On August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) resigned from his position as the thirty-seventh Commander-In-Chief. In the months preceding his announcement, the Watergate scandal investigation had gained significant traction and Nixon faced the possibility of impeachment. The nation watched in shock and silence as Nixon gave his speech. It marked the first and only time in history that a United States President had resigned from office. In the decades that followed, scores of books, articles, and documentaries have been published regarding the Watergate affair. I strongly recommend Fred Emery’s “Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon“. It is a fascinating account of the scandal and the fallout that ensued. Within Nixon’s inner circle was his Chief of Staff Harry Robbins “Bob” Haldeman (1926-1993), known simply as H.R. Haldeman. The former insider served eighteen months at the Lompoc, California Federal minimum-security facility after being convicted on one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of lying under oath. During his time in Washington, Haldeman kept a meticulous daily diary that he intended to publish following his release from prison. However, he passed suddenly on November 12, 1993, at his home in Santa Barbara, California. But all hope was not lost. His widow Joanne continued her husband’s goal and worked extensively to have them published. They are presented here in this book that deserves a rightful place in the annals of historical non-fiction.
Haldeman’s ability to keep a daily diary in addition to his tasks during the day is astonishing. Anyone who has worked in Washington will tell that every day is a roller coaster ride of appointments, statements, problems, and success. As Chief of Staff, Haldeman faced the brunt of these problems and was one of the few people that Nixon trusted the most. However, Joanna points out early in the book that the two were not close friends. In fact, throughout the book, it is clear that no one in the administration really knew the real Richard Nixon. But that did not deter his cabinet from doing their best to serve the White House in whichever way necessary. The daily diary entries are primarily short snippets of the day’s events. Readers will notice the change in the length of the notes after Haldeman switches to a dictation machine. The notes become extensive but if we follow closely, we are provided a rare look into Nixon’s White House.
This book is not an examination of Nixon himself or an attempt to discern why he took certain actions. In fact, Nixon changed his mind on things daily. Haldeman made notes of what he saw, heard, and did with his own observations added. The hotbed issues of the time are sprinkled throughout the story. Vietnam and Civil Rights are the biggest concerns with the latter being the issue that Nixon never fully understood. Interestingly, Nixon does not oppose civil rights but his ideas on how to achieve it come off as misguided. And his obsession with the Kennedy family reveals the lingering insecurities he could never move past. I also took note of the discord within his administration, mostly centered around National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William P. Rogers (1913-2001). The Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996) is not mentioned as much as I would have thought but Haldeman does refer to the scandal that led to his resignation.
As I read the book, there were times where I was not exactly sure what to make of Nixon. Undoubtedly, he was not a liberal and appealed to more conversative voters. But he was not far right either and makes multiple statements about both political parties that will surprise readers. And had he succeeded with his own vision for the future of American politics, the political landscape as we know it today would be quite different. Nixon was a shrewd politician, seasoned by his years in the Senate and in the White House. He understood the political spectrum and how to exploit openings. But his paranoia and failure to grasp changes in society helped contribute to his downfall.
Nothing in the diaries comes off as explosive until June 17-18, 1972, when the White House learns of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. As one would expect, the book picks up in pace with the Nixon Administration taking action to contain the story and limit its exposure, even if that meant obstruction of justice. Haldeman writes himself that obstruction might be necessary. It is not clear from the diaries if he knew of the operation beforehand, but he did support and take part in covering up evidence of Nixon’s complicity. His nickname “Iron Chancellor” did not come about without reason. As I read his notes, I understood Haldeman’s position. His job was to protect the president at all costs. Nixon was aware of his devotion and initially resisted pressure to make Haldeman resign. However, the Watergate scandal was becoming a major threat and far from the small issue that it was originally thought to be by Nixon and former President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) whom Nixon consulted on various issues. This too may surprise readers.
I believe we may never know who the real Richard Nixon was. There is no simple explanation to describe him. His administration did pull the country to the right, but he also had ideas that would be embraced by the left today. He has been called a bigot, but he also supported integration and equality. He wanted to end the war in Vietnam, but approved bombing raids in Cambodia. He campaigned on law and order but strongly believed in female judges. He never fully trusted the State Department though it is critical to an administration. He is a conservative icon, yet he signed into law the act that created the Environment Protection Agency. The mystery may be what Nixon wanted to leave behind. Haldeman’s job was not to figure him out but to do the best job possible as chief of staff. In this area he succeeded, and Joanna includes this statement by the late president about his assistant whom people called an “S.O.B.”:
“I have known Bob Haldeman to be a man of rare intelligence, strength, integrity, and courage … He played an indispensable role in turbulent times as our Administration undertook a broad range of initiatives at home and abroad.” – Richard M. Nixon
If you are curious about the administration or Richard Nixon and the actions behind the scenes, this book which contains the personal diary of H.R. Haldeman is must-read. Highly recommended.