To Err Is …To Be In Politics
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Within a matter of hours the President made two factual errors in public that have turned some of his critics into ecstasy at his mis-speaking and/or his ignorance of history. First, while speaking of the Polish resistance hero Jan Karski, upon whom he posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, President Obama referred to Karski’s report of the events transpiring during the Holocaust which he smuggled out of the “Polish death camps”; not the Nazi death camps in Poland. So in one breathe and with one error Obama infuriated the Polish Government, the Polish people, the righteous Poles, and indirectly Jews murdered by the Germans.
Following this mistake, during a meeting with rabbinic and lay leaders of the Conservative movement on Tuesday, President Obama asserted that he knew more about Judaism than any other American President. Regardless of what measure the President was using this was a patently ill thought out comment. It aroused as well many of Obama’s detractors in the Jewish community who pointed to the President’s arrogance—as well as the questionable accuracy of his comment.
Following these slips the “gotcha” team had a good few days as they went after the President’s slips. While that is the way it is in politics, the troubling problem is how much exciting pouncing activity it produces. For example John Podhoretz’s blog yesterday on Commentary Magazine’s Contentions page was as predictable as it was gleeful. He used the moment to recall Obama’s attachment to Reverend Wright, to his liberal Chicago Jewish friends, and to question whether law professor Obama had really ever learned any Talmud.
On the other hand, Brandeis University historian Professor Jonathan Sarna’s, who was interviewed on Tablet because a White House speechwriter called to check details before the President’s Wednesday night speech honoring Jewish Heritage Month, gave a far more honest evaluation of the recent events. While the President’s staff clearly wanted to avoid any more slips, this discussion had both context and perspective.
Campaigns are crazy times and supporters on both sides revel in collecting details about the absurd mistakes that politicians make. There is a need for the public to be able to distinguish between errors and bias, between politics and prejudice; especially Jews. There is no need to fan a flame or cast aspersions when none exist.