RICHARD NIXON didn’t talk much about American writers. On the White House tapes, which recorded his conversations from February 1971 to July 1973, there’s no mention of Norman Mailer, John Updike, or Gore Vidal. There’s no mention of best-selling authors of the era like William Peter Blatty of The Exorcist or Frederick Forsyth of The Day of the Jackal. But Nixon did talk about Philip Roth.
The first of those conversations, with H. R. Haldeman, his Chief of Staff, came late in his first term, in 1971. Earlier that year, at the end of April, half a million people had come to Washington, DC, to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam; on July 15, Nixon had announced he would be going to China. And on November 3, he asked Haldeman about Philip Roth’s new book Our Gang:
NIXON: What if anything do you know about the Roth book?
HALDEMAN: Oh, a fair amount.
NIXON: Who is responsible? The Roth thing I notice is reviewed in Newsweek, which might indicate that they might be very much behind that.
HALDEMAN: Yeah, because they gave it a review way out of proportion to the book. We got advances of it and our people were very disturbed about it. It’s a judgment call. I read it, or skimmed through it. It’s a ridiculous book. It’s sickening, and it’s —
NIXON: What’s it about?
HALDEMAN: It’s about the president of the United States.
NIXON: I know that! I know that. What’s the theme?
HALDEMAN: Trick E. Dixon. And the theme is that, uh, he’s tied to the abortion thing. The thing that inspired the book was your statement on abortion, and so he’s decided that — and then he juxtaposes that with your defense of Calley, as he puts it, who shot a woman who had a child in her. A pregnant woman. And he relates that you’re defending a guy who kills a woman with an unborn child in her … Balances out. It’s sick, you know, perverted kind of thing … It ends up with you being assassinated — or with Trick E. Dixon being assassinated, and then he goes to hell and in hell he starts politically organizing down there.
Haldeman was not far off in describing the book. Roth had been provoked by the fact that in the same week that Nixon granted leniency to Lieutenant William Calley, the day after Calley’s conviction for the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, Nixon also released a statement declaring his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn.” That quote appears as an epigraph to Our Gang. In the opening scene of the book, a “Troubled Citizen” tells Nixon, “I am seriously troubled by the possibility that Lieutenant Calley may have committed an abortion. […] one of those twenty-two Vietnamese civilians Lieutenant Calley killed may have been a pregnant woman.” Trick E. Dixon responds with courtroom lawyer talk that is hilarious and infuriating. (“I would have to ask if Lieutenant Calley was aware of the fact that the woman in question was pregnant before he killed her,” Tricky says, because if she wasn’t “showing” or if Calley had mistakenly thought her “simply overweight,” then, “in no sense of the word, would he have committed an abortion.”)
Claudia Roth Pierpont reports in Roth, Unbound that Roth first wrote an op-ed piece connecting Nixon’s statements on Calley and abortion, “which the New York Times rejected as ‘tasteless.’” “Tasteless,” Roth said to a friend, “I’ll show them tasteless!” Three months later he had finished Our Gang.
NIXON: Did The New York Times review it favorably too?
The New York Times had published Pentagon Papers five months earlier, driving Nixon into a frenzy that led him to create the “Plumbers unit,” which eventually became the Watergate burglars.
HALDEMAN: I didn’t see the Times review, so I don’t know that.
In fact the book was reviewed in The New York Times, by Dwight Macdonald, a legendary leftist from an earlier era. He described the book as “far-fetched, unfair, tasteless, disturbing, logical, coarse, and very funny,” and reported that he “laughed out loud 16 times” while reading it. Our Gang, he concluded, was “a masterpiece.”
NIXON: How big is the circulation?
HALDEMAN: The book? It isn’t showing up on the sales lists yet. There’s no indication of it.
Our Gang entered The New York Times bestseller list on November 21, two and a half weeks after this conversation; it peaked at number six, and stayed on the list for a stupendous 18 weeks.
HALDEMAN: But Philip Roth is a very big author, so he’s got —
NIXON: What is he? What is he?
HALDEMAN: He wrote Goodbye, Columbus, which became a very big movie, which got him some notoriety. But then his big thing is Portnoy’s Complaint, which is the most obscene, pornographic book of all time.
NIXON: That’s what I mean …
Nixon would have been surprised to discover that his enemies at The New York Times editorial page felt the same way about Portnoy’s Complaint that he and Haldeman did. In 1969, when Portnoy’s Complaint was published, the Times ran an editorial titled “Beyond the (Garbage) Pale,” where Roth’s book was described as “wallowing in a self-indulgent public psychoanalysis” and “revolting sex excess.” The editorial lamented the fact that the courts had refused to allow such “descents into degeneracy” to be banned.
HALDEMAN: This book [Our Gang] is apparently obscene in a different kind of sense. And it’s very cute. The minister in it is Billy Cupcake instead of Billy Graham. And the attorney general is John Malicious instead of John Mitchell. And you know he’s done this play on names all the way through it.
I have to say that it’s not “obscene” to call Billy Graham “Billy Cupcake.”
HALDEMAN: But it’s — at least to me it seems a very childish book. I never read Portnoy’s Complaint, but I understand it was a well written book but just sickeningly filthy.
That’s a blurb that would sell books: “‘well written but sickeningly filthy’ — H. R. Haldeman.”
NIXON: Roth is of course a Jew.
Here Nixon had arrived at one of his favorite themes: the Chosen People. Indeed Roth was well known in 1971 as “a Jewish writer.”
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 hate to say it” is a wonderful remark in this context, coming from Nixon. In fact he loves to say it. Saying it makes him extremely happy.
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.
This remark provides a suitable conclusion to White House conversation number one about Philip Roth. The president and his assistant are moving toward mobilizing their anti-Semitic supporters to go after Roth on the grounds that he’s a Jew.
But there’s an immense irony here: Roth’s most vociferous critics came from the Jewish establishment — they called him “anti-Semitic.” “What is being done to silence this man?” The question came not from the president, but rather from a “prominent New York rabbi” writing to the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League — in 1959. He was complaining about a Roth story that had just appeared in The New Yorker, “Defender of the Faith,” about a manipulative Jewish draftee seeking favors from a Jewish sergeant.
When Portnoy’s Complaint was published, the charges rose in a crescendo: the eminent Hebrew Scholar Gershom Scholem warned in Haaretz that Roth had written “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying.” The Jewish magazine Commentary ran what Claudia Roth Pierpont calls “a series of furious articles,” including one by Marie Syrkin who said Portnoy’s shiksa fixation had come “straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script.” Nixon’s idea was that the anti-Semites could be mobilized against Roth, but in fact many of the Semites already were.
That afternoon, Nixon returned to the subject of Philip Roth, this time with Charles Colson, Special Counsel to the President, and notorious as a Nixon hatchet man. After a brief conversation on social issues and the role that abortion would play with the Catholic vote in the next election — which Nixon was cultivating with the antiabortion statement that Roth had seized on — Nixon asked for Colson’s take on Our Gang.
COLSON: The only effect it will have is to make people sympathetic to you … The smear attacks on presidents turn people off …
NIXON: Roth is a bad man.
COLSON: Oh yes.
NIXON: He’s a horrible moral leper.
That seems to be going a little too far.
COLSON: He wrote Portnoy’s Complaint ... which is a vile book.
NIXON: … I think [there is] one thing where he may have overdone it. You can do all of the other things, but ending it with the assassination of a president: I don’t think people will like that. Even the Kennedy people will be turned off by that.
COLSON: That’s for sure. What that kind of smear does, is those people who despise you, who will never be good to you, most people in the middle don’t like it.
NIXON: Who’s financing it?
COLSON: It would be interesting to find out.
NIXON: My reaction to the Roth book and that sort of thing generally is to ignore that sort of stuff. Is that yours?
COLSON: Yessir …
But Nixon couldn’t ignore it:
NIXON: I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the Kennedy bunch. They’re the kind that’s capable of it.
COLSON: Oh, very much sir. I should say they are. [But] Roth though wouldn’t take any finances. I imagine.
NIXON: Oh, he’s a very successful author.
COLSON: He’s written bestsellers. He wouldn’t do it.
Colson was talking sense to the boss: Roth wasn’t working for the Kennedys. He wasn’t doing it for the money.
The next morning Nixon met with Haldeman in the Oval Office and returned to the subject of Roth’s book.
HALDEMAN: Well it’s interesting … that Newsweek is the only one that’s really built it up positively and the Saturday Review shoots in down.
NIXON: The New Republic does too.
It’s impressive that Haldeman read the old Saturday Review and that Nixon read The New Republic. (Maybe somebody was clipping for them.) It’s not quite true that the Saturday Review “shoots it down” — reviewer Arthur Cooper, an editor at Newsweek, said Our Gang had “moments” that were “outrageously hilarious,” but that the book as a whole was “only partly successful,” and that “occasionally his anger gets the best of him and his humor sours.”
As for The New Republic, it described the book as “tasteless and dreadful,” “a gross and difficult-to-excuse misrepresentation” of Nixon. TNR speculated that “it could well have a small boomerang effect and even win Trick E. Dixon a few new votes.” (Gilbert A. Harrison was editor in 1971 and had been since 1953 — and always a critic of Nixon.)
Later in the conversation, Nixon returned again to the topic.
NIXON: I was sitting with Roth’s book.
Question: in Nixonland, is “sitting with” something like “reading”?
NIXON: … How about this? Getting somebody to say Richard Nixon … has been smeared all of his life, now they’re smearing him as president. They even talked about assassination. That will irritate the shit out of people.
HALDEMAN: We’ve got a couple of columns on that.
NIXON: It’s a good project.
The White House getting friendly columnists to attack Philip Roth: you might think they had more important targets in 1971, and the columnists apparently agreed. I could find only one attack on Roth in the conservative press, a National Review piece that was so highfalutin I doubt it had much impact. The title was “Philip Roth Emerges from the Men’s Room, Hauriant.” That alone requires a trip to the dictionary. “Hauriant” refers to “heraldry of a fish […] with the head up as if rising for air.” The piece, by John Greenway, called Our Gang “an abomination.” Greenway, writing contemptuously in what he considered hippie talk, said, “it is deep, man, you know?” The piece concluded, “I say unto you, Philip Roth, go back into the corner and practice some other vice, Portnoy’s maybe — but keep your vices to yourself.”
So apparently the title ending in “Hauriant” refers to Roth leaving the men’s room with an erection after having masturbated there. They really know how to hurt a guy at the National Review — except that only a few could have understood what they meant. At least they didn’t accuse him of inciting assassination.
HALDEMAN: … Scali [is] furious about the Roth book.
John A. Scali had been an ABC news reporter who left ABC in 1971 to serve as a foreign affairs adviser to Nixon. Nixon rewarded him with an appointment as US Ambassador to the United Nations later in 1973.
NIXON: Is he?
HALDEMAN: Yeah, really emotionally disturbed. He came in here practically with tears in his eyes. He was so upset about it when he read an advanced galley. He was emotionally. It’s an attempt to incite assassination.
HALDEMAN: Maybe there’s a way that somebody will want to tie this to Kennedy …
NIXON: You see the date of Kennedy’s assassination is November 22nd.
NIXON: Let’s get that out.
HALDEMAN: It might be the time to [do] that.
Charging Philip Roth with inciting an assassination attempt on Nixon, with a satirical novel? And a White House response timed to the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? Not even Trick E. Dixon could have come up with that.