‘We don’t want to make anything clear’

The Last of the President’s Men, Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster

No matter how crazy US politics gets, Richard Nixon remains the most fascinating of presidents. Bob Woodward, though he has written regularly on presidents since, will always be associated with the downfall of Nixon, as one of the first journalists to break the Watergate story. In The Last of the President’s Men Woodward returns to this famous turf, to add to what he himself thought was a story done and dusted. Alexander Butterfield was a top military man recruited to be an aide to Chief of Staff Bob Haldemann, and Butterfield was responsible for installing the secret White House taping system that eventually brought Nixon down by revealing to the nation Nixon’s attempts to divert the criminal investigations into the Watergate burglaries. Though Nixon historian Evan Thomas described Butterfield as a ‘footnote in history’, and even if Californians (according to Butterfield) now say ‘Water-what?’, and although there were many players in the saga, Butterfield was pivotal for revealing during the Senate hearings that the taping system existed. Both he and Nixon assumed that the information would never get out, and Nixon would be able to use the tapes for his memoirs. The tapes were a gift to history, not only to the legal system, as they remain an unparalleled and unvarnished insight into the machinations of the Oval Office.

Through Butterfield Woodward gives us a somewhat new and personal view of the Nixon White House. Although Butterfield describes the Nixon White House as both a ‘cesspool’ and a ‘kindergarten’, Butterfield is not entirely unsympathetic and this is an intimate portrayal of Nixon, a shy, clumsy, paranoid and devious (and often unintentionally hilarious) man who nevertheless showed flashes of empathy. But it’s almost unbelievable that Butterfield was told by Haldemann that a new face at a meeting would ‘spook’ Nixon and that Butterfield should do everything to keep out of sight until an opportune time when Haldemann could introduce the recruit. When they do meet, it is somewhat farcical, with Nixon at first contemptuous at Butterfield’s polite interruption, then faking familiarity. Butterfield also acted as an intermediary between Pat and Richard Nixon, as Nixon found it difficult to communicate with his own wife. Nixon told Butterfield that he hated ‘chatting’, and Butterfield describes the intricate manoeuvres at state dinners to ensure that Nixon talked to only those guests he wanted to talk to. There are numerous social faux pas that Butterfield witnessed that are both funny and excruciating. Haldemann (below) too has his moments, telling Butterfield at one point, when Butterfield naively seeks clarity on a particular issue, ‘we don’t want to make anything clear’.

Haldeman

The files that Butterfield took with him as he departed the White House show, according to Woodward, Nixon’s genius for planning, but they also showed Nixon’s obsession with minutiae. Nixon insisted that his staff use yellow legal pads to write notes (as Nixon did) and brooded for weeks over the fact that government staff had pictures of former presidents, especially the hated JFK, in their offices. More significant for history was the memo that Butterfield kept where Nixon stated that the bombing in Vietnam had achieved ‘zilch’ (before he ordered yet another round of bombing).

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