As Bob Woodward likes to say, he is the gift that keeps on giving. Richard Nixon, that is. And an endless source of amusement he is. We have all been having a great chuckle listening to Nixon again. More tapes, more titillation, most notably his ranting and raving about Jews. ("Generally speaking, you can't trust the bastards," etc.)
As a Jew, I have been asked several times about these revelations. I am entirely unmoved.
First, I wonder how anyone would fare who had an open microphone in his office for 3,700 hours running. Second, Nixon was suspicious and paranoid about everyone. So what else is new?
Third and most important: I don't really care what a public figure thinks. I care about what he does. Let God probe his inner heart. Tell me about his outer acts.
And what were Nixon's outer acts vis-a-vis Jews? Well, in 1973, he saved Israel from possible destruction with his massive weapons airlift during the Yom Kippur War. He even put the U.S. military on worldwide alert to keep the Russians from intervening on Egypt's behalf.
I feel about Nixon the way I feel reading about Truman's occasional ethnic lapses. "In private, Truman was a man who still . . . could use a word like 'kike,' " writes David McCullough, "or, in a letter to his wife, dismiss Miami as nothing but 'hotels, filling stations, Hebrews, and cabins.' " So what? Truman remains a hero to Jews for having recognized the State of Israel at the crucial moment of its birth in 1948.
Herb Stein, who died last month, was chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers. Reflecting on Nixon's Jewish problem, he wrote that he never felt anything but the utmost respect and friendship from Nixon. Whatever Nixon's private thoughts, both in his personal relations and in his public actions as president, he was a friend of the Jews.
It is part of the trivialization of politics that we give endless attention to the inner life of the politician--his private thoughts, his inner demons--at the expense of his outer life. I cannot, for example, imagine Pat Buchanan ever saying even in private anything as nasty about Jews as did Nixon. But the public Pat Buchanan goes around fanning hatred for Jews with his sly and not so sly allusions to Jewish power, Jewish influence, Jewish disloyalty. So who is the antisemite?
Obsession with self is the motif of our time. It carries over into our thinking about public figures, to our preoccupation--long predating our fascination with Gary Hart's nocturnal trysts--with their inner life.
The reductio ad absurdum of this tendency is Edmund Morris's disastrous book on Reagan. The subject of the book is really not Reagan but Morris, and when Morris does get around to Reagan, it is the inner "Dutch" that interests him, not the politician, the leader, the president.
The results are comical. Seven pages spent on imagining Reagan's thoughts while making his first movie, four pages on the momentous years 1976-1980, when Reagan remade American politics. Between Reagan's losing the nomination in '76 and winning the presidency in '80, the book is a near total blank. We hear about Morris's encounter with Jimmy Carter, Morris's publication of his Theodore Roosevelt biography, then get one page--out of 674--on the 1980 campaign.
One modern conceit is that the inner man is more important than the outer man. The second conceit is that somehow, thanks to Freud and modern psychobabble, we have real access to the inner man.
As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly.
Even the experts haven't a clue. Remember that group of psychiatrists, 1,189 strong, who in 1964 signed a statement asserting their professional judgment that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to be president? The very attempt to make such a diagnosis at a distance is malpractice.
Even Nixon, his private thoughts spilled out on tape forever, is no open book. Sure, the seething cauldron of inchoate hatreds and fears helps explain Watergate. But how do you match that with the man who cut through the paranoia and fear and opened the door to China, fashioned detente and ushered in the era of arms control--something less psychically roiled presidents had not been able to do?
"Know thyself" is a highly overrated piece of wisdom. As for knowing the self of others, forget it. Know what they do and judge them by their works.