noble profession, but a lifetime in it requires so much compromise, so much dealing, that a person tends to forget what his real principles were in the first place. … Compromise is necessary, but a lifetime of it leaves a mark. It is fine for a career in the Senate, but not necessary or even desirable in a president. I am, I believe, experienced in politics, but not a politician.

Later, with his inauguration impending, Levine speculates to himself about what a great President might be in these times and perhaps anticipates the appeal to “purple states” and our first bi-racial President:

Something always had to give. In that he felt his strongest hope. If there is anything I can do, he thought, it’s to mediate, to intercede, to explain. What the country needs is a middleman, and as a middleman I’ve had two-thousand years practice. Without a middleman, without someone who genuinely felt for both sides, the country was going to tear itself apart, the young at the throat of the old, the freezing at the throat of the conservationists. The defenders of privacy clashed with the legions of the right-to-know. The right to bear arms collided with the right to avoid being shot to death at a stop light…Each American had his passion, and each clamored for attention, shouting, “I’m right! I’m right!” and demanding, insisting, that the government ensure his claim to the right–while denouncing the spread of government.

It is a novel thirty years on, that is as breath-taking for what it gets right as for what it gets wrong (Mexico figures large in the novel, but in geo-political terms it more resembles modern Venezuela). It captures the spirit of the contact sport that is American politics, while at the same time, is unafraid to cop-to the sublimated desires of the body politic.

Michael Halberstam was the brother of renowned author and journalist David Halberstam. Michael was an internist in Washington, DC when he wrote the novel and was tragically murdered a few years after the book’s publication in dramatic circumstances.

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