Nixon tapes reveal even deeper animus and insecurity

December 14, 2010

The latest release of Nixon White House tapes — the gift that keeps on giving — provides yet another window into the prejudices and insecurities of our late 37th president.

His low esteem, not to say disrespect, for the various racial, ethnic and cultural heritages of hyphenated Americans had already been well established by other Richard Nixon declarations, recorded by the listening devices that undid him in the Watergate scandal.

But the latest batch released by the Nixon Presidential Library, now run by the National Archives, is even more revealing of the man's own biases and ignorance in such matters than heretofore disclosed.

His penchant for identifying what he saw as ingrained handicaps of personality, heredity and education in Jewish, African, Irish and Italian Americans is specifically revealed in recorded conversations with two prominent White House aides of the time, counsel Charles Colson and personal secretary Rose Mary Woods.

When Mr. Colson on Feb. 13, 1973 told Nixon he had "a little prejudice," the president denied it for himself, but added, "I've just recognized that, you know, a people have certain traits. The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain (traits), for example the Irish can't drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is that they get mean. Virtually every Irish I've known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish."

Without any prompting from Mr. Colson, Nixon goes on: "The Italians, of course, those people of course don't have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but ..." As for his other favorite target, he observes, "The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality."

Perhaps the most bizarre of Nixon's latest-released observations about Jews is his assessment that "what it is, is it's the insecurity. It's the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure. And that's why they have to prove things."

This comment came from arguably the most personally insecure president ever to occupy the White House. From my personal experience in interviewing and observing him at close quarters as a reporter, and from a host of other evidence over the years, Richard Nixon was himself a walking case of insecurities.

In his historic televised 1960 presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee's at-ease confidence and style intimidated Nixon, reducing him to an apologetic, fawning foil from which his campaign never recovered.

Later, as president, Nixon's rambling dialogues with principal White House aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were rife with Nixon put-downs of other political figures, whether friend or foe, revealing a transparent sense of his own shortcomings and inadequacies.

Perhaps the most negatively judgmental comments unearthed in the latest tapes are in Nixon's observations about the views of his then secretary of state, William P. Rogers, regarding African-Americans.

Nixon says to Rose Mary Woods: "Bill Rogers has got, to his credit it's a decent feeling, but somewhat sort of a blind spot on the black thing because he's been in New York. He says ... they are coming along, and that after all they are going to strengthen our country in the end because they are strong physically and some of them are smart. So forth and so on. My own view is I think he's right if you're talking in terms of 500 years. I think it's wrong if you're thinking in terms of 50 years. What has to happen is they have to be, frankly, inbred. ... That's the only thing that's going to do it, Rose."

Equally damning of Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who is Jewish, is a 1973 recorded exchange between them on demands that the Nixon administration urge the Soviet Union to agree to let Jews emigrate.

Mr. Kissinger says: "The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern." Nixon replies: "I know. We can't blow up the world because of it."

And so the Nixon tapes continue to inform us of the man who ran the country that prides itself in its history as a melting pot of human traits and traditions.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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