Jewish World Review March 21, 2002 / 8 Nisan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Like the Ghost of Politics Past, Richard Nixon made some headlines this month as the National Archives released another 5 million hours -- sorry -- 500 hours of his tape-recorded conversations as president. "Nixon Defended Envoy's Groping," which is how the Washington Post saw fit to headline the story, just about says it all concerning the barrel-scraping significance of this batch of tape.
Or does it? The notorious White House tapes of the Nixon administration -- the continually taped coverage of a presidency in action -- stand alone as a weird sort of political precursor to Reality TV. One main difference, of course, is that Nixon secretly taped his presidential life without an inkling that one day anyone and everyone would be able to listen in. This gives the taped record an immediacy and a special kind of veracity that a speech or memoir, for example, never has. Still, while there is an emotional truth to these tapes -- the storied Nixonian paranoia-cum-Machiavellianism, for example, is on centerstage -- the "news" they contain indicates that off-the-cuff comments may sometimes be exactly that.
Despite the Washington Post's headline stress on "groping" -- a sign of lingering Clinton fatigue? -- the two main stories to emerge from the tapes concern two very bad things: anti-Semitism and nuclear recklessness. These tapes include nasty comments about "untrustworthy" Jews at the Justice Department, and Nixon's plan to reduce the percentage of Jewish political appointees in the second term to reflect the population -- which, it must be said, is inversely reminiscent of Bill Clinton's efforts to make his cabinet "look like America." There is also an interesting earful from former Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns, who predicted that "Wall Street Jews" would be voting Republican in 1972. As the Washington Post recounted it, "Mr. Burns, who was Jewish, said he was comfortable about that. 'In all the years that I have known you,' he told Nixon, 'I have never heard of what even remotely resembles what could be interpreted as a touch of anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism.'"
Mr. Burns, of course, never heard these tapes. On the other hand, he and Henry Kissinger, two rather prominent Jewish Nixon appointees, did manage to hold their jobs into the second Nixon term -- and beyond. Are Nixon's sentiments, as the Los Angeles Times' leftist columnist Robert Scheer recently wrote, really "echoed in the surviving cells of Al Qaeda"? Are they borne out by Nixon's record on Jewish affairs, including his staunch pro-Israel stance?
This faltering connection between internal conversation and historical record applies to an exchange with Henry Kissinger in which Nixon raises the notion of using a nuclear bomb in Vietnam. Kissinger bats it down. "I just want you to think big," Nixon replies. End of story? Some 30 years later, hysteria has ensued. The Associated Press reported "the taped comment brought revulsion from many in Asia," with the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry denouncing the "formidable cruelty" of the Nixon administration; a Japanese professor noting that an A-bomb would have jeopardized U.S. use of Okinawa; and a retired Thai general concluded, "This proves that Americans care nothing about other human lives." A New Zealand minister said he felt "quite sick" about Nixon's comments, adding that they show "the decision-makers were not only callous, but racist as well."
They do? Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow -- no Nixon booster -- told the AP he doubts Nixon gave serious thought to using atomic weapons. "Just because he said it doesn't mean it was really an option." Historian Stanley Kutler added that "the tapes are replete with Nixon blurting out outlandish remarks." Maybe these tapes tell us a lot about the private man, but we still have to look elsewhere for the public
JWR contributor Diana West is a columnist and editorial writer for the Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.