Musings on That Phone Call From the Oval Office

When greatness calls, will you be ready to answer?

I’ve often fantasized about what I would do if I found myself in the kind of situation recently faced by David Schoen.

As an Orthodox Jew, I know that my words and actions reflect on the Orthodox community, on Jews in general, and on the G-d of Israel.  I’m not afraid of taking controversial positions, but I weigh my words carefully, try to anticipate how my remarks might be misinterpreted, misrepresented, or taken out of context, and I think long and hard about which battles to fight and which causes to publicly support.

So I can imagine the thoughts that flew through the mind of David Schoen when the Atlanta lawyer, also an Orthodox Jew, received a phone call out of the blue asking him to take the lead in the most high-profile legal case of the century.  The caller on the other end of the line was Donald Trump, and the case was his second impeachment trial before the United States Senate.

This is where my imagination really takes wing:

“Hello, Rabbi Goldson?  This is Donald Trump.”

“Really?  Are Bill Gates and Elon Musk with you on the conference call?”

“Ha, ha.  Very funny.  No, it’s just me.  I have a proposition for you.”

“No, thank you.  I bought the Brooklyn Bridge last month and I’m not looking to make any more serious investments for a while.”

“This isn’t a joke, rabbi.”

“Of course, not.  President Biden rang me five minutes ago and told me to expect your call. Whoops.  I’m sorry.  He’s not really president, is he?”

“I get it.  You think this is a prank.  But I really am Donald J. Trump.”

“Sure, you are.  That’s why I’m going to tell you the same thing the American voters told you in November.  You’re fired!”


I’m certain that Mr. Schoen handled the call much better than I would have, and I won’t recount his deliberations here, except to report that he talked it over at length with his family and his rabbi before committing.


Once it became known that he had taken the case, the fallout from his decision surpassed all expectations.  He was condemned as an embarrassment to the Jewish people, his family was threatened, and he was told in detail what Hitler should have done to him.

Since then, Mr. Schoen has been suspended from a list of civil rights lawyers and refused a law school teaching position.  What’s noteworthy, however, is how many of the same people who criticized him for defending Mr. Trump have glowingly praised him for accepting a subsequent case – defending a man accused of randomly murdering a woman and her two children.


Many of us have wondered at times how attorneys can justify defending violent criminals, but we understand that our justice system must treat every defendant as innocent until proven guilty.  Nevertheless, it’s disturbing how frequently political ideology trumps the legal principles on which American democracy is built.  Far too many of us reserve the presumption of innocence for people who are “on our side.”

With all the talk of unconscious bias toward race and identity, shouldn’t we be more aware and equally concerned about the very conscious bias that skews our judgment whenever the discussion turns to politics and injects politics into every aspect of our lives?

For a pluralistic society to function, we need to discipline our thinking, to at least strive for the objectivity that makes open conversations and civil disagreements possible, that enables us to confront our differences with intellectual integrity and find our way toward equitable and well-reasoned solutions.


Ultimately, it was this mindset that compelled David Schoen to defend the former president.  We each face defining moments in our lives that call on us to step into the arena, to risk cruel blows, pain, humiliation, and defeat.  Sometimes we find ourselves defending causes that straddle the line between right and wrong, often for missions that throw us willy-nilly into the gray areas of ethical uncertainty.

When those moments arrive, it would be easier to take a step back and leave the risk to someone else.  But if we fail to rise to such occasions, then we condemn ourselves to end up, as Teddy Roosevelt warned, in the company of those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

By endeavoring to calibrate our moral compass so we can live lives of vision, purpose, and diligence, we will recognize opportunities for greatness when they present themselves and seize hold of them before giving ourselves the chance to take the safer road.

As we labor to cultivate ethical discipline we will still make mistakes.  But these will be mistakes committed in pursuit of excellence, the kind that will lead us down the path described by King Solomon toward a destination where we will stand before kings, and need not present ourselves before those who stand in shadow.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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