The Last of the President’s Men

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Posted in: Book Reviews

Bob Woodward’s new book, The Last of the President’s Men, arrived on my Kindle on October 13, 2015—the day of publication. I had known the book was in the works because the subject of the book, my former Nixon White House colleague Alex Butterfield, told me. So I preordered it and read it the evening it arrived. It’s not very long.

The title is an obvious play on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s first book, All The President’s Men, their story as young reporters covering the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post from June 17, 1972, through February, 1974, six months before Nixon’s resignation. The “All The President’s Men” title, which became a popular and still-running Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman movie, was obviously a modified combination of the Humpty Dumpty nursey rhyme “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty together again,” and the great Robert Penn Warren political novel based on the corrupt Louisiana governor Huey Long and titled “All the King’s Men.” Woodward’s new title is a bit confusing since Butterfield was also listed in All The President’s Men as one of “The President’s Men,” with Woodward and Bernstein telling the story of Butterfield revealing the fact that Nixon had a secret White House tape recording system.

I assume the title was selected to give affinity to the early work, and Woodward believes this is the last of the Nixon staff to come forward to honestly and openly discuss the Nixon presidency. I think he is correct. Woodward said in an interview that his forty-six hours of interviewing Alex, along with his access to the twenty boxes of documents Alex gave him from his White House years, provided “the last pieces of the Nixon puzzle.” Hopefully this somewhat derivative and enigmatic title will, in fact, encourage people to read this book for Woodward nicely and succinctly captured Alex’s experiences at the Nixon White House.

To those who know Alex, and have stayed in contact with him over the years, many of these stories are familiar. I always hoped Alex would tell them in a memoir, and while he started writing one in the 1990s, he never did it (but he shared what he had done with Woodward). When talking to Woodward shortly before publication of this book, he told me he found Alex was like a human recording device for the activities in the Oval Office before Alex was actually instructed to install such a recording system on February 10, 1971. This is true. Between Alex’s memory, along with his immediate superior’s note taking, the pre-taping system record is remarkably good albeit not verbatim. Alex was a deputy assistant to the president, or stated a bit differently he was the deputy of H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, the assistant to the president who served as White House Chief of Staff. Alex, as time passed, had more face time with Nixon during his first term than any other member of the White House staff.

Alex pulled no punches with Woodward in sharing what he observed, and those observations fall into three areas: Nixon’s strange personality accompanied thoughtless manners; Nixon’s duplicity in matters large and small; and Nixon’s growing vengeance toward any and all perceived enemies. I do not wish to share spoilers, so I will only broadly describe this conduct, but I do agree with Butterfield’s general description of the Nixon White House: While there were fleeting moments of good, the place can only be accurately described as Alex does—“a cesspool.”

From the outset of his going to work for Haldeman as his deputy—and Alex and Haldeman had been college friends at UCLA—his introduction to Nixon was bizarre. Alex had to be eased into his job by Haldeman so as to not upset the president. From his own first meeting, followed by incident after incident Butterfield witnessed, Nixon was a politician so uncomfortable with people that he often could not speak. This shyness and discomfort with others, Nixon’s remarkable lack of self-confidence with strangers, and his desire to be alone, was frequently accompanied by indefensibly rude behavior, deliberately belittling staff in front of others, and humiliating his wife, the First Lady, in the presence of staff. (Nixon communicated with his wife via Memorandum from the President, referring to himself in the third person, and his wife as Mrs. Nixon.) For Alex, who was on his way to become a general in the U.S. Air Force when he went to work at the White House, he had dealt with his share of egos during his career, yet none as strikingly ill-mannered as Richard Nixon. There were times Butterfield wanted to hug the First Lady, he explained to Woodward, which he could not do when the President was humiliating her. It was not pretty. The always publicly proper Nixon was not so in private, and I am not sure whether Alex told Woodward some of the worst he has shared over the years, or whether Bob merely decided telling more would be piling on.

Nixon’s duplicity, after all these years, will surprise no one. But the book contains several new whoppers, I had never heard. For example, Alex had in his files a memo that was nowhere else to be found, and it provides one of the journalistic scoops for this book, not to mention a horrifying illustration of Nixon’s absolutely barbaric treachery, as well as that of his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. On January 2, 1972, Nixon gave an hour-long, prime-time television interview to CBS News as prelude to his announcement five days later that he was running for reelection. During this interview he reassured Americans that his widespread bombing of North Vietnam was working. “The results have been very, very effective,” Nixon said of his bombing, claiming that would be demonstrated by his forthcoming announcement that he would withdraw more U.S. troops. It was a colossal lie, as Nixon well knew, and the missing-from-the-historical-record memo but found in Butterfield’s files shows.

On January 3, 1972, the day after telling the country how effective his massive bombing campaigns had been—Woodward cites a study reporting Nixon had dropped “more than 2.9 million tons of bombs on Laos, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and Cambodia” since becoming president—Nixon received a routine update on the war from Kissinger, which indicated weather had “hampered U.S. air strikes.” Turning the document sideways, Nixon wrote a longhand note to Kissinger: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V. Nam. The result = Zilch.” He then called for “bark off” study, “no snow job,” on what was wrong with the strategy or the Air Force. “Shake them up,” the commander in chief instructed his national security adviser. But Woodward found nothing was done. To the contrary, because public opinion showed about half of the public approved of bombing, to get himself reelected Nixon increased the bombing, going for the “psychological” targets, like railroads, power-plants, and targets that involved civilian losses. A strategy the president knew was not winning the war, merely senselessly killing people while bombing the bejesus out of the countries, while getting himself reelected. The Washington Post excerpted this scoop from the book.

It was Nixon’s vengeance that finally got to Butterfield. While he had seen it from his first days on the job, following Nixon’s overwhelming reelection, Butterfield overheard Haldeman and Nixon talking about going after their enemies during the second term. Alex confessed to Woodward that he had been complicit during the first term when Nixon asked him to arrange for the U.S. Secret Service to provide protection to Senator Edward Kennedy, whom Nixon thought might run against him, so they placed an agent loyal to Nixon on the protective detail who reported back to the Nixon White House. As Nixon tapes show, Butterfield’s instincts were correct, for as I learned in tape after tape when doing my last book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, Nixon was hell bent after the election on attacking anyone and everyone he believed had ever done him any unkindness. (It was a remarkable attitude for someone as selfishly bad-mannered as he was himself.) Alex wanted out.

Haldeman and the president agreed. He was sent to the president’s top domestic policy adviser to find a job he like outside the White House. This is not a book with laughs, rather a head shaker, but when I read what happened when Alex went to Ehrlichman, I had a “LOL” moment. When introducing Butterfield, Woodward describes him as a man who “who had been one the Air Force’s most accomplished pilots,” an officer “on the path to four stars, and maybe the top uniformed job in the Air Force.” Alex had done a lot of flying, including 98 reconnaissance missions over Vietnam. Ehrlichman suggested to Butterfield he become the head of the Federal Aviation Administration for a year before becoming Secretary of the Air Force, but I lost it when I read what Alex told Woodward, and could hear him saying it: “I felt well suited for that because I had broken so many FAA regulations in my time.” Alex also has endless stories of wild rides while flying jet planes large and small.

It was while at the FAA that Butterfield watched the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, and my testimony, where I explained that Nixon was deeply involved in the Watergate cover up. It was my word against that of the President of the United States, who was corroborated by former attorney general John Mitchell, former assistant to the president John Ehrlichman, and former assistant to the president Bob Haldeman. As Woodward recounts I testified I believed I had been recorded by Nixon on at least one conversation, if not more, but no one had followed up. Woodward tells the story in full of how Butterfield was asked if I was correct about being recorded, and his revelation of the secret taping system, which I had no idea existed. Woodward digs at great length into why Butterfield revealed this secret. While we now know how it did happen, in retrospect I have no doubt whatsoever that Alex would not have stood by quietly while Nixon sent me to jail for perjury on the words of Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman. As he told Woodward, he had no doubt I was telling the truth. Over the past four decades I have gotten to know Alex, I have no doubt he would not have remained silent while those controlling the cesspool tried to dump it on me, and any others, to avoid responsibility. Thanks to Alex, and the Nixon tapes, today they have government certificates establishing that they lied, beyond any question of doubt.

I think I would have titled this book “The Last of the President’s Honest Men,” but whatever, I thank Alex for sharing it all with Bob. It’s a great read.

Posted in: Book Reviews

Tags: Nixon, Watergate

  • Victor Grunden

    It’s interesting that the Air Force is blamed for it’s strategy when target selection was done by White House in both the LBJ and Nixon Administrations. Nixon’s dark personality was known all the way back to his Navy days in WWII, but comparing his official conduct, lying, abuse of power and the influence buying then and now should make this an interesting read.