Nixon and the Jews. Again.
If his tirades against Jews weren't anti-Semitism, what were they?
At least once the anti-Semitism appears to have had hard consequences. As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein first reported in The Final Days, and as White House memos later confirmed, Nixon feared that a "Jewish cabal" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics was skewing data to make him look bad, and he instructed his aide Fred Malek to tally up the Jewish employees at the bureau—a count that probably resulted in the demotion of two Jews. (It later forced Malek's own resignation from George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.)
Still, Nixon's loyalists haven't shied from defending him. Garment has argued that Nixon's words on the tapes are just private mutterings, too fragmentary to allow the conclusion that he was anti-Semitic. Others have used the "some of his best aides were Jewish" rejoinder, pointing to Burns, Chotiner, Garment, Safire, Stein, and of course Henry Kissinger (about whom Nixon privately made anti-Semitic comments). Still others, including Nixon Library Director John Taylor in a 1999 letter to Slate, contend that when Nixon said "Jews," he really meant something like "anti-war liberals," at whom he was justifiably angry.
All these claims can be easily countered. To the dismissal of Nixon's remarks as just "private," one could argue that private comments are actually more revealing than public remarks of someone's true feelings, especially since overt anti-Semitism has become taboo. And this response, like Taylor's, begs a key question: If he's not anti-Semitic, why does Nixon vent his anger at anti-war liberals by focusing on their Jewishness? Making their ethnicity central to his complaint, when their ethnicity is nowhere at issue is, arguably, exactly what defines anti-Semitism. As for the prevalence of Jewish aides in Nixonland, again one has to understand how prejudice works. Anti-Semites, racists, and other bigots construct a definition of a group based on stereotypes and then direct their hatred toward the group. When they encounter an individual who seems to defy the stereotype—a friend, an aide, a Cabinet secretary—the negative view of the group as a whole isn't called into question; rather, the nonconforming friend gets defined as an "exception," allowing the hostile picture of the group as a whole to stand. On the tapes, Nixon and Haldeman are often heard discussing exactly these sort of "exceptions."
Perhaps most important, all these apologias for Nixon seem aimed at keeping him free of some permanent stigma, of being branded with a scarlet A. But this is ultimately just a semantic concern. There's no way to settle whether Nixon was an anti-Semite—not just because you can't peer into someone's soul, but also because there's no litmus test for anti-Semitism. No, Nixon didn't hate all Jews personally, nor did he use unreconstructed Henry Ford-style anti-Jewish appeals—though, of course, virtually no major public figure in the last 50 years has. Yet clearly he thought and spoke of Jews as a group, more or less united in their opposition to him, possessing certain base and malign characteristics, and worthy of his scorn and hatred. You don't have to call that anti-Semitism if you don't want to. But there's no denying it represents a worldview deserving of the strongest reproach.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Richard Nixon with Billy Graham by Bettmann/Corbis.