In an effort to make a mountain out of a molehill, Rob Stein in the Washington Post (December 12) announces that the newly released Nixon tapes “reveal anti-Semitic, racist remarks.” What these tapes really reveal is something like those bull sessions I heard late at night as a graduate student at Yale in conversation with liberal classmate. Even the self-described progressives back then were less programmed than those who are now coming of age, and they often engaged in (Heaven forbid!) stereotypes.
Contrary to PC indoctrination, stereotypes are usually partial truths that even members of the group being described recognize as such. An Italian American from WCHE who interviewed me about the tapes said he found nothing insulting when Nixon asserted that “Italians are wonderful people” but go off the deep end. And was Nixon being malicious when he observed several decades ago that an Irish “trait” is excessive drinking? There is after all ample testimony coming from Irish and Irish Americans, including the magnificent autobiographical plays of Eugene O’Neill, which dwell on this vice.
Moreover, if Nixon claimed in what seems garbled speech that it might take hundreds of years before blacks caught up to whites socio-economically, why the fury? Nixon does question whether blacks have the same cognitive capacity as whites. But is he the only public figure who ever had this thought? One can easily find it in Truman, LBJ, and in other 20th-century presidents. One should also note Nixon’s exceptional consistency in supporting black civil rights, including during his administration the introduction of affirmative action for enterprises receiving government funding.
In comparison to the ranting against whites as racists that one hears from the congressional black caucus and the denunciations of whites, males, and Christians that pour out of the academy nonstop, Nixon’s comments are certainly small potatoes. I’m also struck by all the furrowed brows being raised because Nixon wanted to invite to a state dinner for the Israeli premiere Golda Meir “only those Jews who supported us.” When was the last time Obama invited to his state dinners Jews or anyone else who funded McCain?
Getting to the heart of the matter, Nixon is being raked over the coals once again, because of his “anti-Semitic remarks.” As a Jew who knew and liked Nixon, I was never struck by his anti-Semitism. Nor was Henry Kissinger, who was Nixon’s closest adviser and whose family, like mine, were war refugees from Central Europe. It is extraordinary, as Norman Podhoretz once observed, that a supposed anti-Semite, Nixon, had more Jewish associations than any other American president. His advisers from the time he went to Congress in 1946 down to his second presidential term featured Jews, with whom he was on intimate terms. And if one reads the remarks of Israeli politicians, never did their state have a better friend than Nixon. This president never stinted in his praise of Israel’s founder David ben Gurion or in his expressions of admiration for the brave patriots whom he discovered in Israelis.
His problem was the Jewish Left, which absolutely loathed him, from the time he listened to his Jewish confidant
Murray Chotiner and ran for Congress as an anti-Communist Republican candidate. Many of those who later attacked him, like Daniel Shorr, came from leftist families and had been themselves squishy soft on the Soviets. While other ethnic groups had some of the same ideological propensities, the Jews were more verbal and became journalists, mediacrats, and film producers. Although 20 percent of the American Jewish vote went to Nixon in 1960 and 1968 (and more in 1972 when the Democratic candidate George McGovern was seen as excessively pro-Palestinian), the 80 percent that went to his opponents included unchangeable Nixon-haters.
And Nixon hated these enemies in return because he found no matter how much of their program he gave them domestically and in foreign policy, they continued to view him as an anti-Communist extremist. He stuck them on his enemy list and in private conversation (which he foolishly taped) complained about “obnoxious” Jews. He also noted that even some of his Jewish friends “have an inferiority complex and try to compensate.” This may have been true for Nixon as well as for his Jewish friends and adversaries.
His death has not rendered his enemies any less hostile. The Washington Post and New York Times are going after Nixon like attack dogs. Since they no longer can assault a live target, they’re now growling at cardboard posters. But this is likely to gain less and less attention. The younger generation I encounter doesn’t even know who Nixon was, except that the media still hate him. Meanwhile biographers like Stephen Ambrose have written biographies of the former president celebrating his progressive accomplishments and farsighted foreign policy. By now there is something “déjà vu all over again” about the new revelations, which arouse the same predictable outrage from the same crowd.
A final observation may be in order. The need that some of us have felt to defend Nixon against his perpetual haters has also created for us discomfort. Although I did respect Nixon for his extraordinary intellect and grasp of foreign policy, his price and wage controls and his launching of affirmative action upset me profoundly. A question I have asked myself is why I have defended Nixon but not George W. Bush. Didn’t both presidents move the country leftward while misrepresenting what they were doing and while enjoying the support of the GOP establishment? The closest I have come to an answer is that Nixon, unlike W, was a man of the Right. He did stupid things domestically, but he thought like a rightist. Sam Francis once expressed this view to me in conversation, and I had to agree.
Unlike W, Nixon did not advocate a human-rights ideology in State of the Union and inauguration addresses; nor did he go to Africa and apologize there, as Bush did in July 2003, for the practice of slavery on American soil. Nixon’s favorite political thinker was Thomas Hobbes, and he fully shared the dark view of human nature expressed by that seventeenth-century Englishman.
If he made catastrophic mistakes, often by trying to appease his most implacable enemies, he did not think, like George W. Bush or his speechwriters Michael Gerson and David Frum, that all of humanity is yearning for the latest version of American democracy. Nixon was by no means a naïf with a lazy intellect, but the admirer of conservative statesmen who previewed his sober view of the world. Unfortunately his actions at home did not measure up to his intellectual or philosophical depth.
Finally, unlike our last president, Nixon and his associate were banished from public life by their own party. While the Reagan administration certainly could have used more political realists and fewer Elliot Abrams in foreign policy, this was not the role bestowed on Nixon or Kissinger in the 1980s. A different fate has awaited W and his pals, although they were unmistakably repudiated in the elections of 2006 and 2008. GOP talk show hosts ran to lionize the former president on the occasion of his published defense of his administration. And Dana Perrino, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and some of W’s onetime congressional supporters have become FOX news regulars and are being trotted out in their newest guise, as enemies of big government. The reason is not hard to seek. The neocons, who helped to discredit the last Republican administration with their foreign policy and rhetoric, remain a force to be reckoned with. They continue to guide the GOP and don’t seem likely to go away. Reassessments of a play are only possible once the actors have left the stage. And that has not happened in this case.