“Neither was their being Jews a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement to be ‘proud’ of. What they were was what they couldn’t get rid of—what they couldn’t even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American. It was as it was, in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences.” — The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth
One of the most depressingly relatable elements in The Plot Against America is Herman Levin’s stubborn faith in the idea that Walter Winchell can somehow fix things. Over our most recent past two decades—as the media has become as polarized as our politics—liberals and conservatives alike have clung to the idea that our favorite politician, pundit, or late-night comedian ought to be able to expose the corruption and lies of our opponents, if only given a chance to face those bastards one-on-one. “Boy, if only Obama were grilled by Sean Hannity,”some think. Or: “Man, I wish Jon Stewart would get a shot at Mitch McConnell.” Or: “Why won’t Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez debate Ben Shapiro?” Or: “Bernie is the only candidate who can take down Trump.” And so on. These daydreams don’t seem so pie-in-the-sky; that’s the damnable thing about them. What’s so maddening is that they seem perfectly reasonable.
As the fifth episode of The Plot Against America begins, Herman is losing what’s left of his cool, and all because Winchell’s broadcast has yet to address the looming crisis of President Lindbergh’s “Homestead 42” initiative, which would remove American Jews from their urban neighborhoods and send them to smaller rural communities across the country. Though this miniseries and the novel it’s based on are both largely works of fiction, Homestead 42 is a highly plausible extrapolation of the views Lindbergh espoused in his own diaries, where he once wrote, “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos.” While the characters in The Plot Against America were worried their new president might copy Hitler and herd them into concentration camps, it seems that instead he’s planning to “add strength and character” to the United States by peppering Jews lightly across Montana and Kentucky.
The Levins—thanks to the machinations of Aunt Evelyn, and the “Just Folks”-boosterism of Sandy—are supposed to be Kentucky-bound. Metropolitan Life has reassigned Herman to Danville, a town of 6700, in what Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf and his minions proudly refer to as “a region of the country previously inaccessible to city-dwellers like us.” Evelyn sees this as a coup, both for her personally and for her sister Bess, who she’s sure will one day thank her for the rabbi’s vision.
Herman though has other ideas. He quits MetLife and goes to work for his brother Monty, packing fruit on the night shift and coming home in the mornings to a worried wife an eldest son who resents him for his decisions. Sandy thought he was headed back to Kentucky, and to his old friends the Mawhinneys. But he can’t control the choices other people make.
Much of “Part 5” of The Plot Against America is about people trying to rig things by proxy. Poor Rabbi Bengelsdorf is convinced he’s doing his people a great service with Homestead 42, but he’s disappointed that congress won’t approve a proper financial stipend to make this experiment amenable to Jews being asked to migrate to the middle of the country. (Henry Ford is unmoved by the rabbi’s protestations, saying that there’s noting “involuntary” about these moves, because the Jews can either take the deal or quit their jobs.)
Philip, meanwhile, tries to save his family by making the case to Aunt Evelyn that she should send his neighbor Seldon Wishnow and his mom (who also works at MetLife) to Kentucky instead of the Levins. Evelyn though misinterprets this request as Philip saying that he doesn’t want to leave behind his “best friend” Seldon. So she arranges it for the Wishnows to move too… which is especially embarrassing for Philip, after his father refuses to go to Danville. He’s directly responsible for sending the gawky Seldon to the boonies.
Perhaps the most world-changing example of “be careful what you wish for” though comes when a frustrated Herman writes a letter to Walter Winchell to describe exactly what Homestead 42 will mean to his family. Bess begs him not to do it. (“Let someone else write to Winchell,” she insists.) But he counters with, “The people who chase children down the street… They do not get to win.”
The result is a chain of regrettable circumstance. Winchell’s on-air excoriation of Homestead 42 leads to Rabbi Bengelsdorf writing a scathing rebuttal in The New York Times. The editorial gets Winchell fired. The firing leads to Winchell announcing a run for president. The Winchell campaign kicks off in Paterson, New Jersey, at a rally attended by Bund thugs, Herbert Hoover’s G-Men… and Herman Levin. Again, Bess asks her husband to leave the activism to somebody else; and again, he refuses, saying, “Want me to run and hide?”
It’s an admirable take: standing up to the goons who are overrunning the country Herman loves. He can only be who he is; and he won’t squelch it even for the most powerful people in America. But even while Herman is standing with a crowd of resistors in Paterson, he’s still hoping that somebody else—Walter Winchell, in this case—will be fighting his battles for him. And soon—in next week’s miniseries finale, in fact—he will discover the consequences.
- I don’t know if table-pounding in lieu of simple applause or a hearty “Hear! Hear!” was a thing in the ’40s, or if it’s meant to indicative of the Lindbergh administration’s fascist leanings. But man is it ever creepy.
- The decision to eschew the limited, Philip-centered narrative perspective of the novel has helped to flesh out a lot of The Plot Against America’s characters—in particular Bess and Evelyn. (In the book, Herman, Alvin and Sandy loomed pretty large in Philip’s reminiscences.) But this creative choice has come at the expense of Philip’s storyline, to a significant extent. The young actors playing Philip and Seldon are doing fine work; but the moment this week when Philip gives the departing Seldon his stamp album should be much more emotional. The stamp album’s ultimate fate is a bigger deal in the novel, in large part because it’s one of the things that matters most to the person telling the story.
- I’ve been enjoying the depiction of Anne Lindbergh here, which suggests that—unlike her husband—she may be an okay person. In real life (and in Roth’s novel), there’s some mystery regarding Mrs. Lindbergh’s culpability in her husband’s Nazi-backing. Were her own pro-Hitler writings just a naive product of their time; or was she similarly inclined toward an ideology rooted in notions of racial purity? Certainly her post-WWII reputation as a writer remained fairly decent, helped along by an acclaimed body of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.
- What baseball team do they root for in Kentucky, you may wonder? Well, Cincinnati sits right across the Ohio River from Covington, so if the Levins had made the move to Danville they’d probably have to become Reds fans.