Nixon and the Jews. Again.
If his tirades against Jews weren't anti-Semitism, what were they?
Richard Nixon's reputation as a hateful, vindictive anti-Semite was reinforced late last month when the National Archives, which has been releasing the 3,700 hours of Nixon's tape-recorded White House conversations in installments since 1996, dropped another batch.
Whenever new Nixon tapes are released, the next-day stories invariably highlight the most outrageous tidbits, which typically include some anti-Jewish slurs. This go-round was no exception. Along with Nixon's apparently unserious threat to nuke Vietnam, reporters pounced on this 1972 exchange about Jews in the media between Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham:
BG: This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain.
RN: You believe that?
BG: Yes, sir.
RN: Oh, boy. So do I. I can't ever say that, but I believe it.
BG: No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something.
As the Chicago Tribune noted, Nixon, Graham, and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman also cracked anti-Semitic jokes, discussed which journalists were Jewish, and lamented that Washington reporting had deteriorated since Jews entered the trade. (As the National Archives explains here, there are no complete transcripts of the tapes. However, historian Stanley Kutler edited a valuable collection of transcripts relating to Nixon's Watergate transgressions, entitled Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, and a University of Virginia project is planning to publish volumes of additional transcripts.)
As in the past, the recent reports of Nixon's Jew-bashing were followed by professions of shock. (The Anti-Defamation League's press release is here.) Such shows of indignation are probably on balance a good thing, reaffirming as they do that the president shouldn't be seeking revenge against a particular ethnic group. Yet they also betray either an incredibly short memory or a measure of disingenuousness. Have journalists forgotten the identical slurs heard on earlier tapes? Or the stories in 1994 reporting that, according to Haldeman's then-just-published diaries, Graham spoke to Nixon of "Satanic" Jews? Nixon's loyalists are no less opportunistic. For them the periodic disclosures serve as occasions to pen op-eds explaining why their benefactor, despite the slurs, really wasn't a Jew-hater. (The late Herb Stein, Nixon's [Jewish] chief economist, wrote one of these apologias in Slate.)
Defending Nixon from charges of anti-Semitism has occupied his supporters for a half-century. The accusations date to the postwar years, when the American right remained closely tied to the unvarnished anti-Semites of the '30s who railed against the "Jew Deal." Although Nixon never publicly voiced any of this old-fashioned bigotry, some of his political kinsmen did, and his strident anti-communism played with the Jew-hating fringe. (Extreme anti-communism always contained an anti-Semitic component: Radical, alien Jews, in their demonology, orchestrated the Communist conspiracy.) In Nixon's early campaigns, anti-Semitism was a latent theme.
When the Republicans nominated Nixon as their vice-presidential candidate in 1952, some opponents accused him of anti-Semitism. Nixon had Murray Chotiner, his (Jewish) campaign manager, secure the ADL's stamp of approval. Still, into the summer voters inundated campaign headquarters with letters asking about Nixon's feelings toward Jews. The candidate sometimes responded himself, with his characteristic earnestness. "I want to thank you for … your courtesy in calling my attention to the false rumor that I am anti-Semetic [sic]," he wrote in one reply. "I am enclosing a copy of a letter which Murray Chotiner has sent to these people which, I believe, is self-explanatory." The questions were kept alive by a brief flap over the revelation that in 1951 Nixon had bought a home whose deed prohibited its resale or rental to Jews. And they haunted him in his 1956, 1960, and 1962 campaigns as well. The anti-Semitism issue loomed large enough in the 1960 presidential race that Newsweek's Raymond Moley devoted a column to defending Nixon while New York's (Jewish) Sen. Jacob Javits did likewise on the Senate floor.
When Nixon was elected president in 1968, a general feeling existed, said his (Jewish) aide William Safire, that "Nixon just doesn't like Jews." To combat this impression, Nixon loyalists emphasized things Nixon did that were "good for the Jews." The main example was his delivery of arms to a besieged Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That argument was weak, since Nixon's support was both equivocal and contingent; he never believed in the moral necessity of a Jewish homeland. On other issues, the politics of Jews—overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic—and Nixon's remained far apart.
What rendered the apologias untenable was the public release of White House tape transcripts during the 1974 Watergate endgame. Safire recalled that Arthur Burns, a (Jewish) friend whom Nixon appointed Federal Reserve chairman, "felt especially incensed about the ethnic slurs on the tapes. [Leonard] Garment, [Nixon's (Jewish) counsel], Stein and I all felt that sinking sensation in an especially personal way. It simply did not fit in with all we knew about Nixon's attitude toward Jews, and it fit perfectly with most Jews' suspicions of latent anti-Semitism in Nixon, which all of us had worked so hard to allay."
Since 1974, the publication of aides' memoirs and the release of more tapes have shown that Nixon made anti-Semitic references more often than Safire and others suspected. Sometimes, he simply grouped all Jews together in an unseemly way ("[Supporters of] the arts, you know—they're Jews, they're left wing—in other words, stay away"). Other times, he was more explicit (calling supporter Robert Vesco, who later fled the country to escape criminal charges, "a cheap kike"). Sometimes he chalked up nefarious behavior to Jews ("The IRS is full of Jews," he told Haldeman, when the IRS commenced an audit of the Rev. Billy Graham. "I think that's the reason they're after Graham, is the rich Jews").
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.