Profile

A Scholarly and Judaic Approach to Political Punditry

By | November 28, 2012

(Denise Applewhite/Princeton University)

Brooke Baldwin, CNN’s news anchor, was chagrined. During the presidential election, despite a plethora of fact checking of candidates’ statements from both political parties and the media, it appeared that mendacity was triumphing over veracity. Why, she wondered aloud on an October 16th broadcast, aren’t more American voters swayed by the clear evidence supplied by fact checking? Where’s the voter outrage? Why aren’t voters demanding to know the truth?

She turned to Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, for insight. “I want to tell you that I tweeted this beforehand,” she said. “I can almost hear people on Twitter yelling back at me saying: ‘Yes, Brooke, facts matter!’” she said, almost breathless. “But you write about how politicians are still stretching the truth … how are these politicians able to get away with it?”

Zelizer, whose opinion piece “Do facts matter?” had appeared earlier that day at CNN.com, offered an explanation. “We have a proliferation of fact checkers and news outlets telling us all the data we need that analyze what the candidates say, but … candidates still stretch the truth,” Zelizer replied. “We are in an environment where there are facts out there, but people are having trouble distinguishing between partisan facts and independent facts.”

“But there’s little impact, and not enough outrage,” Baldwin insisted. “Why aren’t there consequences for people lying?”

“For thirty years now all the polls have shown that people don’t trust government and they don’t trust politicians,” Zelizer said. “Ever since Watergate … public esteem for government is very low. I think when it is revealed that someone is not telling the truth, for many voters, that’s what they’d expect. Fact checkers are going against that perception by trying to generate outrage in a culture that expects the worst from its leaders.”

“That is really sad!” Baldwin shouted, off camera.

Zelizer, at first visibly surprised by her outburst, calmly restated his opinion.

“The public lives in a world where it seems impossible to know what is fact and what is partisan fiction,” he said.
 

WATCHING CNN’S BALDWIN VERSUS Zelizer was a study in opposites. She appeared to be over-caffeinated, jittery. His professorial demeanor seemed a tad aloof, not without boyish charm, but not about to be deterred, either. When questioned, he admits to a certain sangfroid, but insists he’s not dispassionate. On the contrary: as a weekly CNN.com columnist, a Princeton professor and author of numerous books that examine U.S. political leaders, policies, and institutions since the New Deal, he claims to be truly passionate about all things political.

So, what’s up with the cool demeanor? He attributes this to his scholar’s approach to politics that is firmly melded to his background as a committed Jew. “I grew up with rabbis all over the place,” Zelizer, 43, says of his upbringing. He is the only child of Gerald L. Zelizer, a fourth generation rabbi and, since 1970, spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey. His mother, Viviana A. Zelizer, is the Lloyd Cotsen ’50 Professor of Sociology at Princeton.

“Not only is my father a rabbi, but my grandfather was a rabbi, and there are rabbis on my mother’s side, too,” Zelizer says. “I went to Solomon Schechter School until high school. I grew up embracing Jewish traditions. I studied the Talmud which teaches you to question life—to probe, to engage in dialogue to find the answers, to argue back and forth with others—all in an effort to explore the deeper meaning of things.”

When he participates in public political discourse—that sometimes erupt into conflagrations—he draws deeply from both his academic and religious trainings. “I won’t be labeled as either Democrat or Republican,” Zelizer says. “I won’t be pulled into that. I was once on Glenn Beck’s show. It was me and three other guests on screen—four talking heads. They were all talking about whether President Obama was a socialist. In fact, they were saying that he was a socialist, and pressing me when I disagreed. I made the point that Obama is a rather mainstream Democrat, a party that is far from socialist. But Beck was in full mode. It was definitely the biggest test I had to keep a level head in the middle of an interview that was somewhat strange and very polemical. But I just kept on point, to show that I consider all sides.”

Zelizer’s choice of a career in academia does not surprise his parents. “Julian grew up in an egalitarian home,” his father, Rabbi Zelizer says. “In our home we are committed to thinking, writing, and speaking. And yes, he’s chosen to become an academic like his mother, but he is also fulfilling what I envisioned for him, namely that he become a lay leader in his community. The Conservative Jewish movement is often accused of having insufficient laity committed to its vision of Judaism and halachic practice. Julian, in addition to being a noted scholar and public intellectual in the secular political arena, is an academic whose commitment to Judaism reflects his being one of those laity that we rabbis aspire to inspire. As his father, it is doubly exciting.”

There was never pressure on Julian to join the rabbinate, says his mother, or, for that matter, to follow in her footsteps by seeking a career as an academic. “It was not something we ever talked about at home,” Viviana Zelizer says. “It evolved. I always thought he’d become a judge someday,” she adds. The fact that both mother and son teach at Princeton is “a happy accident,” she says. Princeton recruited Julian while he was teaching at Boston University. “I certainly never lobbied for Julian to join the faculty at Princeton,” she says. “I’m in the sociology department, and he’s a professor of history, two entirely different departments. It’s wonderful, really, because we are close as a family, and I get to spend time with his children, my grandchildren, and a special treat for me.” Julian is married to Meg Jacobs, an associate professor of history at MIT, with whom he co-authored Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989. It’s a second marriage for both, and between them they have four children, ages 8 to 11.

Gerald Zelizer credits his own father, the late Rabbi Nathan Zelizer, with influencing Julian in his political endeavors. “My father was a rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, for 42 years,” Gerald Zelizer says. “He emigrated from Poland to the United States at age 18. He took great interest in state and local politics. He chatted with Julian over long hours about politics and encouraged Julian’s immersion into history and public affairs.”

Julian remembers his late grandfather fondly as a “politics junky,” who often spent long hours watching the political talk shows on television. “The media has changed so much since then,” he says, “I’m quite certain that my grandfather would hardly recognize the media if he were alive today.”
 

I FIRST MET JULIAN some years ago, at Brandeis University’s swimming pool in suburban Boston, and we’ve stayed in contact over the years. While I would flounder around in the water and congratulate myself for remaining buoyant after a 20-minute splash, he’d be in an adjacent lane, steadfastly swimming laps. He’d swim for an hour, plowing through the water like a workhorse. It is this ethic he displays today and applies to teaching, research, and writing.

“Both my parents are rigorous, methodical people,” he says. “They taught me you solve problems through careful analysis, and to seek solutions that way. That’s what was noticeable in my swimming. I learned that you work at solving puzzled doggedly, with patience. That’s how I am. I don’t do sprints. I work at it, slowly.”

Growing up in his father’s synagogue taught him other kinds of discipline. “My father, as a rabbi of a large congregation, is also a manager,” he says. “A synagogue is a complicated place to run. You have to learn how to navigate, how to develop a thick skin, how to listen to others, and how to offer counsel. Being in a shul also made me feel comfortable with public speaking. At my bar mitzvah, there had to be 600 people in attendance. And I couldn’t have cared less about the size of the crowd. I began to develop a public speaking style by attending and leading services at the synagogue.”

He has taken this style to the public arena and to the Princeton classroom. “When I speak to students,” he says, “I feel I am very rabbinical in my approach. I do not deliver sermons, but I organize my lectures so that the information is balanced, the subject is explained, so students understand the give and take about the issues involved.”

What do his students think about his subject matter, about history and politics? “They attend my classes looking to understand the issues—what the deficit means, what’s the role of the president, how to understand healthcare vs. Obamacare,” he says. “They want to learn about government policies, how it affects people’s lives.”

For Eugene Hillsman, who completed his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis and has been studying history at Princeton for the last three years, Julian is “incredibly supportive as a mentor and as a professor.”

“What makes Julian stand out,” Hillsman says, “is not only his grasp of history but his ability to weave it into the present. Princeton has a reputation of existing in an academic bubble. People think of it as an isolated place. Julian helps students to make a connection with the present and the past so that you feel that the lessons of history can be learned and given context within today’s world.”

Currently, Zelizer is at work on two books, one on the Great Society and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in spearheading the legislation. It will examine how Congress and the media functioned in the 1960s, enabling LBJ to make progress with his agenda. His other book is a history of American politics since the 1970s. He expects both to be published next year. And he continues a vigorous schedule of media appearances and writes weekly online commentary for CNN.

One of Zelizer’s colleagues at Princeton, Kevin Kruse, a professor of history, says he is astonished by Zelizer’s indefatigable work ethic. “I’m convinced Julian is not one man but several identical octuplets joined together in one body,” Kruse quips. “I’m not surprised to receive emails from him that he wrote at four in the morning. His mind is going all the time.” Kruse adds, “He’s emerged as a leader in American political history. … And he’s devoted to his students. He has attracted an impressive corps of graduate students to study here.”

Zelizer has found his métier as a scholar and teacher. But as a political commentator, he feels he’s bringing to the fray a calm and reasoned voice.

“When I meet people at airports during my travels,” he says, “they congratulate me for my approach to these televised talk show panels. I provide a perspective on history that brings with it a balanced approach to the issues. This is a voice that the media, which is very often noisy and distracting, really needs.”

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor whose work appears in several online and print publications, including Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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