Jewish-American history of a decidedly non-kosher element is served up in Ron Frank’s hagiographic “Only in America,” a documentary on Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman’s candidacy for the office of Vice President in 2000. While the film itself is well-made and frequently moving, it will nonetheless raise a few red flags of the most vibrant crimson hue for anyone who knows anything about the Jewish experience in America.
As a matter of disclosure, I should point out that Joseph Lieberman is the senator for the state where I live and I personally consider him to be a very pleasant individual and a completely ineffective legislator. Happily, “Only in America” refrains from trumpeting his achievements in the U.S. Senate–which could be announced, IMHO, not with a trumpet but an off-key kazoo. The film instead focuses on the historic precedent of having a Jewish-American on the ticket for the run to the White House. In fact, most of the film consists of endless and tiresome variations of the notion that it is wonderful that a Jew could be considered for such an honor. The film cannot go five minutes without someone bringing this fact up with a sense of awe. As you may imagine, this raises a serious “Oy vey!” fairly fast.
Curiously, the film forgets that Sen. Lieberman was not the first American of Jewish heritage to run for the White House. In 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (who was of Jewish heritage, although he was not a member of the Jewish faith) ran for the presidency on the Republican line. Goldwater never attempted to hide his Jewish roots (unlike, say, Madeleine Albright) and at one point he playfully pilfered a Groucho Marx quip when facing an exclusionist country club (he asked if he could play nine holes of golf since he was only half-Jewish). His candidacy was truly a historic precedent, but it is absent from this film.
Also absent from “Only in America” is the history of Jewish-American political involvement. The film gives the notion that Senator Lieberman came into a vacuum where Jewish participation in American politics was totally absent. One has to wonder if the film’s creators ever heard of people like Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Bernard Baruch, Arthur Goldberg, Jacob Javits, Henry Kissinger or Bella Abzug. The film also includes a wild comment by Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism, who states America is “the one country in the world where there has never been anti-Semitism as a policy sponsored by a governmental authority.” Obviously Dr. Wexler did not know about the strictly enforced federal quotas of the 1930s that prevented European Jews trying to escape Nazi occupation to find refuge across the Atlantic, or the refusal by American military forces to bomb the train lines used to transport Jews to the concentration camps. Nor does he seem to be aware of the intolerant-free histories of Islamic Turkey, which has accepted Jewish refugees as far back as the 1490s, or Islamic Morocco, where Hebrew schools are financed by royal decree and where King Mohammad V in the 1940s personally prevented the Jewish population from being deported to the concentration camps by the Nazi-Vichy occupation forces.
In fairness, though, “Only in America” captures a wide scope of Jewish-American reactions to the Lieberman candidacy for Vice President. Older Jewish-Americans initially viewed this achievement with trepidation due to memories of vocal anti-Semitism by prominent Americans during the first part of the 20th century (Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin are cited, but no mention is made of Nazi-lover Charles Lindbergh or his bitch of a wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh). Both Senator Lieberman and his wife Hadassah are interviewed at great length and they come across as genuinely charming and unassuming in relation to the burden put on them by seeking national office. Hadassah in particular has the film’s best anecdote: when told that Al Gore chose her husband to be his running mate, her reaction was “Why?” The film also provides a unique insider’s perspective at the requirements of the campaign and the chaos that followed the controversial conclusion of the election.
“Only in America” does not cover Sen. Lieberman’s current run for the White House, this time for the position of President. Perhaps it is because of his current activities “Only in America” that is not receiving any substantial level of theatrical engagements, as exhibitors may feel it is a commercial for his presidential campaign. In any event, time is on this film’s side: if Lieberman gains the Democratic nomination for President, this film will serve as an excellent campaign tool and if he loses it can be appreciated as a record of a momentous achievement in the midst of an extraordinary election campaign.