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Review of Bob Woodward's "The Last of the President's Men"

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Bernard von Bothmer is an adjunct professor of history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University of California. He is the author of “Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush” (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

161396-joisdjgo.jpgWho could have predicted that over forty years after Nixon's resignation due to the Watergate scandal that we would still be unearthing a treasure chest of nuggets about the Nixon presidency?

In The Last of the President's Men, Bob Woodward recounts the experience of Nixon aid Alexander P. Butterfield, who in 1973 disclosed that Nixon was secretly taping the Oval Office.

Butterfield's role in the White House was to shadow Bob Haldeman, Nixon's chief aid; in fact, to try to become another Bob Haldeman. It is a role Butterfield mastered to perfection.

Upon leaving the White House, Butterfield took with him boxes of documents that constitute "a virtual diary" (2) of his four years there. Woodward also conducted numerous interviews with Butterfield, and had access to his unpublished memoir. Though now nearly 90 years old, Butterfield's health–and memory–are excellent. His recollections are remarkably specific.

We now have, Woodward argues, "a deeper, more disturbing, and baffling portrait of Nixon" (2).

This is quite a bold claim. But it is indeed true.

The "real" Nixon that emerges is even odder than the man that has been the subject of countless studies. Again, the question must be asked: has anyone more uncomfortable both in his own skin and in dealing–even speaking–with other people ever become the President of the United States?

In story after story, incident after incident, Butterfield provides the answer to this question.

"He had a way of smiling with his mouth but not with his eyes, Butterfield noticed" (19).

Butterfield was instructed to use only a certain note pad in front of the president.

Nixon was livid upon discovering photos of J.F.K. among the White House staff, and ordered them all removed.

And the description of Nixon's remarks at a birthday party for a friend, who was wearing a green blazer, reads like a spoof. When Nixon enters the room, there is ... total silence. And it goes on, seemingly ... forever. Finally, Nixon, still silent, and now perspiring, points to his friend, points to the carpet, and utters six words: "Green coat ... red rug ... Christmas colors" (44), and then ... clicks his heels and exits the room.

Most of all, there is the awkwardness. Butterfield "never thought it possible that a politician could be so stressed out and tongue-tied," Woodward writes (40). Soon into his White House service, Butterfield realized that "Nixon was quickly becoming the oddest man he'd ever known" (45).

And then there are the personal traits: the rudeness, the paranoia (seen in Nixon's "enemies list"); and, above all, the completely-over-the-top potty-mouth: Nixon's speech is peppered with a gushing stream of seemingly endless "sons of bitches" and "goddamned [fill in the blank]" and "bastards."

And then there is the pettiness. Timing how long it takes to serve the salads at White House dinners. Banishing "enemies" from invite lists.

To Butterfield, Nixon was much more than "kind of an odd duck. ... There was a lot of hatred. And I think he had to be an unhappy man" (61). Later, Butterfield recalls that Nixon "seemed to hate everyone. ... And he never mellowed out" (91).

The intricacies of Nixon's taping system are explained here in vivid detail, as is the process by which the system was discovered by the Watergate Committee. Woodward himself reveals that he had tried to interview Butterfield at his home in 1973, and now regrets not trying harder to land an interview at the time.

The book's focus soon turns to Vietnam. Woodward's book breaks new ground and is most noteworthy for what Butterfield's memos reveal about Nixon's views on his own strategy on Vietnam. Nixon won the 1968 election in part due to his pledge to achieve Peace with Honor. But in an astonishing document that has never been made public before this book, Woodward writes that "in the president's own handwriting he makes an unambiguous declaration that a major and controversial part of his strategy–the intensive bombing for the first three years of his presidency and previous four years of Johnson–had achieved 'zilch' and was a 'failure'" (113). And yet, Nixon continued to bomb.

This shocking memo recalls for this reviewer Howard Baker's famous line uttered at the Watergate hearings but that could also be asked here regarding Nixon's insistence to continue a military strategy that even he himself acknowledged was not working: "What did the President know and when did he know it?"

Woodward's research and collaboration with Butterfield also leads him to conclude that "crucial parts of memos have been omitted from [Nixon and Kissinger's] memoirs, altering the historical record in significant ways" (125).

At times, the book jumps from topic to topic, with no organizing theme. It also presupposes on the reader's part a good working knowledge of the Nixon Administration, and a deep knowledge of the details of Watergate. And it would have been nice to have had a photo section of some of the key players, beyond the three photos of Butterfield on the front and back covers.

The extensive discussion at the end of The Last of the President's Men of Butterfields's motives for his actions, both then and now, is fascinating. As is the 73-page section of key documents in the Appendix. Among the many gems is a 1971 Butterfield memorandum to Haldeman:

"In seating at State Dinners, the president feels that Henry [Kissinger] should not always be put next to the most glorious woman present. He should be put by an intelligent and interesting dinner partner and we should shift from the practice of putting him by the best looking one. It's starting to cause unfavorable talk that serves no useful purpose" (225).

This is an important book, for Butterfield "was at the center of part of the Nixon universe, with only a thin wall, 20 steps from his desk to Nixon's in the Oval for more than three years" (137). More than forty years after Watergate, there is still much to learn.


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