Rushay on Woodward, 'The Last of the President's Men'
Bob Woodward. The Last of the President's Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 304 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5011-1644-5.
Reviewed by Samuel Rushay (Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Zachary J. Lechner
Back to the Watergate Well
In The Last of the President’s Men, author Bob Woodward relates the experiences of Alexander Butterfield in the Nixon administration. Butterfield, who served as deputy assistant to the president from 1969 until early 1973, was one of a handful of people with knowledge of Richard Nixon’s secret taping system. Butterfield is known to history as the man who publicly revealed the existence of the tapes during testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by Sam Ervin, in July 1973. Butterfield’s revelation set off a year-long battle for control of the tapes, culminating in President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
In his research for this book, Woodward interviewed Butterfield for forty hours in 2014-15. He also relied on Butterfield’s unpublished manuscript and documents that Butterfield took with him when he left the Nixon White House. What emerges from this source material is a “deeper, more disturbing and baffling portrait of Nixon,” a figure who is at the same time “both smaller and larger” than is known from previous accounts about him (pp. 2, 3).
Prior to his service in the Nixon administration, Butterfield was an air force pilot and colonel, who aspired to become a general officer and air force chief of staff. But promotion depended on his first being in the “smoke,” in the thick of things in a “highly visible job” in Washington, DC, or in Vietnam, where he had already flown combat missions (pp. 5-6). In short order, Butterfield found his way “into the smoke,” which would have been a fitting title for this book. How he entered the smoke underscored an important theme here: the importance of personal relationships at the highest levels of government. Shortly after the 1968 election, Butterfield reached out to UCLA classmate H. R. (“Bob”) Haldeman, president-elect Nixon’s soon-to-be assistant to the president (chief of staff), who interviewed Butterfield and offered him a position as deputy assistant to the president.
In the Nixon White House, Butterfield worked closely with Haldeman and with the president himself on daily scheduling matters and the flow of paperwork and orders. He “shadowed” the president and gained insights into Nixon’s management style, personality, and marriage. His rapid entrance into Nixon’s inner circle is directly attributable to the high degree of trust and power that Nixon extended to Haldeman in making personnel choices for the White House staff.
The Last of the President’s Men contains a number of previously unpublished anecdotes about President Nixon. While they do not reveal any new character traits of the president, they deepen our understanding of the extent of his loneliness, emotional isolation, and detachment from others. Butterfield vividly illustrates Nixon’s well-known awkwardness in social situations in his description of a birthday party held at the White House in March 1969 for Paul Keyes, writer and producer of the television show Laugh-In. Upon entering the room, where guests already had gathered, Nixon said nothing for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, after stammering and struggling for words, Nixon pointed down at the maroon carpet, and with reference to Keyes’s green blazer, said “green coat ... red rug ... Christmas colors,” and left the room (p. 44). Elsewhere, Butterfield described witnessing Nixon repeatedly patting a secretary’s bare legs in an avuncular way aboard a helicopter. Butterfield’s reaction combined shock with pity for Nixon, whose actions, while completely inappropriate, manifested his deep loneliness.
The Last of the President’s Men is unique among the hundreds of books that have been written about Nixon and Watergate. Most first-person memoirs and accounts by the other “president’s men”—Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, Jeb Magruder, and Charles Colson—were written thirty to forty years ago, during a period of great public interest in Watergate. These individuals also wrote books because they needed money to pay legal expenses as defendants in cases concerning Watergate and related abuses of power. Others, such as John Mitchell and Butterfield—until now—left no first-person accounts. One wonders how the “Woodward filter” affected Butterfield’s telling of his story. Might Butterfield have been more—or less—forthcoming without Woodward’s involvement in this book? It is noteworthy that Butterfield is not the book’s coauthor, that he did not write its foreword or introduction, and that he relinquished editorial control to Woodward. Butterfield’s voice is clearly present, however, in the words that Woodward lifted from documents and interviews with him. The story of Butterfield, who was not paid to tell it, will likely receive more attention simply due to the fact that Woodward, author of ten previous best sellers, including All the President’s Men (1974), which he coauthored with Carl Bernstein, is the author. Perhaps Butterfield will publish his own memoir someday; one suspects that it, along with the boxes of documents in his possession and recordings of his interviews with Woodward, will be donated to the Nixon Library.
Butterfield does not shed new light on Watergate. He does, however, reveal deep regret over his role in an abuse of governmental power: domestic intelligence gathering targeting Nixon’s enemies—reporter Seymour Hersh and presidential candidate Ted Kennedy—for political purposes. Butterfield told Woodward that he “remains appalled at his behavior and weakness” (p. 108). Woodward noted that Butterfield “kept bringing it up” in their discussions (p. 136). He was well aware that he bore moral—and legal—culpability for his actions. “If his role in the Kennedy spying had been discovered,” Woodward writes, “he was certain he would have gone to jail” (p. 106). This is an example of Butterfield making admissions to Woodward that were against his own interest, although he was at a safe remove from events that occurred almost forty-five years earlier.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Last of the President’s Men is Woodward’s use of information from documents in Butterfield’s possession concerning national security and foreign policy matters. In some cases, the documents, many of which were reprinted in the book’s appendix, still bear classified markings. It is unclear if appropriate federal agencies reviewed and declassified them. The documents, which Woodward was not able to find at the Nixon Library or anywhere else, contain important new information. For example, in January 1972, Nixon admitted in a handwritten note on a memorandum from National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that despite ten years of total control of the air in Laos and Vietnam, the result has been “Zilch” (p. 114). Just a day before he wrote his note, Nixon had told CBS reporter Dan Rather that the results of bombing of North Vietnam had been “very, very effective” (p. 113). In future months during 1972, the “Zilch” memorandum notwithstanding, Nixon actually intensified the bombing (p. 115).
Other documents in Butterfield’s possession underscore the Nixon administration’s obsession with secrecy and its suspicion of its own allies. One document concerns American spying on Israel’s ballistic missile program. Another involves Kissinger’s argument to Nixon that the United States should be willing to agree to a bilateral peace treaty with North Vietnam, if South Vietnam refused to sign a settlement. In his memoirs, Kissinger omitted mention of his preferred course, and he and Nixon reassured South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, that the United States would deal only with him. The Nixon White House tapes contain conversations between Nixon and Kissinger concerning the possibility of a bilateral agreement, which Nixon was reluctant to pursue, however, for political reasons. The tapes even include a conversation with South Vietnamese officials about the possibility of a bilateral deal! The selective use of documents described by Butterfield offers an important lesson for students of diplomacy of the Nixon—and any—era.
Butterfield’s account of Nixon’s White House is useful less for what we learn about Nixon’s character and personality—there is little new here—and more for what we learn about the importance of personal relationships with respect to the presidency, at least during the Nixon era. Butterfield’s stories show a man who was deeply conflicted—and surprisingly emotional—about Nixon, a man whom he simultaneously admired and reviled. There is an immediacy to Butterfield’s account. He describes with affection his appreciation that Nixon sent flowers and met with Butterfield’s daughter after a car accident. “I loved Nixon for that” (p. 67). Despite the passage of many decades, though, Butterfield’s wounds are still fresh from slights that he felt Nixon inflicted on him and others, especially Nixon’s wife, Pat. During Butterfield’s first meeting with Nixon, the president was unable to utter a single intelligible word of greeting. Butterfield described this and other personal slights in emotional terms—“he felt lost” (p. 31). “I was mad.” “I wanted to say, ‘Fuck you’” (p. 36). He reserved his harshest words for Nixon’s treatment of Pat Nixon, whom Butterfield concluded was a “‘borderline abused’ wife” (p. 66). Butterfield admitted that he tended to take “snubs very personally” (p. 141). His sensitivity is a bit surprising considering his many years of previous military service, during which one thinks he would have encountered abusive or disrespectful superior officers, whose treatment of him might have caused him to develop a thicker skin.
In the end, despite Butterfield’s almost four years of service in the Nixon White House, he developed no deep personal loyalty to President Nixon. Therefore, after he left the administration to become administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, he decided he would confirm the existence of the Nixon White House taping system, if the Senate Watergate Committee asked him about it. Woodward goes into depth with Butterfield about his possible motives for revealing the tapes. Butterfield admitted that his dislike for Nixon may have been a motive for him to do this. He did not volunteer the information, but he was determined not to lie about it. That direct question finally came on July 13, 1973, during closed-door questioning by Donald Sanders, deputy Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee. In response, Butterfield confirmed the existence of the taping system. In a 1993 interview, Butterfield commented, “I knew that Haldeman would never tell about the tapes. It doesn’t mean that I was that [sic] less loyal; maybe it does.”
The Last of the President’s Men would have benefited from the inclusion of photographs, particularly never-before-seen ones in Butterfield’s possession. Transitions within chapters are sometimes lacking, as when a section about China is immediately followed by an account of a prank that Bebe Rebozo played on Nixon. As in any book, there are errors and incomplete statements. President Nixon created an opening to China, but he did not “establish relations with the Chinese Communists” (p. 92). As for Vietnam, the Nixon tapes make clear that the intense bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972 was intended to force North Vietnam to sign a peace settlement and to reassure Thieu that the United States would stand with him even if—as it was expected—North Vietnam continued its attacks on South Vietnam after the signing of a peace settlement. Younger readers probably should be told that South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam in April 1975.
In sum, however, Butterfield’s account of his years in the Nixon administration is an important one that is finally on the record. Until this point, his voice had mostly been silent and the extensive historiography about Nixon and Watergate rarely contains Butterfield’s perspective. Woodward has provided a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Nixon era. He deserves credit for gaining Butterfield’s trust and permission to publish his recollections of his White House years. One wonders why Butterfield waited so long to share publicly his memories; doing so sooner would have given him earlier in his life the catharsis this book probably provided him. As for Woodward, he has not lost the instinct that any good reporter has for an interesting story, which he tells in a very engaging, accessible way. The Last of the President’s Men is a quick read that Nixon scholars and casual readers will find interesting.
. Nixon White House Tapes, 153-28 (November 15, 1972), 34-114 (December 17, 1972), and 817-16 (November 30, 1972). Digitized audio of the Nixon White House Tapes can be found on the Richard Nixon Presidential Library’s website at https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/forresearchers/find/tapes/finding_aids/november1972.php.
. Quoted in Gerald S. Strober and Deborah Hart Strober, Nixon: An Oral History of His Presidency (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 388, 540.
. Nixon White House Tapes, 34-114 (December 17, 1972) and 816-3 (November 29, 1972), https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/forresearchers/find/tapes/finding_aids/november1972.php.
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Samuel Rushay. Review of Woodward, Bob, The Last of the President's Men.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.