Why you should care
Because for ambitious politicians, being different can be both their largest obstacle and their greatest asset.
When you’re born with the surname D’Israeli and the striking physiognomy that Benjamin Disraeli inherited, there’s rather little you can do to obscure your Jewish heritage, even if you drop the apostrophe. And if you are as exceedingly ambitious as Disraeli, Britain’s most prominent 19th century leader and its first and only Jewish prime minister, then it’s not enough merely to accept your difference — you have to celebrate it.
Like another leader with a distinctive appearance and a “funny name,” Disraeli was a writer and political outsider who ascended to his nation’s highest office through the force of his oratory — and a compellingly crafted persona and narrative. And like the ambitious Barack Hussein Obama, who delivers his penultimate State of the Union address tonight, Disraeli wanted more than simply to belong to what others could not believe was his native land — he wanted to lead it.
Debt was a form of validation for the status-seeking Disraeli …
“Disraeli’s career, and life, are unique in politics in his time,” Stanley Weintraub, a historian and author of Disraeli: A Biography, tells OZY. And despite some superficial resemblances to the 44th president’s story, Disraeli’s life remains unique today. Like the young Obama, the adventuresome Disraeli, born to a middle-class family in London in 1804, was keenly interested in his own heritage, making a “grand tour” of the Holy Land as a young man. Unlike Obama, the young Disraeli would drop out of law school and adopt the flamboyant style and attire of his idol, Lord Byron. The eccentric, foppish persona, together with a sparkling wit and charm, helped Disraeli embrace his “difference” on his own terms, and to endear himself to the aristocracy he so dearly wished to join.
Disraeli’s penchant for self-invention also fed his work as a popular, and largely autobiographical, novelist, and the debts generated by his lavish lifestyle — with its green velvet trousers and yellow waistcoats — necessitated a prolific writing career. But, as Adam Kirsch discusses in his book Benjamin Disraeli, debt was also a form of validation for the status-seeking Disraeli, marking him as a bona fide “noble debtor” of the native aristocracy, and not a “Jewish creditor.” “Being in debt,” claims Kirsch, “was both an expression of his aristocratic self-image and an instrument in its creation.”
More than anything, though, the ambitious outsider longed for a seat in Parliament, running five times for office before winning in 1837 — just in time to win immunity from arrest for his many unpaid debts. As a politician, Disraeli’s flamboyant manner may have been a far cry from Obama’s more conservative demeanor, but he too made good use of his gifts as an orator and a writer. “He found that novels about attractive go-getters made money,” says Weintraub, “and that he had the gift of glibness to write them — a gift that also worked in politics if one pursued the right connections.”
And pursue them he did. Disraeli could be ruthlessly pragmatic, open to any compromises that boosted his power, even changing party early in his career — from a radical Whig to an establishment Tory — when political expediency demanded it. But it still took him far longer to scale what he called the “greasy pole” of politics than it did lesser, and less different, men. Disraeli would spend almost 30 years in Parliament before his first, brief stint as prime minister in 1868 (when the sitting PM resigned due to illness), and would not be elected prime minister until he was almost 70. Through it all, he endured a litany of names — opportunist, hypocrite, dandy, Hebrew conjuror. And even at the zenith of his power, and after years of championing conservative Britain, he was still considered an outsider, even by some of his most ardent supporters.
His greatest political accomplishment, helping to shepherd through the Reform Act of 1867 — effectively extending the right to vote to most male members of the working classes — was achieved despite great opposition in his own ranks. The legislation would prove, according to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, to be “perhaps the decisive event in modern English history. It was this act that transformed England into a democracy.”
In the end, the flamboyant outsider conjured a place in history that seemed well-nigh impossible at the time. As a political opponent once wrote to him toward the end of his career:
“To the imagination of the younger generation your life will always have a special fascination. For them you have enlarged the horizon of the possibilities of the future.”
One can imagine that being said of another famous political outsider someday as well.