In his slight but readable new book, “The Last of the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward – who, with Carl Bernstein, broke the story of the Watergate break-in for The Washington Post more than four decades ago – returns to the subject of President Richard M. Nixon. Woodward relies largely on some 40 hours of interviews with Alexander Butterfield – the aide who told the Senate Watergate committee about Nixon’s secret recording system – and a voluminous archive of documents that Butterfield took with him when he left the White House in 1973.
The resulting book, told largely from Butterfield’s point of view, often reads like a two- or three-person play and is a decidedly slender addition to the Nixon and Watergate saga, which most notably includes Woodward’s and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men” and “The Final Days.” It erases the image of the visionary foreign policymaker that the disgraced president tried to spin in his later years.
Readers might well suspect that there is not all that much new to learn about Nixon’s toxic presidency – after all those tapes; after several Nixon biographies, including two published just this summer; after Haldeman’s diaries; and after self-serving (and, as Woodward underscores, omission-filled) memoirs by Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state) Henry A. Kissinger. But Butterfield’s papers and reminiscences nonetheless yield granular details that slam home the Machiavellian scheming and shameless lack of accountability that permeated the Nixon White House.
Woodward writes that on a secret document dated Jan. 3, 1972 (the day after Nixon gave an interview to Dan Rather, declaring that the bombing of North Vietnam had been “very, very effective”), the president scrawled a note to Kissinger: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The resultZilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.” Despite this observation, Woodward continues, Nixon “ordered increased bombing and the U.S. military dropped 1.1 million tons in that year alone – more than in any single year” of the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency – bombing that Nixon knew was politically popular and would likely ensure his re-election.
As for Butterfield, he describes the Nixon White House as “a cesspool” where an atmosphere of retribution prevailed and staffers were expected to obey orders without hesitation. Butterfield tells Woodward that he knew he could have been indicted because of one illegal activity he helped carry out – planting a spy in a Secret Service detail to be assigned to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
There are many cringe-making episodes in this book. Butterfield recounts Nixon’s efforts to root out an “infestation” of portraits of John F. Kennedy in staffers’ offices and his demand for a proper “picture policy” that couldn’t be traced back to him. He recounts Nixon’s clumsy efforts to come on to a White House secretary – in front of Butterfield and a Nixon friend, Bebe Rebozo, while all of them were aboard a Marine helicopter.
More disturbingly, Butterfield describes Nixon’s reaction to the revelation of the My Lai Massacre by reporter Seymour M. Hersh – ordering an attack plan on “all talkers” in a failed effort to discredit witnesses and journalists. Nixon would have Lt. William L. Calley Jr. – who was convicted of the premeditated murder of “no less than 22 Vietnamese civilians” and given a life sentence – removed from the stockade and confined to his quarters, where he served only three years.
Butterfield watched Nixon’s farewell address to a sobbing White House staff on television. “I could not believe that people were crying in that room,” he said. “It was sad, yes. But justice had prevailed. Inside I was cheering. That’s what I was doing. I was cheering.”
The Last of the President’s Men
Simon and Schuster, 291 pages