Only an academic would comb the Watergate tapes looking for Richard Nixon’s views on homosexuality. As it turns out, the 37th president’s observations on the subject were extensive and fairly well-defined. “On May 13, 1971, the president, responding to the television sitcom All in the Family, whose Meathead character (Archie Bunker’s son-in-law) Nixon decided ‘apparently goes both ways,’ sputtered in a secretly recorded conversation about homosexuality to his nearly mute aides,” Northwestern University professor Michael S. Sherry writes in the September 7, 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“We all have weaknesses and so forth and so on, but ________ it, what do you think that does to kids?” Nixon asked rhetorically. “Why is it that the Scouts, the, why is it that the Boys Clubs, we were there, we constantly had to clean up the staffs to keep the ________ fags out of it.”
It is remarkable that this exchange, so to speak, predated the Boy Scouts controversy by about three decades. “Most people are outraged for moral reasons, I, it outraged me because I don’t want this country to go the way of…you know what happened to the Greeks,” Nixon reminded his aides. “Homosexuality destroyed them.”
“Sure, Aristotle was a homo, we all know that, so was Socrates.” In an odd way, Nixon’s musings almost sound like what you would hear at a Modern Language Association convention. That is about the only way in which they will study dead white males.
“Do you know what happened to the Romans?” Nixon asked. “The last six Roman emporers were fags.” It is also odd that Nixon in the last century and Sherry in this one, who would seem to be polar opposites, appear to have one thing in common—too much time on their hands.
Actually, it is astounding, given his penchant for such stream-of-consciousness monologues and other personal quirks, that Nixon was as effective as he was. Allan Ryskind of Human Events, the national conservative weekly newspaper, notes that of the post-World War II presidents, at least until Ronald Reagan’s tenure, only Nixon could boast that no country went communist under his watch.
It is even more amazing in light of Nixon’s ever-evolving analysis of communists. On the one hand, he seemed to have a grudging admiration for their efficiency.
“The Russians, ________ it, they root them [homosexuals] out, they don’t let them around at all,” Nixon said. “I don’t know what they do with them.” Part of the answer to that question may lie in the archives of the Communist International in the former Soviet Union.
On the other hand, Nixon would also link communism to sex, drugs and rock and roll in what could be called a conspiracy theory. “You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies,” Nixon pointed out. “That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it.”
“They’re trying to destroy us.”
Sherry is the author of Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy. The title is indicative of what is on offer from the University of North Carolina Press, and, for that matter, most university presses.
You will not, for example, find offerings in the UNC-Press catalogue with titles such as Legislative Accomplishments of Jesse Helms. As for Sherry, he writes in the Chronicle that he “came out” “slowly in the 1970s, through therapy.”
“There was political activity, not of the heroic sort, that included starting a gay-history course in the 1980s,” Sherry writes. “In scholarship I’ve shaken my fist at American militarization, which overlapped American homophobia.”
It is interesting that the Northwestern historian would describe the creation of a nouveau/niche course as “political activity.” For that give him more credit for honesty than many of his peers.
Then again, since when does scholarship involve shaking one’s fist at anything?
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.