When we heard that Bob Woodward–one half of the team that brought us the generation-long saga of Watergate–had a new book out, and that it was about (wait for it!) Richard Nixon, we were skeptical. What more could there possibly be to say about our paranoid and foul-mouthed 37th president, so completely described in books by Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among others? Plenty, as it turns out. Woodward discovered what he calls the "missing piece of Watergate" in the files and memories of 89-year-old Alexander Butterfield, who as a young man was aide to Nixon’s onetime Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman. A couple of years ago, Butterfield approached Woodward, opened his files, and began telling his story. The Last of the President’s Men is the result. Woodward, long a reporter and an editor of the Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), talked to Book Store PD Editorial Director Sara Nelson about the book that he says will be his last on the Watergate mess.
Book Store PD: First things first: How and why did you do this book?
Bob Woodward: I thought I wouldn’t be doing any more books on Nixon, quite frankly, after the Mark Felt book, The Secret Man, in 2005. I ran into Butterfield at a conference at the University of Texas and just said, "Next time you’re in Washington, give me a call." And he did. And we spent a day together and kind of covered a lot of old material. And then I just asked, "Do you have any documents?" And he said, "Yeah, I have some." So when I was in California, I went to see him at La Jolla to get what he had, and I walked in the second floor penthouse apartment there, near the beach in La Jolla, and there were 20 boxes. I always had the theory that anyone who leaves the White House has a box in the attic, but usually it’s just one. But this was 20! All his chronological files, one for each month he was there. He was there 50 months, and it’s onionskin paper and there are 200-plus for each month. So there are 10,000 just for those chronological files, and then he had a lot of other documents mixed with things like [newspaper] clips.
ABR: You took periodic trips from Washington to California, spent hours and hours going through these papers. What did you find that was most surprising?
BW: The "zilch memo" where Nixon writes this memo–hand-written, on the Top Secret January 3, ’72 memo that Kissinger sent him–where he just says to Kissinger, "We’ve had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and Vietnam. The result equals zilch." His whole policy was built around Vietnamization, around getting the U.S. troops out, and they were almost out at this point, [but he’s still] bombing. He dropped nearly three million tons of bombs in Southeast Asia: North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. That’s more than were dropped in all of WWII, I think. He says [the value was] "zilch."
It’s early ’72, an election year. Does he stop the bombing? No, he intensifies it. And eventually, by May 8, in Haiphong, there’s still more intensified bombing. And then he talks with Kissinger about how the polling shows how popular the bombing is. In fact, Nixon writes at one point later–he won in ’72, lots of people said because of the China opening–and Nixon says, "No, it was the bombing." So he’s talking with Kissinger, and they recall May 8 and the massive bombing that day. Kissinger says "May 8, you won the election that day." And you see this is the other side of Watergate: It’s not about the war, it’s all about winning reelection. That really blew my mind. That need to be reelected, the conviction that he had, that he almost was entitled to the presidency and to reelection, was driving this. Domestic politics, personal politics are always in the background. It’s almost unthinkable that you can make war decisions of this significance for personal political reasons. As I started to look at this, I thought, My God, help us.
ABR: Why do you think Butterfield came forward with all this at this point? You make clear in the book that there was no financial reward for him.
BW: As much as someone ever doesn’t have a hidden agenda, this is someone who doesn’t have one. [Butterfield] is 89 and he has prostate cancer. He tried to do a book, wrote his memoir, and the publisher rejected it. And then I went out there and we started talking–hours and hours of formal interviews on video, on tape. I think it’s 46 hours of formal interviews and days of meals and dinners and breakfasts. And he finally said, "I’m not going to do this myself. I’ll never get to it. This is your business and you can have the documents and everything I said is on the record." He knows he’s not going to do it. We have the tapes and we have the memoirs and all of these things, and then you dig into it and you see that a lot of the Nixon/Kissinger memoirs that were done in the ’70s leave stuff out that’s unpleasant. There’s so much that’s hidden there.
ABR: It’s the deceit, the lying to the American people, that is so clear here and so disturbing.
BW: Suppose that Obama, who’s been doing the drone strikes … suppose he wrote a memo to his National Security Advisor saying "We’ve done these drone strikes for years. They’ve accomplished zilch. It’s a failure." If that got out, he would be finished.
ABR: If only Nixon had said, "Hey, this isn’t working. It’s accomplishing zilch. So maybe we should stop doing it…."
BW: Right exactly. [If we’d been able to say] "the scales fell from his eyes. He saw the light." But this really is the other side of Watergate: The obsession to win reelection. To be vindicated. It blinded him.
ABR: The book also clarifies just how dysfunctional and weird Nixon and the White House were day-to-day. Nixon seems so paranoid, so ill at ease… so weird.
BW: It’s such a weird, strange world of Nixon. The resentments, the things he can’t get over, the slights… The scene in those memos of him going and seeing JFK pictures and calling them an "infestation" and ordering Butterfield to get them all out to protect him. And then there’s that memo in the book, on January 16, 1970: "Memorandum for the president from Butterfield. Sanitization of the EOB." It’s a two- page memo about how he got all the Kennedy pictures out and the Nixon pictures up. How they "sanitized" the place.
ABR: All of this happened over 40 years ago. Why should it matter to us now?
BW: This couldn’t be more relevant now as we’re going into a presidential election. Who are these people running for president? What really drives them? How do they really decide things? What are their real values? I think all of the candidates are going to get a full-field inquiry and biographical study–and I think they should. What about Hillary? What about Trump? We’re in this era where the message managers have so much control and influence. Well, what’s really there? Who are these people? We’d better know that.
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