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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Optics matter in the latest The Plot Against America

Illustration for article titled Optics matter in the latest iThe Plot Against America/ii/i
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“It went without saying that Mr. Mawhinney was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the Revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it—generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to—while my father, of course, was only a Jew.” — The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth

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If you were invited to the White House, would you go? Would your answer depend on who invited you?

Very few U.S. presidents have ever gotten more than 60% of the popular vote, so if you were to pick just about any given point in American history, you’d find that nearly half the voters didn’t back whomever was in the Oval Office at that time. This doesn’t mean that nearly half of these citizens would disapprove of the sitting President. Not everybody votes; and even partisans sometimes give the opposition the benefit of the doubt. But because the job of President involves a lot of apolitical ceremony—honoring championship sports teams, greeting dignitaries, and the like—it’s never been all that unusual for a staunch conservative or a committed lefty to be asked to shake hands with a POTUS they personally dislike.

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Over the past decade though, this previously benign ritual has provoked a lot of hand-wringing. Some right-wing athletes refused to visit the White House during the Obama administration. Many more left-leaning jocks (or so it seems) have declined to meet with President Trump. For a lot of these people, this isn’t an act of pique; it’s a matter of principle.

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In “Part 4” of The Plot Against America, the Levins face a similar dilemma. Aunt Evelyn has been riding high from the success of Sandy’s participation in President Lindbergh’s “Just Folks” program, where he enjoyed a summer working on a Kentucky tobacco farm with the wholesome Mawhinney family. Sandy has since become a recruiter for Just Folks, and when Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is invited to the White House—for a state dinner with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop—the rabbi’s date for the evening, Evelyn, excitedly asks the First Lady, Anne Lindbergh, if Sandy can attend too.

Herman, who reluctantly okayed Sandy’s Just Folks trip, vehemently rejects the idea of him attending the state dinner—and isn’t too happy about his sister-in-law going either. Each of these little acquiescences feels more and more to Herman like ways of legitimizing Lindbergh: not just as the President, but as a true moral arbiter. Every “win” Lindbergh gets—from Just Folks to the increasing numbers of ordinary Jewish Americans who appear at his rallies—makes it seem like he was right all along about what the country needs, and perhaps even right about the Nazis. It makes the Jews seem subordinate to Lindbergh, and to the homogenized white America he stands for.

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Herman hashes this issue out with his brother Monty, who finds his apoplexy over Lindbergh to be somewhat silly and self-indulgent. Before the election, Monty shared his brother’s anxieties about what might happen to the Jews under a Lindbergh administration; but in the year since inauguration his life has been largely unaffected, aside from a booming business and a rising stock market. “He hasn’t done as any harm as far as I can see,” Monty shrugs. “You don’t see much,” Herman grumbles.

This is the devilish thing about The Plot Against America—both Philip Roth’s novel and David Simon and Ed Burns’ miniseries. The America depicted in this story doesn’t become fascist instantly, or obviously. For much of this story, it’d be easy to write Herman off as a paranoiac, or a conspiratorial loon. “Read the news!” he shouts at Sandy and at just about everyone else in his immediate vicinity, as though Herman, Walter Winchell and the guy who runs the newsreel theater were the only ones who could spot something insidious that was eluding nearly everybody else.

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Illustration for article titled Optics matter in the latest iThe Plot Against America/ii/i
Photo: Michele K. Short (HBO)

And yet it’s hard to dispute that Rabbi Bengelsdorf—as gracious and well-meaning as he may be—is deluded in his own way. All of his talk about “the people of real America,” and about how the Confederacy has a noble (if not moral) cause, and about how the nation would be stronger if Jews migrated away from urban clusters… It’s all the sound of somebody who’s confusing his own personal experiences with something universal, and righteous.

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As is their way, Simon and Burns don’t paint the rabbi as wholly awful, nor do they present Herman as some kind of paragon of virtue. At one point Philip asks whether the legless beggar they pass every day has a last name, and Herman rebukes him by snidely asking, “Do you?” Herman then has to admit that he actually doesn’t know the beggar’s last name. He just knows it looks bad for Philip to wonder if he does.

So yes, it stings when the newly worldly Sandy angrily dismisses his parents as “ghetto Jews.” (It stings him personally, when Bess slaps him hard across the face.) But when Sandy secretly confides in Philip that he ate pork while in Kentucky? His brother points out that since they don’t really keep kosher in their house anyway, it shouldn’t matter. Sandy though that knows Herman and Bess would be wrecked by the symbolism of their Jewish son violating one of their religion’s laws, and in a gentile’s home no less. Appearances matter—even when they don’t tell the whole story.

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Which brings us back to that state dinner, where Lionel and Evelyn endure an insulting comment from Henry Ford, and where Evelyn dances with Herr von Ribbentrop. A simple turn around the ballroom by a Nazi statesman and a prominent rabbi’s lady gets captured on film by a newsreel reporter, and then screened around the country. This invitation to dine with President Lindbergh—which Evelyn saw as a rare and irresistible honor—has led to her being used as a prop, to placate any Americans who might be worried that the Nazis are monstrous bigots. It’s good to be civil towards an opponent. But sometimes just showing up—even just to be polite—can register as approval.

Stray observations

  • It doesn’t take up a lot of the running time in “Part 4,” but one of the episode’s key events—which I’m sure I’ll be talking about more next week, if the series continues to follow the overall arc of the book as closely as it has so far—is the death of poor Seldon Wishnow’s father. This sets some things in motion that should affect the Levins greatly. More to come.
  • I understand why this episode doesn’t show any of Sandy’s adventures in Kentucky. In the novel, we only hear about Sandy’s summer in the sticks second-hand, after he returns home. Besides, expanding the action to a tobacco farm (or whatever plot of land in rural New Jersey could approximate the Kentucky countryside) would be expensive, even for a prestige HBO production. Still, Roth’s writing in the chapter where Sandy describes farm life is so vivid, I was kind of hoping to see it on the screen. Ah well. There’s some key action later in the book set in the Kentucky and I’ll be curious to see how—or if—Simon and Burns choose to dramatize it.
  • Speaking of “later in the book”… We are zooming along now. After we spent half the miniseries just getting through the first two chapters of The Plot Against America , this latest episode skips merrily ahead, plucking key incidents from multiple chapters and ultimately ending not too far away from the novel’s end. (The state dinner and Bess smacking Sandy are both pivotal moments before the big finish.) Some intensely dramatic stuff should be coming up in the next two weeks.
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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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