‘Esther’ in the White House
Esther in America, edited by Rabbi Dr. Stuart W. Halpern (2020, Maggid Books/Yeshiva University).
Below is an excerpt from Esther in America, edited by Rabbi Stuart Halpern:
Esther in the White House: The Scroll of Esther and Surviving Palace Intrigue at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
by Dr. Tevi Troy
The story of Queen Esther has a tremendous cultural resonance. We can see this resonance even today, more than 2,000 years after the events depicted in the Book of Esther, as the Queen Esther comparison is a frequent motif for political commentators assessing presidential politics.
These comparisons go across the political aisle and even across the gender divide. In the Donald Trump presidency, commentators debated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion that Trump was a modern Queen Esther, sent to save today’s Jewish people from destruction. As Secretary Pompeo mused, “Could it be that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?”
Pompeo is far from the only one to make such a comparison to a modern political figure. A New York magazine profile reported that first daughter Ivanka Trump was nicknamed “Queen Esther” at her synagogue for her ability to steer the ruler in directions helpful to the Jewish people. In an earlier administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the Esther story by giving President Barack Obama a copy of the Book of Esther as a gift — as an unsubtle reminder that a previous Persian empire had also tried to destroy the Jews. On the campaign trail in 2008, a voter told former first lady and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton that Queen Esther reminded him of Hillary, prompting Mrs. Clinton to share the tidbit that the Esther story was one of her favorite biblical stories. In 1999, when the Jewish intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed to have been having an affair with President Bill Clinton, the JTA reported that some referred to her as a “modern-day Queen Esther.” Another interesting reaction to the Lewinsky scandal came from future Vice President Mike Pence, then a political pundit, who suggested that Clinton’s activities reminded him that “in the Bible story of Esther we are told of a king who was charged to put right his own household because there would be ‘no end of disrespect and discord’ among the families of the kingdom if he failed to do so.”
These comparisons are creative, and point to Esther’s continuing hold on our imagination. Still, they do not capture the true essence of the Esther story. Esther was a young woman brought into the fractious environment of the Persian king who had to both survive and get her way with no legal authority beyond a marital relationship to the king. In this, the Esther story is the story of the modern First Lady. The First Lady has no independent power. She is there by virtue of her spouse’s election as president. As Lady Bird Johnson observed of the role, “The First Lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband.” In order to be successful, the First Lady must navigate an often-treacherous White House environment with her wiles, her wisdom, and — she hopes — the help of one very powerful ally in the form of the president.
Esther managed to survive and succeed in the court of King Ahasuerus in an impressive way. She did so even though she was burdened by the additional handicap of being Jewish at a time when, prompted by the king’s top adviser Haman, there was a plan to annihilate the Jews. When her cousin and mentor Mordechai first notifies her that the Jews are threatened and she needs to intervene, she explains to him the very real danger she faces. In Esther 4:11, she tells Mordecai via an intermediary that “whosoever, whether man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, except such to whom the king shall hold out the golden scepter, that he may live; but I have not been called to come in unto the king these thirty days.” Mordecai recognizes the danger, but does not accept her excuse, famously telling her in 4:14 that “who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?”
Today, we are also getting closer to the era when the Esther in the White House might be not a woman but a man, something that almost happened with former President Bill Clinton in 2016. Regardless of gender, future First Ladies – and First Husbands – will continue to face challenges in the form of staff tensions for as long as the Republic lasts. Whatever those challenges, presidential spouses would be wise to look to the eternal lessons of Queen Esther for guidance on how to navigate the politics of being spouse to the most powerful person in the country
Tevi Troy is a best-selling presidential historian, and a former senior government official. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost and Senior Program Officer of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University. He previously co-edited Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States (Toby Press/YU 2019).