It started with a happenstance discovery of something suspicious at 12:30 am on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. An attentive security guard, Frank Mills, noticed a small piece of tape covering the lock of a door, which just happened to be the entrance to the national headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
That simple, quiet, late-night discovery — that small piece of tape — would eventually lead to the first and only resignation of a president and the biggest scandal in U.S. history.
Five burglars were arrested and found with thousands of dollars with cash, rolls of film and bugging devices. Four of them, it was discovered, had CIA connections. The fifth, James W. McCord, was the security chief of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Two young Washington Post beat reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, were assigned to attend the arraignments and see if there was anything interesting there.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Watergate. There will be a host of symposiums, panel discussions, a TV special, a new movie — even a tour of the actual suite at the Watergate Hotel. Re-examining the meaning of Watergate has become a cottage industry in the past 50 years; it’s about to be on full display on the anniversary of this infamous event.
At the center of it all, of course, will be the latest analyses of the role and legacy of President Richard M. Nixon.
Like everything else these days, we can safely assume that many of the analyses will be politicized. There will be people who will surely say that Nixon indeed made mistakes — but that we should measure that against his many accomplishments, particularly in foreign affairs. We will no doubt hear about how the media always had it out for Nixon, and that Watergate was nothing more than the final witch hunt. That debate will not be resolved on the 50th anniversary, nor 50 years from now.
But as all Watergate buffs know, there is one pure source that allows us to conveniently separate facts from falsehoods: the tapes. Over 3,000 hours of them. Nixon recorded it all — his crimes, his hapless plan to obstruct the law with his co-conspirators, his anger, profanity and paranoia — all straight from the Wilson Desk in the Oval Office.
He was apparently convinced that the tapes were his private property and thus could never be revealed. That misjudgment — that hubris — was ultimately his undoing and, for a while, it seemed, the country’s as well. President Gerald Ford, upon ascending to the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation, aptly described life under Watergate as “our national nightmare.”
After Nixon’s resignation, the federal government took control of the tapes and has periodically released additional hours to the public. With each release, we’re able to eavesdrop on new Nixon conversations, often filled with revelations and shocking language. It is, as Carl Bernstein once said, “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Aside from the criminality of Nixon and many of his aides, 48 of whom were convicted, we often hear the non-public, bigoted side of Nixon — talking like an X-rated Archie Bunker with hateful, profane language and inane generalities. There are multiple bigoted comments against minority communities, including gays (“I won’t shake hands with anyone from San Francisco.”)
In one meeting, Nixon gave his opinions on whether Black people were capable of governing in Jamaica.
“Blacks can’t run it. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand.”
His venom was particularly targeted at Jews. It was a regular theme of his, with frequent usage of vile language:
-“You can't trust the bastards. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right?”
-Washington "is full of Jews…most Jews are disloyal.”
-“The Jews are born spies. You notice how many of them are? They're just in it up to their necks.”
-“Antisemitism … has happened to the Jews … and it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving.”
-“The Jews are all over the government." Jews needed to be brought under control by putting someone "in charge who is not Jewish."
-When Reverend Billy Graham complained that Jews have a “stranglehold” on the country and it “has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain”, Nixon responded, “You believe that? Oh, boy, so do I. I can't ever say that but I believe it."
-Regarding future appointees: “”No Jews. We are adamant when I say no Jews.”
-Nixon wanted to fire one of his lawyers, Leonard Garment, yelling “God damn his Jewish soul.” The irony is that Garment wasn’t Jewish.
-“If they [Jews] did that [sabotaged a U.S./Soviet Summit) it’s gonna be the worst thing that’s ever happened to Jews in American history.”
-To Haldeman: “You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards are out for the legalization of marijuana. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?”
-Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, was referred to as “my little Jew boy.”
In the coming weeks, we will hear Nixon defenders argue that history has been unduly critical of the 37th President and it’s time his legacy was rehabilitated. There are Jews who feel that way. Many of them are aware of Nixon’s anti-Jewish and other bigoted words and yet willing to minimize or excuse them — or better yet, just change the subject. Those were just words, they’ll say, and we should instead concentrate on the good things Nixon did. Nixon wasn’t the first bigoted president, they’ll argue.
I get it. History is complicated. America does have plenty of past leaders who were bigoted and yet are revered today. Washington, Jefferson and Madison, after all, were slave owners. But times evolve, and the practices of certain elite Southern landowners almost 250 years ago were patently indecent and unacceptable in 1972, just as they are today.
The tapes bear witness to what was truly in the heart of Richard Nixon. He cannot escape from his own hateful words. They are the words of an unapologetic bigot and antisemite. He tried to keep his private prejudice from the public, but now we know better.
As we recall the national trauma of Watergate 50 years ago, some people — Jews and non-Jews — will choose to explain away, excuse or overlook his antisemitism and his bigotry.
Not this Jew.