Nixon vs. the Imaginary “Jewish Cabal”
Mr. Hughes is the Nixon tapes editor for the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.On Monday September 24, 2007 the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center publishes a collection of transcripts that illustrate the evolution of Nixon’s conspiracy theories about Jews, intellectuals and the Ivy League in the aftermath of the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
The Federal Reserve is catnip to conspiracy theorists (just Google “Federal Reserve conspiracy” and see) but Richard Nixon may be the only political paranoid ever to form a conspiracy theory about a Fed Chairman whom he personally appointed.
In July 1971, dogged by rising unemployment and inflation, Nixon imagined the existence of a “Jewish cabal” involving Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F. Burns and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The President had expected favorable press coverage on July 2, 1971, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a big drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2 to 5.6 percent. When Nixon learned that the front-page of Washington’s Evening Star said, “The Labor Department warned that the dip might have been caused by a statistical quirk,” he ordered an investigation to find out who was responsible, saying, “He’s got to be fired.”
A statistical quirk did cause the drop, and Nixon knew it. (CAUTION: The following contains math.) It was the result of the standard seasonal adjustment BLS makes to the unemployment rate. Summer vacation for students changes the employment picture dramatically. There’s a big influx of students into the job market in June and a big exodus in September. It has nothing to do with the health of the economy, what economists call the “underlying” job market. It’s just students starting and ending their summer jobs. Here’s the tricky part: BLS conducted its unemployment survey during “the regular survey week, defined to be the week including the 12th day of each month.” In other words, officials look at the calendar, see which week contains the 12th, and do the survey from Sunday to Saturday of that week. In June 1971, the 12th fell on a Saturday, so the survey came early in the month, June 6-12, before many students had started vacation. Since there were fewer students looking for jobs at the time, the unemployment rate was lower. If the 12th had fallen on a Sunday, then the survey week would have been June 12 to June 18, there would have been more students out of school looking for jobs, and the “seasonal adjustment” would not have made it look like there was a big drop in unemployment. In fact, when Office of Management and Budget Director George P. Shultz informed the President of the drop in unemployment two days earlier, he’d described it, in these exact words, as “a statistical quirk.”
“I understand statistical aberrations,” Nixon told White House Political Operative Charles W. “Chuck” Colson the day after the announcement. “Why didn’t they say there were statistical aberrations when it went up?”
Well, they did. The same kind of statistical quirk arose the previous September, when the students were leaving their summer jobs to head back to school. (Once again, the 12th had fallen on a Saturday, so the survey week was September 6-12.) In September 1970, there had been big jump in unemployment, from 5.1 to 5.5 percent, its highest point in six years. “But officials of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, traditionally insulated from the political arena, were quick to explain,” the Washington Post reported on its front page on Oct. 3, 1970, “that the big increase could be attributed in large part to a quirk in timing.” BLS had treated the big rise in unemployment the same way it treated the big drop. Newspapers had used the same word both times -- “quirk.”
This made no difference to Nixon, who focused his wrath on the assistant commissioner of labor statistics, Harold Goldstein. Nixon had been wanting to get rid of Goldstein for months. When unemployment fell two-tenths of a percent in January 1971, Goldstein said at the regular BLS briefing that the drop was “marginally significant.” The next month, Goldstein described another two-tenths drop as “sort of mixed,” and the administration cancelled the regular BLS briefings altogether. (Again, it didn’t matter that Goldstein had also made little of small rises in unemployment.)
“I think the one thing, Mr. President, that you should insist upon,” Colson said, “is that they reorganize that Bureau. Now, in the process of reorganizing it, I think we’ll get this guy’s resignation. And we’ll put in a politician. That’s what we ought to have in there.”
Nixon agreed and summoned Shultz and Labor Secretary James D. Hodgson into his office. “I want them to do it even-handed. And they’re not doing it that way,” Nixon said. “Every [press] release has been loaded against us. And deliberately.” The President asked for a plan.
“Well,” Shultz said, “I think the only kind of organization that would be sensible under these circumstances is a reorganization that separates Goldstein from the employment, uh, unemployment figures and gets him into something else entirely.” One of Shultz’s aides already thought BLS needed reorganizing.
Later, alone with Colson, Nixon said, “Well, listen, are they all Jews over there?”
“Every one of them,” Colson said. “Well, a couple of exceptions.”
“See my point?”
“You know goddamn well they’re out to kill us.”
Before lunch, Nixon gave his chief of staff an order. “Now, point: [White House Personnel Director Frederic V.] Malek is not Jewish.”
“No,” H.R. “Bob” Haldeman said.
“All right, I want a look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We’ve got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish . . . do you understand?
“I sure do.”
“The government is full of Jews,” Nixon said. “Second, most Jews are disloyal. You know what I mean? You have a [White House Consultant Leonard] Garment and a [National Security Adviser Henry A.] Kissinger and, frankly, a [White House Speechwriter William L.] Safire, and, by God, they’re exceptions. But, Bob, generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you.”
It would be more accurate to say that Jews couldn’t trust Nixon, that he turned on them. On July 24, 1971, he mentioned that Colson had found out sixteen BLS officials were registered Democrats, only one a registered Republican. “The point that he did not get into that I want to know, Bob, how many were Jews?” Nixon asked. “There’s a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like [Fed Chairman] Burns and the rest. And they all only talk to Jews.”
In reality, Burns was a Nixon man, the chief conservative economist on the White House staff in 1969 before Nixon nominated him to the Fed. Congress set up the Fed to be independent of politics, but that didn’t stop Burns from secretly assuring Nixon that he would use its power over the economy to reduce unemployment for his re-election year. The only official Burns was conspiring with was Richard Nixon.
But the Fed chairman had incurred his patron’s displeasure. Nixon had wanted a conservative economist at the Fed, but grew angry when he got one. As unemployment rose to politically harmful levels, Nixon wanted the Fed to follow an “easy money” policy that would reduce interest rates, lowering the cost to business of borrowing money, expanding operations and hiring more employees. Burns, however, warned that this would fuel inflation. On the morning of Nixon’s “Jewish cabal” comment, the Times had run this front-page headline: “Burns Says Inflation Curb Is Making Scant Progress.”
“Now, what do you want to do with Arthur Burns?” Nixon asked Haldeman and Chief Domestic Policy Adviser John D. Ehrlichman that afternoon. “Raise his salary?” The President asked for a press leak suggesting that the President’s advisers had recommended increasing the membership of the Federal Reserve Board.
On July 28, the United Press International newswire ran an exclusive: “President Nixon is considering a proposal to double the size of the Federal Reserve Board, it was learned today. The suggestion, if put before Congress, could touch off a controversy rivaling President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court.
“Administration officials also disclosed that Nixon rejected a request from Arthur F. Burns -- Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board -- for a 20,000 a year pay raise. Burns currently makes 42,500.
“Burns, however, denied he had ‘lobbied for an increase in salary.’ ”
Meanwhile, Haldeman tried to find out how many BLS employees were Jews. “What’s the status of your analysis of the BLS,” he wrote to Personnel Chief Malek on July 26, “specifically of the 21 key people? What is their demographic breakdown?”
Malek replied the next day. “We were able to obtain political affiliation checks on 35 of the 50 names listed on their organization chart.” There were 25 Democrats, 5 unregistered, 4 independents, and 1 Republican. “In addition, 13 out of the 35 fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed.” There was a handwritten note: “Most of these are at the top.”
Later that day, the President asked Ehrlichman, “Did you ever get the number of Jews that were in BLS?”
“I got their biographies yesterday. I’m having them analyzed,” Ehrlichman said. “Oh, the radio and the wires are full this morning that Arthur Burns wanted a salary increase.”
“I wonder where that came from,” Nixon said. “I’ll never forget Arthur sitting in here telling us a year ago there shouldn’t be a salary increase and that the Cabinet officers should give it back.”
Burns got smeared, but Goldstein got forced out. “Harold Goldstein will be moved to a routine, non-sensitive post in another part of BLS,” Malek reported to Haldeman on Sept. 8, 1971. “He has been told of this and will move quietly when the reorganization is announced.
“A sensitive and loyal Republican is also being recruited for the employment analysis function being vacated by Goldstein.”
Typically, when Richard Nixon told himself people were conspiring against him, it meant he was about to conspire against them.
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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
Like many politicians with anti-Semitic prejudices, Nixon was self-servingly inconsistent, leaning heavily on Jewish advisors such as Kissinger while insulting them with coarse remarks about "Jew-boys," etc. The article and the accompanying discussion are illuminating and informative in adding considerable important nuance to what has basically been well-known at least since the first release of tape transcripts in 1973.
But where, oh where, is any mention of longer term historical context?
Take all the Nixon quotes in Mr. Hughes article, replace "Jews" with "Democrats," and you could have a pretty fair outline of the practices of the GW Bush - Cheney administration with these massive differences:
1) The politicization and trashing of the public bureaucracy is more thorough and insidious now than then.
2) Nixon at least used his politicized twisting of the civil service to affect a few tangible achievements. The Rovites appear to be constitutionally (or unconstitutionally) incapable of doing anything without mucking it up.
3) Nixon and his aides were rather severely punished. Not unjustly, but quite thoroughly. In towering contrast, the neo-con bunglemasters of recent vintage have gotten off without even the slightest rap on the wrist, except (arguably, but to an almost token extent, in the case of Wolfie at World Bank).
Not incorrectly, has John Dean referred to the current horrors as "worse than Watergate."
Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2007
judge's decision at
for judicial action taken yesterday in the 6-year old lawsuit brought by AHA regarding E.O. 13233 on the Presidential Records Act. The judge said that NARA could use its own discretion during the period while a former President is reviewing documents proposed for release to go ahead and open them. She noted that since the former President could string out the review indefinitely, NARA could decide to exercise its own judgment and open the materials.
The Judge dodged some of the issues surrounding the executive order because she believes the issues are not ripe. But she agreed with the plaintiffs in part and in a narrow ruling overturned sections of the executive order, noting, "Simply put, Plaintiffs’ argument prevails. The Bush Order effectively eliminates the Archivist’s discretion to release a former president’s documents while such documents are pending a former president’s review, which can be extended–presumably indefinitely–upon the former president’s request."
The decision mentions Public Citizen v. Burke, 843 F.2d 1473 (D.C. Cir. 1988), the ruling that I have previously mentioned which overturned the so-called Cooper memorandum (the DOJ/OLC opinion regarding NARA's lack of discretion in in accepting claims submitted by Richard Nixon.) The judge noted yesterday of Burke, "Because the Archivist had relied on a memorandum removing his own deference, which was not an agency interpretation of the law but rather the Office of Legal Counsel’s interpretation of the Constitution and its requirements, the D.C. Circuit held that reliance on said memorandum was not entitled to deference. Id. at 1478."
However, I've also noted in my numerous postings that NARA did not release "the full truth" about Watergate while Nixon still was alive despite the 1974 PRMPA. (Nixon died in 1994.) I've also mentioned the Mortenson Declaration and Public Citizen's reference to the use by Nixon of litigation threats as bargaining chips to affect archival actions. All of this occurred behind the scenes and only came to light once Kutler v. Wilson was filed in 1992.
Note also in the Berger case NARA's practice of negotiating some issues quietly with former Presidents' lawyers, a process which can work well or badly depending on a number of factors.
It remains to be seen, practically speaking, what happens with the archival discretion that the court recognizes in the new ruling on the 1978 Presidential records statute.
There are many tricky issues surrounding when and how to open records. Hence my question posted under Mr. Hughes' article which no one other than the author sought to address. (I am grateful for his response however, and for the fact that he posted his article.) The relative silence among NARA's customers that invariably greets such issues in itself tells you a lot about the situation in which NARA finds itself. So I'm not at all surprised to once again see the predicted pattern play out.
Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2007
I mentioned that there are few political appointees in most agencies, most of the executives, managers, and working level staff are career employees, SES or GS.
According to the current "Plum Book," the Commissioner of Labor Statistics is a Presidential appointee. The Assistant Commissioner (the position Harold Goldstein held in 1971) is not. The Assistant Commissioner is not listed in the Plum Book but these days would appear to be a career member of the Senior Executive Service. Prior to the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, what now are Senior Executive Service positions were known informally as "super grades" in the GS system.
If you want to see which senior governmental positions are Presidential appointments and which are career positions as of 2007, check out the Plum Book at
For an agency such as the National Archives, only the U.S. Archivist (Allen Weinstein) is a Presidential appointee requiring Senate confirmation. The ISOO director (Bill Leonard, the man I mention below, is in a career position in the Senior Executive Service.
By contrast, the Department of Justice lists numerous Presidential appointees, including all the U.S. Attorneys and some 12 or so additional positions, including the Attorney General.
The website for the Plum book includes a legend which explains what the different notations mean, see the PDF file near the top prior the agency listings.
Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2007
Peter, as you know, I’m a federal employee, I do not comment on actions taken by the current administration. I am able comment on Richard Nixon, whose actions on the job I have examined in depth. And on books that I have read.
Consider this passage from _Hell of a Ride_ , a 1993 memoir of the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations by former White House aide John Podhoretz:
"This might sound pretty awful, but people who reach this West Wing level are, generally speaking, not especially reflective people. Washington ambition discourages reflection. If. . . [people] had to figure out whether what they were doing was for the common good or for their own personal good, the conundrums of conscience would make them ineffective and indecisive.
The same capacity for deliberately unenlightened self-interest characterizes just about everyone else involved in American politics.”
I’m not convinced Nixon’s view of power, the way he handled his biases, and lapses into abuses of power were unique to him. I sometimes wonder whether the people who speak up here or on other forums have much personal experience in observing the dynamic around a high powered corporate executive. Anyone who has absolute power to fire people or make their jobs so miserable, they quit on their own. Does every person who wields so much power have the innate moral compass to keep him or her from crossing certain lines? Not always. (He or she may not even recognize that lines are being crossed.) And if he or she doesn’t, is it easy for advisors to suggest another course of action? . Again, not always. If HNN’s bloggers or readers have much experience with power players, that doesn’t often come through in their posted comments (and I’m excluding as largely useless here the comments which simply reflect pissing contests). I don’t know why that is.
The heads of executive branch departments and agencies are political appointees. Their job is to carry out the agenda set by the White House and the party in power. Most agencies do not have many political appointees aside from the chief, although there are some. Typically, the upper level management cadre is made up of members of the Senior Executive Service. They serve under yearly contracts with job expectations and performance goals set for them by the department or agency head. Below the SES are the people in civil service positions, which range from GS-1 to GS-15. (I’m a GS-14.)
The President may remove agency heads at will, that is his prerogative. It is not unusual for a President to focus on outcomes and to view the success or failure of agency heads in political or ideological terms. Loyalty also is a factor. So is the willingness to submit to message discipline. Of course, some Presidents do pick some members of the opposing party for Cabinet level positions. Political considerations are not supposed to touch the civil service, however.
That’s how it looks in civics textbooks but reality can get messy. Why? Because doing the right thing requires a number of elements to align correctly. Sometimes that works better than other times. And because people do not have shared values in terms of what it means to wield power “the right way.” For some people, the end truly justify the means. Don't you see that on message boards at times?
Look at the people who post on HNN and other forums you may read. Can’t you pick out the ones among them who simply do not appear to believe that people who don’t think as they do are good Americans? Can’t you pick out the ones who seem threatened by one group of their fellow Americans or another? Would you trust all of the people you see writing blog posts or comments with the power Nixon once had? Some people I see writing blogs and comments I would trust to act honorably, many others I wouldn't. It is very easy to take some of the rants you see on message boards and weave them into conversations of the type Mr. Hughes quotes here, substituting one set of biases or suspicions for another.
What Nixon said and did was unseemly. But the power to do so derived in part from the people who voted him into office. Yes, I am one of them. Some of my fellow voters still defend everything he did or try to justify what happened. Others try to understand how and why he went astray. I happen to fall into the latter category.
Maarja Krusten - 9/29/2007
I concur with his description of Mr. Leonard being the "moral compass" of his office. I recognize that the question of how an individual can succeed in his or her job and retain a moral compass and handle records-related issues with integrity and respect for law in a governmental setting does not much interest HNN's readers. So I'll just say that the fact that Mr. Leonard is leaving a position of such importance at the National Archives is not a good sign.
Maarja Krusten - 9/28/2007
I've heard good things about Mr. Leonard from friends and respect the way he handled the reclassification flap in 2006.
Sheldon M. Stern - 9/27/2007
Yesterday's Slate piece (with your help)really drives home the point. Extraordinary!
Maarja Krusten - 9/26/2007
Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Hughes. From my perspective as a former archivist whose colleagues at NARA once tried to open all the information about the BLS matter, your articles here and at the Miller Center site provide useful context for the public. Such articles may help them better assess comments previously made by Nixon’s lawyers. I’m thinking particularly of the comment by one of Nixon’s lawyers, “I can raise your hair on end with what the Archives thinks does not infringe privacy and should be released." The lawyer said that to reporters in the 1980s just at the time Nixon’s agents were following behind the archivists and marking as contested and objectionable “H Notes Re: Miscellany – BLS, etc. 7/3.” Perhaps HNN’s readers will find that revelatory, in retrospect.
Of course, reasonable people can and do disagree over what is and is not disclosable. And when such information should be released. But how such disagreements are handled tells you a great deal. It was not until Nixon’s lawyers implied that my supervisor at NARA was biased against Nixon in his archival management of the tapes with which you now are working at the Miller Center – in my view, an unwarranted slam, as he acted professionally and impartially and received many awards from NARA for his work -- did I start speaking up. I've noted previously that he had voted for Nixon, as did I.
I’ve long contended that as far as the public is concerned, how much people learn about a President after he leaves office depends as much on the individuals involved in the process as it does on the laws that govern access to historical materials. Look at Gerald Ford, the last President who was allowed to donate his papers to NARA as personal property. He believed that "presidential papers, except for the most highly sensitive documents involving our national security, should be made available to the public . . . and the sooner the better." By all accounts, the release of his records went smoothly.
But representatives of Richard Nixon verbally attacked government archivists in an effort to limit historical disclosures. A hearing during the 1980s revealed that Nixon’s lawyers discussed at the Department of Justice how the Kennedy Presidential Library supposedly was releasing the “only the most favorable” materials.
Thomas Reeves, author of a book about John F. Kennedy, noted in an article published in the Wall Street Journal and later posted here on HNN that “the tax-supported Kennedy Library is the only presidential library that has a system of ‘donor committees,’ permitting the Kennedy family and its minions to control information.” Since Kennedy’s White House records were considered personal property, they have the right to do that. (I believe it would have eased the burden on NARA, and reduced the chances for criticism by scholars, had they chosen a different path. But since the records are personal property, those in charge can weight such issues any way they wish.)
Lyndon Johnson’s NARA-administered Library, which also houses records considered personal property, often has been praised by scholars in the years since LBJ died in 1973. During the 1990s, LBJ’s widow permitted the 50 year restriction on his tapes to be lifted..
John Roberts offered some interesting opinions on the Presidential Records Act in 1985. See the section on the Presidential Records Act at
I myself am trying to sort out in my mind how long records should be sealed statutorily, hence my question here. Balancing the public’s right to know against the rights of the creators of records against the need to protect federal archivists from attack seems enormously difficult.
Maarja Krusten - 9/25/2007
Thank you so much for your kind words, N! Much appreciated.
N. Friedman - 9/25/2007
As always, a stellar presentation by you.
Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 9/25/2007
Thank you for that history of the PMRB, it's illuminating.
Maarja Krusten - 9/25/2007
Interesting suggestion about a review board, it certainly has a lot of merit. Use of such a body would appear to offer some protection to individual federal archivists and managers, somewhat reducing the chance that they will become the public target of attacks by a former President or his spokesmen.
From the start, incorporated within NARA’s implementing regulations (36 CFR 1275) for processing Nixon’s records there has been a Presidential Materials Review Board. However, it has rarely been used. I don’t remember seeing any Federal Register notices of its use since it was used to consider the objections that former President Nixon filed in 1987 to release of the White House Special Files.
The Nixon presidential materials review board is purely governmental and almost entirely composed of NARA’s own officials. Regulations state that
“The Presidential Materials Review Board (Board) shall consist of the Archivist, who shall serve as Chairman, and the following additional members:
(1) The Assistant Archivist for the Office of the National Archives;
(2) The Assistant Archivist for the Office of the Presidential Libraries;
(3) The Director of the Legal Counsel Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration; and
(4) The Historian of a Federal agency who shall be selected by the Archivist in his capacity as Chairman.”
An earlier version of the regulations proposed that the fourth member be a member of the Society of American Archivists, a group that includes professionals from the public and private sector. However, this was changed to make that person (as all the others are) a member of the executive branch of the federal government.
As to the BLS issue, the objections list that Nixon submitted in 1987 once was available for the public to see in NARA’s Nixon Project reading room. (For all I know, it still is.) The notes were described there as “H Notes Re: Miscellany – BLS, etc. 7/3.” The grounds for objection was listed as “6.” According to the (also publicly released) letter sent to NARA by Nixon’s lawyers on April 6, 1987, category 6 covered materials deemed by Nixon to be “private political association; returnable; privileged; invasion of privacy.” I always found this category odd, as it seems to me that the same item cannot simultaneously be privileged (privilege covering governmental matters and deriving from Nixon’s status as a former President) and returnable (a proprietary classification covering non-governmental information adjudged to be Nixon’s personal property). I don’t see how you can claim privilege as a former official over something you also say is personal, not governmental.
The Nixon materials review board grappled with Nixon’s 1987 objections off and on between 1987 and 1996. The board’s composition changed over time as officials retired or otherwise left NARA. In 1996, the board finally announced that it was retaining in government custody 33,199 documents and returning to the Nixon estate 8,992 documents.
I’ve always argued that the transparency that surrounded the 1987 submission of objections did not substantially harm Nixon and actually had the potential to serve him and NARA well. A former President has every right to weigh in on what NARA proposes to release and the statutory and regulatory process set up during the 1970s and 1980s recognized that. However, that process has not been used again. Incorporated in the 1996 Kutler settlement agreement is a statement that “The Archives and the Nixon estate agree to attempt to work out their differences informally in order to minimize any objections to a proposed release.” This suggests that at least with Nixon’s presidential materials, NARA has moved away from, rather than towards, the type of review board that you have proposed.
Finally, I’ll note that I would be eligible to serve as the 4th member of NARA’s Presidential Materials Review Board. But I’ve been far too outspoken in trying to generate discussion of how is best to proceed to ever be selected for such a role.
Again, I thank you for your interesting response to my question.
Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 9/24/2007
These are important questions to which I have no well developed answers.
By and large, the public interest is harmed by keeping government records sealed, and I can't think of anyone who would be less objective about the record of an administration than the President who headed it.
As one possible model for how things can be improved, I would point to the JFK Assassination Records Review Board. The board managed to pry loose a lot of documents that the government had no business continuing to keep secret--for example, documents related to the Kennedy administration's covert operations against Castro and the coup against South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem. It's hard to imagine President Kennedy ever wanting these records to come to light. It's also impossible to understand his presidency without them.
Perhaps a Federal Records Review Board modeled on the ARRB could break some logjams?
Maarja Krusten - 9/24/2007
Interesting piece, as was the more detailed one on the Miller Center site. You won't be surprised that it triggered a number of thoughts for someone who once worked with the Nixon tapes as a federal archivist. So here goes.
What happened with the BLS is not new to me, as I first heard the pertinent Nixon tape segments during the early 1980s. Around 1980, I also listened to Haldeman’s diary account of the BLS issue. It would be many years before researchers heard the whole story and as I describe below, some segments we at the National Archives tried to open were blocked by Nixon.
Of course, although I’m an historian, I understand that there is no inherent historians’ right to know. Having grappled with the issue from the other side, trying to open such records for you to research or read about, I’d like to ask Mr. Hughes and anyone else who wants to jump in a question. To what extent should a President’s darker moments of this type be revealed to the public by government archivists, while he still is alive?
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) tried in 1987 to open all the disclosable portions of H. R. Haldeman’s meeting notes that it held on the BLS issue. NARA opened some but was blocked by former President Nixon from opening others. The contested items were not released until after Nixon died.
I’ve given a lot of thought to how that played out. I’m interested in hearing from you all how long you believe that Presidential records should be sealed from view. I’m asking this regardless of party, obviously, as laws, precedents, etc. should be applied uniformly.
The Haldeman meeting notes in the White House Special Files at NARA are governmental. As such, the notes are administered under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), 1974.
On September 11, 1988, the Washington Post published an article by Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus about Fred Malek's activities regarding the BLS . Woodward and Pincus reported of meeting notes at NARA's Nixon Project that
"On July 5, 1971, the notes say, ‘Malek really check out Jewish cabals.’ The July 9, 1971, notes say ‘Malek -- Jews in BLS etc.’ On July 24, 1971, ‘How many Jews -- Malek.’ On July 25, 1971, ‘Malek get the [number] of Jews in BLS,’ and on July 30, 1971: ‘Where are the figs on BLS ethnics.’ According to archivists working on the Nixon papers, these are typical of notations Haldeman made in recording instructions from Nixon."
However, Woodward and Pincus did not know – nor did anyone outside NARA – that government archivists attempted in 1987 to open an earlier segment of Haldeman’s meeting notes. Haldeman did not object to the release. The segment of notes (July 3, 1971) would have set the scene for the later, more cursory notes that Woodward and Pincus saw at NARA's annex in Alexandria (yes, I still worked there then) and quoted in their article. But it was withheld from them and from all other researchers, not because NARA decided to restrict it, but because Nixon blocked us from releasing it.
There is no way Woodward or Pincus would have known about this. Archivists do not discuss with outsiders that which is withheld, whether the withholding derives from a former President’s objection or from an independent restriction applied by an archivist. All Woodward and Pincus would have seen when they visited us at the NARA annex in Alexandria was a withdrawal sheet showing that an item for July 3, 1971 had been withheld as “C,” meaning contested. That meant it was withheld at Nixon’s request. (Since 1987, researchers have seen no more withdrawal sheets of this kind.)
The passage of the notes that Haldeman jotted down during a morning meeting with Nixon on July 3, 1971 read as follows. Keep in mind, archivists had tried to open it in 1987 but it remained sealed until 1996:
“Malek – everyone in BLS is Jewish look at all sensitive areas ck. Jewish involvement . . . esp. uncover Jewish cells -- & put a non-Jew in chg of each.”
Under 36 CFR 1275, the Archives had the regulatory authority to override Nixon’s objection and to release the material while he still was alive. But it did not open this note for research until two years after Nixon died in 1994. As a public researcher -- I left NARA employ in 1990 -- I visited the Archives after the October 1996 release of the previously blocked notes. In NARA’s public research room, I then copied from the previously “contested files” H-note series the July 3, 1971 note about the BLS.
The original public withdrawal sheets for the Haldeman meeting notes at NARA have been available for study for 20 years and the contested items that finally were released have been available since 1996. I don’t have the sense many people have considered what NARA sought to release and what a former President was able to block.
And then there is Haldeman’s diary, which was not government property and did not fall under the PRMPA. It was, however, seized by the government when Haldeman resigned in 1973 because he had kept it in a White House safe. In her article, “Researchers’ Nightmare: Studying the Nixon Presidency” (PSQ, Winter 1996, 268), Joan Hoff addressed what she called “ NARA’s Unconscionable Delay in Releasing Haldeman’s Diaries.” She wrote that government archivists at one screened the diaries and gave Haldeman “sanitized copies.” She noted in 1996, “Despite repeated requests from researchers for the release of the seven handwritten volumes, NARA refused saying that the journals had not been completely processed.” (The diary consists of handwritten volumes for its early entries and dictations for its later entries.)
Dr. Hoff noted that Haldeman “deeded his taped diaries and oral histories to NARA for unrestricted opening on July 2, 1993.” This did not occur. Haldeman published his own copies , his book appeared in 1994. After Haldeman published the book and CD version of the diaries, NARA began releasing portions.
In his diary, Haldeman mentioned the BLS issue on July 2, 1971. As recorded on the CD version (and page 314 of the book in part), he wrote:
“The other big item of the day was the unemployment announcement down to 5.6 from 6.2 last month, the biggest one month drop in history and obviously a great story for us. Unfortunately, as usual, the Bureau of Labor Statistics screwed it up and said that it wasn't really important, because it was due to a statistical quirk.
This drove the P right up the wall tonight, and he started hounding Colson on the phone every couple of minutes, demanding that we get Goldstein fired, etc. Colson overreacted and started bouncing around in the woodwork, getting action underway and finally got around to calling me. In the meantime, he had Shultz on a special airplane being brought back down for a 7:30 meeting tomorrow morning to get things started, so they can give the P a plan at 8:00, when he says he'll be at his desk. I doubt that he will, but he just might out of orneriness. In any event, Colson and I have agreed that we've got to move on getting Goldstein out and that it's just ridiculous to let this thing keep on dragging on. It's basically a problem of Hodgson's unwillingness to bite the bullet, and we've got to force him to do it. I'm leaving it up to them to handle it in the morning. I'm not planning to go in until a little later. We'll see what happens.
Again, consider that researchers first gained access to this passage not through NARA, but through Haldeman.
I’ve previously mentioned here on HNN that archivists screened all 3,700 hours of Nixon’s tapes during the 1980s, and identified between 1981 and 1987 some 200 hours related to Watergate “abuses of governmental power.” However, only 63 hours were released while Nixon was alive.
Please take a moment to reflect on the difficulties NARA faced in releasing Nixon’s materials (the tapes, the July 3, 1971 meeting note, the Haldeman’s diaries, etc.) There are many stakeholders in such a situation. What is described here in this article and on the Miller Center website is not Nixon as he would want to be remembered. Whenever anyone writes about Nixon, I look to see if he or she talks about the impact on Nixon, had NARA tried to open the tapes on its original schedule (1989-1995). Obviously, Nixon would have found many of the revelations painful to contemplate being made public. Would he have sued NARA to halt or slow down disclosures? As it is, he intervene4d in the lawsuit Stanley Kutler filed in March 1992.
Every time an historian writes about contentious issues involving Nixon, I also look to see if he or she offers opinions on how soon such materials should be released. I recognize the Nixon statute is unique, due to the emphasis on releasing Watergate information. Mr. Hughes mentions Stanley Kutler’s Nixon tapes lawsuit in his longer article but does not get into the challenges faced by NARA in trying to open “the full truth” about abuses of power while Nixon still was alive, an endeavor that did not succeed.
Having been involved in the struggle to open Nixon’s materials, a struggle which I believe set some important precedents, legally, procedurally, and in archival terms, I’d like HNN’s readers to consider the following, after reading Mr. Hughes’s article.
1. Should laws require the National Archives and Records Administration to release contentious information from White House records during a former President’s lifetime? The custom at older Presidential Libraries was to set aside such information until time had passed and issues cooled down.
2. If you believe such releases should occur soon after a President leaves office, do you think it is possible for government archivists to avoid getting caught in the cross fire? How would you ensure that disclosures occur without the struggles that surrounded our efforts to release Nixon’s files and tapes? Are battles inevitable, given the common human desire of people while still alive to present their best side to history?
3. Would it be better for all the stakeholders (the former President, the archivists charged with screening his records, and the historians seeking access to them) for White House records, such as the Nixon tapes, to be sealed, say for 25 or 50 years after a President leaves office?
My thanks to everyone who considers my questions in conjunction with this article.
Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 9/24/2007
A list of all the Nixon transcripts we put on line today can be found at:
Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 9/24/2007
Thank you very much. We'll have a complete list of our latest transcripts on line soon, for all ye who wish to delve deeper.
Sheldon M. Stern - 9/24/2007
Just read your full analysis of Nixon's anti-Semitism on the Miller Center website. Terrific job. Your point about the Greenspan quote is well taken and further confirmed by the fact that Nixon falsely assumed that Mark Felt (now known to have been Deep Throat) must have been Jewish.
Kenneth Jerome Hughes - 9/24/2007
Nixon's prejudices were indeed wide-ranging, but they didn't all have the consequences of his conspiracy theorizing about Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers.
Conspiracy theorists, as Hofstadter noted long ago, engage in "Imitation of the Enemy." Nixon's belief that Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers were "arrogant" and put themselves "above the law" became his justification for arrogantly putting himself above the law in his attacks on Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers whom he deemed politically threatening.
His belief that Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers were conspiring against him led him to create the Special Investigations Unit, better known as "the Plumbers," to bust the imaginary conspiracy. In creating a secret police organization, the President arrogantly put himself above the law--above the Constitution itself--committing an impeachable offense.
Nixon didn't act that way toward Italians or Greeks, because he didn't form conspiracy theories about them. Mr. Greenspan still has some more to learn about the irrational side of human nature.
I go into much greater detail in "A Rough Guide to Richard Nixon's Conspiracy Theories" at http://tapes.millercenter.virginia.edu/transcripts/index.php/Exhibits/Conspiracies
Sheldon M. Stern - 9/24/2007
This is all true enough but as the next Fed chairman Alan Greenspan recalls in his new book: "A member of the Clinton admin. once was accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism, and I said,'You don't understand. He wasn't exclusively anti-Semitic. He was anti-Semitic, anti-Italian, anti-Greek, anti-Slovak ... he hated everybody.'"