As the Senate girds itself for the upcoming battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, a leading conservative journal has waded into the fray with a cover illustration depicting a prominent Democratic Jewish senator as a Tomás de Torquemada-style inquisitor.
The illustration, which appears on the cover of the August 8 issue of the National Review, features a large-nosed caricature of New York Senator Charles Schumer, dressed in 15th-century Catholic Church vestments, above the headline “The Inquisitor.” Schumer, a Brooklynite known for his aggressiveness, has emerged as one of the leading Democratic voices in the confirmation debate. The National Review is a biweekly magazine of opinion founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955.
The Schumer image arrives amid long-standing conservative claims that Senate Democrats have shown an anti-Catholic bias in scrutinizing President Bush’s judicial nominees. The Democrats — Schumer and some prominent Catholic lawmakers among them — have vigorously denied the charge. Roberts, the president’s nominee to fill the judicial seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is Catholic.
The cover sparked a wide array of reactions from media watchers, ranging from outrage over perceived antisemitism to little more than a shrug, and produced some unlikely alignments. Frank Rich, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, and William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, were at odds last year over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” But when asked about the Schumer illustration, they seemed to find some common ground.
Donohue, who caused a stir last year by saying that Hollywood is controlled by “secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular,” told the Forward he “winced” when he first saw the cover, regarding it as misappropriation of Catholic imagery and an unfair demonization of Schumer. On seeing the cover, Donohue expected to see a corresponding feature about Schumer’s opposition to Catholic judges, but “nothing jived,” he said. “The cover doesn’t match the story. Why would you have this caricature of Schumer when you don’t even go there?” Donohue felt that a Catholic Democrat such as Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts or Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont would have been a more suitable subject for such a caricature. “Why would you choose the one guy who’s Jewish and dress him up in Catholic attire to make an invidious point?” he said. “I could see why my Jewish friends would have their backs up.”
Rich also criticized the image, writing in an e-mail to the Forward: “At a time when anyone who says the mildest critical word about John Roberts is being baselessly attacked by the right-wing p.c. police as ‘anti-Catholic,’ it was revealing to find Chuck Schumer caricatured on the cover of a conservative magazine as if he were the love child of Shylock and Fagin. It’s an indication that the right may be hoping to gin up a divisive religious fracas any which way it can.”
But not all took offense. The Anti-Defamation League, which regularly condemns the use of Nazi analogies, saw no reason for alarm. Ken Jacobson, the ADL’s associate national director, said that given Schumer’s prominence and outspokenness, the cover image did not cross any red lines. “This is a picture of a senator,” he said. “It’s not a Jew.”
Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, when shown a copy of the image by the Forward, was more troubled. “At a time when antisemitism in Europe is at an unprecedented level it’s certainly not the right time to make Senator Schumer the Inquisitor and to give him a nose that would make [Nazi propagandist] Julius Streicher proud,” Hier said.
Richard Lowry, editor of the National Review, rejected any suggestion that the cover could be seen as antisemitic. “To come up with the interpretation that some people have, you really have to be straining to find offense,” he said. Lowry stressed that caricatures are by their very nature exaggerated. He noted that the same artist who drew the Schumer image, Roman Genn, also has done caricatures of Bill Clinton and Al Gore for the magazine with noses still larger than Schumer’s. Lowry also stressed that Genn is Jewish — and a Zionist.
The current chapter in the judicial battles can be said to have begun in the summer of 2003, when Schumer questioned whether the personal beliefs of judicial candidate Bill Pryor, a devout Catholic who once referred to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling as a constitutional “abomination,” rendered him unfit for the office. Schumer argued that the nominee’s “beliefs are so well known, so deeply held, that it’s very hard to believe… that they’re not going to deeply influence the way he comes about saying, ‘I will follow the law.’”
Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, saw the National Review cover as an outgrowth of Schumer’s line of questioning in the Pryor case. “This is the Pandora’s Box that gets opened when a person’s personal characteristics rather than their fitness for office becomes the issue,” he told the Forward.
Among the ironies of the present situation is that one of the two articles connected with the Schumer cover is a critique of the position espoused by Diament and many Republicans: that certain questions are off limits to judicial candidates. In an article titled “Ask Not,” National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru wrote: “In our current political order, elections for the Senate may turn on the candidates’ positions on abortion even though senators do not set abortion policy. But the people who do set abortion policy are not to be asked how they will rule.”
By this logic, Schumer, far from being an inquisitor, would seem simply to be doing his job.
When asked for comment on the National Review cover, it was to the figure of the inquisitor that the New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, turned his thoughts. “Schumer is not an inquisitor; he is a nudnik,” Wieseltier said. “There’s a big difference between an inquisitor and a nudnik, but what it reveals is nothing like antisemitism. It’s another sign of the perennial paranoia of the right. The reason that Torquemada was such a powerful figure is that he represented the majority culture,” Wieseltier said. “In the Senate, the Democrats are the minority culture. The idea that there will arise a Torquemada from the Democrats is just paranoid self-pity.”
For his part, Genn said he “likes” controversy. And he is not new to it. A 1997 cover illustration he did of Bill and Hillary Clinton as narrow-eyed Asians drew complaints from Asian-American groups. But Genn is nevertheless worried about how controversy can limit the way he practices his craft. “I won’t be able to put any kind of nose on a Jewish person from now on,” he said. “Inch by inch, our personal freedom as satirists is reduced by these things.”