Nixon's Jewish problem. Again.

The history behind current events.
March 12 2002 11:44 AM

Nixon and the Jews. Again.

If his tirades against Jews weren't anti-Semitism, what were they?

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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").

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.