It comes as no surprise that Richard Nixon had an issue with Jews, but the latest disclosures are too delicious to ignore. Buried within the 150 hours of tape and 30,000 pages of documents just made public by the Nixon Presidential Library is this February 21, 1973 phone conversation the former president had with the evangelist Billy Graham. But at first, it’s Nixon doing the talking.
“Antisemitism is stronger than we think.” To which we’d say: True.
“You know it’s unfortunate. But this has happened to the Jews.” Also true. So good to have a student of history in the Oval Office!
“It happened in Spain, it happened in Germany, it’s happening — and now it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving…” Is that a threat? A prediction? An unfulfilled dream?
“It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.”
Oh, now we get it! It’s our poor behavior that’s gotten us into trouble all these years, and if only we’d go along with the powers-that-be — more, of course, than we did in ancient Greece or 20th-century Germany or, indeed, contemporary America — then our survival would be assured.
And Nixon certainly knew from death wishes. How else to describe his maniacal attempts to cover up a clumsy clandestine operation against his political opponents and then allow the mess to spiral into a scandal gigantic enough to drive him from the presidency?
That was more than 35 years ago, and because our historical memories are infantile in this country, we’ve allowed Nixon to enjoy a certain resurrection, almost as an object of pity (as in “Frost/Nixon”), his rough and dangerous edges smoothed down by apathy and time. It’s easy to forget how much one man threatened the rule of law in a nation built upon that idea. His tirades against Jews — “The government is full of Jews… most Jews are disloyal. You know what I mean?” — seem almost trivial compared to his other sins.
But they are revealing and important, nonetheless. So, we might add, is the Rev. Billy Graham’s chilling response during that phone conversation: “Well, they’ve always been through the Bible at least, God’s timepiece. He has judged them from generation to generation and yet used them and they’ve kept their identity.”
Somehow, Nixon’s all-out, raw hatred is easier to bear than the tepid words of a religious leader who uses theology to mask his own feelings and won’t call a bigot by his true name.