Bob Woodward. The Last of the President’s Men.
New York:Simon & Schuster, 2015.
As Reviewed by Ted Odenwald
Alexander Butterfield, former White House aide in the Nixon administration, recently told investigative writer, Bob Woodward, that there was more to the Nixon story than was generally known. Butterfield’s revelations are disturbing images of an unstable chief executive and an uncomfortable work environment, which the aide believes were evidence of the president’s neuroses. What also comes through is Butterfield’s apparent need to explain his betrayal of his boss, and also to confess his guilt feelings because of his following orders which he knew were unethical. He also admits that there may have been a “layer of damaged pride” beneath his willingness to bring down a president.
In 1968, Air Force Colonel Alexander Butterfield had attempted to call in a favor from an old college acquaintance, H.R. Haldeman, to obtain an assignment in Washington, D.C. that would extricate the officer from a dead-end position in Australia. What he received was the position of White House aide, an appointment that eventually led him before the Senate Watergate hearings. There, Butterfield revealed the existence of an elaborate recording system, which contained much damning evidence, not the least of which was President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up.
From the start of his appointment, Butterfield found his position unsettling; he had strict orders to never speak to the President –to remain virtually invisible. “It was as if Nixon and his presidency was wrapped in an impenetrable cocoon.” Butterfield was to serve essentially as a copy of Haldeman, “a staff clone.” His introduction to Nixon was “beyond awkward,” a “wordless and devastating oval office encounter,” the rudeness of which still haunts Butterfield 40 years later. He describes Richard Nixon as being “shy and introverted, but tough and strong-willed, frequently stressed and tongue-tied.”
One of the responsibilities that Butterfield found to be odd was his acting as unofficial liaison between the President and Mrs. Nixon. He observed that their communications were stilted and impersonal. Nixon would send notes to his wife, using “RN” rather than “I.” The President never appeared to confer with Pat; he would basically give orders through his aide, and he would frequently ignore or reject her suggestions. On one occasion, the President was furious with his wife for inviting the President of Harvard University to the White House for a meeting of the Committee for White House Preservation. Nixon simply didn’t want a person who had disagreed with him on any policy to be present in “my house.” The aide suspected that Nixon’s treatment of his wife was almost abusive.
Butterfield witnessed first-hand the side of Nixon that was not always visible to the public. When news of the My Lai massacre was reported, the President’s fury was directed at “all talkers” rather than at any perpetrators. He went on the offensive against informants, “sounding like the HUAC,” which had thrust him into the public spotlight—infamously. He also launched attacks against his antagonists in the press. In a stroll through the White House, Nixon was appalled to see pictures of other presidents. Especially irked by the display of portraits of JFK, he ordered the White House purged of all portrait/photos but his own. He considered this issue to be a matter of displaying loyalty.
He had Butterfield handle invitation lists to state dinners and non-denominational worship services. The aide was to connect with “designated” or “preferred” guests. In memos still in Butterfield’s possession, Nixon had clearly indicated that these guests were invited for political reasons. In one instance the aide was told to uninvite Arthur Burns, the President’s counselor, because of disagreements. Nixon brought Major General Alexander Haig into the White House because the officer shared the President’s mistrust of Teddy Kennedy and “Jewish money.” Nixon’s obsession with Kennedy led him to order Butterfield to have the Secret Service plant a spy in the senator’s security detail.
Nixon ordered Butterfield to have voice-activated taping systems installed in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Whether this order was the outgrowth of paranoia or of a desire to record history for his future writings is not clear. Butterfield reports that the President seems to have forgotten the existence of this system until the Watergate probe. Certainly the chief executive never expected his conversations to be released to anyone.
When the aide left the White House after Nixon’s first term, he carried boxes of documents, many of which should have been classified. Woodward includes about 30 of these in this book, providing evidence of a strange executive office. In a memorandum to Haldeman, Nixon wants a “loyalty check” of a long-time White House worker who had displayed a picture of JFK on her desk. A separate letter from Haldeman orders that the church service be viewed as a political opportunity, and insists that the New York Times religious editor not be invited under any circumstances. After Senator Ted Kennedy had been praised by news media for his cool behavior in a pressure-filled political situation, Nixon ordered his staff to find evidence of Kennedy’s amateurish actions in other situations. Another report indicated that “…the same expansive TOP SECRET intelligence techniques used on the most important targets such as China were to be used to spy on Israel.” In another document concerning mass bombing in Southeast Asia, Nixon handwrote across the paper, expressing his anger that the intensive bombing “had achieved ‘zilch,’ and was a ‘failure.’” This note is especially damning because in an interview shortly thereafter, he claimed that the bombings had been effective.
Butterfield recalls that Nixon had a remarkable mind for strategy. He could lay out principles and then map out the small, medium, and large steps needed to achieve his goals. But many of his goals were founded on a paranoia directed against the Press, the well-to-do, and liberals; he even created lists of opponents, outright enemies, and those who might prove troublesome.
The Watergate investigation brought many of these issues to light, particularly because of Butterfield’s revelation of the existence of the recording system. “A great part of the Nixon presidency was designed to keep the outside world from seeing the real Nixon, from intruding into the inner sanctum. And here was possibly the biggest exposure of all times, ripping open the curtain, peeling off the masks.”
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 44 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.