At this week's Republican National Convention much raillery will be heaped on the "L word," for liberal, and the "T word," for taxes. But there is another word that no speaker will dare make sport with, though it too is playing a role, albeit a backstage one, in the presidential campaign. I mean the "J word," for Jew.
Recently a Wall Street Journal editorial on Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' handling of the Rev. Jesse Jackson saw fit to mention only two biographical facts about the Democratic nominee. "He is proud of his Greek heritage," the Journal noted, "but is married to a Jewish wife, raising his children in 'both traditions.' " What on earth is that "but" doing there? For that matter, what is the factoid that Kitty Dukakis is Jewish doing there? One hopes that carelessness was to blame and that the Journal editorial page, the voice of the hard right in the Republican Party, was not sending a message unworthy of it.
Somebody's message is getting through to North Carolina, where, according to a correspondent, a rumor that Dukakis converted to Judaism when he married his wife is being discussed in political circles. Almost daily callers to a Boston talk radio station repeat the same rumor.
Now, three wisps of evidence scattered across a continent do not a conspiracy theory make. Still . . . .
Lee Atwater, Vice President George Bush's campaign manager, ran a successful congressional campaign in South Carolina a few years ago against which charges of anti-Semitism were leveled. Atwater's candidate commissioned a poll, which, by means of one of the questions it asked, got across to the voters the message that one of his opponents was Jewish. Atwater later denied having anything to do with the poll. But it happened on his watch, as they say, and his reputation for political lowball is otherwise well-established.
Whoever injected the "J word" into that South Carolina campaign knew what he was doing. In a welcome change, cardinals now join with fundamentalist ministers in deploring it, but white Christian anti-Semitism lives on, nearly a half century after the Holocaust linked it irrevocably with genocide. You can sense it in that vile epithet "JAP" (Jewish-American Princess), you can hear it in some of the vitriolic rhetoric about perfidious Israel and you brush up against it in the obsessive press interest in the "personality" of Mrs. Dukakis--her "pushiness," her much-publicized love of shopping, her "passionate" temperament.
Though the journalists who deal in such characterizations may not realize it, they are using a code mottled with bigotry. The "J word"' may never be publicly spoken in this campaign, but the enemies of decency are getting the message all the same.