Henry Waxman on How Faith Informs his Politics

Henry Waxman, the mustache of justice, always seemed to me to be the sort of legislator who was motivated by that typical and highly-useful Jewish trait, dissatisfaction -- dissatisfaction with the way things are, which is, at bottom, the motivation of so many Jews to who try to change the world (for better and occasionally for worse, of course). Waxman recently published a book, The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works, with my next-door neighbor, the telegenic Joshua Green. The book is half-memoir, half-expose, about a Jewish congressman from a Los Angeles community of immigrants who came to believe that government could fix problems too big to be fixed otherwise. I dispatched Goldblog Congressional Affairs Correspondent Tali Yahalom to interview Waxman about his work and about how his faith informs his legislative agenda.

Tali Yahalom: You are quoted as saying that many of your American values are "synonymous" with your Jewish values. Can you talk about that?

Henry Waxman: Jewish values place a great emphasis on compassion and trying to help other people, and the doctrine of tikkun olam, trying to repair the world -- this of course is a requirement on individuals but also on the community. One way for people to act in a communal sense and to respond to the needs of the less fortunate is through government.

TY: Do you believe that you are doing tikkun olam through a career in government?

HW: I do believe that I am very close to the ideals of the Jewish religion as well as American values -- to try to use my position in public office to better the lives of millions of Americans.

TY: How do you apply your Jewish values to your current legislative initiatives, namely health care?

HW: I take seriously what the objectives are in the legislation and try to keep a clear and disciplined focus on trying to move in the direction of the necessary accomplishments. I think it's easy for people to get sidetracked and to think that compromise may not be worthy, even though it could produce a move in the direction of helping people.

TY: In the beginning of your book, you write, "nearly every worthwhile fight in my career began with my being badly outmatched."  Do you still feel like that today? And is it a constructive mindset?

HW: I often feel that special interest groups have more clout than they should in Washington. I think that a lot of times, powerful interests try to bully their way into their point of view, but if you stand up to them, and they don't have a really solid argument to make, they're not going to ultimately prevail.

TY: That's a pretty Jewish mindset.

HW: It's hard to sometimes know what's Jewish and American -- they're so close together.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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