When Nixon asked Haldeman about Philip Roth

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Richard Nixon, Philip Roth



Jon Wiener writes regularly for The Nation and LARB. His latest book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Journey Across America.

RICHARD NIXON didn’t talk much about American writers. On the White House tapes, which recorded his conversations from February 1971 to July 1973, there’s no mention of Norman Mailer, John Updike, or Gore Vidal. There’s no mention of best-selling authors of the era like William Peter Blatty of The Exorcist or Frederick Forsyth of The Day of the Jackal. But Nixon did talk about Philip Roth.

The first of those conversations, with H. R. Haldeman, his Chief of Staff, came late in his first term, in 1971. Earlier that year, at the end of April, half a million people had come to Washington, DC, to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam; on July 15, Nixon had announced he would be going to China. And on November 3, he asked Haldeman about Philip Roth’s new book Our Gang:

NIXON: What if anything do you know about the Roth book?

HALDEMAN: Oh, a fair amount.

NIXON: Who is responsible? The Roth thing I notice is reviewed in Newsweek, which might indicate that they might be very much behind that.

HALDEMAN: Yeah, because they gave it a review way out of proportion to the book. We got advances of it and our people were very disturbed about it. It’s a judgment call. I read it, or skimmed through it. It’s a ridiculous book. It’s sickening, and it’s —

NIXON: What’s it about?

HALDEMAN: It’s about the president of the United States.

NIXON: I know that! I know that. What’s the theme?

HALDEMAN: Trick E. Dixon. And the theme is that, uh, he’s tied to the abortion thing. The thing that inspired the book was your statement on abortion, and so he’s decided that — and then he juxtaposes that with your defense of Calley, as he puts it, who shot a woman who had a child in her. A pregnant woman. And he relates that you’re defending a guy who kills a woman with an unborn child in her ... Balances out. It’s sick, you know, perverted kind of thing ... It ends up with you being assassinated — or with Trick E. Dixon being assassinated, and then he goes to hell and in hell he starts politically organizing down there....




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