The Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who died earlier this month, was remarkable in so many ways. But one such way hasn’t received as much attention as it should: his ability to win high-level access and respect on both sides of the polarized partisan political divide.
Wiesel was a longtime friend and associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton and a regular guest at the White House during the Clinton years. His endorsement of Mrs. Clinton in the 2000 U.S. Senate race in New York helped her win over Jewish voters who had been wary after her high-profile kiss of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s wife, Suha, who had falsely accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian Arab children.
Yet it emerged that Wiesel also recently had a three-hour lunch with Donald Trump. Trump met the news of Wiesel’s death with a tweet describing him as a “great man” who made the world a better place.
Now that Wiesel is gone, who else is there in his category?
One name that comes to mind is Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to presidents Nixon and Ford. Kissinger met with Trump in May. And Kissinger’s relationship with Mrs. Clinton is sufficiently warm and close that it was the subject of repeated attacks by Bernie Sanders. Kissinger’s credibility isn’t just bipartisan, it’s tri-partisan; he’s also old pals with William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor running for vice president on the Libertarian ticket.
On one level, the parallel between Wiesel and Kissinger might appear paradoxical. Wiesel was an advocate for humanitarian intervention, consistently and passionately urging America to do more to alleviate genocide and suffering around the world. Kissinger is the archetypical realist, weighing foreign policy choices analytically and calculating how they might advance, or not advance, America’s national security interests.
But realism and humanitarianism interventionism, while often in tension, aren’t inalterably opposed. Realists sometimes make the pragmatic humanitarian argument that if America overcommits itself, it won’t be able to help when it’s really needed. Interventionists sometimes argue on realist grounds that if America fails to help in humanitarian crises, the resulting power vacuums may mushroom into national security threats.
Even as non-interventionist a president as Barack Obama, who basically shrugged at the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians and whose premature withdrawal from Iraq led to the rise of the Islamic State, this week delayed his plans to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. There’s a broad bipartisan consensus that at least some minimal level of American leadership, strength and engagement is good for both America and the world; that’s the consensus within which both Wiesel and Kissinger operated, whatever differences arise over tactics or particular cases.
Kissinger and Wiesel both worked as college professors; Kissinger at Harvard, Wiesel at the City University of New York and at Boston University. They both were immigrants who came to America young, poor and unknown and who became famous and financially secure. Both men were brilliant and prolific authors, proud Americans and proud Jews, friends of Israel. Their English-language voices carried traces, in their accents, of their foreign pasts. Refugees from the fascism that rose in Europe in the middle of the past century, they were conscious of the gift of freedom and of its fragility.
Kissinger, thankfully, remains with us at age 93; Wiesel, alas, is now gone. Who will be the Kissinger or the Wiesel of the next generation? There’s no way to tell. All we can do is hope that America’s border and spirit will be open wide enough to allow them in.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.