Mr. Safire’s Nixon Problem

William Safire of The New York Times , like a very small, yappy dog, has been biting, snapping, tearing at President Clinton for years now. During the recent scandals, he used every opportunity to run down, to demean, to belittle the duly elected President, to insinuate, to repeat rumor, to besmirch. Endlessly, repetitively, without mercy or charity, with self-righteous stuffed shirtyness, he used his columns on language and his podium on the Op-Ed page in relentless pursuit of the Democratic President. The fact that Bill handed him the mud balls and stockpiled the slings and arrows for him, all the while slipping on banana peels, does not change the matter.

Mr. Safire yipped louder and louder as it became clear that the President would not, bitter lipped, depart from office in a helicopter, as had Mr. Safire’s own boss some decades ago. Mr. Safire had been gleeful at the spectacle of egg on the Presidential face and monotonous in his predictable comments, not for the good of the nation, but for the pleasure of revenge, for the satisfaction of avenging his own President, Richard Nixon, or so it seemed to many.

For Mr. Safire, Monicagate was first and foremost a grand epilogue to Watergate. It was a chance to do unto others what had been done unto him. That Nixon was brought down because he was playing dirty politics about matters of communal interest while Mr. Clinton was simply indulging his bad taste in floozies was a distinction that Mr. Safire was unwilling to make. There is text in the Mr. Safire columns to support this point. We read it in the joy of the attack. We saw it in the relentless zeal to bring the President down which went beyond partisan politics into lip-smacking joy.

We knew back then from some of the taped Nixon conversations that Nixon thought Jews were not suitable for his daughter’s company. We knew that he thought liberals were too Jewish or Jews were too liberal and there were too many of them in New York.

Now with the newly released transcripts we see again that Nixon was blemished by social anti-Semitism by which we mean the repeating of unpleasant generalizations, stereotyping, a visceral dislike of Jews. Let’s not get overexcited. Nowhere does Nixon express genocidal thoughts or antidemocratic wishes, at least not in the tapes released so far. He simply expresses the causal anti-Semitism of country-club types, of the corporate America of its time.

That didn’t prevent him from working with Henry Kissinger or Mr. Safire himself. He was perfectly willing to use Jewish brains when it suited him. But in his statement that all communists were Jews except for Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss-and he wasn’t so sure about Hiss-we hear his fundamental primitive belief that Jews were suspect. A lot of people in this country believed that, and I have no doubt that many of them still do. An anti-Semitism that doesn’t hamper Jewish opportunity in the university or the law firm or the corporation or the medical establishment is run of the mill, rather like cell changes that could become carcinogenic but are not yet. We can live with that: very carefully.

But I am concerned that Mr. Safire remains so loyal to Nixon. Yes, it must have been nice to have been near the center of power. Yes, Nixon might have given Mr. Safire a pat on the back, an entry into the Oval Office, a pass to the best seats in America the powerful, but to be the exception is a pretty wild act, a riding of a bull in a rodeo that can easily land you on your back in the dust, with blood on your shirt.

There have always been court Jews who doctored or toiled in the treasury, who were valued and rewarded even at times when the general laws oppressed or excluded most Jews from the general society. It has not been bad for the Jewish community that a rare few (think Esther and Mordecai) have made their way into the centers of power, working as it were behind enemy lines.

Nevertheless a man who employs the kind of casual anti-Semitic banter we have heard on the newly released Nixon tapes is not a patriotic American. He is not a person we would want to trust the laws of the land with. He is not a generous or kind man. He is afraid of Jews, and a man who is afraid of you is not your friend, not ever. Mr. Safire was duped.

I don’t believe these anti-Semitic remarks were made in front of Mr. Safire. That’s the sort of remark you make when the servants are back in the pantry, not when they’re pouring your coffee. But now that he knows, doesn’t he feel a bit queasy? Mr. Clinton may have his sexual hang-ups, but he truly is not a man of little bigotries. His vision of America includes all of us, and no tapes will turn up in the future that belie that. Politics of course is about far more than who likes you and who doesn’t, but I am puzzled that Mr. Safire hasn’t reconsidered his loyalty to Nixon. It seems likely that it wouldn’t have been reciprocated.

I realize that all questions cannot be reduced to the Jewish issue. A sophisticated American Jew like Mr. Safire is not a Jew first and then a Republican or whatever. He is first an American, a writer, a political pundit, etc., and he is entitled to form his own identity in the forge of his private heart just as the rest of us do.

But I am wondering if Mr. Safire remembers that friendship with a man who doesn’t like Jews is like swimming with sharks. A shark should be bopped on the nose from time to time. It is not a member of an endangered species.

Social anti-Semitism does not shock us. It does not require a call to arms or even a dozen fund-raising letters from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Still it wounds, and still it alarms, and still it reminds us to keep our passports up to date and our heads out of the sand.

Moral lapses come in all forms, and in this post-Holocaust world the anti-Semitism of Nixon is far more unattractive than the sexual habits of our current President. No wonder Nixon condoned the plumbers and their bumbling shenanigans. All that anti-Communist huffing and puffing covered his lack of understanding of what makes American democracy worth living and dying for-a vision of a just world in which the self-evident truths we hold are not P.R. for the masses but the very heart of the matter.