Caught on Tape
What the Nixon tapes tell us about the Republican Party.
I wonder sometimes whether the Nixon tapes really will just continue to be the gift that never stops giving. I was in college when Richard Milhous Nixon was first elected president, and I can still remember the profound sense of loathing and disgust that I experienced at the mere sight, let alone the sound, of him and of his most especially repellent sidekick Henry Kissinger. Wiser and older people tell you that the passions of your youth will dry up and that a more sere and autumnal condition will overtake you as maturity advances, but the thought of the Nixon gang in the White House still infuses me with a pure and undiluted hatred and makes me consider throwing up things that I don't even remember having eaten.
Just take a look at the most recent harvest from the tapes that the Nixon Presidential Library has released from the early months of 1973. The impressive thing is that even in the smallest details, the obsessive nastiness and criminality of the bigger picture is further delineated. The foulness of Nixon's mind was not "compartmentalized" between one issue and another. For example, like most "family values" Republicans, he was distressed by the Supreme Court's finding in Roe v. Wade. But, like almost anybody, he could imagine an exception where abortion might be excusable or even desirable. "There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape." The association of ideas between the first mental picture and the second one is so clear as to be—if it were not so hideous—pathetically laughable in an individual, and really quite alarming in a president of the United States.
As so often, his remarks about black Americans are crude and often sexual, while his innuendoes about his Jewish fellow citizens are more sinister. And, as ever, the worst interludes of anti-Semitism occur when Nixon is chatting to his friend Billy Graham. This time—February 1973—the two cronies are discussing Jewish opposition to the evangelical Campus Crusade movement. What the Jews don't seem to get, observes Nixon, is that they bring dislike on themselves. Why, just look at the record—disliked in Spain, disliked even in Germany. It could be America next. "What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up." To this aperçu (incidentally suggesting that anti-Semitism "in this country" is not located all that "deep down," since it's being vented in the Oval Office), he adds, "It may be they have a death wish. You know that's been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries."
In debates with religious people, I keep being told that even if not all of religion's supernatural claims can be defended as literally true, at least it can be said that religion encourages morality and makes people behave better. In every Nixon tape that has so far been released, he is at his lowest and ugliest and most inhuman when being incited and encouraged and sometimes outbid by the most famous Christian ever to be born on American soil. I merely pass on the observation.
Bad—and revealing—as all this petty filth and bigotry undoubtedly is, it has a tendency to pale when set against the sheer brutal cynicism of the conversations about Vietnam. Nixon liked to talk tough in two distinct but related ways about this subject. To Charles Colson—another pious Christian among his consiglieri—he is heard on the tapes boasting that his massive bombing of North Vietnamese civilians would be vindicated and that those who opposed it would be held "treasonable." (His famous confidential secretary, Rose Mary Woods, is on the tapes expressing the same hope for an arraignment of disloyal senators and congressmen.) But when talking to his most depraved of all associates, Henry Kissinger, he is full of cruelty and bluster when expressing his intention of applying pain to the South Vietnamese. If the South Vietnamese client president, Nguyen Van Thieu, would not agree to sign Nixon's version of what was later to be called "peace with honor," Nixon yelled on tape in 1973 that he would "cut off his head if necessary." Thus, a huge number of American lives and an incalculable number of Vietnamese ones were thrown away to end the war on more shameful terms than had been on offer in the fall of 1968 (when Nixon had been in league with Kissinger and Nguyen to sabotage and oppose those very terms; for more on this, see my book The Trial of Henry Kissinger).
It was perhaps fortunate from a Republican point of view that the latest batch of Nixon White House tapes was released in a week where more pleasurable and entertaining Republican "scandals" were diverting us all. (At least nobody ever accused Nixon or Kissinger of having any sort of sex life while in office—the distinctly dank reek of the absence of same can be detected throughout the taped records.) The continuing problem, for those consensus builders who think that the fortunes of the GOP can only be revived by an appeal to the "center" and the "middle ground," is that the most scandalous and villainous Republican president of modern times and his "realist" foreign-policy co-conspirator built their appeal in precisely this way. Fate, and the declassification process, have decreed that we will be supplied with ever-more nauseating reminders of this at intervals of about a year until everybody who can remember the one-time hero of "moderate Republicanism" and the silent majority of middle America has gone to a place where not even Billy Graham can bother them anymore.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Richard M. Nixon by Martin Athenstaedt/AFP/Getty Images.