Category Archives: presidents


Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

This is a word I’ve been needing to know, in the same way where you see a particular object everywhere but have no idea what it’s called. I finally learned it while reading Fiona Maazel’s new novel, “Woke Up Lonely.”

The example Maazel gives of a polyptoton  is John Kennedy’s exhortation, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

A polyptoton, Maazel-as-narrator explains, is “a redeploying of the same word in different form, fear as noun and verb. It was JFK’s genius to use the polyptoton as much as possible…”

In the hands of a master, this rhetorical tool can open the mind to new possibilities.

When Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he wove a strand of idealism into a generation that was coming of age in the early 1960s.

In the wrong hands, the polyptoton is a cheap parlor trick, a favorite of epigram-mongers because they sound profound even when they’re not. (I will add an example of this when I come across a good one.)

Like Kennedy, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a fount of this kind of rhetoric. As World War 2 approached, before Israel was a state, the country’s British rulers issued the (always referred to as “infamous”) White Paper — a policy barring Jewish immigration to Palestine, just when they needed it most.That policy, along with the world’s refusal to welcome Jewish refugees to safety and the Nazi’s rather efficient genocide led to the murder of one third of the world’s Jews.

It was a knotty problem for the Jews in Palestine: the British on one side and the Germans on the other. A right-wing group, known as the Stern Gang, operated in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They attacked the British and attempted to make common cause with the Nazis to try to save Jewish lives.

Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, undid the knot. He did it through paradox. And a polyptoton.

His policy was, “We shall fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler.”



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The journalist yells ‘fire’

I used to know Andrew Adler. When I worked at the Atlanta Jewish Times, he was the newspaper’s former managing editor. He’d come to our office periodically to have his start-up Jewish newspaper designed by our art department. It was an odd arrangement, and it didn’t last long, as he positioned his Maccabiah Press as a competitor to the Jewish Times.

Like the name of his publication, Andrew’s journalism was a bit tone-deaf, a touch parochial and essentially superficial.

Along with these fairly harmless sins I now suspect he has one that can be crippling for a serious journalist: an inability to see the big picture.

That could be why Adler, as  publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, wrote a column last week in which he suggested that Israel might want to consider assassinating President Obama. The text of his “Publisher’s Letter” is here.

Adler subsequently apologized and explained that he wrote what he wrote “just to see what kind of reaction I would get from readers.”

It turns out the reaction has been “overwhelmingly negative,” Adler told JTA.

If there’s a learning moment in any of this, it might be in the overwhelming revulsion Adler’s column caused. Most people, regardless of their politics in the U.S. or Israeli contexts, still have their heads screwed on the right way.

That’s a cause for hope as American Jews as a group move to the right on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as their position hardens on what Israel must be willing to do for a negotiated peace, and more often people are willing to demonize those they disagree with.

In the American context, as Chemi Shalev wrote in Ha’aretz, Andrew Adler’s column is part of a larger movement which seeks to delegitimize Obama as president.

Adler’s crazy and criminal suggestions are not the ranting of some loony-tune individual. They were not taken out of thin air. Rather, they are the inevitable result of the inordinate volume of repugnant venom that some of Obama’s political rivals, Jews and non-Jews alike, have been spewing for the last three years.

In such an atmosphere murder may seem to someone as the only possible course to take. That’s what happened in 1996, back when Andrew Adler was launching his Maccabiah Press,  when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Yes, this may be a learning moment, and we may become better for it. It may also be a reminder why we don’t shout “fire” just to see the reaction.

Jan 24 —

Following Andrew Adler’s resignation, J.J. Goldberg wrote this fine piece in the Forward. What made Adler “wander so far off the reservation?” Goldberg writes. “The answer is, he didn’t.”

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Now there’s two of us.

One of David Frye's comedy albums from the Nixon era.Once in a while I’ve wondered what David Frye was up to.

Frye was the master impressionist in the days of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Watergate and the Vietnam War.

His Richard Nixon was a more truthful version of the resident in the White House, because it admitted what the real Nixon never would. Although he was a brilliantly talented mimic, after Nixon’s resignation Frye faded from view.

“My administration has taken crime out of the streets,” Mr. Frye’s Nixon said in one Watergate-era routine, “and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it.”

That was from David Frye’s obituary in today’s Washington Post, in which I learned what became of the political satirist as well as where he came from (born David Shapiro) before the comedy albums and TV appearances.

I’m tempted to say that Frye’s heyday was also the heyday of impressions, and that impersonations of the famous in hindsight was a fad.  Saturday Night Live, of course, has a long history of presidential impersonations stemming from those times. But this had to have been a golden age, with so many talented mimics in one place — Frye, Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Sammy Davis Jr., Will Jordan, John Byner, George Kirby, Marilyn Michaels and Charlie Callas, who died Jan. 27.

Mimicry has not disappeared. Perhaps the tendency is innate, an inborn urge to try to sound like someone else. Imitating is humanity’s way of learning survival skills, and we begin our studies soon after birth.

In school, during that golden age of impersonation, I began to hone my own impressions of  TV and film stars and politicians, soaking up lessons from Frye & Co. — John Wayne, Henry Fonda, LBJ. George McGovern, I learned, sounded like Liberace, so I was able to master two impressions at once.

Later I realized that I had not been imitating these famous people at all. Rather I was imitating the imitations of them.  With time my impressions became minimalistic, shorthand. “Well,” signifies Ronald Reagan. A throaty growl is the elderly Katherine Hepburn. (I can do a fine young Kate as well.)

In school I also imitated my teachers. At this I did pretty well, and learned that mimicry can also be a maladaptive trait when practiced on the powerful.

But that may be the initial attraction. A good mimic can show himself the equal of the imitated, whether child to adult or citizen to president. Imitation is at once a demonstration of flattery and a threat. A good mimic can run away with the image of the imitated.   A brilliant mimic can also steal his soul.

You can see hints of this in this David Frye appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. See what it takes to be a master:

This soliloquy remains my lasting impression of Nixon. It is from the Washington Post obit:

“As the man in charge,” his version of the president said in the 1973 album “Richard Nixon: A Fantasy,” “I, of course, accept the full responsibility. But not the blame. Let me explain the difference. People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not.”

Kevin Spacey seems like a wonderful throwback to that golden age.

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Nixon’s gift that keeps on giving.

Richard Nixon, who else?It’s as if he stuck a note on himself that read, “Kick me around.” Even in death, Richard Nixon can’t seem to get along with others.

In his latest batch of released White House tapes, reported in the Washington Post, the 35th president  expands his circle of bigotry from Jews to cover blacks, Italians and the Irish.

“The Jews have certain traits,” the leader of the free world told an aide. “The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. It’s sort of a natural trait. Particularly the real Irish.”

Presumably he was speaking of Irish Americans. The Italians, Nixon ruled, ” just don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but . . .” Nixon trailed off at that point, and perhaps we should be relieved. Later, he added, “The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”

The tapes were recorded in 1973. As for African Americans, Nixon voiced doubt to his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, about Secretary of State William Rogers’ belief that blacks were making significant strides in America.

“My own view is I think he’s right if you’re talking in terms of 500 years,” Nixon said. “I think it’s wrong if you’re talking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have to be, frankly, inbred. And, you just, that’s the only thing that’s going to do it, Rose.”

My mouth is agape.

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