The curtain is pulled back, like the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz, to reveal Billy Graham spouting an anti-Semitic rant with Richard Nixon on newly released White House tapes (“the gift that keeps on giving,” quips former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee).
Graham and Nixon are heard agreeing that left-wing Jews dominate the news media. The Reverend then warns: “The [Jewish media] stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.” He confides to Nixon that his Jewish acquaintances and colleagues–mentioning A.M. Rosenthal, then executive editor of the New York Times–don’t know his true feelings.
“A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel,” Graham tells Nixon. “But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.”
We’re used to White Power rhetoric about breaking up the Jewish media monopoly spewing from trailer parks and compounds in Montana, not the Oval Office. And certainly not from America’s favorite Reverend, a Pepsodent-smiling throwback to the era of Ozzie Nelson and Father Knows Best‘s Jim Anderson.
But what do those who were Graham’s target–the major media players of 1972–make of his covert anti-Semitism and accusations of Jewish bias? I put this question to several of them who are still around, including Ben Bradlee; Carl Bernstein, a reporter for the Post who broke the Watergate scandal in June 1972; Leonard Garment, who was working in the White House as special counsel to the President; Marvin Kalb, who was CBS’s chief diplomatic correspondent; Otis Chandler, then the publisher of the Los Angeles Times; Daniel Schorr, also a CBS correspondent, who would make Nixon’s “enemies list”; television producer Norman Lear, whose show All in the Family riled Nixon; and Stephen Hess, Nixon’s urban affairs adviser who now examines the interrelationship of the press, politics and the presidency at the Brookings Institution.
First: Not everyone was surprised at Graham’s closet anti-Semitism. “He just showed that he was the pious hypocrite that we all knew that he was anyway,” says Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had served in the Kennedy White House a decade earlier. “Sinclair Lewis wrote about all those fellows in the great Elmer Gantry.”
Journalist Carl Bernstein, whose reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post–one of the leading culprits of the purported Jewish media cabal–led to revelations of the White House tapes and made him anathema to the Nixon White House and its supporters, had actually admired Graham.
“Until these transcripts, I thought he was the most galvanizing figure perhaps I’ve ever seen in my life, physically, in terms of his ability to captivate large numbers of people, charismatically,” says the reporter, who traveled with Graham for several days while covering a story. “And it looks to me like Graham initiated this particular exchange. Whatever the case, it’s sickening.”