There is only one thing surprising about reports that Richard Nixon repeatedly mouths racist and anti-Semitic comments on the final set of White House tapes released last week – it’s that anybody is still surprised.
From the day of his downfall until his death, Nixon struggled to prevent public access to the four thousand hours of tapes generated during his time in office. This last release is the final step in a drawn out process that pitted Nixon’s heirs against historians seeking to write an accurate history of the 37th President’s administration.
Even so, as long ago as our 2000 biography of Nixon, The Arrogance of Power – with only some 900 hours of the total available to us – we were able to conclude that the tapes revealed a man with a penchant for ethnic, racist and sexist slurs.
In 1970, as he nagged his aide John Ehrlichman to ensure the tax affairs of Democratic contributors were investigated, he zeroed in on “…the Jews, you know, that are stealing….” Days later, he would beg another aide, “Please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors…Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?”
Nixon once ordered an aide to investigate a “Jewish cabal” at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to contemporary notes, and two Jewish bureau officials were transferred within weeks. The IRS, he insisted, was “full of Jews,” and he demanded the firing of a California Immigration Service official, “a kike by the name of Rosenberg. He is out…Transfer him…”
“Jews are all over the government,” the President complained at an Oval Office meeting, adding that they should be brought under control by putting someone “in charge who is not Jewish.” “Most Jews are disloyal, he told his closest advisor, H.R. Haldeman, “…generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards.”
Was Nixon an anti-Semite? He did after all appoint Henry Kissinger, a Jewish immigrant, to the second most powerful post in his administration. And he appointed Jewish men to several other key posts. Commenting on the matter later, presidential counsel Leonard Garment, himself Jewish, defended his former boss as having been “better than most, worse than some.” Kissinger disagreed. “You can’t believe how much anti-Semitism there is at the top of this government,” he said, “and I mean at the top.”
Nixon’s comments about African-Americans could be equally vile. Former aides have said he referred to blacks as “niggers,” “jigs,” jigaboos,” and “jungle bunnies.” Long before this latest tape release, researchers working on the unreleased tapes at the National Archives revealed that Nixon spoke of blacks as being “just down from the trees.”
Yet Nixon greatly increased the budget for civil rights enforcement and appointed the first African-American head of the Federal Communications Commission. So, too, his administration saw the appointment of the first black admiral and the first black assistant secretary of the navy.
“With blacks you can usually settle for an incompetent,” the President said while discussing hiring policy on an early tape, “because there are usually just not enough competent ones. And so you put incompetents in and get along with them, because the symbolism is vitally important.”
There seem to have been two Nixons where minorities were concerned: the private man, spewing the abuse evident on the tapes, and the candidate, concerned above all about garnering – and keeping – votes.
No one, surely, can argue any longer with those historians who have said that the tapes reveal a deeply flawed character. No one, surely, could maintain that such remarks are permissible from a President, even in private.