Book Review: The Last of the President’s Men

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December 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 

 

“The Last of the President’s Men”
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster

by Doug Weiskopf

When Richard Nixon was forced to resign as president in 1974 after a House Committee voted for articles of impeachment and Nixon’s friend in the Senate, Barry Goldwater, informed him that he faced a certain vote of expulsion from office, people thought they knew the worst of the man. He had allowed a cabal of White House aides to become involved in a myriad of illegal activities against American citizens and then took part in a massively organized cover-up of their crimes. It was further learned through the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon had for years engaged in a large scale secret bombing campaign in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

This year, however, new damning information has come out against Nixon, showing him to be not only the ‘crook” he so famously denied he was, but also arguably was clinically insane, according to Alexander P. Butterfield, who worked in closer proximity to Nixon than anyone for most of his presidency and ended up providing the fatal testimony to the Watergate Committee of the existence of the Oval Office taping system that ultimately brought Nixon down. In Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Last of the President’s Men” Butterfield’s life story and how he came to be Nixon’s chief office aid is examined.

Earlier this year we had already been given a glimpse into the mental pathology of Nixon from the HBO broadcast, “Nixon By Nixon: In His Own Words”, where newly released White House recordings taped between 1971 and 1973 were played, revealing Nixon as sounding quite paranoid and easily enraged at all whom he considered his mortal “enemies” (remember, he even compiled a secret “enemies list” of all those he believed were out to get him). Woodward’s latest book gives greater context to how Nixon became increasingly crazy-acting and affected all those around him to become corrupted, to the point where when what they did to serve their Commander In Chief came to light they ended up serving prison sentences.

In the case of Alexander Butterfield one gets the sense of reading a chapter from the book written by Albert Speer about his time in the service of Adolf Hitler, in which both were functionaries who claimed to feel uncomfortable in their roles as important cogs in a vast machine that was not functioning in any moral or sane way. Yet year after year Butterfield and Speer went along with what they said later they knew was wrong in working for their leader and the others around him, who were not as queasy in following orders.

Butterfield gave Woodward twenty boxes of personal files he was incredibly allowed to remove from the White House when he left to use for the purposes of writing his book, as well as sitting with Woodward for many hours discussing for his first time ever the role he played for Nixon and his cronies. Butterfield described how he came to work for Nixon through his contact as a military officer with HR Haldeman, who was the number one man for the incoming president in 1969. Haldeman admired Butterfield’s military precision and dedication and believed he could count on his discretion in the highly sensitive position that was being created for him.

Butterfield described Nixon as terrified of meeting strangers in private settings, seeming to fear that he might reveal inner flaws and bad intentions. Haldeman had to ease Butterfield into Nixon’s comfort zone over a period of weeks, which became so difficult for Butterfield to cope with that he initially considered resigning. Over the years, however, Butterfield became an indispensable part of the White House operation, especially when many of Nixon’s other confidants were forced to resign.

Butterfield became, not by his own choice, one of history’s major character players when he was interviewed by the FBI in their investigation of White House illegal activities. One investigator fatefully questioned him, almost as an after-thought, about a statement former Nixon lawyer, John Dean, had made during his Watergate Committee testimony about his suspicion that his conversation with the president was being secretly taped in the Oval Office. Butterfield had been responsible for installing the White house taping system, both in Nixon’s office and on his phones, and long feared that he would be asked under oath about it. He knew well the illegal activities that had been discussed by Nixon and his aides and came to the personal decision that as a former military officer he would adhere to the strict code of total honesty and not lie about anything, though try not to betray his commander by volunteering any information not specifically asked for.

When the question of the Oval Office taping system was asked of Butterfield he recalls his reaction was “I wish he hadn’t asked me that”, but he answered truthfully nonetheless and from there went on to the Senate Watergate Committee as a witness, informing the world that “Nixon bugged himself”, as the newspaper headlines reported it. The rest was history, Nixon tried to withhold the tapes, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that he had to provide them to the investigators, and Nixon became the second US president to have his political career ended in infamy in just five years, in large part because they both tried to wage an illegal and immoral war in Vietnam and its neighboring countries.

What “The Last of the President’s Men” and “Nixon By Nixon”, the HBO program on the Nixon tapes, revealed quite starkly was just how threatened and enraged Nixon was over the extent of the Vietnam war protest movement in America and the extent he was willing to go to crush and discredit it. In late August of 1970 Nixon’s personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had on her schedule for the president, according to records found online from the Nixon Library web site, an appearance before the American Legion Convention in Portland, Ore., where he was to address the members on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of VJ Day and the end of WW2. Nixon had manfully boasted all through his 1968 campaign for the presidency that, unlike LBJ, he would never become “a prisoner of the White House” and be prevented by war protesters from traveling anywhere in America he chose go. Secretary Woods’ records show, however, that the Portland trip to the American Legion Convention, where for weeks there had been threats of massive protests against him, and Oregon Governor Tom McCall had even allowed a large Woodstock style rock festival 30 miles outside of town to siphon off potential protesters, was indeed canceled.

From reading “The Last of the President’s Men” and watching HBO’s “Nixon By Nixon” we can only imagine the extreme rage and paranoia Nixon must have experienced over having to cancel his speech before the American Legion Convention. Since the taping system was not installed in the White House until the following year we will likely never have any evidence of his reaction, however it is a matter of record that Nixon met at that same time during the summer of 1970 with Tom Huston, author of the infamous Huston Plan, which proposed exactly the kinds of illegal activities by Nixon’s henchmen to be waged against Vietnam War protesters, and later used by the so-called White House Plumbers Unit which ended up in the Watergate Building office, leading to Nixon’s eventual downfall.

During the long, heartbreaking, and frustrating years of protesting the Vietnam War those who were involved in those activities had a difficult time believing that their actions were accomplishing much to bring about an end to the slaughter and bring about peace, however evidence provided by Bob Woodward in his new book about Alexander Butterfield now seem to indicate that the war protesters were much more successful in influencing events than they knew at the time.

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