“‘We knew things were bad,’ my father told the friends he immediately sat down to phone when we got home, ‘But not like this. You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.’” — The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth
There are multiple memorable passages in the novel The Plot Against America, but it wouldn’t wrong to say that the the chapter where the Roth family visits Washington D.C. is the centerpiece of the entire book… even though it comes early, in chapter two.
Like a lot of the novel, the Washington sequence feels like a personal reminiscence more than a cautionary alternate history. The Roths take a trip they’d planned long before the Lindbergh election, and thanks to some help from Mr. Taylor, a friendly and knowledgeable guide, they experience the city at its best, circa 1941: from the bustling diners and clean, well-lit streets to the gleaning monuments and surrounding historical sites.
But they also get their first real sense of how America has changed since Lindy’s inauguration. The hotel they booked months in advance says there’s been a mix-up, and summarily evicts them—with the help of an unsympathetic police force. When Herman talks loudly about how Roosevelt should’ve won, other tourists shush and openly insult him. When Lindbergh does one of his near-daily flybys over the national mall, the crowds ooh and aah. The chapter unfolds like a great short story, culminating in the moment when the former university professor Mr. Taylor—who had been polite to the point of being inscrutable up to that point—stands up for the Roths against an antisemitic blowhard.
The HBO version of The Plot Against America literally puts the Washington trip at the center of the story. The sequence happens in the final 20 minutes of “Part 3” of a six-part miniseries. It represents a turning point in the narrative. For most of the first three hours, this family (the Levins on TV instead of the Roths) has tried to convince themselves that President Lindbergh’s win was a fluke. From deep in their leftist Jewish New Jersey bubble—where they’re mostly only hearing rumors and reports from Walter Winchell about what’s happening across America—they can still believe they’re part of a righteous majority. Visiting D.C. shatters any remaining illusions.
The TV Plot Against America compresses the book’s D.C. material considerably, but includes the parts that matter most. We see Bess’s mounting concern that the authorities are just going to round them up and ship them to a concentration camp; and we see her frustration that Herman can’t just play it cool and keep his mouth shut. We see Herman determined to use his freedom of speech, even as his open contempt for Lindbergh irritates strangers.
Most importantly, Ed Burns and David Simon include Mr. Taylor (played by the fantastic Fringe and Sweeney Todd actor Michael Cerveris), the Roths/Levins’ eloquent and genteel guide, whose true feelings about politics and Herman remain somewhat mysterious, up until the moment when he gets in the face of a large and loud Lindbergh supporter. Even then—in the book and on TV—it’s not entirely clear whether Taylor defends Herman because he’s a Roosevelt man himself or if he’s just a staunch supporter of civility.
Either way, the moment of brotherhood is a welcome relief during an otherwise dispiriting vacation; and it’s reinforced when the restaurant’s manager then offers the family extra coffee and ice cream, and urges them to stay as long as they like. As a sweet capper to the scene, Herman sings a song inspired by the Indiana college where Mr. Taylor taught: “On The Banks Of The Wabash, Far Away.” Once again, Herman asserts his essential Americanness.
Much of the rest of “Part 3” gets into the very different post-election experiences of two members of the Levins’ extended family. Having fled to Canada, Alvin is now in Europe, training with the British and “canoodling” with their women, while angling to kill as many Germans as he can. When one of his sexual conquests—an agent working with British intelligence—suggests to him that he should be fighting for a real cause and not just out of “spite,” he shrugs and suggest that as far as reasons for war go, spite “will do.” The result? Alvin gets his leg blown off and ends the episode unconscious in a hospital bed.
Meanwhile, Bess’ sister Evelyn is riding high thanks to her fella, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who’s just been named the head of Lindbergh’s new “Office Of American Absorption,” an agency meant to soften the president’s past antisemitic comments by suggesting that maybe he had a point, and that maybe the Jews and other racial, ethnic and religious minorities could do a better job trying to fit in. One of the initial OAA programs is called “Just Folks,” and Evelyn wants her nephew Sandy to take part, and spend a summer living with a farm family in Kentucky. Sandy is eager to do it, because he’s looking forward to sketching the animals down south. Herman, of course, is adamantly against it… until he meets the Indianan Mr. Taylor, that is, and decides that maybe middle Americans aren’t so bad.
One of the more fascinating questions raised by this TV adaptation of The Plot Against America is something that’s inherent in the material but not quite as overt as Burns and Simon have made it: How much are the choices these characters make driven by their deeply held ideals, and how much is just a product of how they were raised, and how they’ve been treated all their lives? Herman seems committed to the progressive, egalitarian platform of the Democratic Party; but as we saw last week, that doesn’t stop him from defending Alvin’s piggish boss. Alvin, on the other hand, is a perpetual underdog and an impulsive tough guy, who fights for the right side in part because that’s where the action is.
And Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Evelyn? Well, their situations are nuanced too (and arguably more complicated than in Roth’s novel). The Rabbi isn’t completely unaware of the bigotry that buoyed Lindbergh. He admits to Evelyn that Henry Ford—now the Secretary Of The Interior—is a stone-cold Jew-hater, who, he marvels, “will be entirely polite when you meet him.” And Bergsdorf probably isn’t entirely comfortable with President Lindbergh shaking hands with Adolf Hitler at a peace conference either, although he accepts that devil’s bargain as a way to keep young Americans from dying in a war—and to keep Soviet-style socialism from reaching U.S. shores.
As for Evelyn… well, she’s a case study in how, as Herman Roth puts it in the novel, one person’s nightmare can be another’s dream. Evelyn doesn’t seem especially interested in Bengelsdorf’s politics, or even his faith. (She has trouble following along with the service when she attends his synagogue.) But after spending much of her adulthood taking care of a sickly and senile mother who only talks about her sister Bess, she finally has something that’s hers. One of the more chilling—and yet sensible—ideas in this Plot Against America is that not everyone supports an evil regime for immoral reasons. Sometimes they follow a demagogue just because they’re tired of feeling excluded.
- This episode also dramatizes another of the book’s best-known scenes: Philip’s nightmare that all of the stamps in his album have been replaced by images of Hitler and swastikas. The stamp album is a powerful symbol in the novel; and though it’s appeared only a few times in the miniseries thus far, it’s carried much the same meaning. A lot of Phil’s identity as an ordinary patriotic kid is tied to his meticulously kept collections of U.S. president stamps and U.S. national monument stamps and so on. It’s pretty harrowing then, seeing those images of America overwritten with Nazi iconography overnight—almost as though the fascism was always there, ready to burn through.