For Bob Woodward, former President Richard Nixon and “the president’s men” who surrounded him are the gift that keeps on giving.
His latest book is about Alexander Butterfield, the military officer who parlayed his college friendship with H.R. “Bob” Haldeman at UCLA into a job years later as Haldeman’s deputy in the inner circle of Nixon’s White House. Butterfield’s variety of assignments gave him a front-row seat to witness one of the more politically skilled, socially awkward and bitterly partisan occupants ever to serve in the White House.
And it eventually led Butterfield to play a decisive role in the president’s downfall.
Butterfield, a straight-laced Air Force veteran, reported for duty in the Nixon White House just as his first term began. Butterfield was initially starstruck to be inside the halls of power, but quickly noticed quirky traits and actions of the president that would foreshadow what would come a few years later.
Woodward’s book, based on extensive interviews with Butterfield and access to numerous documents he kept from his White House service, also includes sections on Vietnam and other major events during the Nixon presidency. In the Vietnam section, Woodward writes that Nixon acknowledged in scribbled notes on an official war memo that for years the U.S. had total control of the skies over Laos and North Vietnam and “the result=zilch.” Yet Nixon ordered increased bombing, even after making that observation.
Woodward’s latest offering about Watergate is at its most fascinating, however, when it closely examines the Nixon White House through Butterfield’s eyes.
- In his first encounters with Nixon, Butterfield recalled: “the president had not only been cold, distant and dismissive. He had been rude.” He said never in his adult life had he been “treated with so little respect.” That impression lingered with Butterfield for years.
- Early on, Butterfield attended a presidential briefing and noticed Nixon “had a way of smiling with his mouth but not his eyes … Nixon’s eyes looked hollow.”
- At a small private birthday party at the White House, Butterfield noted Nixon seemed uncomfortable and had little to say. Haldeman later told him “it’s probably my fault for not preparing a briefing paper” … “if he’s given some information—just a line or two—a couple of talking points—he’s fine.”
- In the spring of 1972, Nixon was upset that the president of Harvard, Derek Bok, was on the White House grounds. Aides explained he was with the first lady and many others interested in White House preservation. “I don’t give a damn,” Nixon snapped. “He’s on our Enemies List …”
More than a year earlier, in February 1971, Butterfield was told the president wanted a taping system installed in the Oval Office, and Butterfield made sure it was done promptly. Nixon wrote later that he had the taping system installed because he wanted his administration “to be the best chronicled in history.” And for reasons he couldn’t anticipate at the time, it was.
After Nixon won a landslide re-election, Butterfield moved to head the FAA. The Watergate investigation unfolded gradually after the initial burglary, and one afternoon, Butterfield watched the John Dean testimony where the former White House counsel was saying Nixon was guilty of involvement in a cover-up. “One who knew about the tapes could not help think about the tapes all through the Dean testimony,” Butterfield said later.
The Watergate committee leading the investigation in Congress became aware of Butterfield, possibly through the committee’s frequent contacts with Woodward. When Butterfield was eventually called before the committee in 1973, GOP counsel Fred Thompson asked him: “Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office?”
Butterfield’s answer paved the way for the lengthy fight for the Watergate tapes and the eventual resignation of the president who had snubbed him years before. “I was aware of listening devices, yes sir,” Butterfield told the committee.
After repeated forays into the history of Watergate, Woodward has anointed Butterfield “The Last of the President’s Men.” But don’t bet on it.