It's been three decades since President Richard M. Nixon was taped in the White House delivering anti-Semitic rants on how Jews are the scourge of our nation, why we should nuke Vietnam and how that infamous photo of a naked 9-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack was actually a fake. Because of the time lag, these latest revelations of Nixon's depravity have elicited a big media yawn, with the story landing back by the classifieds in most of the newspapers that even carried it.
Unfortunately, this editorial apathy is a reflection of a misguided American perception that the past is largely irrelevant to the future.
In tapes released last week, Nixon warns the Rev. Billy Graham that the Jews control the media and endorses Graham's statement that "this stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain" -- a sentiment assuredly echoed in the surviving cells of al-Qaida. In another conversation, with former Texas Gov. John B. Connolly, Nixon is heard saying of Jews, "They're untrustworthy ... Look at the Justice Department. It's full of Jews."
Elsewhere on the tapes, Nixon chats with Henry Kissinger about the escalating bombing of Vietnam and interjects that "I'd rather use the nuclear bomb."
He even chides Kissinger for being overly worried about civilian victims: "You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians, and I don't give a damn. I don't care."
As if to prove this grim claim, Nixon callously dismisses the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the girl fleeing napalm bomb attacks as "fixed" -- a sentiment worthy of Slobodan Milosevic.
At another point, news arrives of the shooting of George Wallace, the former Alabama governor, who was expected to run in the 1972 election. Nixon, without missing a beat, says to blame the assassination attempt on the Democrats: "Just say he [the shooter] was a supporter of [George] McGovern and [Ted] Kennedy. Just put that out ... Say you have it on unmistakable evidence."
These tapes are more than just fodder for a biographer's footnotes. They give us a bracing insight into the beastly side of our own nature that can manifest itself in our leaders, even though we are a fundamentally decent people.
If we listen to the words of this two-term wartime president, we will find an indelible record of a leader's capacity for deep evil.
Nixon may not have been the worst of our presidents, but, through the accident of his penchant for secret recordings, he is certainly the most revealed. The Nixon Library should transform itself into an institute for the study of official mendacity so that we may be reminded why the Constitution was written: to protect the citizenry from the corruptions of power.
Of course, Nixon is dead, and Graham, now 83, has just apologized; it would be easy enough to ignore these horrific conversations as the ramblings of an already discredited president.
But when we are busy condemning national chauvinism, religious hatred and war crimes abroad, it is no time to whitewash our own past. To utter such thoughts invites the riposte that one seeks to weaken our nation rather than strengthen it.
Thankfully, this country has a clear history of questioning sanctimonious expressions of authority, and the release of these tapes, however late, is a clear example of that.
It is hard to imagine many other nations making such information public without being forced by revolution.
In fact, for every Richard Nixon in U.S. history, there has been a George McGovern who dared to speak truth to power. A highly decorated combat pilot in World War II, McGovern took on Nixon before Watergate, with a bold stand against the Vietnam War that allowed demagogues to spit on a true hero's patriotism.
Although well ahead in the polls, Nixon was so intent on destroying his opponent in the 1972 presidential race -- in the tapes, he refers to McGovern as a "damn socialist with a blind spot for communists" -- that he set in motion the Watergate break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters to look for smear material.
Playing the devil, Nixon was finally burned by the hot breath of history that was unleashed by his own greed for power.