Recently unearthed audio recordings of President Nixon speaking with his national security advisor Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman reveal that the disgraced former U.S. president believed he had progressive opinions about “homosexuals,” touting himself as his administration’s “most tolerant person” for believing that gays were “born that way.”
But the tapes, allegedly secretly recoded in 1971 and published by Vanity Fair Thursday, are not all that progressive by today’s standards. Nixon may have been an early-adopter of tolerating what we’d now refer to as the LGBT movement, but he also speculates that too much tolerance and “homosexuals” specifically were responsible for the collapse of the Roman Empire.
On April 28, 1971, Nixon, Kissinger, and Haldeman reportedly had a discussion about an annual youth conference. The subject turned to “homosexuals” (transcript via Vanity Fair):
Nixon: Let me say something before we get off the gay thing. I don’t want my views misunderstood. I am the most tolerant person on that of anybody in this shop. They have a problem. They’re born that way. You know that. That’s all. I think they are. Anyway, my point is, though, when I say they’re born that way, the tendency is there. [But] my point is that Boy Scout leaders, YMCA leaders, and others bring them in that direction, and teachers. And if you look over the history of societies, you will find, of course, that some of the highly intelligent people . . . Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, were all homosexuals. Nero, of course, was, in a public way, in with a boy in Rome.
Haldeman: There’s a whole bunch of Roman emperors. . . .
Nixon: 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?
Nixon speculates that gay community leaders and some of history’s “highly intelligent” thinkers were “homosexuals” that contributed to the inevitable decline of their societies.
Kissinger: That’s certainly been the case in antiquity. The Romans were notorious—
Haldeman: The Greeks.
Kissinger: —homosexuals. . . .
Nixon: The Greeks. And they had plenty of it. . . . By God, I am not going to have a situation where we pass along a law indicating, “Well, now, kids, just go out and be gay.” They can do it. Just leave them alone. That’s a lifestyle I don’t want to touch. . . .
Kissinger: It’s one thing for people to, you know, like some people we know, who would do it discreetly, but to make that a national policy . . .
Nixon also had some non-progressive views about gender roles, as revealed when the conversation turned to “swearing in public”:
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.
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.
There are eery similarities between the personal beliefs Nixon shared with his most trusted colleagues and those perpetuated throughout modern-day Russia by President Vladimir Putin. Putin has long held the belief that outlawing displays of “homosexuality” or LGBTs in general is in the best interest of society’s children, arguing that gay men and women are unfit parents and/or sexual predators.
But throughout his reign of terror that criminalizes and shames LGBTs, Putin has also claimed to be very tolerant of gays. He approved a ban on gay men and women adopting children and told the media it was “not discrimination.” Months later, he expected the world to pat on the back for agreeing to not arrest LGBT people in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics (a promise that he broke, of course).
We can at least take solace in knowing Nixon didn’t “want to touch” the legislation of LGBTs because it would have probably turned out very badly. Today’s Russian LGBTs, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury.