Richard Nixon had difficulties, to say the least, with his public image, and never more so than during the dark days of Watergate. When the president found himself mired in scandal, growing numbers of Americans came to view him as a criminal, a liar and a madman — and, as of May 1974, an antisemite as well.
It was that month that Seymour Hersh of The New York Times reported that on the White House tapes that Nixon had recorded — which at that point were still unreleased to the public — the president had on multiple occasions complained about those “Jew boys” or “those Jews down there” in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who had first undertaken the Watergate prosecution.
The revelation confirmed the worst suspicions of many longtime detractors. It dismayed his loyalists, especially those who were themselves Jewish. According to Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire, several aides who had long tried to deny his animus toward Jews were distraught. Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns, Safire noted, felt especially incensed about the ethnic slurs on the tapes. Leonard Garment, Herb Stein and Safire himself, for their part, all felt that sinking sensation in an especially personal way. “It fit perfectly with most Jews’ suspicions of latent antisemitism in Nixon, which all of us had worked so hard to allay,” noted Safire.
Ever since that bombshell, the White House tapes have been unforgiving to Nixon on the Jewish question. For all the historical treasures the tapes hold, they are mined most enthusiastically for Nixon’s racial and religious slurs. With each batch that the National Archives releases — it began making the tapes public in 1996 — reporters excitedly note the most scandalous excerpts. One recently discovered exchange between Nixon and Reverend Billy Graham featured Graham lamenting the Jewish stranglehold on the news media and Nixon concurring with the reverend’s assessment. There are dozens more.
It’s hardly surprising that such statements still have the power to offend. It is surprising, though, that they retain the power to surprise, for Nixon’s reputation as an antisemite long predates his presidency. As I discovered in my research for my book “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” such concerns were not a sudden revelation by the White House recordings. On the contrary, they had dogged Nixon from virtually the start of his career.
To be sure, in the early days, the accusations of antisemitism did not erupt into a controversy fiery enough to occupy the national news media. The evidence was too elusive and the culture too unreceptive to such objections by Jews for the charges to make the front pages.
But the perception lingered in the back — and sometimes in the front — of the minds of American Jews, who had always tended to distrust Nixon. Indeed, these deep-rooted suspicions of Nixon dating back to the 1950s were, in their quiet way, part of what made Nixon into the leading political villain of America’s recent history.
Nixon began his political career in the conservative heart of southern California in 1945, when as a 32-year-old unknown he ran for Congress. At that time, antisemitism was fast fading as a legitimate belief to espouse. Before World War II, open professions of Jew-hating were startlingly common, and private hostility or negative assumptions about Jews as a people even more pervasive. Historians have long had to reckon with the antisemitic attitudes of liberal heroes like Eleanor Roosevelt, and the recent discovery of anti-Jewish comments by Harry Truman, though shocking at first, was quickly acknowledged to be, alas, all too typical of his time.
Antisemitism was at its rawest and most explicit on the right fringes of the political spectrum. In the 1930s, Jew-bashing remained a central tenet of the right-wing world of men like Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio preacher. Members of what is now sometimes called the Old Right blamed the Depression on Jewish bankers, and when Franklin Roosevelt tried to end it, they spoke sneeringly of the “Jew Deal.” This right-wing movement was isolationist and intolerant. It preached a strident brand of anti-Communism that roughly equated leftists, Jews and traitors to the United States.
But World War II, in which the United States defined itself in contrast to the racist regime of Nazi Germany, helped popularize the American ideals of tolerance and equality. So did the work of social scientists who, since the Progressive Era, had been discrediting any biological basis for racism (of which antisemitism was a form). Soon, the belief that religious, racial and ethnic discrimination fundamentally traversed American ideals took hold as a governing assumption of public life, if not private talk.
When Nixon ran for Congress in 1946, such bare bigotry had already been discredited even in the right-wing precincts of southern California, although there remained elements of the far right unreconciled to the new tolerance. Indeed, the Republicans who recruited Nixon to challenge their district’s incumbent, Democrat Jerry Voorhis, recognized that past Republican challengers had failed to unseat the New Dealer in part because they wouldn’t mute what were coming increasingly to be seen as unpalatable prejudices. Nixon never made antisemitism part of his rhetoric. But he did display a fiery anti-Communism and cast Voorhis — a sponsor of anti-Communist legislation in Congress and a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee — as dangerously naive about the Soviet threat.
Anti-Communism wasn’t, of course, inherently antisemitic. But to certain audiences, the two antipathies were bound together in the same ideology. In Nixon’s attacks, these bigots easily discerned the righteous fervor of a defender of Christian, capitalist America. In this first congressional race, Nixon also profited from the Jew-baiting of his local supporters. Reactionary boosters distributed leaflets branding Voorhis the friend of “the subversive Jews and communists” who served “the interests of International Jewry” and wished “to destroy Christian America and our form of government.” “If you would oppose the International Jew,” read one flyer, “you owe it to yourself to vote for real genuine Americans such as Richard M. Nixon.” Voorhis was in fact a church-going Christian.
When Nixon sought to ascend to the Senate in 1950, he benefited once again from the support of California’s radical right. His opponent was the left-liberal congresswoman and former actress Helen Gahagan Douglas, whose husband was the actor Melvyn Douglas — a Jew whose given name was Melvyn Hesselberg. During the campaign, Gerald L. K. Smith, a disciple of the late Louisiana rabble-rouser Huey Long and a bigot whose antisemitism outstripped that of his mentor, came to California to endorse Nixon. “Californians can do one thing very soon to further the ideals of Christian nationalism,” Smith urged, “and this is not to send to the Senate the wife of a Jew.”
Nixon repudiated Smith, but other supporters continued to pander nastily to the far right. Anonymous phone calls and advertisements reminded voters of Melvyn Douglas’s heritage. The historian Greg Mitchell has written that on occasion Nixon himself, while speaking extemporaneously, would pretend to lapse and refer to his opponent as “Helen Hesselberg,” only to then retract his error forthwith.
Though the 1946 campaign had mostly gone unnoticed outside the district, the Senate race attracted a moderate amount of national attention (although nothing like what California contests now draw). Journalists and liberal spokesmen began growing leery of Nixon, both for his vociferous Red-baiting and for his dirty campaigning. The columnist Drew Pearson called Nixon’s operation in 1950 “one of the most skillful and cut-throat campaigns I have ever seen.” The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. dubbed Nixon “the West’s streamlined [Joseph] McCarthy.”
Liberals of the 1950s — including many Jews and many others who associated with Jews — recoiled at McCarthyism for lots of reasons, most of all because of its leader’s blatant contempt for civil liberties. But among the more subtle fears was that McCarthy represented a quasifascist movement, akin to the Poujadists in 1950s France, that mobilized ethnic, chauvinist and anti-intellectual passions against liberalism, often with the threat of violence. Contained in this angry populism was a strain of antisemitism that saw Jews as subversive interlopers.
Nixon’s association with McCarthy and other Midwestern Republicans of his ilk, like Senators John Bricker and Kenneth Wherry, gave him a coloration not just as a conservative but as a thuggish demagogue — and one who could only represent a danger to Jews and the liberalism that allowed them to thrive in the United States.
Nixon truly emerged as a national figure in July 1952, when presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower chose the young senator as his running mate. Although the national news media generally celebrated the choice, concerns about Nixon’s antisemitism began to bubble to the surface and, by August, had become an intractable problem.
Nixon dispatched Murray Chotiner, his campaign manager and a Jew, to obtain from the Anti-Defamation League a statement giving the candidate a clean bill of health, which it did. Other official Jewish groups also offered support. But as the weeks rolled on, citizens continued to flood Nixon’s offices, and those of groups like the ADL, with queries probing the candidate’s sentiments toward Jews.
Fuel was added to the fire when Baltimore’s African-American newspaper reported on October 4 that just the previous year, Nixon had purchased a house with a restrictive covenant. In buying his house at Tilden and 48th streets in northwest Washington, the senator had agreed not to resell or rent the property to any person of the Semitic race, blood or origin, defining “Semitic” as including Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians.
Nixon’s supporters urged him to deal with the problem. They worried about hemorrhaging support. McIntyre Faries, a longtime California politico and ally of Nixon from his first campaign, told Chotiner that the owner of the Los Angeles eatery Sternberger’s, who had been planning to support Eisenhower and Nixon, defected to Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson’s camp when he heard about Nixon’s covenant. The move was surely repeated in Jewish homes elsewhere.
Chotiner ratcheted up the damage-control efforts. He supplied to Jewish newspapers lists of occasions when Nixon had helped assorted Jewish causes. Staffers also penned memos contending that ever since the Supreme Court’s signal 1948 decision Shelley v. Kraemer, restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. Therefore, the logic held, they were inoperative and meaningless and didn’t cast back on Nixon in any form.
Chotiner and others wrote to voters insisting that Nixon was clean and tolerant, and that no less an authority than the ADL had said as much. Sometimes Nixon would reply himself. In his typically solemn style, he wrote to one correspondent: “I want to thank you for your courtesy in calling my attention to the false rumor that I am anti-Semetic [sic]. We have received a number of inquiries regarding this unfounded rumor and I am enclosing a copy of a letter which Murray Chotiner has sent to these people which, I believe, is self-explanatory.”
Whether due to Chotiner’s able efforts or simply a paucity of evidence, the Jew-hating image failed to gain fatal traction. Ironically, one development that may have saved Nixon from getting bogged down further in charges of antisemitism was a bigger scandal. On September 18, the New York Post reported that Nixon’s financial supporters had established a slush fund, later disclosed to contain $18,000, from which he would pay for expenses. The ensuing outcry imperiled Nixon’s place on the ticket until he went on television to deliver his now-famous Checkers speech, which was so well received (except by his liberal critics) that Eisenhower felt compelled to keep him on board.
But the rumors wouldn’t die. In 1956, the Beverly Hills Reporter, among other publications, revived the charges, running an editorial entitled, “Nixon’s Anti-Semitic Record.” Again, the ADL vouched for Nixon’s decency. (“Nixon Is Found Free of Antisemitism as B’nai B’rith Praises Four Candidates,” read a headline in the October 4, 1956, edition of The New York Times.)
And in Nixon’s 1960 presidential race against John F. Kennedy, the issue again threatened to break out of Jewish quarters and become national news. Raymond Moley — an old FDR aide-turned-conservative-Newsweek writer — devoted a column to defending Nixon against the hoary charges. On the Senate floor, Jacob Javits, New York’s liberal Republican (and Jewish) senator, did the same. Then, too, in his 1962 bid for governor of California, Nixon had to suppress yet another whispering campaign that he was antisemitic.
The pronouncements of the ADL and other organs of official Judaism only went so far, since ordinary Jewish Americans recognized that it was in these organizations’ own interest to stay on good terms with leading politicians of both parties. So private suspicions lingered. When he was elected president in 1968, there was still a feeling in some quarters, Safire wrote, that “Nixon just doesn’t like Jews.”
But as far as the national news media and the general public were concerned, Nixon managed to put the issue behind him. His efforts at presenting himself as an upstanding defender of traditional American values had paid off.
The revelations of the tapes of 1974, and the additional disclosures since then, reveal a cruel irony. Perhaps more than any politician of his time, Nixon had devoted himself unflaggingly to crafting and burnishing an image he wanted to proffer to posterity. Despite nagging suspicions among older Jews, he had more or less vanquished the antisemitic charge by the time of Watergate.
But his own paranoia — the same paranoia that led him to order an aide to count the Jews at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whom he irrationally believed were doctoring employment numbers to harm him politically — was his undoing. His tapes caught his ugliest side unrehearsed. His own handiwork scuttled the long years of dogged public relations that he had hoped would preserve his facade of decency for history.
David Greenberg is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” which has just been published by W.W. Norton. He teaches history and political science at Yale and writes for Slate and other scholarly and popular publications.