THE LAST OF THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, $28, 291 pages
Bob Woodward plugs on, albeit with rapidly diminishing supplies of ammunition, determined to keep his Watergate franchise alive, as a new generation of writers and historians increasingly balance Richard Nixon’s deficiencies with his remarkable achievements as president.
It’s a venerable franchise, created nearly half a century ago at The Washington Post, featuring an anonymous informant called Deep Throat — many still believe it to have been a semi-fictional composite character — who played a central role in bringing on the Watergate hearings.
But Richard Nixon would have survived had he not decided to have a taping system installed in the White House and then, despite the urgings of his family and advisers like Pat Buchanan, refusing to destroy the tapes when in 1973 Alexander Butterfield, who had supervised their installation in 1971, told the world of their existence.
In 1968, Mr. Butterfield, a 42-year-old Air Force colonel with ambitions of making his mark in the world, put a full-court press on his former college friend Bob Haldeman for a choice assignment in the new administration. And Haldeman obliged, handing him a plum — deputy assistant to the president, with an office next to Richard Nixon’s, charged with keeping the paper moving, getting the president’s signature on a steady stream of documents, insuring follow-up on staff assignments, and handling special projects.
Mr. Butterfield was often the first and last staffer to see the president during the work day. Yet despite the proximity and access, his observations on Richard Nixon’s character, personality and treatment of those around him seem trite and superficial, almost as if borrowed from old newspaper columns. (Parts of the book, Mr. Woodward tells us, come from an unpublished and apparently unpublishable memoir by Mr. Butterfield). And when he discusses relations between the president and his wife, he can be both superficial and tasteless.
At times Mr. Woodward seems to be prodding him to come up with a substantive reason for his betrayal, even trying to engage him, incongruously, in a discussion of motivation as seen by Immanuel Kant, John le Carre, Joseph Conrad and even J.D. Salinger. But Mr. Butterfield, now 89, prefers his own formulation: “I mean, I’m not in favor of people getting away with something.”
In 1972, Mr. Butterfield wrote a memo to Haldeman, asking for a new posting: “You alone gave me the honor and opportunity of a life-time, and I will be forever grateful . I want both you and the President to know that if asked, I will serve either of you in any capacity whatever.”
“Perhaps unwisely I have kept myself in check around the President my guess is that he considers the good, fairly efficient, man-servant in the outer office akin to the village idiot — one without mind or opinion.”
Richard Nixon may have thought that of him. Or more likely, he didn’t think much about him at all. And for a certain type of man, there’s probably no greater humiliation — and perhaps motive for revenge.
While watching President Nixon’s televised farewell address from the East Room of the White House, Mr. Butterfield tells Mr. Woodward, “It was sad, yes. But justice had prevailed. Inside I was cheering. That’s what I was doing. I was cheering.”
Not quite the rant of the village idiot, but perhaps a good place to write a finish to the Watergate franchise. But that won’t happen. As this book is being pitched, there’s another selling point to which the Butterfield narrative is peripheral.
Among the book’s appended 50 pages of some of the documents Mr. Butterfield removed from his office (one of his jobs was to prevent staffers from leaving with documents), Mr. Woodward focuses on a note from Mr. Nixon to Henry Kissinger deploring the lack of success from bombing North Vietnam. But the day before he wrote the note, charges Mr. Woodward, the president had told Dan Rather that the bombing was effective (something that any commander in chief engaged in war would do when interviewed by an excitable and unstable talking head).
In that note and other documents, Mr. Woodward finds ammunition for continuing the crusade. “So the story, like most of history, does not end,” he writes.
“The failure to tell the whole story suggests it may be time for a fresh examination of the entire Vietnam record in light of Nixon and Kissinger’s substantial efforts to distort the record and not explain what they were really doing.”
That very much reads like a one-paragraph book proposal. If so, the Watergate franchise lives on, despite the less than impressive quality of “The Last of the President’s Men.”
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).