In 1962, Richard Nixon ran for governor of California. Two years earlier he had barely lost the presidency to JFK though, and with considerable reason, felt that he had been cheated with voter fraud in Illinois and Texas. But, in 1962, the California gubernatorial was hardly close as Nixon got swamped by Jerry Brown’s late father, Pat.
Embittered, at a post-election press conference Nixon announced his retirement from politics, giving a dig at reporters, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” With his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men,” his fifth book on Nixon, Bob Woodward is still kicking and, given the book’s revelations, deservedly so.
From 1974 to 2015, Woodward authored or co-authored 16 nonfiction books. All have been bestsellers and he has more No. 1 national nonfiction bestsellers than any contemporary author. While this, Woodward’s 17th book, is perhaps the most slender of his books, it’s filled with first-hand anecdotes that reveal the depth of Nixon’s bitterness and paranoia.
The project came to Woodward via Alexander Butterfield, a tall, distinguished-looking former Air Force Colonel who served in Vietnam and was the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also served as deputy assistant to the president in the Nixon White House and is most famous for his shocking 1973 testimony at the Watergate Congressional Hearings.
Butterfield revealed that he had supervised the installation of a taping system in the White House that Nixon had requested. One could hear a pin drop. And thus, a year later, Nixon would be the only president in history to resign from office.
Butterfield, now 89, concedes he was conflicted about his testimony because of a sense of loyalty to Nixon. In fact, he concluded his remarks observing that he thought the tapes would exonerate Nixon when he knew that wasn’t true. This is but one of many regrets.
When Butterfield left the White House to become head of the F.A.A., a post he held for two years, he took with him 20 boxes, a trove of thousands of documents, many never seen before. For decades Butterfield tried to write his memoir but it remained unfinished when he agreed to meet with Woodward who flew out to California.
Butterfield had been college friends at UCLA with H.R. Halderman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. At 42, on Air Force assignment in Australia, and always wanting to be part of a White House, Butterfield wrote Halderman about a possible job. When Butterfield flew himself from Australia to Washington D.C., Halderman was even more impressed. He decided to make Butterfield his top deputy, as was Halderman to Nixon.
But Nixon, it seems, didn’t meet strangers, a shockingly odd trait for a politician. Halderman had to “wait until the right moment” for Butterfield’s introduction. And when it happened, Nixon completely ignored Butterfield who was so humiliated he thought about quitting.
Soon, however, Nixon would embrace Butterfield as an ally in his “me against the world” mindset. One Christmas season, Nixon uncharacteristically toured the White House support staff buildings. He was alarmed that two of the female employees had a photo of JFK at their desks. Nixon saw this as a betrayal and an “infestation.” Like a dictator, he delegated Butterfield to remove the photos. He did and sent the president a memo – “sanitation completed.”
When the Secret Service was assigned to Ted Kennedy, Nixon had Butterfield insert a plant in the hopes of getting illicit photos of Kennedy’s sexual activity. Butterfield regretfully admits he could have been indicted for that.
Butterfield was also delegated to meet with Pat Nixon twice weekly. Butterfield reveals Nixon often communicated with his wife via memos, in which he spoke in third person and signed RN. He was compulsively controlling of whom Pat spoke to and for how long.
Other historical documents in the book include highly classified memos between Nixon and his then National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger about the Vietnam War. In one, Nixon declares that, “10 years of bombing and the result = zilch!” And yet to the press for three years Nixon boasted of the bombings’ success.
At the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam, 500 innocent civilians were slaughtered by American soldiers. Fearing it could sabotage his re-election, Nixon focused on discrediting witnesses.
In “The Last of the President’s Men” Woodward chronicles Nixon’s enemies list, illegal spying, break-ins, Watergate and the cover-up. He describes Nixon’s as a “criminal administration of monumental corruption.”
Nixon never had inner peace. Plagued by his demons, he obsessed about anyone who had things handed to them. As for Butterfield, shunned by the GOP after Watergate, Woodward’s book is a confessional.
And yet, during 40 hours of interviews at Butterfield’s California home, Woodward was emotionally moved by the number of photos on the wall of Butterfield with Nixon. He even chose one for the book cover.
Butterfield being just one casualty in the national nightmare Nixon caused over Watergate, there were clearly no winners. Except perhaps, Bob Woodward.
Jack Neworth also writes Laughing Matters, which appears every Friday. He’s at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and email@example.com.