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Lucky Lindy, unfortunate Jews

In Philip Roth's alternative history, Charles Lindbergh beats FDR

By Ron Charles / September 28, 2004



Once again, Philip Roth has published a novel that you must read - now. It's not that an appreciation of his book depends on the political climate; our appreciation of the political climate depends on his book. During a bitterly contested election in a time of war against an amorphous enemy, "The Plot Against America" inspires exactly the kind of discussion we need.

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With a seamless blend of autobiography, history, and speculation, Roth imagines that Charles Lindbergh ran against Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1940. Drawing on Lindbergh's writings and speeches at the time, Roth creates a campaign for the aviation hero centered on his determination to keep America out of Europe's war. While Roosevelt enunciates complex policies in his famous upper-class cadence, Lindbergh buzzes around the country in The Spirit of St. Louis declaring, "Your choice is simple. It's between Lindbergh and war." To preserve the nation, we must resist the propaganda of "the Jewish race," Lindbergh warns, "and their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."

After winning by a landslide, he immediately negotiates "understandings" with the Axis, consigning Europe to Germany in exchange for a promise to leave America alone. Political opponents rail against the president for "yielding to his Nazi friends," but everybody knows those nay-sayers are just warmongering Jews.

Lindbergh's first domestic initiative is the creation of the Office of American Absorption to "encourage America's religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into the larger society." In practice, this involves sending urban Jewish children to spend the summer on farms in the South - "a Jewish farm hand in the Gentile heartland." Eventually, the program expands to remove whole Jewish families from their city "ghettos" and send them to exciting, new lives in the Midwest. If their culture is dissolved in the process, well, that's OK too.

Yes, Lindbergh comes off very bad in these pages. He spouts anti-Semitic canards that sound far more shocking now than in 1938, when he accepted the Nazis' Service Cross of the German Eagle "by order of the Fuhrer." But clearly Roth's real target isn't an anti-Semitic aviation hero who died 30 years ago. It's an electorate he sees as dazzled by attractive faces, moved by simple slogans, and cowed by ominous warnings about threats to our security.

The result is a cautionary story in the tradition of "The Handmaid's Tale," a stunning work of political extrapolation about a triumvirate of hate, ignorance, and paranoia that shreds decency and overruns liberty. Roth provides brilliant analysis of political rhetoric: the way demagogues manipulate public opinion and the way responsible journalists inadvertently prop up tyrants in their devotion to objectivity and balance.

But what really gives the novel life is its narrator: a little boy named Phil Roth. He lives in Newark with his older brother, who's completely enamored with Charles Lindbergh; his righteous father, who's convinced the new president is an American Hitler; and his long- suffering mother, who struggles to hold her family together as the nation is ripped apart.

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