Last week, in an article about the continuing relevance of the Jewish community in presidential politics, Tablet Magazine brought up some of the history of Jews in the White House:
The Jews broke through in the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt named Oscar Straus to be Secretary of Commerce, making Straus the first Jewish Cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft became the first president to invite a Jew—Sears President Julius Rosenwald—to dinner at the White House in 1912. In addition, 1920 GOP candidate Warren G. Harding benefited from a campaign song written and performed by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.” (Tablet Magazine, April 24, 2012)
Taft invited Julius Rosenwald to lunch on February 28th, 1912, but upon his arrival, he was surprised at the rather more generous invitation to stay overnight at the White House as well. In his biography of Rosenwald, Peter M. Ascoli quotes a letter from Rosenwald to his wife, who was back in Chicago, written while staying in the White House. Rosenwald was enthusiastic about the visit, praising the “genial” manner of Mr. and Mrs. Taft and the “simple food” served at both dinner and breakfast the next day.
What Rosenwald and Taft discussed is not fully known, but most likely one of the major topics was Taft’s campaign for reelection. Rosenwald had been a loyal Republican supporter for years, and had been supporting Taft publicly since at least 1910. A rift among progressives and conservatives in the Republican Party was forming due to the interest of Theodore Roosevelt in breaking from the party to mount an independent campaign against Taft. This bothered Rosenwald, and when he returned to Chicago he attended the Republican National Convention and began fundraising for Taft, pledging $10,000 of his own money. Taft eventually won the nomination, but lost the general election to Woodrow Wilson.
Rosenwald had visited the White House at least twice before 1912. The first time was at Taft’s request: when Taft heard of Rosenwald’s plan to provide challenge grants to black YMCAs across the country, he hosted Rosenwald in April of 1911 at the White House to convince him to “grandfather” in Washington D.C.’s YMCA that was already under construction. Later that year, Rosenwald used his prior relationship with Taft to get another meeting at the White House, this time on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (of which Rosenwald was a founding member). The AJC had made it its mission to convince the federal government to abrogate the Treaty of 1832 with Russia, for the reason that Russia was not allowing Jews to cross its borders and was strictly circumscribing their actions and movements within its borders. In his biography, Ascoli argues that this visit from Rosenwald played a large part in Taft’s decision to abrogate the treaty. While a diplomatically risky move, this was a vital stand against the state-sponsored persecution of Jews in Russia.
Rosenwald was dismayed at the results of the 1912 election, in which Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, allowing Wilson to win by a large margin. During the following years, he remained involved with the Republican Party in a time when his fellow progressives were abandoning it. As years went by, Taft and Rosenwald continued to correspond intermittently.
By Michael Rose