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Richard Nixon Tapes Reveal Thoughts On Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass”

August 12, 2009

Richard Nixon calls Leonard Bernstein a “son of a bitch.”  With that I think you will agree with me that we have another batch of goodies that keep giving from Richard Nixon.

I think the tapes by Richard Nixon are the most amazing and captivating memories that any president has left behind.  Yes, there are letters and diaries from other men who have held the office which hold my attention and make me aware of their greatness and insight, but the Richard Nixon tapes are golden political theater.  Gritty, tough, at times rambling and at other times direct, sometimes cerebral and at other times pure bunk.  (I mention that as an over-view of the tapes, and not necessarily about this series here.) Today we learn that RN had a thing about Leonard Bernstein, and “Mass”.  He also disliked a certain kiss.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” had its première on September 8, 1971, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Kennedy Center opened the same night, promising a new era of culture on the Potomac. Some in the audience took umbrage at Bernstein’s intermingling of pop tunes and Catholic rites, but the response was generally positive. The following night, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall made its début, with the National Symphony performing under the direction of its music director, AntalDoráti. In the weeks before and after the premiere, Nixon repeatedly discussed “Mass” and related events with H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, and on one occasion with the movie star Ginger Rogers. I have collected eight audio excerpts from those conversations, drawing on the excellent online resources provided by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

To hear the audio taped segments click here.  Sorry I could not find a way to get the audio to link directly from this blog.

1. August 9, 1971: 

Haldeman and Nixon make plans for the opening of the Kennedy Center. Nixon requests that the National Symphony’s gala program include Liszt’s “Les Préludes.” When Haldeman first mentions “Mass,” Nixon says, “Oh, shit.” Haldeman strongly advises the President not to attend. Advance word from “our priest here”—presumably John McLaughlin—suggests that “Mass” will be “very depressing.” The two discuss how the President can avoid attending “Mass.” It is decided that he will attend the National Symphony concert instead.

2. September 7th: 

Haldeman observes that Nixon’s excuses have “played positively.” He then recounts certain “absolutely sickening” events that transpired at a preview performance of “Mass” the previous evening: Bernstein’s tearful response to the ovation, his embraces of members of the cast, the kisses he bestowed on the men. “Is it an opera?” Nixon asks. Haldeman explains that it is in fact a Mass, although it is “weird.”

3. September 8th: 

Haldeman again focusses on Bernstein’s habit of kissing everyone, and continues trying to sort out the work’s genre ambiguities. Nixon compares the piece to modern art that you are supposed to like but don’t. Haldeman notes that some passages are spectacular while others fit the category of “atonal-type music.” (Later this day, John Ehrlichman gave Nixon a vague report on the activities of the Plumbers: “We had one little operation. It’s been aborted out in Los Angeles, which, I think, is better that you don’t know about.” The Lewis Fielding break-in took place on September 3rd.)

4. September 9th:

Haldeman reports to Nixon that a negative review of “Mass” will appear in the New York Times the following day. A source at the Times has apprised Haldeman of the review’s contents. In fact, the review, by Harold Schonberg, was published that morning.

5. September 11th: 

A Presidential seminar on orchestra programming. Haldemanand Nixon discuss the National Symphony concert, which took place on the evening of September 9. The program consisted of Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House” Overture, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216 (with Isaac Stern), Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and William Schuman’s cantata “A Free Song.” (No Liszt.) Haldemansummarizes the reviews, which generally praised the hall’s acoustics while chastising Doráti for having put together a somewhat jumbled program. Nixon agrees; he would rather have heard Beethoven’s Ninth. Haldemanwould have preferred Tchaikovsky’s Fifth and “some great Gershwin thing.” Schonberg’s review of “Mass” is again approvingly cited.

6. September 13th: 

Nixon brings up Bernstein’s support for the Black Panthers; Haldemannotes his association with the Berrigans. Haldemanagain mentions that Bernstein is kissing people on the mouth, “including the big black guy” (Alvin Ailey). Nixon calls this “absolutely sickening.” Bernstein’s behavior is differentiated from the traditional male-on-male greeting habits of the Jews, the Latin Americans, and the French. The Schonberg review comes up one more time; Nixon notes the “Jewish name.”

7. September 17th: 

Nixon meets with Ginger Rogers. After Rogers recounts her performing schedule and praises Katharine Hepburn’s performance in “Coco,” the President shares his impressions of the Kennedy Center, again bemoaning Doráti’s choice of works. Of Stravinsky’s “Rite,” he says, “I’m not completely square on that sort of thing,” although he does like jazz. He would have preferred a fully symphonic argument to an “offbeat Bernstein” kind of thing. Rogers agrees.

8. September 28th: 

Bernstein has said that Nixon didn’t attend “Mass” because of the conductor’s connection to the Berrigans. The President labels this claim “bullshit.” And he bestows the ultimate honor: Bernstein is called a “son of a bitch.”

3 Comments
  1. October 16, 2010 11:37 PM

    Ah Yes-Nixon the hateful bigot and a bastard. Plus an evil,sick anti-semite. Nixon: the hater of the arts and culture. Nixon: a most unpleasant mean-spirited person

  2. Mark permalink
    August 12, 2009 7:17 PM

    Ah! Bernstein! And from what everyone hears, Madison’s own orchestra director may have had one of Bernstein’s kisses planted on him… or maybe more than one?

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