Paul Hodes spent most of Monday talking about Barack Obama. Itâ€™s a subject the freshman New Hampshire congressman, and the stateâ€™s first Jewish congressional representative, has been addressing a lot lately.
In July, Hodes became an early supporter of Obamaâ€™s presidential candidacy at a time when the Illinois senator was still considered a longshot to upend the powerful Clinton machine in the Democratic primaries. New Hampshireâ€™s other congressional representative, Carol Shea-Porter, stayed on the sidelines until last month before endorsing Obama.
With Obama fresh off a solid victory in the Iowa caucuses and, according to the latest polls, on track for a resounding defeat of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Tuesdayâ€™s primary, Hodes is looking like the oracle of Concord.
“I think thereâ€™s a sense of optimism and confidence that is appropriate, not overstated,â€ Hodes said Monday on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. â€œAnd you know in politics, 24 hours is a lifetime.â€
Hodes is sitting in the lobby of the downtown Radisson Hotel as the madness of the impending primary swirls around him. As co-chair of Obamaâ€™s New Hampshire campaign, he has been in the eye of this storm, stumping for Obama throughout the state. On Monday, at the Obama campaignâ€™s request, Hodes had a packed schedule of media appearances.
In praising the Democratic presidential hopeful, Hodes sounds more like one of the cheering voters at Obama’s rallies yearning for an uplifting agent of change than he does a wonkish legislator weighing the policy positions of the candidates.
â€œThe story of his life is that somebody whoâ€™s had lots of challenges,â€ Hodes told JTA between radio interviews. â€œBrought up in a broken family, white mother and African father at a time in this country when that was unusual, coming back to work on the streets of Chicago when he could have worked for Wall Street, constitutional law professor, state legislator, now United States senator, taking on the machine in Chicago. This is a story that could only be written in the United States of America.â€
Though Hodes hasnâ€™t encountered the same set of challenges as Obama, his life story also is uniquely American.
His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Ukraine who arrived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the early part of the 20th century. On his motherâ€™s side, Hodes is related to the novelist Bernard Malamud. The grocery store that figures prominently in much of â€œCousin Bernieâ€™sâ€ work was modeled on the one operated by Hodesâ€™ grandmother.
â€œMy father and mother were secular Jews,” Hodes said, “and we were brought up celebrating Passover with my grandparents and then being in a secular household with my parents. So personally I have a strong identification as a Jew in terms of my heritage and my culture, and it didnâ€™t necessarily come from my parents. I think it came in spite of my parents.â€
After studying theater at Dartmouth College and earning a law degree at Boston College, Hodes took a job with then-New Hampshire Attorney General David Souter, who now sits on the Supreme Court. In 2004, Hodes launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat six-term incumbent Charlie Bass, the Republican congressman from New Hampshireâ€™s 2nd District.
Two years later Hodes tried again, this time winning with 52 percent of the vote.
Gary Hirshberg, a longtime friend and supporter, says Hodes elected to run because of his outrage over the Iraq war.
â€œHe took on a very formidable, highly entrenched guy, and many very good people, very good candidates had gone into battle with Charlie Bass,â€ said Hirshberg, the president and CEO of the organic yogurt producer Stonybrook Farm. â€œI was encouraging enormous caution, but more to the point I was arguing, and as it turned out correctly, that he was not going to be able to run once. If he was going to do this he was going to have to run twice.â€
Hirshberg first met Hodes more than 20 years ago at a performance by Peggosus, the childrenâ€™s band Hodes founded with his wife, Peggo, a classically trained vocalist. Their children attended the same schools and the families partnered in a car pool.
â€œWhat I admire most about him is his spirit,â€ Hirshberg said. â€œThe only way I can describe it is heâ€™s just a good soul with a big heart.â€
Like Hirshberg, Hodes comes from a strongly identified Jewish family but does not affiliate with the stateâ€™s modest-sized Jewish community of about 14,000 clustered in the stateâ€™s southern half around Manchester.
The congressman isnâ€™t a member of a synagogue and doesnâ€™t donate to the federation, though he does advertise in its monthly newsletter.
â€œI always call New Hampshire the land of hidden ‘yidden,’ â€ said Adam Solender, the recently departed executive director of the stateâ€™s Jewish federation. â€œIt is amazing how people become rugged individualists when they come to New Hampshire. I was there for 14 years and I wouldnâ€™t have known that Paul Hodes was Jewish, and I was the chief Jewish professional in the state.â€
On a congressional trip to Israel this summer — Hodesâ€™ first visit to the Jewish state — he was overcome during a tour of the national Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem when he saw a photo of Nazis operating in his grandfatherâ€™s hometown.
â€œThe connection for me was unbelievably emotional,â€ Hodes recalled. â€œI stood there and wept, thinking about my grandfather who had fled as a boy essentially to come to this country because of what he faced there and thinking of those who didnâ€™t, couldnâ€™t leave.â€
Hodes says his support in Congress for Israel was never in doubt. â€œItâ€™s in my DNA,â€ he said. But the trip solidified that support in ways he struggles to articulate.
â€œItâ€™s very interesting in midlife to come to a place where something is as moving as my trip was in terms of seeing the home for the Jewish people and understanding how fragile life is there, and how important the relationship between America and Israel is,â€ Hodes said. â€œIt was a stunner.â€
Hodes is insistent that Obamaâ€™s stated willingness to negotiate with Iran and its president, a move that some prominent leaders of American Jewish organizations oppose, should not be construed as insensitivity to Israelâ€™s security concerns or its justified fears of Iranian nuclear weapons.
â€œI understand how fervently Israel feels about the intentions of the Iranian regime and what a danger Iran poses to Israel and to the world,â€ Hodes said. â€œBarack Obama understands the depth and magnitude of those threats. It would be a mistake to think that because Barrack places a high value on diplomacy that he doesnâ€™t understand the importance of strength and the threats posed to Israel.â€
But beyond the issues, on which virtually all observers agree Obama and Clinton are largely in agreement, Hodes believes this election will turn on the question of leadership and which candidate is best positioned to correct the â€œdevastating damageâ€ inflicted by the Bush years.
â€œWeâ€™re at a watershed moment in American history,â€ Hodes said. â€œA new kind of leadership is necessary. This campaign in my view is essentially about what kind of leadership we are going to have.â€