TEVI DAVID TROY was the US deputy secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the administration of President George W. Bush.
Prior to his Senate confirmation as deputy secretary, Dr. Troy worked in the Bush White House as deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy. Before this position, he was the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor, and a policy director for Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO), who later became attorney general, an appointment Troy wholeheartedly endorsed in his article, "My Boss the Fanatic," published in The New Republic.
Beginning in August 2003, he served at the White House as deputy cabinet secretary and liaison to the Jewish community. After less than a year, in May 2004, Troy left this position to work in the policy department of the 2004 Bush presidential campaign. As a member of the US's mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Troy served as a senior member of the US delegation to the 2004 Berlin conference on anti-Semitism. He is presently at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. Troy also currently serves as a Jewish liaison for the Romney campaign
Q What are you involved in today?
A Right now I'm with the Hudson Institute, which is a center-right, market-oriented, pro-defense think tank that works out of our center here in Washington. It was founded by Herman Kahn in 1961. Other scholars there include Doug Feith and Scooter Libby. It tries to look around corners and down the road we're headed in the long run, and not get involved in partisan politics of the day.
I write. I do projects. Sometimes I run panels. I have the health care work over here, but I also comment and write a lot about Jewish and presidential politics. I'm in the process of writing a book called What Washington Read, Eisenhower Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Pop Culture in the White House.
Q You probably did a lot of research for that.
A I did. I went all the way back to George Washington. I include a lot of Jewish stuff, including the first play by an American Jewish author, Isaac Harby, that was seen by an American president—in South Carolina in 1817. In 1813, President James Madison appointed journalist Mordecai Emanuel Noah to be US consul to Tunis. The Muslim rulers in Tunis, however, objected to having to deal with a Jew; the State Department headed by President Monroe consequently recalled him.
This is the only instance in American history in which overt anti-Semitism played a role in the rescinding of a presidential appointment of a Jew. When Monroe went to see Isaac Harby's play, some speculated that it was meant as an apology, since Harby had defended Noah.
Q So you have a lot of pop culture, or narishkeiten, done in a very scholarly way?
A Some of it is narishkeiten—particularly the stuff Obama engages in.
But I don't think it was narishkeit when Washington, Adams and Madison were reading the pop culture of the times, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the pamphlet that helped inspire the revolution. I argue that pop culture has become more like narishkeiten over time, but there were many things that had an important cultural impact on society and an impact on history.
Q The majority of Americans are into pop culture, and as president you have to speak to the common man, so maybe it's not narishketen at all.
A That's one of the points I make, especially in the chapter on Obama.
He doesn't do hard news interviews. Instead, he goes on television shows like The View and talks about which songs he likes and what kind of chili he prefers. He does it to relate. Next week we'll find out if this strategy worked or not. But he clearly thinks that that's the way to reach people, not by talking about the serious books he's reading or about policy.
Q Didn't Clinton also go on late night shows and play the trumpet?
A He went on the Arsenio Hall Show. But that was [only] once and it was a big deal, and a lot of people thought it brought down the dignity of the office. According to an analysis in The Huffington Post, in September Obama did 26 of these "soft" media interviews. Clinton did it once and it was groundbreaking. With Obama, it's groundbreaking how often he does it. I write about how television is sort of a two-way medium for the president. He can shape what's on the screen in addition to watching it passively.
Q I've heard that President Obama blogs a lot.
A We know that he watches a lot of TV, and which particular shows he watches. He also plays with his iPad and goes on the blogs a lot.
Q Do you think that Obama is as intelligent as some people believe?
A He's clearly intelligent. There's no doubt. But is he as intelligent as he thinks he is and some people make him out to be? That might be narishkeit. He went to good schools and wrote his first book right after that.
Q He wrote that book himself?
A I believe he did. I don't see why anyone would have written it for him. He wasn't famous at the time.
If you want to talk about pop culture, in his own memoir, Dreams of My Father, he describes his days as a student at Punahou, the elite school in Hawaii. After school, he would go to the comic book store to see which new comics were available. Then he'd watch some cartoons.
Then maybe he'd do some homework before dinner. At dinnertime, he'd watch sitcoms while eating. Then he and his grandfather would watch TV together, negotiating about what to watch, until 10 p.m. At 10 Johnny Carson would go on, "about which there was no negotiating." Then he'd go to bed and listen to Top 40 music until he fell asleep. That's staggering. No other president had a childhood so immersed in pop culture.
Q In a nutshell, how do you view pop culture and the presidency?
A I think that presidents need to show that they're aware of what's going on around them. They can't be too aloof and refuse to acknowledge the existence of pop culture. But they have to be careful to avoid bringing down the dignity of the office, so it's best to focus on things that are actually intellectually nourishing and enriching like reading serious books, which many presidents have done.
Nixon read a book about Disraeli that had a section on Gladstone's cabinet, the members of which were called "exhausted volcanoes"
because they worked so hard for so long. After he read the book, Nixon decided to fire his whole cabinet after one term because he thought they were too tired. Sometimes they read things that they find relevant.
Q Does Obama read serious stuff?
A There's a lot of speculation that he does. I'm a bit of a skeptic that he reads as much as people say. One time, he was asked what he's reading and he said, "I barely have time to floss and watch Sports Center, so I'm not reading much right now." Another time, in September of 2008, he was talking about how he was reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, and the following August he said he was still reading it. That's a long time to be reading one book.
Q You're definitely a partisan?
A I'm a Republican. But I write the book from a neutral, historian's perspective.
Q What's your background as a historian?
A I have a doctorate in the American Revolution from the University of Texas. I wrote a book on the history of intellectuals in the White House, which came out in 2002.
Q Where did you grow up?
A I grew up in Queens, New York. I went to Ramaz. Then I went to Cornell as an undergraduate. Then I worked in DC a little bit before going to get my PhD in Texas. I worked in the White House for the Bush administration as a deputy domestic policy advisor. I was the White House Jewish liaison for a while. I was also Deputy Secretary of Health.
Q At what age did you become a Republican?
A I think the real political awakening for me was when I went to England for my junior year abroad. It was in the middle of the Cold War. I saw all these people ripping America and Margaret Thatcher—the same people who had been saved economically and protected by the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. I reacted to the mindless attacks I was hearing and came back much more politically-minded. I actually worked for the Bush '88 campaign as an intern in reaction to what I saw abroad.
Q How long have you been a Romney supporter?
A A long time. I officially signed on the campaign in the summer of 2011, right around the time when everyone was talking about Rick Perry.
Q I found Romney in the final debate to be Reaganesque in his vision and in articulating it.
A I thought he was strong and presidential, showing a command of the situation and the ability to be commander-in-chief. I think that's the point of a foreign policy debate. Obama showed that he was a little small—such as when he made cracks about aircraft carriers and horses and bayonets—and I don't think that's what Americans want in a leader.
He may have scored points by those hits, but I don't think he conveyed leadership in doing so.
Q Are you excited about Romney's chances now that the national polls seem to have turned in his favor?
A I'm thrilled. I think it would be good for America and the world if he won.
Q If Romney is elected, will you be joining his administration in some way?
A I just want him to be elected.
Q Do you predict this to be a landslide one way or the other?
A I think it will be a close race.
Q What's your official title with the Romney campaign?
A I am not official Jewish liaison, but I do advise the campaign on Jewish issues.
Q What types of issues are included in "Jewish issues"?
A A point I always make with reporters is that Jews are interested in all issues.
I advise Romney on political issues involved in getting the Jewish vote. When he was thinking of going to Israel he wanted to go on a certain day that ended up being Tisha B'Av. He wanted to know what that meant, what he could or couldn't do on that day. Senior people in the Romney campaign now know all five of the prohibitions of Tisha B'Av because of me.
There's a host of questions that come up. Last month there was a conference call with Jewish leaders and I introduced Governor Romney.
It turned out there were 16,000 people listening.
Q Do you think that Romney as a religious person will be more proreligious freedoms than the current administration?
A I think he is very respectful of religion. As a member of a religious minority, I think he is very cognizant of the challenges and needs of religious minorities and the importance of tolerance, respect and openness. For example, the Obama administration's insistence that Catholic hospitals do things that violate their beliefs is completely inappropriate, and would not happen under a Romney administration.
When Senator Ashcroft was chosen to be attorney general I wrote a piece in The New Republic. Because he's a religious Christian, there was a lot of grumbling from the Jewish community that he wouldn't be tolerant of Jews. I wrote that he is more tolerant of Jews because of his background as a member of a relatively small group that isn't always treated with respect by other Christians. I always found Ashcroft to be very accommodating about matters relating to Shabbos and kashrus when I worked for him.
Q Newt Gingrich told me that in today's America, the difference is not between denominations but between the religious and non-religious.
A I agree, but that's not a point unique to Gingrich. James Davidson Hunter wrote in his book Culture Wars that an Orthodox Jew has more in common with a religious Christian than a secular Christian has with an evangelical.
Q What improvements affecting the Jewish community can we expect from a Romney administration?
A The first key point is that whatever affects everybody affect Jews.
There will be economic improvement under Romney. He has plans to create 12 million jobs. I think the Obama healthcare law is disastrous for the country. Getting rid of that and finding a better alternative will be good for the Jews and the whole country.
On issues specific to the Jewish community, I think you would see a much friendlier relationship between the US and Israel.
Q Romney doesn't seem like a pop culture guy, though.
A I haven't written a Romney chapter. If he wins, I'll write a chapter about him.I know he reads science fiction. He watches a few TV shows—not as much as Obama, of course. He refers to Seinfeld on the stump sometimes. I'd say he's pop culture aware but not pop culture immersed—which is about the right place to be.
Q Is he immersed in more scholarly stuff?
A He clearly reads a lot; he cites things he reads. He reads a lot of history and biography. He read George W.'s book Decision Point, which gives an awareness of what it means to be in office. He read Noam Scheiber's book about the dysfunction of the Obama economic team.
Q Were you surprised by how knowledgeable he is about foreign affairs and other matters during the debates?
A It didn't surprise me at all. When I've interacted with him, he always seems very knowledgeable about whatever matter is at hand.
Q Some people view him as being stiff.
A That's not something I judge people on. I think he does a good job in debates. He actually seems pretty smooth to me and conveys leadership.
Q How many times have you met with him?
A Not hundreds like Bush, but I have met with him quite a few times.
Q He's very different from Bush, who was very folksy.
A In my book I write about how Bush lost the 1978 Congressional race to a guy named Ken Hath. If you can believe it, Ken Hath argued that Bush was this "pointy-headed Harvard-Yale guy telling us Texans what to do." That's not the general perception of President Bush. After he lost that race, he said that he'd never be "out-countried" again and he made a focused effort on that. People can change their perceptions.
Q Clinton was folksy and yet was probably one of the most intelligent presidents ever.
A Clinton is very smart. Very well read. He's actually one of the stars of my book, being into heavy knowledge yet showing an awareness of pop culture.
Q Who's your hero from among the presidents?
A I have a whole chapter on Lincoln. He really impressed me, coming from a poor family with no connections and making something of himself just through reading. I also have a whole chapter on Teddy Roosevelt. He also used reading to shape himself, but he came from a wealthy, well-connected family. He used reading to change what he was originally perceived as: a kind of glasses-wearing asthmatic with a high-pitched voice.
Q Where do you live?
A Kemp Mill, Maryland. I go to the Orthodox shul, Kemp Mill Synagogue.
Dov Zakheim and Elliot Cohen, both of whom are also advising the Romney campaign, go there too. My four kids attend the Torah School of Greater Washington. My wife was the only single Jewish woman in America who voted for Dole in '96 and that's why I married her. Which of course is a joke.
Q Which part is the joke: that she voted for Dole, or that this is the reason you married her?
A (Laughs). She actually has three bumper stickers on her car—and this is not a joke—two for Romney, and one for the Torah School.