t 73, Bob Woodward—the Pulitzer Prize–winning sleuth of Watergate legend and America’s premier nonfiction author, with 17 bestsellers to his name—is nearing the end of one of the most celebrated careers of the media age. His latest book, The Last of the President’s Men, is his fifth about Watergate and in some ways his best. Yet it also underscores the need for him to get cracking on the last Bob Woodward book our times still demand: a candid autobiography.
In such a work, the famously slow-talking Midwesterner could relate, with clarity unattainable from thousands of cagey TV interviews, the inside story of how this former naval intelligence officer achieved his unique stature in journalism and publishing. And it would give him an opportunity to come clean about the less than savory parts of that story, which have attracted growing attention from Woodward’s peers in journalism and the more dispassionate precincts of academia.
The Last of the President’s Men1 attempts, transparently, to cement Woodward’s special status in American journalism and thereby makes for a curious entry in his canon: one of the shortest, yet the most scholarly, of his works, an important contribution to the literature of the Nixon era that is nonetheless fatally flawed by the classic Woodward sins of omission and avoidance.
The book presents a profile of Alexander P. Butterfield, the White House staffer who oversaw the installation and operation of President Nixon’s secret taping system and who, in July 1973, disclosed the system’s existence to Senate Watergate committee investigators. In so doing, Butterfield was the cameo player who dealt the deathblow to the Nixon presidency.
Woodward and his researcher recorded 46 hours of interviews with Butterfield between 2011 and 2015, the year he turned 89. They also mined an unpublished autobiography Butterfield had long tinkered with and a small archive of documents he took with him at the end of Nixon’s first term (when one of Butterfield’s duties was to compel other White House staffers to turn over their papers).
The Butterfield Papers are rich with detail and enable Woodward to make, at this late date, his most substantive contribution to the history of the Nixon presidency. This is evidenced in the fact that the book’s major revelation—the juicy nugget on which the Washington Post and other media, during publication week, lavished The Woodward Treatment—concerns the Vietnam War and not Watergate. Moreover, the book includes 93 pages of source notes and appendices—rarities in Woodwardia!—reproducing three dozen letters and memoranda. Heavily annotated by President Nixon, sometimes missing from official archives, these are important documents. It is refreshing to see Woodward using the written record to advance the story of the policies of the first Nixon term rather than selective snippets from interviews, conducted in garages, to rehash the oddball obstructions of justice that unraveled the second.
Yet here again, as so often since 1972, Woodward omits much about the context of his scoops, and his own motivations in pursuing and publishing them.
he crown jewel of Alex Butterfield’s archival treasures is a code-worded “TOP SECRET-SENSITIVE” memorandum that national security adviser Henry Kissinger sent to President Nixon on January 3, 1972. The one-page memo updated the commander in chief about the military situation in Laos and a North Vietnamese rocket attack on the U.S. air base at Da Nang, which wounded an American airman and damaged three Air Force planes. What makes the document remarkable—aside from the fact that no copy exists at the Nixon presidential library—is Nixon’s scrawl, sideways up the left-hand side, boldly across Kissinger’s typed font:
K – We have had 10 years of total control of the air
in Laos + V. Nam. The result = Zilch –
There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force
I want a barks 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 –
Shake them up!!
This note is extraordinary: It shows a commander in chief who has already dropped 3 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and who was destined within the next 12 months to drop an additional 1.1 million tons, acknowledging that these operations were accomplishing “zilch,” and that they represented “a failure” it made “no sense” to continue. As Woodward notes, just the evening before he wrote these words, Nixon had conducted an hour-long primetime interview on CBS during which Dan Rather had asked the president to assess “the benefits” of extensive bombing of North Vietnam. “The results,” Nixon said, “have been very, very effective.”
Now, reasonable people can stipulate that the exigencies of war might justify a military commander, such as Nixon, lying to a reporter, such as Rather, about the efficacy of a given military campaign, particularly if the commander was convinced the alternative would jeopardize American lives by somehow minimizing the chances for ultimate success in the conflict, undermining the morale of the rank and file, or otherwise vitiating pressing national-security objectives. Nixon may have been motivated by such considerations. As Woodward notes, “The ‘zilch’ conclusion had grown over three years. In what way and when did Nixon realize this? History may never know. Maybe Nixon never knew.” Woodward overstates when he asserts the need for “a fresh examination of the entire Vietnam record” in light of the “zilch” note, but he is correct to ask: “What is to be said about a wartime leader who goes on with war knowing a key part of the strategy is not working?”
What’s missing from Woodward’s account, however—as Woodward surely knows—is the context of Nixon’s relationship with the Pentagon in January 1972. Critical here is Nixon’s underlined suggestion that what was “wrong” with our air operations in Southeast Asia could be found either in the strategy “or the Air Force.” That sentiment of Nixon’s is reinforced by his closing demand, underlined twice, seemingly more important to him than his order for a “no snow job” study, which was in any case never performed: namely, to “shake them up!!”
Even before Nixon was sworn in, Pentagon leaders fearful of continued exclusion from the policymaking process had begun using their small liaison office to the National Security Council to spy on the White House.
In substantive and rhetorical terms, Nixon here sounded a lot like John F. Kennedy, another Navy veteran whose view of the Pentagon deteriorated markedly over his tenure in the Oval Office. “Those sons of bitches, with all the fruit salad, just sat there nodding, saying [the operation] would work,” JFK sneered on his own tapes after the Bay of Pigs. In late 1962, when the Department of Defense slow-walked Kennedy’s request for troops during the integration of the University of Mississippi, the president snapped: “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.”
Under Lyndon Johnson, this schism between the commander in chief and the uniformed leadership of the armed forces only worsened. In Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (1997), H.L. McMaster chronicled in unsparing detail the machinations by which the wily Texan, “distrustful of his military advisers,” patronized and circumvented the chiefs.
“Uninterested in the chiefs’ advice, but unwilling to risk their disaffection,” McMaster wrote, “Johnson preserved a façade of consultation, concealed the finality of his decisions on Vietnam policy and…got the military advice he wanted.” By August 1967, the chiefs teetered on mutiny. After congressional testimony by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the efficacy of U.S. air operations undercut the chiefs’ own, they met, according to historian Deborah Shapley, “in complete secrecy, late into the night,” and agreed to resign en masse. Only the withdrawal of the chairman, Army General Earle Wheeler, who suffered chest pains overnight, caused the plot to collapse.
Even before Nixon was sworn in, Pentagon leaders fearful of continued exclusion from the policymaking process had begun using their small liaison office to the National Security Council, housed in the Executive Office Building across from the West Wing, to spy on the White House. Nixon’s defense secretary, Melvin Laird, a longtime congressman with appropriations oversight of the Pentagon, told me in a 1997 interview that at the dawn of the Nixon administration, he privately urged that the JSC-NSC liaison office be shut down. “The Johnson administration had had such a problem there, and I knew about it,” Laird told me. “I don’t think [LBJ-era defense secretaries] Clark Clifford or McNamara really realized it, but I knew what they were doing…. So early on, I said, ‘You better watch that very carefully.’”
Laird’s prophecy came true. Nearly three years later, on December 21, 1971—13 days before Nixon scribbled the “zilch” note—his top aides convened for a rare nighttime session in the Oval Office. There the commander in chief was informed of a stunning development: Federal investigators had discovered that the JCS-NSC liaison office had been spying on Nixon and Kissinger for 13 months. Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, a 27-year-old stenographer who traveled extensively with Kissinger overseas, including on the secret flight to Pakistan that paved the way for Nixon’s historic trip to China, had all the while been stealthily rifling Kissinger’s briefcases, “burn bags,” and wastebaskets. He then secretly—and illegally—routed an estimated 5,000 classified documents to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, and other top officers. The uncovering of the Joint Chiefs spy ring was the one legitimate accomplishment of Nixon’s much-reviled Plumbers group, which would eventually execute the Watergate break-ins.
Why would Woodward omit mention of the monumental- and critically timed- rupture between the commander in chief and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The importance of the affair is hard to overstate. “This was Seven Days in May,” declared Defense Department investigator Donald Stewart, referring to the 1962 thriller about a military coup d’état in the United States. Nixon called the spying “a federal offense of the highest order” and demanded Moorer be tried for espionage. As the White House tapes make clear, Attorney General John Mitchell calmly took control of the situation, advising against public disclosure in any forum and prevailing upon Nixon to banish Yeoman Radford to a remote outpost and keep Admiral Moorer where he was, perhaps weakened and more pliable.
As Nixon told an aide in May 1973: “Admiral Moorer, I could have screwed him on that and been a big hero, you know. I could have screwed the whole Pentagon about that damn thing…. Why didn’t I do it? Because I thought more of the services.” It was, indeed, to Nixon’s everlasting credit that he never made political hay of the Moorer-Radford affair—to this day a neglected chapter in American history, an unprecedented Cold War constitutional crisis that no one has treated at book length—even when his political life depended on it.
ith that backdrop, do we not attain a much better understanding of Nixon’s jaundiced view of the efficacy of the Pentagon, and the president’s demand, 13 days later, for a “shake up” of the Air Force? Why would Woodward omit mention of the monumental rupture between the commander in chief and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that erupted on the eve of the “zilch” note? Was the Washington Post ace, when he wrote The Last of the President’s Men, somehow unaware of the Moorer-Radford affair? Assuredly not. For decades now, brave historians have been questioning Woodward’s strange avoidance of the subject matter.
Most notable was the 1991 bestseller Silent Coup: Removal of a President, co-authored by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin and denounced by Woodward and Bernstein as “trash.” Yet Silent Coup marshaled important new archival evidence of its own to advance a number of claims about Woodward. The first was that one of his Watergate-era sources was General Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s NSC deputy. Silent Coup established that Woodward had met Haig during the first Nixon term, when Woodward served as a Navy intelligence briefer to senior White House officials. A former Vietnam commander and Pentagon loyalist, Haig held his own boss, Kissinger, in low regard and was deeply complicit in the JCS spying: It was Haig who handpicked Yeoman Radford to travel with Kissinger. By the time Haig became Nixon’s chief of staff, succeeding Haldeman as the Watergate scandal mushroomed in the spring of 1973, Haig worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bury the Moorer-Radford affair and his own role in it. Silent Coup detailed how Haig had enjoyed the compliance of Woodward and Bernstein, who knew of Moorer-Radford yet passed on it as a news story. The clear implication was that Woodward had protected Haig, a key source.
All these years later, even with the “zilch” note in hand, Bob Woodward is still steering clear of Moorer-Radford. Such sins of omission do not detract from the historical importance of the “zilch” memo and the other archival discoveries in the appendices to The Last of the President’s Men. But they do show that the author’s agenda remains suspect, or at least worthy of closer scrutiny than is typically accorded by the Post and other media so eager to give each new Woodward book The Woodward Treatment.
SUCH SCRUTINY would begin with the simple question: Why did Bob Woodward choose now to seek out Alex Butterfield, who was nearing 90, and write a book about him?
The fact is that Woodward’s journalistic reputation has been under assault for some time, starting with the controversies surrounding his books about John Belushi (1985’s Wired) and Reagan-era CIA director William Casey (1987’s Veil), and most thoroughly in Silent Coup. But the worst hits have come in just the last few years.
The sale of the Woodward-Bernstein papers to the University of Texas in 2003, and the 2005 death of Mark Felt, the former FBI official whom Woodward has identified as Deep Throat, have led researchers to ever larger doubts about the accuracy of Woodward’s reporting on Watergate, and particularly his account of his relationship with his much-heralded, and often inaccurate, Watergate source.
The first domino to fall was Woodward’s contention that Deep Throat was Felt and Felt only, and not a composite character based on numerous sources. The journalist Ed Gray demolished this myth when he completed In Nixon’s Web (2008), the posthumous memoir of his father, L. Patrick Gray III, the acting FBI director during Watergate. In this the Grays benefited from access not only to Woodward’s notes and papers at the University of Texas but also from Pat Gray’s own FBI archive (45 boxes’ worth). In Nixon’s Web exposed how Woodward’s reporting attributed information to Deep Throat that Mark Felt simply could not have known in November 1973, at the time of their last (alleged) meeting in a garage in Rosslyn, Virginia. The book also showed that Woodward’s Deep Throat file included notes from an interview he had conducted not with Mark Felt but with another source at the time, whom the Grays confirmed to be Justice Department official Don Santarelli. Pressed on such matters, Woodward dismissed them as “technical, wiring-diagram issues.”
More recently, we have learned that among those harboring deep skepticism about Woodward’s account of Deep Throat—so critical to the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, and to the Woodward legacy—was the man to whose memory The Last of the President’s Men is dedicated: Ben Bradlee, the executive editor who oversaw that coverage.
Rummaging through Bradlee’s papers for an authorized biography, Jeff Himmelman—himself a trusted former researcher to Woodward—came across an unpublished 1990 interview in which Bradlee had confided his misgivings about Woodward’s reliability. “Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen?” Bradlee mused about the notion that Woodward moved a flowerpot on his balcony to signal for meetings with Deep Throat. Likewise, about the purported rendezvous in the garage, Bradlee wondered: “One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings [there were] in the garage.” He added: “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”
Geoff Shepard laid bare the contortions that were required for Sirica to overlook Woodward and Bernstein’s brazen interference with the grand-jury process.
The final product was Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee (2012). Were it up to Woodward, the book’s explosive contents would have been suppressed. Writing in New York magazine, Himmelman recorded how Woodward sought to intimidate his former protégé:
I had worked for [Woodward]; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding. You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments. “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times. The quotes from [Bradlee’s 1990] interview…were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.
That argument didn’t make sense, and I said so. Bob told me it was his “strong recommendation” that I not use the quotes, then that it was his “emphatic recommendation.” Then, when that got no truck: “Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.”
Finally, last year, former Nixon White House staff lawyer Geoff Shepard, in his groundbreaking book The Real Watergate Scandal, chronicled the secret and highly improper ex parte meetings between John J. Sirica, the presiding judge in both major Watergate trials, and various relevant parties, most notably the Watergate prosecutors. Drawing on hundreds of pages of previously unpublished documents, Shepard laid bare the contortions that were required for Sirica to overlook Woodward and Bernstein’s brazen interference with the grand-jury process.
These were largely performed in still more ex parte meetings with Edward Bennett Williams, the fixer who just happened to serve simultaneously as the lawyer for the Democratic National Committee (burgled and wiretapped in the Watergate operation), the lawyer for the Washington Post (chief chronicler of Watergate and prime offender in violating the integrity of the Watergate grand jury), and as godfather to Sirica’s daughter. Really, could a cozier situation, more thoroughly marinated in collusion, be dreamed up?
Had a judge of integrity presided over the Watergate trials, or had the actions of Woodward and Bernstein been exposed in real time, or something like it, the two reporters, at a minimum, would have been hauled before the grand jury themselves, and the indictments of several Nixon aides challenged credibly on due-process grounds. At worst, the famous scribes would have found themselves, along with all the president’s men, criminally charged.
To these revelations of the last decade, so damaging to the Woodward-Bernstein legacy, The Last of the President’s Men represents the closest thing to a substantive response from Woodward that we are likely to get: an exercise in misdirection. The author’s power in American media ensures that whenever he publishes, on any subject, Thinking America will sit up and pay attention, and when he publishes on Watergate, the effect is doubly resonant. So who will focus on the slow and steady erosion of Bob Woodward’s Watergate brand when the legend has just produced a handsome new Watergate book, its title echoing his greatest triumph, the text delivering the nuggets we’ve grown accustomed to expect from Official Woodward Product? Nixon doubted the efficacy of U.S. bombing in Vietnam! Nixon clumsily patted a secretary’s leg! Crank up the machine—Woodward’s back on Watergate!
What the author does not do is engage the growing controversy surrounding his conduct and motivations in his Watergate-era reporting. The bright, shining object here, meant to distract, is Butterfield, treated until now as a bit player in Watergate but depicted this time as a major figure of the Nixon presidency. It is true that as Haldeman’s deputy, controlling the flow of men and memoranda into the Oval Office, Butterfield might have seen more of the president than any other staff aide. But was he ever really one of “the president’s men”?
Again Woodward omits much. As Butterfield himself recently told the Post, Woodward is “sort of the master of being vague…. He can be vague more smoothly than anyone!” Presumably those who point such things out, as here, will be dismissed as members of the malevolent tribe of “fuckers” to whom no credence is ever to be accorded.
BORN IN 1926 to a Navy family in Pensacola, Butterfield attended UCLA and there befriended H.R. (“Bob”) Haldeman, later the all-powerful chief of staff in the Nixon White House. While their sorority-sister wives kept in touch, Butterfield and Haldeman lost contact for over 20 years, until November 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president. Butterfield, an Air Force colonel, was the top U.S. military officer in Australia. Early on in these pages, Woodward covers in detail the unsolicited letter Butterfield sent his old acquaintance after the election, seeking employment in the new administration. But the author relegates to a footnote on the second-to-last page of his main text, and even there leaves unexplored, the strange circumstances surrounding that letter.
When Butterfield appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in July 1974, a year after he had exposed the existence of the taping system to Senate investigators, he testified that it had been Haldeman who had reached out to him with an out-of-the-blue telephone call to Australia. Butterfield also testified that Haldeman had insisted, as a hiring condition, that Butterfield resign from the Air Force. Both claims were false. It was Butterfield’s letter that came out of the blue, and Haldeman told his old acquaintance he could keep his military commission and be “detailed” to the White House, a common practice. It had been Butterfield who insisted on resigning from the Air Force. Butterfield’s lies went unchallenged until 1978, when Haldeman—by then serving a prison sentence for his convictions in the Watergate cover-up case—published his memoir, The Ends of Power. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Haldeman wrote. “Why does he distort the facts now unless he has something to hide?”
Readers imagining Woodward would get to the bottom of this mystery, somewhere in his 46 hours of taped interviews with Butterfield, will be disappointed. In the footnote, Woodward says Butterfield “omitted” from his testimony the fact that he had contacted Haldeman first. But that is false. Butterfield didn’t “omit” his initiation of contact with Haldeman; he lied and claimed Haldeman had been the initiator: “I was surprised to receive the phone call,” Butterfield had testified, with a flourish.
“Butterfield told me that he had asked Haldeman to omit that part of the story,” Woodward writes here. So why, exactly, did Butterfield seek Haldeman’s collusion in a lie? Woodward offers no elaboration. If Butterfield is important enough to focus on at book length, wouldn’t the lies he has told about how he inserted himself at the last minute into the inner orbit of the president warrant the author’s attention?
Haldeman had his own ideas. “Was the White House filled with plants from other agencies, most particularly the CIA?” he asked in Ends of Power. “The overwhelming evidence is that it was. But was Butterfield one of them? It’s hard for me to believe it—but the ‘facts’ in the story he constantly gives the press disconcert me.” Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s longtime secretary, also harbored suspicions about Butterfield, originating with the way he vaulted himself into one of the most sensitive positions around the man she had served for two decades and ending with the betrayal of Nixon’s most explosive secret: that he taped himself.
In installing the taping system in February 1971, Butterfield observed a restriction placed by Nixon himself: Don’t use the military (no surprise there). So Butterfield turned to the Secret Service, whose technical division agents placed all the microphones in the Oval Office and Nixon’s other taping locations; hooked the microphones up to state-of-the-art voice-activated recorders; wired the system to a blinking-light tracker for the president, which notified agents whenever Nixon moved from room to room; changed each reel-to-reel tape as it filled up with recorded material; hastily labeled the tapes; and kept them in a West Wing office. The system operated in this way until Butterfield spilled the beans to the Senate Watergate committee.
In Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (1984), Jim Hougan reported the previously unpublished account of William McMahon, a CIA technician who was detailed to the Secret Service unit that managed the taping system. According to McMahon, the agency was aggressively “lending” technicians to the unit, which was already fully staffed. “I don’t know what they were up to,” McMahon said, “but the fact of the matter is you had these guys from [the CIA’s] Office of Security working in the White House under Secret Service cover.” As Hougan noted, this situation “amounted to the calculated infiltration of a uniquely sensitive Secret Service unit: the staff responsible for maintaining and servicing the presidential taping system.” Indeed, the CIA’s inspector general reported in 1975, after Nixon had resigned, that CIA agents had been placed in “intimate components of the Office of the President.”
Could Butterfield have been one of them? The years preceding his successful approach to Haldeman hadn’t seen Butterfield toiling exclusively in the obscurity of Australia. In the Air Force, Butterfield spent two years as an intelligence officer in Vietnam, commanding all low- and medium-level reconnaissance flights. “We were really intelligence collectors in every sense of the word,” Butterfield would say of this period, in an hour-long interview with me in October 1994. He added: “I ran another program I can’t talk about. I ran one element, or one facet, of a program…in the Far East, which was a CIA program.” By late 1964, Butterfield was detailed to the policy directorate of war plans in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There his duties included counterinsurgency planning and management of the program that resettled Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This latter project Butterfield inherited from his new colleague at the Pentagon: Lt. Col. Alexander Haig.
Butterfield told the authors of Silent Coup, in four hours of taped interviews, that he performed “a lot of undercover stuff” at the Pentagon—during a period when he was spending, by his own account, 20 hours a week “minimum” at the Johnson White House and “was like a fly on the wall in all these meetings up in the president’s bedroom at one a.m.” When he left the Pentagon in 1967, assigned to Canberra as the senior U.S. military officer in Australia, Butterfield again enjoyed frequent dealings with the CIA as the Defense Department liaison to the agency in-country. “I was the point of contact, the principal point of contact, for the CIA,” Butterfield told me.
What did that mean, exactly? “Well, I can’t tell you any more than that…. If someone wanted to get in touch with the CIA, they could come to my office.”
In short, if Butterfield wasn’t a plant in the Nixon White House, his experiences in the Johnson administration make clear the buttoned-down Air Force colonel was well suited—if not trained—for such a mission. Of this history of his subject, his peculiar background and agency connections, Woodward mentions nothing.
n truth, Bob Woodward was a player, not a chronicler, in Watergate. Never was this clearer than in the crucial role he played in the making of Butterfield’s bombshell testimony about the White House tapes.
In The Last of the President’s Men, Woodward acknowledges that it was his recommendation of his childhood friend Scott Armstrong that landed the latter a plum job as an investigator for the Senate Watergate committee. As Woodward explains it, he himself rebuffed a job offer from the committee’s Democratic majority counsel, Sam Dash. A former federal prosecutor and ardent liberal opponent of the Nixon administration, Dash told the authors of Silent Coup that Woodward had also told “us to talk to certain secretaries” in the Nixon White House and reelection campaign.
Woodward does not address longstanding allegations about his relationship with Armstrong. The late Fred Thompson, who served as the Watergate committee’s minority counsel two decades before he was elected senator from Tennessee, wrote in his Watergate memoir, At That Point in Time (1975), that he “more than once…accused Armstrong of being Woodward’s source” for committee leaks to the Post. In later years, Armstrong acknowledged that he “was designated as Woodward’s point of contact on the committee.” One of Armstrong’s fellow Senate investigators, James Hamilton, later recalled, “Woodward was of the opinion” that the panel needed to call Alexander Butterfield as a witness. Nowhere does the author pause to ponder the ethical considerations that arise when the Washington Post’s leading Watergate reporter is recommending personnel and witnesses to the investigative staff of the Senate Watergate committee.
That Scott Armstrong should subsequently have emerged as one of the two committee investigators who elicited the momentous testimony from Butterfield (in executive session, three days before the televised testimony of July 16, 1973 that stunned the nation) is, presumably, another “wiring-diagram issue” that Woodward sees no need to reckon with. Ditto for the decision by Woodward and Bernstein to take a pass on reporting Armstrong’s astonishing discovery. In All the President’s Men, they admit having learned from “a senior member of the committee’s investigative staff” about the taping system a full two days before Butterfield gave his televised testimony. Their decision not to reveal what they had learned allowed Butterfield’s bombshell to drop on live TV unimpeded—and thereby deprived President Nixon of an opportunity to seek to curtail his aide’s testimony by invoking executive privilege.
Here is still another subject Woodward skirts in The Last of the President’s Men: the decision by Nixon’s counsel and top aides, including the ubiquitous Alexander Haig, to withhold from the president their knowledge that Butterfield was fully cooperating with the Senate committee. One of the most impressive chapters in Silent Coup, entitled “Five Days in July,” examined in minute-by-minute detail the chronology of the deathblow. It was on July 12 that Butterfield was called to testify (summoned on Woodward’s recommendation); it was the next day, a Friday, that Butterfield dropped his bomb, in executive session, to GOP investigator Donald Sanders and Armstrong (hired on Woodward’s recommendation); it was over that weekend that Butterfield notified his superiors in the Nixon White House of what had transpired (and Armstrong tipped off Woodward, who sat on the tip); it was over that same weekend that Nixon’s aides and lawyers met with him repeatedly but never saw fit to mention to him anything about Butterfield and the committee; and it was on that Monday, July 16—shortly before Butterfield was to testify in open session, on live television—that those aides finally, belatedly informed the president of what was to happen, by which time Nixon no longer held any options for averting it.
It requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Nixon presidency just to know what’s not in it, and why such omissions are telling.
Or would thorough exploration of such matters lead to uncomfortable questions about Woodward’s seminal role in the events that led to the Butterfield bombshell?
here is still more that Woodward chooses to ignore in his book about Alexander Butterfield—such as Butterfield’s conclusion that Alexander Haig, while turning over documents to investigators in the summer of 1974, sought to replace a Butterfield memorandum from 1970 with a forged copy that redacted several incriminating references to Haig in the original. (“He was the chief suspect,” Butterfield told the authors of Silent Coup about the forgery.) The substance of the 1970 memo, and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the forgery, are not important in this context; I mention it simply by way of asking how an author can aspire to a comprehensive portrait of a U.S. official yet show zero interest (zilch!) in an episode in which his protagonist discovered himself to have been the victim of a forgery, with the original and the fake both reproduced in the official volumes of evidence published by the House Judiciary Committee.
In short, The Last of the President’s Men warrants careful handling. It requires a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the Nixon presidency just to know what’s not in it, and why such omissions are telling. Suffice to say that whoever undertakes someday to write the definitive biography of Bob Woodward will have much to decipher and unravel, and that the legend’s own books—absent a candid autobiography—will be of only limited value in the enterprise.
1 Simon & Schuster, 304 pp.
2 Not until October 2000 did I become the first researcher to obtain from the National Archives the tapes of the December 21 evening session, as well as the tapes of all of Nixon’s follow-up meetings and telephone calls relating to the Moorer-Radford affair. The contents of these tapes I published in a lengthy article for the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Nixon and the Chiefs,” in April 2002.