For their recent book, authors Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter listened to more than 3,700 hours of tape from President Richard Nixon’s first term. Now, Vanity Fair is publishing excerpts of that audio — and while the conversations aren’t exactly the Watergate tapes, they do offer a fascinating window into how the Nixon White House viewed social issues.
In one conversation with Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon said he thought gay people were “born that way” — a decidedly progressive opinion for 1971. But that seemingly progressive opinion quickly turned to the bigoted conventional wisdom of the time.
“They have a problem. They’re born that way “¦ [But] my point is that Boy Scout leaders, YMCA leaders, and others bring them in that direction, and teachers,” he told his advisers. “But the point is, look at that, once a society moves in that direction, the vitality goes out of that society. Now, isn’t that right, Henry?”
But, whether he knew it or not, some members of Nixon’s own administration were gay. Roy Cohn — an informal adviser to Nixon and chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the infamous hearings — was gay.
But the highlight of the excerpts comes when Nixon tries to draw a comparison between gay rights and women’s place in society — specifically, their right to use expletives. He takes umbrage at the idea that women are allowed to swear:
Nixon: I mean, you’ve got to stop at a certain point. Why is it that the girls don’t swear? Because a man, when he swears, people can’t tolerate a girl who is a —
Haldeman: Girls do swear.
Haldeman: They do now.
Nixon: Oh, they do now? But, nevertheless, it removes something from them. They don’t even realize it. A man drunk, and a man who swears, people will tolerate and say that’s a sign of masculinity or some other damn thing. We all do it. We all swear. But you show me a girl that swears and I’ll show you an awful unattractive person… . I mean, all femininity is gone. And none of the smart girls do swear, incidentally.
This notion — that only women who are hideous nincompoops use curse words — is now delightfully antiquated. After Haldeman points out that women do, in fact, swear, Nixon takes it as if it’s a revolutionary new idea that had never occurred to him. But if Nixon wanted to connect with today’s young voters, he’d have to do a lot more than stiltedly ask, “Sock it to me?”