The West Wing? I do real pol­i­tics

Best known as a tough strate­gist on The West Wing, Ron Sil­ver loves pol­i­tics — and has con­tro­ver­sial views

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY PAUL LESTER

RON SIL­VER IS an ac­tor, di­rec­tor and pro­ducer best known for his role as spin-doc­tor and pres­i­den­tial cam­paign ad­viser Bruno Gianelli in the ac­claimed tele­vi­sion drama The West Wing. But he is also be­com­ing in­creas­ingly renowned for his out­spo­ken views in the real world — on world pol­i­tics, on East-West re­la­tions, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy and the fu­ture of the state of Is­rael. A mem­ber of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, in 2000 he co-founded the or­gan­i­sa­tion One Jerusalem to op­pose the Oslo Peace Agree­ment. Ear­lier this month, the self-pro­fessed “rev­o­lu­tion­ary lib­eral”, who switched al­le­giance to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion over the US Democrats’ stance on the “War On Ter­ror”, came to Bri­tain at the in­vi­ta­tion of the Henry Jack­son So­ci­ety to speak at the House Of Com­mons. His sub­jects were the im­por­tance of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, the “spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” be­tween Amer­ica and Bri­tain, the global chal­lenges aris­ing from the cur­rent eco­nomic cri­sis, the resur­gence of Rus­sia as a world power, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of nu­clear weapons, and the ever-present threat of ter­ror­ism.

To hear him talk, you would hardly guess that the 62-year-old New Yorker — son of a teacher and cloth­ing-sales­man — is an es­teemed ac­tor in one of the most highly re­garded TV se­ries of re­cent times.

“By in­cli­na­tion I am more of a politi­cian than I am an ac­tor,” he has said. “I care more about pub­lic pol­icy, pro-choice, the en­vi­ron­ment, home­less­ness and nu­clear is­sues than I do about any [act­ing] part.”

Sure enough, Sil­ver, on his way to an in­ter­view with David Frost for Al Jazeera, is keener to dis­cuss Ju­daism and what he sees as in­creas­ing lev­els of an­tisemitism than he is his act­ing cre­den­tials.

In fact, the first words he ut­ters to the JC are “shanah to­vah” — it’s a week af­ter Rosh Hashanah. His last are: “If you want to know more about my ca­reer, you can find it on the in­ter­net,” be­cause we run out of time af­ter a lengthy mono­logue about what he sees as the im­mi­nent threat to Is­rael from Iran.

First, he mar­vels at the his­toric visit by Pope Bene­dict XVI in April this year to Park East Syn­a­gogue in Man­hat­tan, where he be­came only the third Pope to visit a Jewish house of wor­ship any­where in the world, and the first to do so dur­ing a trip to the States. Then he en­thuses about go­ing with his 29-year-old son to join up with his 25-year-old daugh­ter when she trav­els to Is­rael next spring, his first such visit since 2007, when he trav­elled there with Ge­orge Bush as part of a pres­i­den­tial del­e­ga­tion.

“He [Bush] gave a very, very strong speech about Is­rael,” he re­mem­bers. “I’ve had Is­raeli politi­cians come up to me and say, ‘My good­ness, I couldn’t give that speech in the Knes­set that the Pres­i­dent just gave.’ It was very strong. I feel very strongly about th­ese is­sues and Is­rael.” Is Sil­ver’s back­ing for Is­rael is as firm as ever? “Oh yes, there’s no ques­tion about it,” he con­firms, al­though he has a pro­viso: “I won’t pre­tend to speak on be­half of Is­rael, and I don’t pre­tend to speak on be­half of Is­raelis. I don’t live there or live with that ex­is­ten­tial threat hang­ing over my head. ”

Does he fear what might hap­pen to Is­rael, faced as it is with in­tim­i­da­tion from Iran, af­ter the forth­com­ing US elec­tions? “Fear is a very strong word,” he replies. “I don’t fear — and I’m not try­ing to be a politi­cian here, so I don’t care how my words are in­ter­preted — but I am very con­cerned.”

He is con­cerned that the United Na­tions al­lowed Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Ah­madine­jad’s re­cent im­plied threat of an­ni­hi­la­tion of Is­rael to go un­chal­lenged.

“They ac­tu­ally ap­plauded a man who stood up and threat­ened an­other mem­ber na­tion with liq­ui­da­tion,” he says, his New York rasp barely a whis­per yet con­vey­ing a sense of ur­gency. “Can you imag­ine if I was the pres­i­dent of France and I got up and said I was go­ing to wipe Ger­many off the map?”

Does he see it as pos­tur­ing on Iran’s part, or a real dan­ger? “I don’t know,” he says. “Do you re­ally want to take the chance? When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf peo­ple treated him as a clown, as out­landish. The Ger­man Jewish pop­u­la­tion said, ‘Oh, please, we’re well en­trenched here, we’ll deal with this mad man.’ Well, I think af­ter the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Sec­ond World War I don’t find it amus­ing and I don’t find it pos­tur­ing.”

Not that Sil­ver is a gung-ho hawk ea­ger for con­flict; he just doesn’t see any al­ter­na­tive, with Iran poised to have not just nu­clear weapons but also a de­liv­ery sys­tem ca­pa­ble of reach­ing Is­rael, even Europe.

“I’m afraid now peo­ple will say, ‘We need to talk to them. We con­tained and de­terred the Soviet Union for more than 50 years.’ So we’ll try to strengthen the sanc­tions. But at some point talk­ing has to end. I be­lieve peace is morally and tac­ti­cally prefer­able. But the ques­tion we should be ask­ing is… Peace: for how long, at what price and at what risk?”

But with the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion on the way out, the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and the com­mit­ment to a mil­i­tary pres­ence in Iraq and Afghanistan, does Amer­ica have the where­withal to act?

“There is plenty of money. Peo­ple would be sur­prised if they re­alised what a small per­cent­age of our GDP goes on de­fence-re­lated ap­pro­pri­a­tions in sup­port of our mil­i­tary. But I don’t think this present ad­min­is­tra­tion will do any­thing. Now, what Is­rael does af­ter the elec­tions and the pres­i­dent is in­au­gu­rated is any­one’s guess. But if I was a mem­ber of the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment charged with pro­tect­ing the Is­raeli peo­ple, I would think long and hard about my obli­ga­tions.”

Who would he pre­fer in the White House from Jan­uary, Obama or McCain/Palin?

“Well, it’s in­ter­est­ing that you said Obama not Obama/Bi­den, but you said McCain/Palin. I think Palin is the wild card there, and the idea of her as Com­man­der-In-Chief is some­what prob­lem­atic; there’s no ques­tion where McCain stands. I’m un­cer­tain about Obama: I think his pop­u­lar­ity rests on be­ing some­one who every­one can pour their own thoughts into. A lot of my lib­eral Demo­crat friends sup­port him, but I say to them: ‘I wish I was as cer­tain about one thing as you seem to be about ev­ery­thing.’” Nev­er­the­less, if Obama does win, Sil­ver be­lieves his ac­tions with re­gard to Is­rael are in­evitable.

“If Obama is elected,” he says, “John Bolton [Amer­ica’s ex-am­bas­sador to the UN] has said Is­rael will bomb Iran. But re­ally, there is no good out­come to any of the op­tions we have avail­able to us now.”

Sil­ver is es­pe­cially down­hearted be­cause, what­ever hap­pens in the Mid­dle East, noth­ing Is­rael can do will help stem the ris­ing tide of an­tisemitism.

“Is­rael can do no good in the world for most coun­tries,” he con­sid­ers. “I can un­der­stand anti-Mus­lim feel­ings post 7/7 and 9/11 — but can you ex­plain why there are such high lev­els of an­tisemitism in Euro­pean coun­tries to­day? I sim­ply can’t. ” With the in­ter­view draw­ing to a close, there is just time to ask Sil­ver to what ex­tent his Zion­ist ten­den­cies and deeply felt Jewish be­liefs have im­pacted on his work as an ac­tor.

“To a zero de­gree,” he says. “There is ab­so­lutely no nexus what­so­ever.”

Does he ever get chal­lenged for be­ing so out­spo­ken? “Some­times peo­ple don’t like my po­si­tions but I’ve learned to live with that,” he says. “As long as I can live with them, that’s all I care about. That’s not to say I’m pure at heart. I have made com­pro­mises in my life, whether they be po­lit­i­cal or ca­reer-wise, to achieve cer­tain ends, but to my knowl­edge I’ve never evis­cer­ated a core prin­ci­ple of mine or changed some­thing I felt very strongly about. I can sleep well at night.” For more in­for­ma­tion about the Henry Jack­son So­ci­ety and Ron Sil­ver’s talk at the House Of Com­mons, see www.hen­ry­jack­sonso­ci­


Ron Sil­ver out­side Par­lia­ment ( above).

Be­low: as Bruno Gianelli in The West Wing

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