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Nixon deemed Leonard Bernstein a ’son of a bitch’

By Laurie Bennett

August 14, 2009 at 10:22am

Why was Richard Nixon so obsessed with Leonard Bernstein?

What with the Pentagon Papers, the White House Plumbers and the breakin of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and all, he certainly had other issues to focus on in 1971.

After reviewing Bernstein’s 800-page FBI file, memos from the White House Plumbers and excerpts from the Nixon White House tapes, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross provides some tantalizing insights, complete with audio clips.

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein had come under federal scrutiny for his support of the Black Panthers and peace activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan.

The Nixon White House was particularly concerned with Bernstein’s composition “Mass,” which was to be performed at the opening of the Kennedy Center.

Figures who would later become known as members of CREEP and the White House Plumbers investigated and raised concerns that Bernstein might be promoting opposition to the Vietnam war through Latin lyrics. Robert Mardian, who then headed the Justice Department’s internal security unit and would later coordinate CREEP, wrote:

Consider the implications and the publicity which would accrue to the antiwar movement if this ‘Mass’ were to be politely applauded by high ranking Government officials who undoubtedly will attend the dedication ceremonies at the Kennedy Center and who probably are not conversant in Latin.

The president did not attend. He and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, discussed reviews of the performance and their disgust at Bernstein’s habit of kissing men such as Alvin Ailey on the mouth.

Bernstein had said Nixon had avoided the performance of “Mass” because of the conductor’s association with the Berrigan brothers. On the tapes, the president declared this to be “bullshit” and called Bernstein a “son of a bitch.”

As Ross points out, it was the “ultimate honor.”

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