Interview: Ron Silver

Best known as a tough strategist on The West Wing, Ron Silver loves politics — and has controversial views.


Ron Silver is an actor, director and producer best known for his role as spin-doctor and presidential campaign adviser Bruno Gianelli in the acclaimed television drama The West Wing. But he is also becoming increasingly renowned for his outspoken views in the real world - on world politics, on East-West relations, American foreign policy and the future of the state of Israel.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2000 he co-founded the organisation One Jerusalem to oppose the Oslo Peace Agreement. Earlier this month, the self-professed "revolutionary liberal", who switched allegiance to the Bush administration over the US Democrats' stance on the "War On Terror", came to Britain at the invitation of the Henry Jackson Society to speak at the House Of Commons. His subjects were the importance of the US presidential elections, the "special relationship" between America and Britain, the global challenges arising from the current economic crisis, the resurgence of Russia as a world power, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the ever-present threat of terrorism.

To hear him talk, you would hardly guess that the 62-year-old New Yorker - son of a teacher and clothing-salesman - is an esteemed actor in one of the most highly regarded TV series of recent times.

"By inclination I am more of a politician than I am an actor," he has said. "I care more about public policy, pro-choice, the environment, homelessness and nuclear issues than I do about any [acting] part."

Sure enough, Silver, on his way to an interview with David Frost for Al Jazeera, is keener to discuss Judaism and what he sees as increasing levels of antisemitism than he is his acting credentials.

In fact, the first words he utters to the JC are "shanah tovah" - it's a week after Rosh Hashanah. His last are: "If you want to know more about my career, you can find it on the internet," because we run out of time after a lengthy monologue about what he sees as the imminent threat to Israel from Iran.

First, he marvels at the historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI in April this year to Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, where he became only the third Pope to visit a Jewish house of worship anywhere in the world, and the first to do so during a trip to the States. Then he enthuses about going with his 29-year-old son to join up with his 25-year-old daughter when she travels to Israel next spring, his first such visit since 2007, when he travelled there with George Bush as part of a presidential delegation.

"He [Bush] gave a very, very strong speech about Israel," he remembers. "I've had Israeli politicians come up to me and say, ‘My goodness, I couldn't give that speech in the Knesset that the President just gave.' It was very strong. I feel very strongly about these issues and Israel."

Is Silver's backing for Israel is as firm as ever?

"Oh yes, there's no question about it," he confirms, although he has a proviso: "I won't pretend to speak on behalf of Israel, and I don't pretend to speak on behalf of Israelis. I don't live there or live with that existential threat hanging over my head. "

Does he fear what might happen to Israel, faced as it is with intimidation from Iran, after the forthcoming US elections? "Fear is a very strong word," he replies. "I don't fear - and I'm not trying to be a politician here, so I don't care how my words are interpreted - but I am very concerned."

He is concerned that the United Nations allowed Iranian President Ahmadinejad's recent implied threat of annihilation of Israel to go unchallenged.

"They actually applauded a man who stood up and threatened another member nation with liquidation," he says, his New York rasp barely a whisper yet conveying a sense of urgency. "Can you imagine if I was the president of France and I got up and said I was going to wipe Germany off the map?"

Does he see it as posturing on Iran's part, or a real danger? "I don't know," he says. "Do you really want to take the chance? When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf people treated him as a clown, as outlandish. The German Jewish population said, ‘Oh, please, we're well entrenched here, we'll deal with this mad man.'

Well, I think after the experiences of the Second World War I don't find it amusing and I don't find it posturing."

Not that Silver is a gung-ho hawk eager for conflict; he just doesn't see any alternative, with Iran poised to have not just nuclear weapons but also a delivery system capable of reaching Israel, even Europe.

"I'm afraid now people will say, ‘We need to talk to them. We contained and deterred the Soviet Union for more than 50 years.' So we'll try to strengthen the sanctions. But at some point talking has to end. I believe peace is morally and tactically preferable. But the question we should be asking is... Peace: for how long, at what price and at what risk?"

But with the current administration on the way out, the financial crisis and the commitment to a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, does America have the wherewithal to act?

"There is plenty of money. People would be surprised if they realised what a small percentage of our GDP goes on defence-related appropriations in support of our military. But I don't think this present administration will do anything. Now, what Israel does after the elections and the president is inaugurated is anyone's guess. But if I was a member of the Israeli government charged with protecting the Israeli people, I would think long and hard about my obligations."

Who would he prefer in the White House from January, Obama or McCain/Palin?

"Well, it's interesting that you said Obama not Obama/Biden, but you said McCain/Palin. I think Palin is the wild card there, and the idea of her as Commander-In-Chief is somewhat problematic; there's no question where McCain stands. I'm uncertain about Obama: I think his popularity rests on being someone who everyone can pour their own thoughts into. A lot of my liberal Democrat friends support him, but I say to them: ‘I wish I was as certain about one thing as you seem to be about everything.'" Nevertheless, if Obama does win, Silver believes his actions with regard to Israel are inevitable.

"If Obama is elected," he says, "John Bolton [America's ex-ambassador to the UN] has said Israel will bomb Iran. But really, there is no good outcome to any of the options we have available to us now."

Silver is especially downhearted because, whatever happens in the Middle East, nothing Israel can do will help stem the rising tide of antisemitism.

"Israel can do no good in the world for most countries," he considers. "I can understand anti-Muslim feelings post 7/7 and 9/11 - but can you explain why there are such high levels of antisemitism in European countries today? I simply can't. "

With the interview drawing to a close, there is just time to ask Silver to what extent his Zionist tendencies and deeply felt Jewish beliefs have impacted on his work as an actor.

"To a zero degree," he says. "There is absolutely no nexus whatsoever."

Does he ever get challenged for being so outspoken? "Sometimes people don't like my positions but I've learned to live with that," he says. "As long as I can live with them, that's all I care about. That's not to say I'm pure at heart. I have made compromises in my life, whether they be political or career-wise, to achieve certain ends, but to my knowledge I've never eviscerated a core principle of mine or changed something I felt very strongly about. I can sleep well at night."

For more information about the Henry Jackson Society and Ron Silver's talk at the House Of Commons, see www.henryjacksonsociety.org

 

Snapshot

Born: In New York City, the son of May (née Zimelman), a teacher, and Irving Roy Silver, who worked in clothing sales

Education: Attended the East Side Hebrew Institute and then Stuyvesant High School. Studied Spanish and Chinese at the University of Buffalo, and received a masters degree in Chinese history from St John's University in New York. He also attended Columbia University's Graduate School of International Affairs

Trivia: Taught Spanish for several years in the 1960s and did not start his acting career until 1971

Career high: Playing Bruno Gianelli in political drama The West Wing

Career low: Playing an incompetent cop in crime-caper flop Eat and Run

Family: Silver has two children, a son, 29, and daughter Alexandra, 25, with ex-wife wife Lynne Miller, whom he divorced in 1997

    Last updated: 1:59pm, August 28 2014