On Tuesday, the historian Tim Naftali published the text and audio of a taped call between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon from October, 1971. Reagan, who was then the governor of California, gave his opinion of the African delegates to the United Nations who voted against the United States’ position that Taiwan, rather than the People’s Republic of China, should receive U.N. recognition. “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan exclaimed. Nixon laughed heartily and went on to tell the Secretary of State, William Rogers, about Reagan’s outburst, in part to express that many Americans shared such bigotry. Hearing the interaction between Reagan and Nixon led Naftali, who is not averse to drawing parallels to the present, to write about “the dynamic power of racism when it finds enablers.”
I recently spoke by phone twice with Naftali, a professor of history and public service at N.Y.U., who was also the first director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda, California. During our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the importance of the Nixon–Reagan relationship, the ways Nixon differs from Donald Trump, and the reason this tape took so long to reach the public.
One thing that struck me about this audio was that on some of the Nixon tapes, Nixon is the one being racist or bigoted, and his underlings are fawningly trying to catch up to him, or echo him. Here Reagan is the one leading the charge. Was this a new dynamic?
What I found interesting about this, besides the revealing imagery used by Ronald Reagan, was that Nixon acted as if Reagan unlocked a trope that he, Nixon, wanted to use and felt he could use by quoting Reagan. Nixon went into this conversation angry at the African delegates at the U.N. We know that because he previously called Alexander Haig, his deputy national-security adviser, and said—I am paraphrasing—“Am I supposed to meet with any African leaders here? I recall I said yes to a list you sent over, and I want to know who they are, because they voted against me. I don’t want to see them. I don’t care if I promised to see them.”
And when Reagan calls Nixon, Reagan has a whole idea about what the U.S. should do to penalize the U.N. for voting to kick out Taiwan. Nixon doesn’t think it is a workable approach at all, and tells his Secretary of State, William Rogers, we can’t do this. But what Nixon finds interesting, exciting, and worth repeating, is how Reagan dramatically describes the African delegation that Nixon is so angry at. Earlier that month, Nixon had been explaining to Daniel Patrick Moynihan—an academic who had worked in the White House—about how he had been thinking about how, in his mind, “blacks” just had a hell of a time governing. And that [Reagan’s comments] really said something to him, and that squared with things he was reading about this noxious idea of a connection between I.Q. and race.
Reagan taps into all of this with his racist comments, and sets Nixon off. What I thought was important, at this juncture in our history, was for people to see how racists enable racists, how these turns of phrase and tropes are daggers. And people who think them but don’t say them, when they hear them, it emboldens them. Nixon doesn’t say these words as Nixon; he repeats them. If he found them disgusting, if he found them offensive, if he thought it was a sign of Reagan’s inferiority rather than the African delegates’, then he would not have repeated this phrase as he does on the tape. So I thought this was revealing not just as a data point about Ronald Reagan but also about Nixon’s psychology. He did not consider himself a racist, even though he had racist ideas.
You are talking generally about how racists enable each other, but it seems like part of this for Nixon was that he had an idea that he represented the common man, and he viewed Reagan as a symbol of the common man, and so this confirmed his opinion about how to appeal to them. How does this fit into that?
What I love about new data is that it should provoke new thinking and reinterpretation. It was only released weeks ago and I wanted to get it out there.What strikes me about these conversations is the interesting relationship between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon did not respect Reagan’s intellect, but he understood that conservatives had an emotional connection to Reagan. And even though Reagan’s star, his power in California, was dimming at that point—the polls were not good for Reagan, and Reagan had already said that he was going to leave office at the end of that term—Nixon saw him as a future possible occupant of the White House because of his connection to a whole group of Americans that Nixon felt was important to the coalition he was building. And even though Nixon did not agree with Reagan’s ideas on what to do about the United Nations, he understood that Reagan represented an important part of the base, and that he could not dismiss Reagan’s anger about Taiwan. After all, Nixon decided to go to China, which was a real challenge to conservative ideology in the United States. So he needed to pacify Reagan.
But, if Nixon was simply pacifying Reagan, he would not have done what he did later, in other conversations, nor would we have the other evidence of him saying not exactly the same thing but intellectually the same thing about African leaders. That’s why I framed this in terms of what he said to Moynihan. I wanted people to know that Nixon was not just pacifying Reagan by just listening to his nonsense. Reagan’s racist trope struck a chord with Nixon.
One thing that makes Nixon so complicated is that people who thought they knew Nixon didn’t really know Nixon. He was careful to maintain a certain level of rhetoric in the White House, and he only lifted the veil with a few members of the inner circle. So, on the tapes, he reveals his thoughts about African-Americans, his thoughts about Jews, his thoughts about gays, when he is with Chuck Colson and with Bob Haldeman, but with very few other people. That’s why many people who worked for Nixon hadn’t a clue that he was as bigoted as he turned out to be.
I have heard about him talking to Billy Graham, to Henry Kissinger, and saying things that are anti-Semitic or bigoted—
Well, Kissinger is in the inner circle. The full conversation with Billy Graham is now available, and you can see that they are having a great old time sharing their anti-Semitism. He saw in Billy Graham someone who shared his dark thoughts about Jews. I am just saying that Nixon, unlike Trump, had this sense of the appropriate public rhetoric for a President. And Trump is a proud disrupter of all Presidential norms. He is not inhabiting the Presidency; the Presidency is inhabiting him. Donald Trump isn’t interested in the norms that Nixon publicly tried to adhere to while privately revealing his real self.
By the way, what was Moynihan’s response?
I think Moynihan’s response is very disappointing, and he and Nixon continued this discussion about the possible connection between I.Q. and race. I think that’s something that should be looked at.
When all this is going on, in 1971, Kissinger is already trying to open a backchannel to China—
At Nixon’s request.
His attempt to do so via Pakistan has already started at this point—
The tension is already building up, and this is why Nixon tells Reagan that one reason we have to be careful about the U.N. is that we need their help if India–Pakistan blows up.
I am wondering how much you think the opening to China was on Nixon’s mind, and whether he was concerned that Reagan and his base would view the outreach to China—
Oh, he is totally concerned. That’s why he sends Reagan to see Chiang Kai-shek. Nixon has him carry a message to Chiang saying the U.S.–Taiwanese defense agreement is still intact, it is not going to be affected by Nixon’s trip to China. There is no question that Nixon was concerned about Reagan and wanted to keep Reagan close. He also reached out to Reagan about the Supreme Court pick that he had. He really didn’t want to lose the conservatives, and he was thinking about his reëlection in 1972, and he didn’t want people associated with Reagan to turn their backs on him. In fact, he was talking to Kissinger about a way for Kissinger to meet with Reagan supporters in California, and about how Reagan should include some people from the John Birch Society. It couldn’t be a Bircher meeting, because that would be embarrassing for the Administration. I am paraphrasing, but Nixon believed that Reagan appealed to the kooks, or something like that. Nixon didn’t want to lose those people.
Do you find this dynamic on other tapes, where Nixon is using other people’s racism to fortify his own beliefs?
With this conversation, he doesn’t riff on it. But with Haldeman and Colson, particularly about Jews, they will riff on each other. And their mutual anti-Semitism just reaches a fever pitch. So, yeah, with his inner circle he does, but Reagan was not his inner circle.
It’s creepier, in a way, that they were not super close, and yet Reagan was so forward and confident in expressing this stuff to Nixon.
Well, maybe it says something about what Reagan assumed about Nixon, huh? If Reagan was worried that Nixon would think less of him, Reagan wouldn’t have said that, I assume. The way in which these powerful men discussed people of color in such lurid terms and seemed to do so without any sense of shame is a reminder of the tenor of some private conversations at the highest levels of power in our history, and it is dismaying. And it is a reminder why we need, as historians and analysts, to be up-front about the role of racism in shaping policy in our country.
Do you think the story of race and Reagan has been generally undersold by historians and analysts?
I think that people like Rick Perlstein have addressed that, and it was addressed at the time. People wrote about it. After all, when you start your [general-election] campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where those three civil-rights heroes were killed in 1964, one wonders what kind of message you are sending. [In August, 1980, Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside of Philadelphia, that was widely understood as an appeal to segregationists.] But the challenge for Reagan biographers is that, although we have Reagan’s diaries, they are not particularly introspective. There aren’t any White House audio tapes that I know of from the Reagan period. Reagan has been mystifying to some biographers, and we are still unearthing interesting aspects of [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and Eisenhower. The process of Presidential biography does not end. The answer is that the story of race and Reagan is an ongoing debate, and this is a new data point. It won’t settle the debate, but it may inspire some more questions.
Why did it take so long for the tapes to be released? Had you heard them previously, from your time as director of the Nixon Presidential Library?
This is one of the most complicated archival challenges the U.S. government has faced. There were about four thousand hours of these Nixon tapes. Nixon and his estate sued the U.S. government. There was a court order that governed how these could be reviewed. In the beginning, the court assigned some of these conversations to Nixon as his private property. Portions of the earlier tapes that were released were redacted. The Nixon tapes and materials were kept in the Washington area after Watergate. The Nixon family created a library called the Nixon Library, but it was a private library.
For whatever reason, the family decided, somewhere around 2000, that they didn’t want to run the library anymore. They wanted it to become part of the federal library system. Meanwhile, the tapes were in Washington, and there was a special group at the National Archives to review documents. In 2007, as part of the creation of the federal Presidential library, the Nixon Foundation deeded over to the American people some of the material that Richard Nixon had gained through the courts. That material had not been released and had not been made public. When I became director, we were at November of 1972, and we pushed on, I added new resources, and then the process finished after I left, in 2013.
The National Archives always understood that, once the chronological release was done, and once the preservation project was done, it would go back and re-review all of the tapes, and start from the beginning again. Once the U.S. government was in a position to re-review, they were able to do it. They started the re-review two years ago, and private researchers like me can request that things be reviewed. So I contacted the National Archives and put in this request for all the Reagan materials, because I had heard that there was an interesting conversation, but hadn’t listened to it.
How do you hear something like that?
I was the director.
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So other people had listened to the tapes but, because of the court order, couldn’t talk about them publicly?
They were reviewed under statute, and they were released to the public in 2000. And those segments about Reagan were withheld, apparently for reasons of privacy. So the process goes on.
Are there more Reagan tapes?
No, I think I asked for all. I didn’t know which one would be dramatically interesting. There is a publicly available log, and you could just search.
Just to clarify: Were you hinting in your piece that there was something shady or weird about why the tapes took so long to come out?
No, not at all. There is nothing shady about it. The tapes that started coming out from the Presidential Library when I was director included the materials that Nixon deeded over, and more national-security information than was possible [before]. That approach of more openness and more transparency can now be used with regard to the earliest tapes. And that is what led me to that portion of the Reagan conversation. Why they decided to close it for reasons of privacy, in 2000, I can’t explain. But certainly there is no reason for that to be closed now, and I am glad it is open.