Should she ever run for president of the United States, Nikki Haley will hope for a reception like the one she received Nov. 17 at the Book Festival of the MJCCA.
For now, though, Haley is a private citizen touring to promote her second book, “With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace.”
Guided by questions from conservative talk radio host Erick Erickson, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations regaled an audience of more than 1,550 with stories about her life and career, and was interrupted frequently with applause, particularly when discussing Israel.
Haley restated her intention to campaign in 2020 for the re-election of President Donald Trump, but left open her future plans. “A year is a long time in politics,” she said.
Haley was happy to talk about her upbringing in rural South Carolina as the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India, through her years in the state legislature and as governor to her time as U.N. ambassador from 2017-19.
The racism Haley experienced growing up – “not white enough to be white, not black enough to be black” – did not deter a girl whose parents’ message was to work hard and believe that she could achieve.
Haley spoke in emotional terms about the incident that thrust her into the national spotlight, the June 17, 2015, shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
She did not speak the name Dylann Roof, the then-21-year-old who prayed with church members on that Wednesday night before killing nine of them, including the senior pastor at “Mother Emanuel,” Clementa C. Pinckney, who also was a member of the South Carolina state Senate. When informed that there had been shootings at the church, Haley called Pinckney to offer assistance, “And it haunts me to this day that that phone was ringing as he lay on the floor,” Haley said.
Roof’s display on social media holding a Confederate flag sparked what became the last chapter in the debate about the presence of that emblem on a flagpole outside the state capitol. The flag was removed less than a month after the massacre.
Haley acknowledged that her relationship with Trump has not always been smooth. She supported Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primaries, which prompted a Twitter post by candidate Trump that “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!”
To that, Haley responded with the polite, but barbed Southernism “Bless your heart.”
Haley said that Trump’s first White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, called to discuss her becoming secretary of state, which she declined, but soon after offered her the U.N. ambassadorship. Haley said that she took that position only after Trump agreed that she would be a member of his Cabinet and the National Security Council and would be free to speak her mind. “He was true to his word from the first day to the last day,” she said.
Haley’s popularity with much of the Jewish community – as evident from the applause she received during her remarks – stems from her defense of Israel at the United Nations, a body that tends to single out Israel for opprobrium beyond that of any other country. “I strongly believed that we needed to support Israel from the beginning,” she said. “Israel is such a bright spot in a really terrible neighborhood,” Haley said. “If Israel is strong, there is hope for the Middle East.”
Aside from a mild suggestion that perhaps Trump ease up on his social media habits, Haley offered no criticisms of the administration. Nor did she discuss the heated exchanges with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that she wrote about, or how Tillerson and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly tried to enlist her in an effort to moderate Trump’s policy inclinations.
Several dozen people submitted cards with questions for Haley, but if any dealt with controversial topics, such as the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, those were not selected by representatives of her book’s publisher for Erickson to ask aloud.