Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Richard Nixon's S.O.B.

"Every president needs an S.O.B. — and I'm Nixon's."

H.R. Haldeman

My family was still out of the country when former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman took the witness stand at the Senate Watergate Committee's hearings 40 years ago today so I didn't see him testify, but I'm sure he was quite a sight.

He always was in those days. He was kind of a Mephistopheles with a crewcut, I guess; with the German surname, he always seemed more sinister than the rest — to me, anyway. Maybe it was the influence of those World War II movies I watched as a child.

Haldeman and former White House aide John Ehrlichman were known as Richard Nixon's "Berlin Wall" because of their Germanic surnames and their tendency to restrict access to the Oval Office.

They also had the shared trait of unquestioned loyalty to their leader — even when that leader had forced them to resign only a few months earlier.

Haldeman's testimony had been eagerly anticipated because of his special position in the Nixon White House as chief of staff. The job was still new and evolving when Haldeman became chief of staff, but he appeared to relish its reputation as a presidential "gatekeeper."

It was said Haldeman was closer to Nixon than anyone else in the White House (with the possible exception of Nixon's wife). The word around Washington was that he was the first person to see Nixon each morning and the last to see him each night — and, because of the nature of his job, he saw Nixon many, many times in between.

It was to be expected, therefore, that he would be a Nixon defender on the stand. And he was.

"I have full confidence," he told the Watergate committee 40 years ago, "that when the entire truth is known, it will be clear to the American people that President Nixon had no knowledge of or involvement in either the Watergate affair itself or the subsequent effort of a 'coverup' of the Watergate."

Ironically, the Watergate figure with whom Haldeman probably had the most in common 40 years ago today — at least on the surface — was John Dean, who had testified a month earlier.

Both men delivered lengthy statements on their first days on the witness stand and answered questions on the other days. But that was where the similarities ended. Their stories were quite different.

In his statement 40 years ago today, Haldeman insisted that he and Richard Nixon had no knowledge of the Watergate break–in and that Dean had "badly misled" them. He also said he had listened recently to the tape of the March 21, 1973 meeting between Nixon and Dean in which Dean warned Nixon that there was a "cancer ... close to the presidency."

Haldeman observed that he had participated in part of that meeting but had missed the first hour — and the edited transcripts that Nixon released the following spring confirmed that.

Dean, Haldeman told the committee, "[had], in a number of instances, misinterpreted the intent or implications of things that might have been said."

Haldeman went on to say that "[h]aving observed the president all those years, in many different situations, it was very clear to me on March 21 that the president was exploring and probing; that he was surprised; that he was trying to find out what in the world was going on; he didn't understand how this all fit together, and he was trying to find out."

However, "It is impossible," wrote Theodore H. White, "to misinterpret the flow of [Dean's and Nixon's] conversation; the president [had] ordered Dean to buy time for him ..."

On the stand the next day, Haldeman vigorously denied participating in a coverup, then he wrapped up his testimony on the third day by describing his proposal to link Communist protests to the campaign for the Democrats' nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

But as each member of the committee took his turn questioning Haldeman, it was increasingly clear that Haldeman knew little (or said he knew little) of the important details of key events that other witnesses had described.

For example, Haldeman — a man known for taking meticulous notes on large legal pads — said he could not recall when he first heard of the Watergate burglary. Even Haldeman admitted that was "incredible."

Haldeman's opening statement may also have included the public unveiling of one of the most noxious justifications for Watergate that was offered by the Nixon White House. In an almost offhand kind of way, Haldeman alleged that the Democrats engaged in far more serious sabotage during the 1972 campaign than the Republicans.

Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut Republican (and an unsuccessful candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 1980) who loathed the Nixon White House and considered its behavior a betrayal of GOP principles, challenged Haldeman on that point. He produced a memo from Haldeman to Dean suggesting that Dean spread a story linking Communists to protests in which McGovern supporters also participated.

The inescapable conclusion — for anyone who had been paying attention to the hearings — was that the memo confirmed what Dean had said about paranoia in the White House in general and in Nixon's and Haldeman's minds specifically.

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation came when Haldeman spoke of the White House tapes.

In just a couple of weeks since they learned of the tapes' existence, the senators on the committee had clearly come to regard the tapes as crucial to their investigation, but they had been denied access to them. However, Haldeman spoke almost nonchalantly about keeping several of the tapes at his home in a 48–hour period earlier that month and listening to a specific tape at the president's request.

This was only a few months after Nixon had asked for and received Haldeman's resignation.

Haldeman's lawyer read into the record a White House letter instructing Haldeman not to discuss the contents of the tapes, but Haldeman seemed oddly eager to speak about them, anyway. He asserted that the tapes proved that Nixon did not know as much about the coverup as Dean had claimed.

Committee chairman Sam Ervin was skeptical, contending that the White House and Haldeman had done some "canoodling together" to leak a sanitized version of the tapes in the hearings while keeping the originals from the committee's scrutiny.

Weicker wondered aloud how the White House could justify letting Haldeman listen to the tapes while denying that privilege to Dean and the others.

Sen. Daniel Inouye was skeptical that anyone could be sure the tapes had not been tampered with while they had been unguarded in Haldeman's possession.

And majority counsel Sam Dash pondered the question of how Nixon could claim the tapes were confidential when he allowed Haldeman — a private citizen at that point — to keep some in his home.

There were no answers from Richard Nixon's S.O.B.

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