The Man Who Knew Too Much
On Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed Richard Nixon’s secret taping system.
Only a handful of people knew the tapes even existed. Before July 13, 1973, when Alexander Butterfield went before the Senate Select Committee — the so-called Ervin Committee — investigating the Nixon White House over Watergate, only Butterfield himself, Richard Nixon, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Hal Higby, and some Secret Service technicians were aware that President Nixon had installed in the Oval Office and Executive Office Building (EOB) an elaborate, technologically advanced recording apparatus whereby all conversations, no matter how crucial or trivial, would be preserved for posterity, automatically, by a recorder that activated at the mere sound of a human voice.
Butterfield didn’t mean to tell the committee. But he didn’t mean to not tell them, either. Just that morning — according to Bob Woodward’s new book about Butterfield, The Last of the President’s Men — he’d been telling his wife, Charlotte, “I know they won’t mention tapes. But if tapes are brought up, I think the best thing for me to do is wing it if I can, if the question is oblique or vague. If it’s a direct question, and I hope that doesn’t happen, but if it’s a direct question, I think I’m going to have to say, ‘Yes, there are tapes.’ I can’t get caught up in this thing.”
They asked him directly about tapes. He got caught up in that thing.
They’d been asking a lot of people. It had become more or less routine ever since former Special Counsel to the President John Dean had voiced his suspicions about the possibility of such a system’s existence.
Three days after his committee interview, it was time for Butterfield to make his revelation public. As he looked into the bathroom mirror before going out to deliver his testimony live and televised, he considered something that still, strangely, doesn’t get considered nearly enough: “Suddenly the names of several world leaders, Golda Meir and British prime minister Harold Wilson, came to mind. What were they and other world leaders going to think about being secretly taped? Or everyone or every group that had had what they thought were private meetings with Nixon in the White House?”
There was no time to pursue this idea much further. The afternoon news had gone to a commercial promising its viewers a “MYSTERY WITNESS NEXT.” Before that, though, there was time for a quick call to Charlotte.
“Don’t tell me you’re the mystery witness?” she pleaded.
“I don’t feel I had a motive,” Butterfield tells Woodward, about his decision to reveal the taping system. “I’m not sure I like the term ‘motive’” — presumably for the way it implies commission of a crime. “I was just the guy who knew all this stuff and I [had] had a bad start with Nixon.”
Of course, Butterfield did have motive, one of the most manifestly obvious motives of all: the motive to avoid perjuring oneself. To Woodward’s credit, though, he goes beyond this consideration, and asks if it’s possible Nixon could have used executive privilege — as he had for those Secret Service agents who also knew about the system — to prevent Butterfield from being interviewed by the committee at all. “Nixon could have said you were so intimately involved in his presidency, and had such a unique view and were so close to him that he could not permit that you testify,” Woodward tells Butterfield.
He could have argued that you were like a psychiatrist, a lawyer or even a spouse. And that he, as president, was deserving of a special privilege and protection from your testimony. That would have resulted in a long delay in the courts for months if not more. The Senate Ervin committee, the House Judiciary Committee investigating possible impeachment, the Watergate special prosecutor, the media and the public might have grown tired of Watergate and turned to other matters.
“‘Yeah,’” Butterfield said, clearly tiring of the discussion of motives. ‘It could have been different. Could’ve been different.’”
None of which changes the fact that Butterfield was — is — a man who’s “open and honest and straightforward,” and chose to draw the bottom line there. Butterfield does acknowledge that avoiding perjury was very much on his mind when he disclosed the taping system’s existence. Then he says: “But I do believe that in the interest of justice, it had to come out. I mean, I’m not in favor of people getting away with something.”
Plus there was that “bad start with Nixon,” which really wasn’t all that bad, but which is worth looking at regardless.
When Butterfield went to work for the Nixon White House, he was an ex-Air Force colonel, decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for what he’d done over Vietnam. He was also an ex-UCLA schoolmate of Bob Haldeman, now chief of staff in the Nixon White House, who agreed to a meeting with Butterfield and helped him get the job of deputy assistant to the president. Butterfield eventually became head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (the position he held at the time of his Watergate testimony and shortly into the Gerald Ford presidency).
Early on he considered Nixon “an ignorant boor, a bumpkin,” according to a draft autobiography he wrote in the early 1980s, “and I readied myself to jump ship.”
One of Butterfield’s early tasks for Nixon, less than a year into the presidency, was to ensure the removal of all photos of JFK from the EOB offices. “I want all the pictures down today,” Nixon told him. “Down from the walls and off the desks. Jesus Christ! If we’ve got this kind of infestation imagine what [Secretary of State] Bill Rogers has at the State Department.” Once “[t]he photographic legacy of JFK had been expunged” (Woodward’s nifty phrase), Butterfield was able to triumphantly report his progress to Nixon in a memo entitled “Sanitization of the EOB.”
Then there was the problem of Henry Kissinger’s selfishness and self-importance. Nixon laid it all out for Butterfield in a five-point memo, quoted in these pages, and then instructed him to make the behavior stop. “You do it your way,” Nixon said, rather uncharacteristically. But there were some tasks that not even Butterfield could accomplish.
Butterfield himself was not sterling-pure. By the order of Haldeman, he once planted a spy in the Secret Service detail of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who was campaigning on behalf of Nixon opponent George McGovern. That Butterfield was willing to do such a thing spooks him to this day, and he realizes perfectly well that he could have been imprisoned for such hijinks.
A memorandum of particular fascination to Woodward — new to these pages — is what Woodward refers to as “the ‘Zilch’ memo.” This one was written to Kissinger directly, and it reads as follows: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force. I want a ‘bark off’ study — no snow job — on my desk in 2 weeks as to what the reason for the failure is. Otherwise continued air operations make no sense in Cambodia, Laos etc. after we complete withdrawal.” At the bottom is an additional note urging Kissinger to “Shake them up!!”
Is this really the “arresting document” Woodward wants us to believe it is? “In the president’s own handwriting,” he writes, “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 by Johnson — had achieved ‘zilch’ and was a ‘failure.’”
If this doesn’t arrest the rest of us in quite the same way it does Woodward, it might be because of Nixon’s all-too-familiar temper and tendency to overreact. We have to wonder if Nixon even really meant — to their most literal letter — the words he wrote. And given all we’ve learned over recent decades about the leadership’s doubts for that war — as well as all the inanity and insanity we’ve heard directly from Nixon’s own mouth on those tapes Butterfield informed the country about, not to mention the truly disturbing evidence that’s emerged indicating Nixon sabotaged Vietnam peace negotiations prior to the 1968 election that made him president — I think this memo qualifies much more as “interesting” than “arresting.”
There were 20 boxes of these things in Butterfield’s La Jolla home when Woodward came calling, along with “piles of documents and files he had agreed to bring out of storage.” There were files scattered throughout five rooms, “cluttering his bedroom, office and study. Closets contained more boxes, books, folders and dossiers […]. One tall stack of boxes was housed in an unused shower stall.”
It’s worth noting here that this is a man whose White House duties included making sure departing employees didn’t leave with classified documents.
Waiting for Woodward was also the draft of Butterfield’s unpublished memoir, whose would-be publisher, Little, Brown, ultimately declined. “Whatever’s good in this book,” Butterfield recently told the Washington Post, “I want Little, Brown to regret.”
I’m not sure Little, Brown will find much in here to regret, although, for the Nixonologists among us — amateur and professional alike — there is plenty to hold one’s attention. Woodward has done his due diligence with this “vast new archive, unknown until now,” and conducted some 40 hours of interviews with Butterfield, who had no editorial control over the book and has been promised no payment for his contributions.
And you cannot deny Woodward’s credibility on this subject. His investigatory methodology these days may consist — almost exclusively — of simply fielding requests from high government officials eager to get their story on record, and he may be the kind of writer who can unselfconsciously and unironically compose the sentence “Butterfield’s mind was churning hard,” but if we don’t give him credit for his Watergate expertise, then we’re not giving him his due.
In fact, Woodward even has a personal connection to this story, beyond his connection to Watergate generally: he may have directly influenced Butterfield’s revelation of the taping system. While chasing the Watergate story in 1973, Woodward badgered committee members about whether or not they’d questioned Butterfield yet. Woodward knew that Butterfield would be someone who could either refute or support Dean’s recent testimony about Nixon’s Watergate culpability (even if he had no idea to what extent). Someone from the committee explained to Woodward that they were too busy to interview Butterfield. Weeks later, he asked a committee member about Butterfield again, this time to find out why Butterfield’s White House duties had been labeled “internal security.”
“The staff member said the committee didn’t know, and maybe it would be a good idea to interview Butterfield,” Woodward and Carl Bernstein later wrote in All the President’s Men (1974), their account of breaking the Watergate story. He would ask Sam Dash, the committee’s chief counsel. Dash put the matter off. The staff member told Woodward he would push Dash again.”
Butterfield certainly believes Woodward was responsible. “They never would have called me in a million years” without Woodward’s questioning, Butterfield tells him in the new book. “I was an unknown. I know what was behind it. You were.”
Those collectors of Nixoniana who always come to such books for the strange and fascinating objects of Nixon’s mind on display — they will find what they’re looking for here. Butterfield is not the most insightful of Nixonologists — he’s no Leonard Garment or William Safire — but he’s observant enough, and certainly had the proximity necessary to tell us something new, “shadow[ing] Nixon’s life as no one else,’ Woodward writes, “plugged into nearly every aspect.”
He had the proximity to know that Nixon wouldn’t even remove his coat until 10:30 p.m., when he would finally put away his yellow legal pad and go home to his family. (“Lonely existence, but I do believe he liked it.”) And he had the proximity to know that Nixon and his wife, Pat, actually stayed in separate homes on their frequent visits to Key Biscayne, Florida. “The pity of it,” Butterfield says. “That’s sad to me to even think of it. Because I cared so much for her. I really cared for her. There were times during our talks when I just wanted to put my arms around her.”
One of those times came when Pat asked her husband to come to New York with her and her daughters for Christmas. Nixon’s response was to give no response at all, not even in the negative. Pat continued to ask him, and Nixon refused to so much as look up from his work. “It hurt me,” Butterfield says. “I shouldn’t have let it affect me that much. I couldn’t help but hear it, so I just sat there. And she knew that — had to embarrass her. She knew I heard. He never did answer. I wanted to reach over and — of course, I would never do it — and say, ‘Answer her, God damn it! Answer her!’” (Butterfield’s non-professional opinion is that Pat Nixon was “borderline abused.”)
He had the proximity to see Nixon engage in some surpassingly strange behavior with women who were not his wife. Like the time they were on the helo to Camp David and Nixon was awkwardly patting the leg of Beverly Kaye, one of the White House secretaries in attendance
“Watching that, we’re [Butterfield and Nixon’s close friend Bebe Rebozo] sitting on either side of Beverly. I’m sure he could feel her stiffen up too. And this thing went on for a long time. And the poor man. I just thought, the poor, pitiful man. Yes, he was president of the United States.” And yes, Butterfield had some respect and admiration for him at times. “But in this moment, I just thought, the poor, pitiful son of a bitch. The poor, pitiful son of a bitch.
He had the proximity to receive memos that remind Woodward of the strategic excellence of Nixon’s mind. “He knew how to mobilize others,” Woodward writes, “especially when it was in his political interest.
This applies, most dramatically, to 1972 when he was campaigning for reelection. His maneuvers were often tinged with duplicity and ardent self-promotion. They also show his single-mindedness and his capacity to wring the maximum political advantage out of a situation. He possessed the capacity to plot. It helps explain how he rose to the presidency, and once in the White House achieved some genuine successes in foreign and domestic policy. He also knew how to appeal to the ego of others, and to use humor.
These are all qualities of Nixon’s — especially that last one — that routinely fail to receive their due.
And of course Butterfield had the proximity to be entrusted with getting the taping system installed. When Butterfield first expressed the president’s intentions to Al Wong, head of the Secret Service’s Technical Security Division, Wong warned him, “We’ve done this before. These things don’t always work out as planned,” referring to taping systems installed during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
“Well, this will be different,” Butterfield replied, and he was certainly right about that, though not in the way he intended.
It would of course be much more disastrous. And to think that Nixon wanted it done to protect his legacy — to ensure that history bestowed upon him all the credit due for his triumphs. Before the taping system was installed, Nixon settled a postal strike that had gone on a couple of weeks. “God damn it, we did pretty well,” Nixon lamented. “We brought everyone together. And we met there in the Oval Office and it took us a couple of weeks, but by golly, we settled the strike. I wish we had recorded exactly what went on.”
In trying to receive proper credit for things like resolved postal strikes, Nixon established the machinery that would effectively extinguish his presidency.
“I will not be transcribed,” Nixon said early on in the days of the taping system. We know he said it because those words have been transcribed, along with all the rest.
Al Haig, who had recently taken over as Nixon’s chief of staff, learned of the taping system when the rest of the country did, and he was just as appalled as he was surprised, and for the same reasons. “It never occurred to me,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “that anyone in his right mind would install anything so Orwellian as a system that never shut off, that preserved every word, every joke, every curse, every tantrum, every flight of presidential paranoia, every bit of flattery and bad advice and tattling by his advisers.”
There’s never been anything quite like it in all of American history, and its existence is testimony to the power of paranoia, as well as a completist record of presidential eavesdropping (short of those infamous 18-and-a-half minutes, of course). It’s an entirely singular phenomenon, and one thing we can be sure of is that we’ll never see its likes again. That someone who valued his privacy as much as Richard Nixon, and who was so entirely scared of becoming vulnerable, would so thoroughly allow his privacy to be invaded, and so completely render himself vulnerable, is so counterintuitive, so sublimely paradoxical, that it still has the power to make one marvel.
Haig’s orders following Butterfield’s testimony came quickly and consisted of three words: “Tear it out.”