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.”
The reaction of Bernstein’s old boss at the Post, Bradlee, was quintessentially Bradleean: wry. “I am 80 years old, and I have lived a long time,” he said. “The thought that Billy Graham is perfect hasn’t crossed my mind in several years.”
Most of the people I talked to thought the idea that Jews had a “stranglehold” on the news media was ridiculous. “Nonsense” was a frequent response. Even the supposition of Jewish influence on the media elicited a sharp, immediate repudiation. Only Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper‘s magazine, ventured onto the treacherous terrain of hypothesizing a unique Jewish sensibility impacting the media because of the sheer numbers of Jewish editors and writers. But he recoiled: “If I’m going to take shit, I may as well write my own column.”
Also declining comment was Pat Buchanan, the conservative presidential candidate who once caught flak for calling Israel’s supporters in the press the “amen corner.” His assistant reacted with a guffaw when I called Falls Church, Virginia, asking for Buchanan’s opinion on whether there was Jewish influence on the media. (The laugh said: “You’ve got to be kidding, right?”)
Interestingly, it was Norman Lear, a member of the West Coast television contingent, who was most open to acknowledging the idea of Jewish influence on media. “I would certainly hope so and believe so,” said the producer, who combines his passion for television production with liberal political activism. His All in the Family was the No. 1 television show in 1971, the year it debuted. It was an assault on conservative values, and Nixon was provoked by the show, Lear told me.
“On another piece of tape, Nixon talks about, ‘Why do they make a fool of such a good man,’ meaning Archie Bunker,” Lear reports.
Did Graham’s remarks suggest a bounty of similar anti-Semitic slurs in power corridors? Answers to this query fell on either side of a Jew-gentile divide. Jews like Kalb, Schorr and Garment believe that anti-Semitism was lurking back then in the corridors of power and still thrives in what Kalb describes as “the sort of private golf club–this clubby atmosphere where people are sitting around, taking off their sneakers and mumbling about Jews and media influence and power and control. I thought it then, and believe it continues today.” His famous baritone was clenched as he spoke.
In contrast, gentrified gentiles like Otis Chandler and Ben Bradlee denied coming across anti-Semitism in their circles. “I don’t think I was naïve, but I did not experience people talking that way,” says former LA Times publisher Chandler, who in 1972 also ran Newsday and the Dallas Times Herald, and was on the board of the Associated Press. “Certainly not at my level, at the leadership level.”
And the Boston-born Bradlee, who pegs himself as “WASP to the nth degree,” says his parents “never talked like that. I mean, they were anti-Roosevelt, but they weren’t anti-Semitic.” After he arrived in Washington, “I never heard that kind of talk again.”
“Ben Bradlee’s been in much better locker rooms than I have,” wisecracks USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro, who was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and later a reporter for both Time and Newsweek.
Carl Bernstein, however, counters: “In 1972, there was probably less anti-Semitism [than at any time] in our history. In fact, there had been great admiration for the Israelis in the 1967 war. I don’t think Billy Graham was typical of gentiles.”
Yet many Jews I talked to still nurse wounds caused by the prejudice of those days. “In 1953 the New York Times decided not to hire me because I was Jewish,” says Dan Schorr, who was wiretapped, burglarized and covertly investigated by Nixon’s FBI. “Both Nixon and Graham shared a subsurface of a lot of anti-Semitism in this country. So when you hear them [on the tapes], you say, ‘There it is!’ They are speaking to each other, they are trying to outdo each other, how bigoted they are.” Schorr adds, acidly: “Hooray for them.”
Len Garment says that when he became the first Jew to be hired by the all-gentile law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker in 1949, he “felt like the Jewish Jackie Robinson. Anti-Semitism at that level existed then, and it exists now.” He struck an almost poetic chord as he reflected on Graham’s anti-Semitic comments in a New York Times Op-Ed last spring. “The stain of anti-Semitism in private language was nearly universal,” he wrote.
Garment does think that the shape of anti-Semitism has shifted in the past hundred years. “The anti-Semitic worldview of the Billy Grahams and Richard Nixons was formed at the beginning of the last century, before a kind of benevolent political correctness took hold, and was permanently altered by the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is institutionalized in different ways, as in Middle East politics. And it is very much like a historic virus, a genetic vulnerability that flares up when exposed to events like the current Middle East violence, which stimulates anti-Semitism.”
Marvin Kalb, now executive director of the Washington office of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says he was “honored” when he learned he had been on Nixon’s enemies list. “My phone was tapped. Some of Nixon’s people broke into my office at the State Department. Nixon’s people set me up to be audited every year, though they didn’t find me a nickel off. That was harassment. And I felt then as I do now that one of the reasons they targeted me so ambitiously was that I was Jewish.”
In 1972 Jewish newspaper ownership was rare, but it was apparent at two of the three most powerful papers in the country: the New York Times, owned by the Sulzberger family; and the Washington Post, owned by Kay Graham, who was half Jewish but “considered herself Christian,” according to Bernstein. “Jews have always been involved in media in this country,” he points out, “but at the same time Hearst was not Jewish, Scripps was not Jewish, and 99 percent of America’s newspapers, back then, pre-chains, were owned by gentiles.”
At one important newspaper, I was told off the record, the number of Jews in the editorial room then hovered at around 25 percent, more than ten times their proportion of the general population. The abundance of Jewish writers and editors, along with Jewish ownership of two powerful newspapers, contributed to a public perception of far greater Jewish presence than there actually was, says Kalb. “I don’t believe that Jews control the media. But there is enough truth to it at the edges that gives it enough legitimacy that a rabid anti-Semite thinks he’s muttering truths.”
Otis Chandler, the publishing family renegade who was as likely to hang out with Harley bikers as with pinstriped suits, reports: “I’d be out riding my motorcycle, today and in 1972, and when they found out who I was, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you publicize the fact that Jews have a stranglehold on the industrial media complex of our country?’ I couldn’t convince them and they couldn’t convince me.”
Bernstein challenges the subtext that the Washington Post was liberal in 1972. “Even during the Nixon years, it was moving toward the center, toward some more traditionally neoconservative positions than the classically liberal ones that it had held in the 1960s. They came very late to understanding the depth of the antiwar movement. They often felt that we who were covering demonstrations were exaggerating.”
As Stephen Hess sums up: “Everyone reads into the press what they wish, and finds examples to support their own point of view. Billy Graham was finding the press liberal, hence Jewish. But at the same time Adlai Stevenson thought the press was conservative. So it really depends where you’re coming from.”
But Walter Shapiro offers a caveat about Graham’s anti-Jewish diatribe: “This is in no way a defense of Billy Graham, but people in the Oval Office have a historic inability to say what they think, and agree with whatever the President of the United States is saying. That is something to bear in mind always in dealing with the Nixon tapes.”
Then there’s cultural historian Renata Adler, who dismisses the tapes entirely. “I think it’s silly to take this private conversation and draw any conclusions–about the situation that year, about the anti-Semitism. Sometimes they mean it for ten seconds, sometimes they mean it for their whole life. The only significance is that Nixon and Graham didn’t conduct their public life anti-Semitically.”