That Time Richard Nixon Didn’t Know Women Were Allowed to Swear

“Show me a girl that swears and I’ll show you an awful unattractive person.”

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger walk during a visit to Vienna, Austria in May 1972.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
July 10, 2014, 9:19 a.m.

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.

Nix­on: Huh?

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?

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