The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015. ISBN 978 – 1 – 4711 – 5650 – 2 (Hardback £25.00) 291pp, or 978 – 1 – 4711 – 5652 – 2 (Paperback).
On 9th August 1974 President Nixon addressed the nation for three minutes and fifty seconds sealing his fate as the first ever US President to resign from office. Leading up to that historical moment as with all historically momentous occasions were a series of events; some minor and some major. There were also the actors and again, some with small roles and others with major roles to play.
Bob Woodward and his colleague on the Washington Post had major parts to play in this chapter of American history as they were the investigative reporters that exposed what really was behind a break in that led to the Watergate scandal that did eventually bring Richard Nixon down.
Their story was written in ‘All The President’s Men’ which was made into a movie.
Alexander P Butterfield who is described as the last of the President’s men was hired by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H R ‘Bob Haldeman’ to work as an aide to the President. This placed Butterfield in an office next to the Oval Office. In his position as aide he was most likely to be the first person to see the President in the morning and the last to see him at night.
Why a book about Alexander P Butterfield?
He was partly responsible for installing the voice activated recording system on President Nixon’s orders that would record conversations in the Oval Office, the Lincoln Room and various other parts of the White House. No one beyond a narrow band of cohorts new about the system. Not even Henry Kissinger.
Out of a sense of loyalty to the President he did not come forward to any committees voluntarily. In the end he was escorted by Federal Officers to attend to a Senate Committee investigating the Watergate break and tell them all he knew about the recording system. The Senate Committee was also investigating the possibility of a cover up reaching as far the President. Once it was known there was such a system the tapes were demanded and revealed Nixon’s complicity in events.
That is the historical side of the story but more interesting is the back story of what people in high office were like. President Nixon was very complex, carried a bitter hatred against his enemies, was uneasy in the company of strangers yet paradoxically made one of the boldest moves in geopolitics of the 20th Century by opening up China. Kissinger was always late for meetings and even held up Air Force One due to bad timekeeping.
Bob Woodward prepared this book in 2011 during the first of several meetings with Alexander P Butterfield. Then there was a gap until 2014 and then a final rush of meetings in 2015 leading up to publication. A rich irony of these meetings was that they were recorded on tape or video. Bob Woodward was also given access to personal files and records that his subject had kept from his days in the White House as an aide.
In addition to the narration of the story there is an appendix of some 73 pages of White House memos and handwritten notes none of which have had any redaction including where Nixon scrawled his comments across one page of memo admitting all the bombing of North Vietnam had amounted to ‘zilch’ towards shortening or even ending the war.
The writing is clear and economical. It is inquisitive but by no means accusatorial. It shows Alexander P Butterfield as a person of integrity and loyalty who was swept up in something that he could not control. Instead of being able to ride events he was driven by them to take his own course of action.