Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Richard Nixon on Philip Roth & the Jews

Here is an interesting and illuminating, though not surprising, passage in Adam Mars-Jones's LRB review essay on a recent book about Philip Roth, Roth Unbound.  (Thanks to Jeet Heer for the tip.)

Revelations from the White House tapes made it clear that Roth's brilliantly effective satire of Nixon and his inner circle in his 1971 book Our Gang really caught their attention, and they were irate. One recorded discussion between Nixon and Haldeman offers an intriguing blend of artistic, social-psychological, and ethno-political analysis. (Among other things, the first two lines of this exchange beautifully sum up almost two centuries of stereotypes about "Jewish art" and the "Jewish temperament".)
One of the high points of Roth Unbound is the extract from the tapes (recorded on 3 November 1971) in which Nixon considers his anti-Roth strategy:
NIXON: Roth of course is a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Oh yes … he’s brilliant in a sick way.

NIXON: Oh, I know –

HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick …

NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us. I mean you hear a singer even as brilliant as Richard Tucker and he’s a Jew.


NIXON: He’s pushy …

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.
Haldeman was on-target there in all respects—though, of course, Nixon definitely had some Jewish supporters, both inside and outside his administration, including loyal aides. And it's still true that there are "a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews" (especially if we're thinking on a global scale). Some philo-semites too, of course, but there's little doubt that the anti-semites heavily outnumber them. We seem to annoy a lot of people, for some reason.

—Jeff Weintraub