The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House
The Nixon Memo
In 1974, Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office to avoid being impeached. In 1994, after his death, he was apotheosized as if he had been one of the greatest of American presidents. What accounts for such an extraordinary transformation?
It was not the first time that Nixon had staged a remarkable recovery. After having served as Eisenhower’s vice-president, he was defeated by John F. Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960—narrowly defeated and perhaps fraudulently defeated but defeated. He was beaten again by Edmund G. Brown in a race for the governorship of California in 1962. He bore the stigma of two successive failures and wondered whether to continue in politics. But, as he himself related, he realized that “there was no other life for me but politics and public service.”1 He came back to win the presidency against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in 1968. It was his reward for twenty-two years of almost continuous political campaigning, beginning with a successful run for the House of Representatives in 1946.
In the end, Nixon’s presidency is going to decide his place in history. It has been studied with care, especially in the second volume of Stephen E. Ambrose’s three-volume history, but all the work will now have to be reconsidered, revised, and rewritten. The upheaval in the Nixon cottage industry has been caused by the publication of The Haldeman Diaries, a work that is indispensable for an understanding of the Nixon years in the White House. In his introduction, Ambrose himself says that he would like to write another book based on the diaries. There has been a recent rash of books on Nixon, all of which have suffered the same fate.
Harry Robbins Haldeman—better known as H.R. or, more familiarly, Bob—was a rising young member of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in Los Angeles, when he volunteered to work in Nixon’s vice-presidential campaign in 1956. Twelve years later, Haldeman was assistant to the president and chief of staff in the White House. Of all Nixon’s lieutenants, he was the most trusted, the most ubiquitous, the most powerful. If a historian had had a fantasy of knowing all that one man nearest to Nixon had known, he would have chosen Haldeman.
This fantasy has become a reality, because Haldeman kept a diary, beginning on January 18, 1969 and ending on April 30, 1973. About 40 per cent of the total diary has been published in this book of 684 pages, including an introduction and afterword by Stephen Ambrose, a foreword by Haldeman, and a prefatory note and final note by Haldeman’s widow, Jo. The rest is available on CD-ROM. Only a small amount was deleted on the grounds of national security.
As far as I know, this diary is unique. We have never had such an extended and detailed account from a chief of staff. My impression is that Haldeman set down the events of the day in flat, workaday prose, almost always without trying to do more than that. He was such a true believer that he did not think it necessary to make Nixon look good or argue for one side or another. He does not tell all, because he was sometimes not with Nixon and did not take part in all of Nixon’s meetings and conversations. But he was present at so many of them that he was able to record Nixon’s innermost thinking and his political dealings, and an unrivaled portrait of the President comes through. We get very little sense of Haldeman himself; he seems to be satisfied to put down what he heard from his master.
As a result, this diary and Nixon’s tapes—when they are all made available—should give us an insight into this presidency with a far greater intimacy and authenticity than that for any other president in American history. Since only a small portion of the 4,000 hours of tapes have so far been made public, the story of the Nixon presidency may have to be rewritten again. But for now, Haldeman’s diary takes precedence over everything else that we have.
The mind of Richard Nixon reveals itself nakedly in Haldeman’s diaries.
Nixon had a familiar collection of phobias. He believed that whites and blacks should not mix. In 1970, he wanted Haldeman to tell the staff that he “does not believe in integration, will carry out the law, nothing more.” In that same year, he said that it was not really possible to communicate with blacks, “except with Uncle Toms and we should work on them and forget militants.” In 1972, he “decided to take the hard line against integration.” He did not want to have black servants at White House functions and moved to “shift away from all black waiters.”
Nixon was even more hostile to Jews. He was so angry with Jews who boycotted a visit by French President Georges Pompidou, who had sold jet fighters to Libya, that he canceled a delivery of jets to Israel. All the Jews “seem to be the ones that are for liberalizing the regulations on marijuana.” The “place for us is not with the Jews and the Negroes.” He lamented with Billy Graham, who served him politically, “the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media.” In one of the tapes, Nixon declared: “The arts, you know, they’re Jews, they’re left wing.”
Nixon was also no champion of women’s rights. He read a book by H.G. Wells which led him to say that “Wells has the feeling that the solution to all problems is education for everyone, and that’s a terrible idea, especially for women.”
But he had a particular hatred for two other categories of people. The press sent him into tirades and fulminations. It was the “enemy,” he told Senator Edward Kennedy. He early recognized the importance of television; “a one-network TV deal is worth a hundred times the writing press all put together.” But he also believed “the press and TV don’t change their attitude and approach unless you hurt them.”
He feared the press but had only contempt for intellectuals. “In this period of our history,” he held forth, “the leaders and the educated class are decadent. Whenever you ask for patriotic support, they all run away: the college types, the professors, the elite, etc.” He was always ready to go into “his anti-college-education spiel.”2
Nixon saw enemies everywhere. He once claimed that “we’ve checked and found that 96 per cent of the bureaucracy are against us; they’re bastards who are here to screw us.” The departments were “full of vipers.” There was even a “conspiracy of the White House staff that he feels is out to get him.”
Though he was elected as a Republican in 1968, Nixon was not really a Republican. Beginning in January 1970, he began to plot the replacement of the Republican party by a new, Nixonite party, one that would draw on some of the same groups, including Southern Democrats, that had helped to elect him in 1968. He explained to Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, the White House counsel, the “need to build our own new coalition based on Silent Majority, blue collar, Catholic, Poles, Italians, Irish. No promise with Jews and Negroes.” It was to be right-wing but not “hard right-wing.” This project preoccupied him almost to the end of his presidency. At different times its name was “Conservative Party,” “Independent Conservative Party,” or “Republican Independent Party.” He wanted decisions to be based on political grounds, with special emphasis on “Italians, Poles, Elks and Rotarians, eliminate Jews, blacks, youth.” In April 1972, he thought that he and John B. Connally, the renegade Democrat whom he had appointed secretary of the Treasury, “could move to build a new party, the Independent Conservative Party, or something of that sort, that would bring in a coalition of Southern Democrats and other conservative Democrats, along with middle-road to conservative Republicans.” If they could bring it off, he saw Connally as the new party’s candidate for president in 1976.
In this way and in others, he was a little man with big ideas. He had especially big ideas about arranging his place in history. His heroes in the twentieth century were Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Connally fed his ambition to be regarded on their level by telling him that “the big thing about all of them is their comeback from defeat, not their conduct of wars, etc. Connally feels we should very much build the comeback story” to advance Nixon’s claim to fame.
Nixon was not willing to let the future decide whether he merited the same rank. He kept driving his staff to portray him as if he already had heroic stature, “especially since the death of de Gaulle, we have a real opportunity to build the P[resident] as the world leader.” De Gaulle inspired him: “Thinking about schedule, he feels he should be more aloof, inaccessible, mysterious, i.e., de Gaulle feels overexposure detracts from impact.” He once complained that we “haven’t inculcated in all the staff the view that their job is to build the P[resident], not themselves.” He wanted to become a mythological figure: “He got back on the general PR [public relations] question again, the point that we’ve not created a mythology, that the courage, boldness, and guts hasn’t [sic] come across.” Yet he later decided that “he was completely wrong in his original concept about building mystique and image. Realizes this is impossible.”
One of his “basic rules” to his staff was: “It’s extremely important that the leader never be in the position to allow the impression that he was wrong.” He seemed to live in two different worlds—the fantasies of his yearning for greatness and the realities of his personal shortcomings and political excesses.
The Vietnam War, which Nixon inherited from Lyndon Johnson, was the greatest test of his presidency. Until now, we have mainly known about the negotiations to end the war from Nixon’s national security adviser and negotiator, Henry Kissinger. The Haldeman diaries give a somewhat different version of what actually happened.
Kissinger occupies a large part of Haldeman’s book. Despite Nixon’s respect for his abilities, Nixon, if one can trust Haldeman, almost gave up on him. Pages of the diaries are filled with references to Kissinger’s tantrums, “unbelievable ego,” vendetta with Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and rivalry with Nixon himself. On November 21, 1972, Haldeman recorded that “If Time has a Man of the Year this year and doesn’t give it to Nixon, it’ll probably go to K[issinger], which would really cre-ate a problem. I’m going to have to handle it. P[resident] really feels he [Kissinger] should leave by midyear.” But by midyear, Nixon was wholly embroiled in the Watergate scandal and in August 1973 decided to appoint Kissinger as secretary of state. The hot-and-cold nature of the Nixon-Kissinger relationship is one of the main features of Haldeman’s book.
The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Simon and Schuster, 1978)↩
In Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), Kissinger strangely claims that Nixon "admired as much as he envied" the graduates of the best schools and the members of the Establishment" (p. 676). One wonders whether Kissinger or Haldeman completely misunderstood Nixon. Yet Nixon was an avid, even compulsive, reader of current magazines and books, as if he had a secret admiration for those he professed to scorn and a desire to keep up with them.↩
The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Simon and Schuster, 1978)↩
In Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994), Kissinger strangely claims that Nixon “admired as much as he envied” the graduates of the best schools and the members of the Establishment” (p. 676). One wonders whether Kissinger or Haldeman completely misunderstood Nixon. Yet Nixon was an avid, even compulsive, reader of current magazines and books, as if he had a secret admiration for those he professed to scorn and a desire to keep up with them.↩