The Peculiar, Prodigious Richard Nixon

At the heart of the enduring enigma that is Richard Nixon sit two Gordian riddles:

First, how did someone beset by such severe social maladroitness become the most successful American politician of the last 75 years?


The second connected mystery is how an individual seemingly obsessed with petty grudges and vendettas could get so much done.

UnknownThese questions unavoidably come front-and-center in Bob Woodward’s latest Nixonian effort, “The Last of the President’s Men,” the story of Alexander P. Butterfield, the man who was usually the first to greet the president each morning and the last to say goodnight.

Butterfield was Haldeman’s Haldeman – assistant to the president’s chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman – who’d gone from serving as an Air Force colonel to the White House’s indispensable, invisible man: a combination bodyman/gatekeeper/office manager.

From this front-row seat Butterfield observe a troublingly tortured soul; Nixon was brilliant and cunning, to be sure, but a man imprisoned by anxieties and obsessions that marked the relationship between president and aide from their first awkward encounter.

Politics is at root a people business, and successful practitioners either tend to immensely enjoy spending time with other humans or they can fake it well enough to get by. Success at the highest levels requires an uncanny understanding for the species.

While not every politician relishes the rope line like a Bill Clinton, few who aspire to major office actively disdain the kind of ongoing social contact required to gain election and sustain success in the field. Misanthropes are generally not suited to a life of small talk and emotive, personal dialogues. Less-social types who play the political game more often find their way back to the boiler room, plotting strategy and content to exercise power from behind the curtains.

Yet despite being someone Butterfield describes as consumed with paranoia and insecurity, Nixon voluntarily sought the white-hot spotlight. He could be at the top of his game but still agonize over and stumble through the most basic of social interactions. Indeed, after coming from halfway around the world to start a job that would require daily interaction with the president, Butterfield was kept out of sight for a full two weeks due to Haldeman’s concerns over how Nixon would handle their initial introduction. It did not go well.

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Alexander Butterfield, assistant to Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman

Nixon’s pettiness is mystifying. Butterfield recounts a Christmas Eve stroll through the Executive Office Building where Nixon was dismayed to find photographs of previous presidents – namely Kennedy – on certain desks and office walls. This discovery occasioned multiple inquiries from Nixon as to the offending parties. A memo on the matter from Haldeman read: “The President would like you to check to find out who the woman is in the EOB who has the two Kennedy pictures. What’s her background … is she new, old, someone we can trust, etc. Please get a report back to me on this quickly.” This was followed by the chief of staff’s handwritten scroll: “he asks about it once a week – at least.”[i]

Speaking of Kennedys, they and their crowd were famously a favorite topic of conversation and consternation for Nixon. Senator Ted received regular attention from the president, and Haldeman documents multiple instances where Nixon himself ordered that information be leaked to embarrass the antagonist and potential challenger.

It is difficult to reconcile that kind of person, someone who inquired on the status of a 40-year civil servant’s autographed picture of a slain president “once a week – at least” with the reality that this was the most powerful man in the world, an immensely accomplished American reelected in an unprecedented 49-state landslide in 1972.

In fact, when it comes to pure electoral prowess, in all of American history, Nixon’s success is matched only by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both men appeared five times on their party’s national ticket – FDR once as VP and a record four times as president, and Nixon twice as Eisenhower’s VP and three times as the GOP standard bearer.

And for all his weirdness and inability to connect with even those closest to him – unquestionably real issues, even if exaggerated – and for all the extensive time spent griping about rivals and plotting against enemies real and imagined (a regular feature of Oval Office discussion that can be found on the Nixon White House tapes), the Nixon record in office, on policy both foreign and domestic, is quite extraordinary.

Granted, the Nixon Administration spanned a six year period when government expansion was seen by Republicans and Democrats alike as a natural state. Congress was certainly experiencing a time of unprecedented productivity (as pointedly recounted in former Delawarean Ira Shapiro’s “The Last Great Senate”).

Wherever you line up on the 37th president’s record, there’s no arguing that Nixon’s presidential activism reached FDR-esque levels.

Nixon launched the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), oversaw passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Mammal Marine Protection Act. He created the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), oversaw desegregation of southern schools, dedicated $100 million to begin the War on Cancer and signed Title IX, effectively opening intercollegiate athletics to women. Four Supreme Court Justices were appointed by Nixon (one of them, Rehnquist, later becoming Chief Justice) and he supported passage of the 26th Amendment extending the vote to 18-year-olds and ended the draft. And ambitious welfare and health care proposals were defeated in Congress.

Nixon’s foreign policy resume is well documented. At the height of the Cold War he pursued détente with the Soviets, participating in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. He signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the war in Vietnam after a massive investment of his and Secretary of State Kissinger’s time, adeptly navigated a precarious political landscape in the Middle East and famously became the first President to visit the People’s Republic of China, a transformational “opening” of the one-billion person nation to the world.

All this at a time when Nixon was demanding his aides police the White House for photographs of past presidents, scrutinizing the list of banned guests at Sunday church services, pointedly directing that Henry Kissinger not be seated “next to the most attractive women” at state functions and scheming to catch Teddy Kennedy with his pants down.

Nixon was right to believe that he was judged by a different standard than his predecessors. We know now that both Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy before him exhibited extremely troubling and unhealthy – sometimes bordering on sociopathic – behaviors while in office.

Nevertheless, books like this and hours of tapes document that an awful lot of time was spent on really unproductive and nasty stuff in that White House. This leaves us with the question of how Nixon could successfully orchestrate such a range of complex and sensitive endeavors when all this was going on. The book includes fascinating, never-before published memos on issues like the Middle East and Vietnam from CIA director Richard Helms and national security advisor Henry Kissinger that underline just how high the stakes were every single day he was in office.

Nixon left the White House in disgrace, wistfully reflecting on the hatred that had consumed and “destroyed” him. Butterfield’s testimony helps us understand the roots of that destruction at the earliest stages.

[i] Butterfield later filed an extensive report to the president that his sleuthing revealed, “Of 35 large and small offices occupied by White House Support Staff personnel, 6 displayed photographs of one or more former Presidents … in addition to your own. 27 offices (including the 6 mentioned above) displayed your picture. 8 offices displayed no pictures of U.S. Presidents.” Importantly, Butterfield found that “the office which you mentioned to me specifically – the one in which you noticed 2 pictures of President Kennedy – is supervised by Edna Rosenberg, a civil servant at the GS-9 level, who has the distinction of having served on the White House Staff longer than anyone else … 41 years this coming March 7th. I have checked her file very carefully and found that the House Committtee on Un-American Activities, the Civil Service Commission’s Bureau of Personnel Investigation, the State Department and its Passport Office, the CIA, the Secret Service, and the FBI have all rendered continual reports to the effect that she is a “completely loyal American whose character, reputation and associations are above reproach.” Born in 1902 here in Washington, D.C., she has remained single all of these years, and lives now with a sister (Janette Rosenberg) in Silver Spring, Maryland.” Butterfield went on to say that one of the two JFK photos in question “bore a personal inscription of good wishes … and undoubtedly for that reason had been retained and displayed by those who there.”

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