Letters to the editor: Beit T’Shuvah, Bernie Sanders and more

Sobering Reminder During a Time of Unrest

I have been involved as a volunteer for more than 20 years at Beit T’Shuvah, a nonprofit residential addiction treatment center on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles (“Beit T’Shuvah Changes Leadership Amid Turmoil,” May 20).

In January 2017 we will celebrate 30 years of service to men and women with addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling and more. Over the years, I have seen thousands of men and women change their lives and succeed through our combinations of psychotherapy, spirituality and the 12-step program at Beit T’Shuvah.

Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, founder of Beit T’Shuvah, work together with a caring staff helping 140 residents to “recover their passion and discover their purpose,” and they will continue their mission.

We have all heard President Barack Obama, our senators and Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, talk about the serious addiction problem we have in our country. If we are going to continue to be able to serve these men and women with this major health problem of addiction, institutions like Beit T’Shuvah must survive.

We are here to help you if you need help, and we need your help to sustain the vital mission of Beit T’Shuvah.

Annette Shapiro, President, Beit T’Shuvah Board of Directors, Los Angeles

Over the past 15 years, I’ve been witness to the amazing work done by Rabbi Mark Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto and the staff at Beit T’Shuvah on a daily basis. I’ve seen people, young and not so young, with a wide variety of addictions and problems, turn their lives around in a very meaningful way. They’ve become productive, grateful members of society, both in and out of Beit T’Shuvah. The path out of addiction isn’t easy, but with the support of the Beit T’Shuvah community, lives are once again becoming meaningful, families are reuniting and one more soul is being saved.

Carole Miller, Los Angeles

Not Fair to Nixon

I expected Ambassador Dennis Ross to include Richard Nixon as one of Israel’s most ardent supporters and defenders, not to mention his as one of five U.S. administrations that “deliberately distanced themselves from Israel” (“Why the U.S.-Israel Relationship is ‘Doomed to Succeed,’ ” May 20). It was Nixon who saved the State of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, telling Henry Kissinger to fill every supply plane the U.S. had with war material to send to Israel, despite Kissinger’s advice to send just one plane as a token and despite the fact that no other country was coming to Israel’s aid.

Yes, Nixon was stung by Jewish animus and overwhelming political support of the Democratic Party, but he was a friend to the Jews. When his daughter Tricia dated a Jewish man for several years, he even hosted that man — a man who is now my husband — for 10 days in his own home so that he could take Tricia to an event. This is not what a true anti-Semite would do. Ambassador Ross should do a little more research, as Nixon was there for Israel when it truly counted.

Noelle Donfeld, Malibu

Where’s Bernie?

I am a big fan of the Jewish Journal, appreciative of its diversity of opinion and thoughtful coverage of local, national and international issues — which is why I am puzzled by the minimal coverage of a major figure on the national scene.  

For months now, I have been waiting for Bernie Sanders’ face on the cover, along with an in-depth story about his candidacy, his Jewish roots and his ideology. 

Granted, Sanders is not a religious Jew. But the Journal often interviews writers, filmmakers and performers who happen to be Jewish (or half-Jewish) and whose ties to the Jewish community are nominal. I enjoy those stories and am glad you include them, but … why no Bernie on the cover? 

Never before in the history of our country has a Jewish candidate made it this far in a run for the presidency. And Sanders is more than a serious candidate. Whether or not one agrees with his ideas and policies, he is changing the Democratic Party and the national conversation. With only a couple of weeks left until the June 7 California primary, I still have hopes that his face will grace the cover of the Journal.  

Laura Golden Bellotti, Los Angeles

One Nation Under Nakba?

Avrum Burg does provide a potential path for mutual respect, peace and tikkun by Jews becoming more aware of and recognizing our role in the Nakba, the tragic catastrophe endured by many Palestinians that came as a result of Israeli independence (“The Israeli Twins — Independence and Nakba,” May 13). 

Also to be considered in the equation is the role played by many Arab nations and others in their uncompromising antipathy to a predominantly Jewish state at that time, to the point of sending armies to destroy the nascent state, and doing little to improve the conditions of the people displaced when that effort failed.  

Perhaps a path to forgiveness can be found for those Arabs who should have become equal citizens of Israel in the recognition that the injustices endured by them resulted not from conquest, but from a very plausible fear of annihilation.  

Hymie Milstein via email

Searching for utopia in Orange County

The Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California bills itself as “the first great metropolitan park of the 21st century,” but until recently it was the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The base was commissioned in 1943 and served as an airport for President Richard Nixon as he shuttled between the Western White House and Washington, D.C. After El Toro was decommissioned in 1999, the site was dormant for years. Then, after a long and contentious debate, voters approved a plan to create the Great Park. In 2011, I was invited to be one of the park’s first artists-in-residence.

At the time, I was fascinated with what psychologists call “mental time travel”—the way old family photos or home movies can reanimate an emotion and cause you to re-experience physical sensations you felt at the time. It can also happen with historical events. Images of President Nixon’s resignation trigger a rush of feelings in me—even though I experienced the event as a 10 year old watching it on television. 

Orange County is a fertile site for Nixon time travel. The 37th president was born in Yorba Linda and lived in Whittier and San Clemente. I wondered if, when he visited El Toro, he ever stood on the site of my temporary art studio. When I looked out the window at the rows of newly planted date palms, I tried to picture jets on the runway, Marines in jeeps, and 5,000 supporters pressed against a chain-link fence waiting for the president to descend from the sky—to time travel to that unforgettable day in 1974 when Nixon landed here, a few hours after flashing his famous “V” sign and boarding his helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House for the last time.

I decided to see if I could trigger people’s “involuntary memories”—memories evoked by cues rather than conscious effort. I wanted to know if the former base was haunted for others, too. So every Sunday for seven months, I went to the park to hold “open studio” hours and asked people to tell me their memories of Richard Nixon. As people visited with me and told me stories, I worked on large pen and ink drawings based on well-known images from the Nixon presidency, and I made drawings to illustrate the personal stories I had collected from park visitors over the previous weekends.

The Vietnam War figured into many of those conversations. Every American man over the age of 60 told me his draft number and how he either served or avoided the war. People also told me about the antiwar protests at nearby UC Irvine, which surprised me. I taught in the university’s art department for five years and never heard anything about student protests.

In fact, I had an impression of Irvine as a placid postwar utopia. In conversations with park visitors, I heard about neighborhoods where you “felt like you were in the best place.” People told me about growing up in the newly built housing tracts of the planned community and described how the town smelled of the Eucalyptus trees planted as a windbreak between the orange groves and lima bean fields.

Irvine was a lima bean farm until 1960 when the University of California bought 1,000 acres from James Irvine for $1. At that time, California had a problem: the children of the postwar baby boom were reaching college age and would soon overwhelm the state’s educational institutions. UC Irvine was one of three new campuses to open between 1960 and 1965. President Lyndon B. Johnson presided at the UC Irvine dedication.

The layout of the UC Irvine campus and an adjacent community planned for 50,000 residents was designed by William Pereira, the architect who drafted the master plan for LAX. In photographs that ran in the September 6, 1963 issue of Time magazine, a dashing Pereira gestures to his blueprint of subdivisions and cul-de-sacs—“the perfect place to live, work, shop, play, and learn,” as described by Irvine Company literature.

How did the Vietnam War transform this brand-new utopian campus? Inspired by my interviews at the park, I decided to investigate in the UC Irvine Archives and Special Collections at the Langston Library.

A sleeve of 35mm slides from October 4, 1965, opening day of the University of California, Irvine reveals many buildings still under construction, and bare ground dotted with fragile saplings staked to posts. Smiling girls with bouffant hairdos and boys with crewcuts carry armloads of books through William Pereira’s vision of the perfect future—all space age cement curves and expressionistic patterned facades.

Just a year and a half later, the students don’t look as happy. In a fat folder of slides from January 23, 1967, I find young people assembled with unmistakable seriousness on the steps of the Gateway Plaza to protest the firing of UC President Kerr for his lenient treatment of Free Speech Movement activists (at the urging of recently elected Governor Ronald Reagan). The students are holding hand-lettered signs that say: “In Memoriam Clark Kerr” and “R-E-A-G-A-N Doesn’t Spell FREEDOM.”

May 4 1970, Irvine

I see the students becoming more radicalized in dress and demeanor year by year. In bound volumes of The New University, the student paper, I read about how the campus participated in the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in October 1969. In faded slides, the clean-cut boys of 1965 are now shaggy-haired and shirtless. Girls have ditched their curlers for straight hair parted in the middle like Joan Baez, and they’re wearing jeans. They wear black armbands, and many students are barefoot. The crowd has swollen, completely filling the stairs, and legs are dangling from the library balcony.

Visitors to my Great Park studio had described their memories of April 30, 1970, when President Nixon appeared on television with a giant map of Southeast Asia to announce his expansion of the war into Cambodia. In response, students at over 400 colleges and universities went on strike. In a photo from May 4, 1970, the UCI plaza and library are occupied and no one is smiling anymore. In one photo, a crowd holds signs that read: “Did Dick Ask Us?” and “Does your government represent YOU?”

I don’t think the protestors know it yet—the 24-hour news cycle hadn’t been invented— but National Guardsmen in Ohio opened fire on an unarmed crowd at Kent State University at 12:24 p.m. that same day, killing four students and injuring nine. Based on the angle of the sun and shadows on the plaza, the massacre in Ohio has already happened. It’s a weird feeling to know this has happened when the students in the photo do not yet know.

The speed of the transformation at Irvine is what affects me the most. In the five years since 1965, these brand-new buildings became symbols of an establishment the students felt had betrayed them. The students rejected the utopia that was created for them, not in a symbolic sense, but literally—this utopia was created for them.

The story of war protest at UCI may not be as historically significant or well-known as the protests at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Columbia University. But it is a microcosm of the rise and fall of the postwar American Dream. 

I think about Pereira’s vision for a college campus as a tranquil utopia in an orderly, planned Southern California city, and try to reconcile that idea with images of Ohio guardsmen positioning their M-1 rifles in front of the pagoda on a picturesque campus 2,000 miles away. Tear gas blurs the silhouettes of students fleeing the Modernist cement buildings of Kent State, and in other pictures students crouch in a parking lot over the fallen bodies of their classmates. I guess it’s hard to “master plan” for some futures.

I put my folders back on the cart to be reshelved, wondering how long it will be until someone else asks to look at them. I emerge from the library into the late afternoon sun, blinking with the disorientation of a time traveler. I half expect to see picket signs and girls in ponchos. The Gateway Plaza is swarming with students, but they are of all different ethnicities, not the primarily Anglo students of the late 1960s. They are not shaggy but groomed and gelled. They’re texting on smartphones as they race purposefully to class. They have skateboards and backpacks, and it’s hard to imagine them protesting anything—not because they seem apathetic or indifferent, but because they’re so diverse it’s hard to imagine a single cause that could galvanize all of them. 

The campus bears so little resemblance to the master plan that it’s hard to locate all eight original Pereira buildings amidst the expansion and constant construction. When I find them, the Brutalist buildings look dated and a little cartoony, dwarfed and crowded by giant glass and steel laboratories. The products of more recent architects—and their visions of an entirely different future—colonize every square foot of available space.

Deborah Aschheim is an artist who makes installations, drawings, and sculptures as part of a long-term investigation of personal and collective memory. Her project, “Involuntary Memories,” will be exhibited at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum from July 26 to September 28, 2014. 

This article was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.

George McGovern, former U.S. senator and presidential candidate, dies

George McGovern, a former U.S. senator and presidential candidate who said the U.S. government sometimes “bowed to pressure” from a powerful Israel lobby, has died.

McGovern died Sunday in hospice care in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.

A three-term U.S. senator from South Dakota, McGovern won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, and campaigned relentlessly on a platform of American withdrawal from Vietnam. In losing to incumbent Republican Richard Nixon, he suffered one of the greatest defeats in a presidential race in U.S. history.

In an address to the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington in 1991, McGovern discussed his support of Israel.

“For the 22 years that I served in Congress, like most of my colleagues, I supported Israel, out of a combination of conviction and self interest,” he said. “We were constantly aware of the power of the lobby for that country. Sometimes, against our best instincts, we bowed to pressure.

“It is bad enough for the Israeli people to be led by their own ideologically motivated right wing. But for the American government to take instructions from that faction is insupportable.”

McGovern flew a B-24 “Liberator” bomber in World War II. Among his targets were German synthetic oil factories in occupied Poland — some of them less than five miles from the Auschwitz gas chambers.

In 2004, McGovern spoke on camera for the first time about his WWII experiences in a meeting organized by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies with Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Sigmund Rolat and filmmakers Stuart Erdheim and Chaim Hecht.

McGovern dismissed the Roosevelt administration’s claims that bombing Auschwitz and the railroad lines leading to it would be a dangerous diversion of planes that were needed elsewhere. The argument was “a rationalization,” he said, noting that no diversions would have been needed when he and other U.S pilots already were flying over that area.

“There is no question we should have attempted … to go after Auschwitz,” McGovern said in the interview. “There was a pretty good chance we could have blasted those rail lines off the face of the earth, which would have interrupted the flow of people to those death chambers, and we had a pretty good chance of knocking out those gas ovens.”

In his address accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla., in July 1972, McGovern said that “in an age of nuclear power and hostile forces” it was important for the United States to be militarily strong.

“We will do that not only for ourselves, but for those who deserve and need the shield of our strength — our old allies in Europe and elsewhere, including the people of Israel, who will always have our help to hold their Promised Land,” he said.

The 1972 Democratic Party platform was the first of any party's to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and call to move the U.S. Embassy there.

During the Kennedy administration, McGovern started and ran the Food for Peace program, and kept it operating in at least a dozen countries. McGovern also published a dozen books.

The 10 best political movies of all time

With the U.S. presidential election looming large, we thought we'd look at the best 10 movies focusing on politics. Many of these films are quite old, but that's not a huge detriment. Writing and acting play huge roles in politics, and political films rely on the same fundamentals. The stories all involve the basic elements of human character, integrity, morality, honesty–and the complete lack of any of those traits.

Politics is an awfully touchy subject, because it involves people's core concepts and beliefs on how a nation should be run, how its citizens should be treated, and who's fit to control all that. These films remind us of the incredible power of political offices, and that people who acquire those offices aren't always the best-qualified, most moral, or even law-abiding candidates. Vote, people. Seriously. (Was that preachy enough?)

10. Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty, who also wrote and directed, plays Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth: a typical white, 60-year-old politician. He realizes his political ambitions are basically dead, so he takes out an insurance policy and contract on his life. He then behaves so crazily that he makes his own campaign team insane but garners adoration from the nation. He raps his speeches on national television, brazenly addresses race and socioeconomic issues, hooks up with a beautiful young African-American woman (Halle Berry), smokes weed, et al. But he doesn't lie. And even though his messages are wrapped in cartoonish mannerisms, the truth behind the statements still resonates.

9. The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford plays a lawyer from California, Bill McKay, who's recruited to run for Senate. But he doesn't actually believe he'll win (and he doesn't really care). Although McKay is inexperienced, he learns to garner goodwill–and votes–by using charismatic honesty. But eventually, the prospect of winning is too appealing, and he begins playing traditional political games. The Academy-Award-winning script was written by Jeremy Larner, who wrote speeches for Eugene McCarthy, so its political veracity is quite high.

8. Wag the Dog (1998)

Shortly before the election, the president gets caught up in a sex scandal involving an underage girl. The president's team foresees the election going seriously south, so they hire a spin doctor (Robert De Niro), who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create an imaginary war overseas, thereby distracting the public. Because the film's release date was so close to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the film's story seemed almost prescient and became quite controversial (Clinton ordered strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan shortly after admitting to inappropriate relations with Lewinsky).

7. Nixon (1995)

This dark and disturbing film explores the strict and impoverished childhood of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), his budding political career, strange interactions with his wife, presidency and severe paranoia that eventually caused his disastrous downfall. The runtime on director Oliver Stone's cut is 212 minutes, and because it's packed with details, it forces you to stay mentally alert. By the end, it almost seems longer than Nixon's time in office–and just as darkly compelling.

6. The Best Man (1964)

Set in a political convention, this film explores the two extremes of stereotypical politicians–the dirty one who does whatever it takes to win (Cliff Robertson), and the one who relies on integrity and respectful tactics (Henry Fonda). Gore Vidal wrote this film that contains deplorable political maneuvers, infidelity and attacks on personal lives. It shows that even 50 years ago, politics were just as nasty as they are now (although people smoked a lot more).

Kissinger: Take remark on gas chambers in context

It should have been ancient, if unsavory, news: A cavalier reference to gassing Jews, an aside in a conversation nearly 40 years old.

But the aside was pronounced by Henry Kissinger, a German-born Jew who fled Nazi horrors as a child and who has been honored by multiple Jewish organizations as one of Israel’s saviors during its darkest days, when he was secretary of state to President Nixon.

“If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger is heard saying on the latest batch of Nixon-era Oval Office tapes released by the Nixon Library.

Following its publication Saturday—buried deep in a New York Times story that focused more on Nixon’s well-known bigotries—a shock shuddered through the Jewish community and led to calls to shun Kissinger, and then to calls to forgive him.

Kissinger in an e-mail to JTA would brook no request for an apology and did not even directly address his gas chambers remark. Instead he appeared to insist on context: His frustration at the time with the insistence of the Jewish community and U.S. senators such as Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Henry “Scoop”Jackson (D-Wash.) on attaching human rights riders to dealings with the Soviets.

“The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time,” Kissinger wrote to JTA.

He and Nixon pursued the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration as a humanitarian matter separate from foreign policy issues in order to avoid questions of sovereignty and because normal diplomatic channels were closed, Kissinger wrote.

“By this method and the persistent private representation at the highest level we managed to raise emigration from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972,” Kissinger wrote. “We disagreed with the Jackson Amendment, which made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue. We feared that the Amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed. The conversation between Nixon and me must be seen in the context of that dispute and of our distinction between a foreign policy and a humanitarian approach.”

In fact, the historical consensus is that while it was true that what became known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment—named for Jackson and Rep. Charlie Vanik (D-Ohio)—at first inhibited emigration, it formed the basis for the late-20th century politics of making human rights a sine qua non of statecraft. That resulted not only in the mass emigration of Soviet Jews 15 years later, but also in contemporary efforts to end internal massacres in countries such as Sudan.

Kissinger, however, was dedicated to realpolitik—the art of securing the grand deal, even at the expense of the moral and ethical considerations of the moment—and his disdain for human rights activists knew few bounds.

Gal Beckerman, a historian of the Soviet Jewry movement, told Tablet on Tuesday that this even led Kissinger to suppress a letter from the Soviet leadership offering to release 60,000 Jews under the Jackson-Vanik stipulations.

Similar considerations led Kissinger to press Nixon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to delay delivering arms to Israel by a few weeks. Their conversations at the time show Kissinger arguing that Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, needed an unadulterated victory to make peace concessions. Nixon argued—correctly, as it turned out—that Sadat was already able to claim a victory, and that it was more important to stanch an ally’s casualties in a war that would claim 3,000 Israeli lives.

In a 2009 review of the period in The Jewish Press, top Nixon aides Alexander Haig, the chief of staff; Leonard Haig, the White House counsel; and Vernon Walters, the deputy CIA chief, all recall the same dynamic: The time for hanging Israel out to dry had ended.

“Both Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do [the airlift],” the Press quoted Walters as saying. “But Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, ‘You get the stuff to Israel. Now. Now.’ “

The image of Kissinger as a cold-blooded sociopath has long been a staple of his most virulent critics, and the newly revealed quote was like manna to their theories.

“In the past, Kissinger has defended his role as enabler to Nixon’s psychopathic bigotry, saying that he acted as a restraining influence on his boss by playing along and making soothing remarks,” said Christopher Hitchens, who has said Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal for his role in ordering the bombing of Cambodia and for enabling Latin American autocrats. “This can now go straight into the lavatory pan, along with his other hysterical lies.

“Obsessed as he was with the Jews, Nixon never came close to saying that he’d be indifferent to a replay of Auschwitz. For this, Kissinger deserves sole recognition.”

Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, reached a similar conclusion after reading accounts of the newly released Nixon tapes.

“Now that Kissinger’s true nature has been exposed, the Jewish community and Jewish institutions must draw the appropriate consequences,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Jewish Week.

“We now come to the realization that as far as he was concerned, human rights in general were an irrelevancy,” Rosensaft said in an interview with JTA. “He needs to know that when he is in the company of Jews, we will know precisely who he is and we hold him in contempt.”

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that approach goes too far.

The ADL issued a statement saying that Kissinger’s comments show a “disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet Jews” and are a reminder that “even great individuals are flawed.” But, it noted, “Dr. Kissinger’s contributions to the safety and security of the U.S. and Israel have solidly established his legacy as a champion of democracy and as a committed advocate for preserving the well-being of the Jewish state of Israel.”

Foxman elaborated in an interview with JTA.

“He worked in an atmosphere that was intimidatingly anti-Semitic toward Jews,” the ADL leader said of Kissinger. “We need to understand the intimidation under which it occurred.”

Beckerman has written that Kissinger’s upbringing—the horrific transition, at age 10, from a world of safety to one of chaos—helps explain an ideology that places order above all as the salvation of humanity. Kissinger, he wrote in the Forward in 2007, “was guided by the sense that the world needs a strong America—led by versatile statesmen—that will stand as a bulwark against the disorder and disequilibrium that he experienced as a child.”

How did Kissinger’s Jewish identity play out in the White House? It was a complex matter and not always consistent.

In September 1972, when Kissinger was still the national security adviser, he and his arch-rival, Secretary of State William Rogers, had a bitter exchange at a Cabinet meeting over whether the government should lower flags to half mast for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics. Nixon took Kissinger’s advice and lowered the flags.

Nixon regarded Kissinger as his truest aide, although he also noted, in another tape released recently, the “latent insecurity” of Kissinger and his other Jewish advisers.

On the eve of Nixon’s Aug. 8, 1974 resignation, the result of scandals besieging his administration, Kissinger could not help himself and burst into sobs, according to Robert Dallek’s account, “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.”

Nixon, too, joined him in weeping. In what has become an icon of how the isolation of power brings strong men to their knees, both men kneeled in the White House living room and prayed.

Kissinger: Gassing Jews would not be a U.S. problem

Henry Kissinger is heard saying on newly released Nixon tapes that the genocide of Soviet Jews would not be an American concern.

The tapes chronicle President Richard Nixon’s obsession with disparaging Jews and other minorities.

Kissinger’s remarks come after a meeting he and Nixon had with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on March 1, 1973 in which Meir pleads for the United States to put pressure on the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Nixon and Kissinger, then the secretary of state, dismiss the plea after Meir leaves.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” The New York Times on Saturday quotes Kissinger, as saying on the tapes. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

Nixon replies, “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Six months later, during the Yom Kippur War, Nixon rejected Kissinger’s advice to delay an arms airlift to Israel as a means of setting the stage for an Egypt confident enough to pursue peace. Nixon, among other reasons, cited Israel’s urgent need.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in a statement called for an apology from Kissinger, who is still consulted by Democratic and Republican administrations and by Congress on matters of state.

“Henry Kissinger’s comments are morally grotesque and represent a disgraceful perversion of American values,” said the statement. “He owes an apology to all victims of the Nazi Holocaust.”

Nixon secretly recorded his White House conversations. After this was revealed during congressional investigations, the tapes became government property and have been released over the years in intervals.

Elsewhere on the batch of tapes recently released by the Nixon Library, the late president repeats many of the ethnic and racial slurs that had appeared on earlier such releases: Irish are “mean” drunks, he says; Italians “don’t have their heads screwed on tight”; Jews are “aggressive, abrasive and obnoxious”; and it would take blacks “500 years” to catch up with whites.

The next president’s gums

It’s surprising that 40 years passed between the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, which won the largest viewing audience in television history until then,
and the airing of the first season of “Survivor,” a monster hit that launched the “reality” boom that’s dominated television ever since.

Those presidential debates were arguably the first reality show. What took so long for television executives to figure out that there’s gold in them thar unscripted hills?

Maybe it’s because “debate” is such a high-minded term. Maybe we’re too embarrassed to admit that the history of presidential debates is actually a branch of the history of show business.

We speak with reverence about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, as though judging their outcome by whose 5 o’clock shadow looked worse on TV doesn’t amount to Exhibit A of our susceptibility to stagecraft. We love recalling Ronald Reagan’s putting away the age issue with a gag (“I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”), as though his getting off a good joke were enough to undo our complicity in his subsequent cluelessness about Iran-Contra. We delight in noting how Al Gore’s sighing, George H.W. Bush’s looking at his watch and Michael Dukakis’ unwillingness to bite Bernie Shaw’s head off because of a hypothetical about his wife Kitty being raped, could well have lost them the White House, as though deciding presidential elections on “American Idol” criteria weren’t an indictment of the shallowness of the media-political complex.

Yet, we keep on insisting that how a candidate does in a presidential debate is a useful surrogate for how he would do as president. What was there about George W. Bush’s opposition to nation building in the 2000 debates that could have enabled us to anticipate his aggrandizing freedom-on-the-march agenda? What was it in Dick Cheney’s performance during the debates that could have prefigured the most arrogant flouting of the Constitution in the history of the Republic? For that matter, what was it that Bill Clinton said to Bob Dole in 1996 that might have forewarned us of the indiscipline and heartache to follow? Only hindsight makes any of those encounters illuminating.

As an inveterate goo-goo, I know I should be encouraged by the new proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates: To junk the 30-second timers and to give the candidates eight 10-minute segments to discuss single topics that are lobbed in by a moderator who then withdraws to the sidelines. But this strikes me as tinkering at the margins.

Candidates have an innate horror of going off message. That’s why debate prep is a quadrennial growth industry in campaignland. Thick binders, with tabbed Qs & As on every conceivable topic, are already being assembled. Key phrases are being polled and focus-grouped. The most wounding attacks are being imagined and countered. Potentially embarrassing votes and quotes are being catalogued and repudiated. Jokes and one-liners are being contributed by advisers and gag-writers. Stand-ins for the opposition are being coached for rehearsal. Gimmicks and stunts are being compiled and considered: issuing a challenge to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, say, or to have your gums examined by a panel of independent periodontists.

Presidential debates are solemnly portrayed by the media as great learning opportunities for the public. But unless something goes very wrong, there is nothing substantive a candidate will say in a debate that he has never said before. We are conditioned by the press to expect spontaneity, candor, a bombshell, a Perry Mason ending. “Did you hear that? He’s for the Arabs! He admitted it!” Or: “See? He’s a just another Republican, in maverick’s clothing.” But what we actually get is political kabuki — scripted and choreographed down to the last gesture and gerund.

The early press reaction to the Commission on Presidential Debates’ proposed format is a microcosm of what now counts for political analysis. At two of the three debates, candidates will sit together at a table. This, we are told in various media accounts, will have the effect of neutralizing the height advantage that Obama, at 6 foot 1, has over McCain, who is 5 foot 9.

I don’t doubt that for some American voters, a candidate’s height is a worthy proxy for his presidentiality. Nor do I doubt that for other Americans, race or age or rumors will determine whom they choose. I am also aware — though it depresses me deeply — that the outcome of the election will likely depend on those voters who reach Election Day still undecided. Apparently a two-year campaign will have offered these swing voters in swing states insufficient information on which to base a decision.

That the result of a presidential race may depend on the limbic systems of a million or so Americans is a feature, not a bug, of universal suffrage. What Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed as countervailing measures to combat the potential dangers of self-government were a thriving public education system, an ingenious mechanism of checks and balances and a robust Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, none of these systems for safeguarding democracy from ignorance and subversion is in notably healthy shape today, which leaves us at the mercy of sound bites, canned quips and body language.

Instead of applauding genteel format tweaking, why don’t we junk the Commission on Presidential Debates entirely? It was an outrage when, in 1986, the two political parties seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. Ever since, the candidates have signed Memoranda of Understanding under party auspices that virtually guarantee the twin hazards of civic piety and packaged zingers.

Rather than holding the debates in college auditoriums full of “soft supporters,” why not broadcast one of them, say, from a crowded classroom in Dorsey High during lockdown and see which candidate can best connect with the future American workforce? Rather than pretending that questions like, “How can you do everything you promise and still balance the budget?” will get honest answers, why not ask the viewing audience to text in after each response whether they believed what they heard?

My first question for the candidates? “If you don’t do something in your first 100 days that pisses off half the public, you’ll be a lousy president who’ll break the country’s heart again. Energy, education, immigration, Iraq: nothing’s got easy answers. Which of you has the balls to tell us some hard ones?” Well, maybe not “pisses off” and “balls.” But you get the idea. And so should they.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears weekly in this space. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.