Government & Politics

Four decades after Watergate, Alexander Butterfield has plenty to say

Alexander Butterfield, now age 89, was the White House aide who revealed the existence of the secret White House taping system during the Watergate scandal.
Alexander Butterfield, now age 89, was the White House aide who revealed the existence of the secret White House taping system during the Watergate scandal. Bloomberg

In July 2011, a tall man in his 80s with neatly parted, snowy white hair checked into a hotel on Capitol Hill.

This man once possessed one of Washington’s most scintillating and damning secrets. But that was long ago, and time had almost forgotten him.

At home in California, he’d sometimes get quizzical looks from other guests at the society galas he attended during the many years he dated Audrey Geisel, the widow of legendary children’s author Dr. Seuss.

“Butter-who?” they’d say.

“Water-what?”

But the identity of Alexander P. Butterfield and his singular role in American history as the presidential aide who revealed the existence of a secret taping system in President Richard Nixon’s White House was elementary to the caller on the other end of the line when Butterfield arrived at the Washington hotel for a visit.

“Would you mind spending the day with me?” asked Bob Woodward, who’d won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting with Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post on the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon’s presidency.

As a young reporter chasing the Watergate story in the early 1970s, Woodward had been so determined to speak with Butterfield that he’d driven to the former presidential aide’s home in Virginia and knocked on the door. Nothing but silence and the subtle parting of curtains in a window greeted him.

But on a day in 2011, Woodward collected Butterfield at the hotel and drove him out to a home Woodward owned in Maryland, chatting amiably all the way.

“People aren’t still writing about Nixon, are they?” Butterfield asked in the car.

Woodward assured him they were.

The two men hit it off. They talked for hours with a tape recorder rolling. Woodward, now 72, thought Butterfield might make a good newspaper story. Butterfield didn’t know what to think. Nearly three years passed.

Ultimately, Butterfield would be the topic of a Woodward book.

Butterfield, it turns out, had many more secrets to reveal, many more insights to share. He had walked away from the Nixon White House with boxes and boxes of paper, a trove of handwritten notes from the president, memos on fragile onion skin, invitations. Some were consequential, such as a handwritten note in which Nixon opined that years of heavy bombing in Southeast Asia was accomplishing “zilch,” even as he was saying the opposite in public.

Others were less monumental, but they gave glimpses of Nixon’s paranoia and vindictiveness. All that material, so voluminous that Butterfield had to stack some of it in an unused shower stall of his penthouse apartment in California, lends a historical bedrock to Woodward’s 18th book, “The Last of the President’s Men,” published Tuesday.

There was a time when Butterfield thought he would tell his own story. In the 1990s, he said, he signed up with a publisher, who then rejected his manuscript, Butterfield said.

Butterfield is not being paid for “The Last of the President’s Men,” published by Simon & Schuster. He ceded full editorial control to Woodward.

Butterfield hadn’t envisioned his life becoming a historical footnote. When Nixon was elected in 1968, Butterfield was a 42-year-old colonel in the Air Force. He was on track to become a general, but to reach his goal of becoming the top uniformed officer in the Air Force, he felt he needed to get closer to the action — “the smoke,” as he called it — either in Washington or commanding a wing in the ongoing Vietnam War.

He saw an opportunity when he read that H.R. Haldeman, whom he’d befriended while attending college classes, was heading Nixon’s transition team. Haldeman chose Butterfield as his deputy.

That’s when things got weird.

In the White House, Haldeman schooled Butterfield on Nixon’s quirks. Everything was designed to prevent Nixon from getting “spooked” or feeling uncomfortable. Butterfield would need to use yellow legal pads. Never white. He must study Haldeman’s manner and mimic it precisely.

“If you don’t do things exactly as I do, it could upset him,” Haldeman told Butterfield.

Butterfield told Woodward that when he finally got to meet the president, Nixon could not speak. He made some unintelligible guttural noises and awkwardly moved a foot back and forth over the Oval Office carpet. At other times, Nixon could be rude.

But there were endearing moments, too. Butterfield told Woodward that Nixon insisted that he bring his daughter to the White House after she’d been released from the hospital following a serious car accident that knocked out some of her front teeth.

“You see those teeth right there,” Nixon told Butterfield’s daughter while tapping his front teeth. “They’re not mine.”

“I loved Nixon for that,” Butterfield told Woodward.

Butterfield developed a knack for wrangling people who resisted being wrangled. Nixon was ever complaining about Henry Kissinger, who served as national security adviser and later as secretary of state. Kissinger was always showing up late for meetings. Once, Butterfield said, he was waiting in the helicopter with the president for Kissinger. Butterfield had to jump out and go in search of Kissinger.

Serving as an intermediary between the president and Nixon’s wife, Pat, was a more delicate matter. Butterfield describes Nixon as a lonely soul who had a cold and distant relationship with his wife. He told Woodward that he considered Pat Nixon a “borderline abused” wife. The president would frequently ignore her when they were together, Butterfield said.

“I wanted to shake him,” Butterfield said, to urge Nixon to “answer her” because “she’s your wife!”

Butterfield told Woodward about two seemingly improper encounters Nixon had with White House secretaries. One involved a long dinner with a secretary at Camp David that she described as “the most painful, uncomfortable evening of my life.”

“What!” Butterfield told Woodward he said to the woman. “Did he make a move or something?”

The woman responded: “An awful lot of starting to make moves and then withdrawing.”

Another time, Butterfield told Woodward, the president repeatedly patted the leg of a secretary who was wearing a short miniskirt, and made awkward conversation while Butterfield sat nearby.

But asked recently whether he thought Nixon was unfaithful, Butterfield said, without hesitation, that he wasn’t.

“I felt so sorry for him,” Butterfield said of Nixon. Presented the opportunity to commit adultery, Butterfield said, Nixon “wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Butterfield might never have become a historic figure if not for a request made on Feb. 10, 1971, during the third year of Nixon’s presidency. Woodward writes that Nixon’s aide, Larry Higby, told Butterfield that “the president wants a taping system installed, and Bob (Haldeman) wants you to take care of it.”

Butterfield arranged for the Secret Service to install hidden microphones in the Oval Office; five were embedded in Nixon’s desk; others were tucked into lamps on the fireplace mantel.

The White House felt like a “cesspool” to Butterfield, and eventually he had had enough. He wanted out.

“I thought to myself, ‘…I am now an accomplice in an abusive government,” he said in a recent interview.

Nixon gave him an out. He named Butterfield administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

In early 1973, with the Watergate scandal in full flower and investigative hearings being held on Capitol Hill, Woodward got a curious piece of information from two sources, including the famed “Deep Throat.” They told him that Butterfield was in charge of “internal security” at the White House. That got Woodward thinking.

He asked a source on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate affair whether Butterfield had been interviewed. Butterfield believes that Woodward’s questions prompted the committee to call him to testify.

Butterfield was called in for a closed-door meeting with committee staffers on July 13, 1973. Before the meeting, Butterfield wrestled with conflicting emotions; he resolved to discuss the taping system only if asked a direct question about it.

“I liked him a hell of a lot,” Butterfield said of Nixon. “We had all these bonding moments.”

Regardless, as he had expected, Butterfield was questioned by committee staffers about the taping system. He confirmed its existence, urging them not to call him to testify in public. He warned that national security would be jeopardized and foreign leaders would be furious about being taped without their knowledge.

Three days later, there was a news bulletin about a “mystery witness” in the Watergate hearings. It was Butterfield. Under questioning by minority counsel Fred Thompson, the future senator and actor, Butterfield confirmed the existence of the taping system.

The secret was out.

In a recent interview, Butterfield kept returning to what was going through his head in the days before and after his historic revelation. It’s almost as if, after all these years, he’s still refining his answer, still sorting through his feelings. He wants everyone to understand the nuances of that moment when he was faced with the prospect of revealing a secret entrusted to him.

“That’s the last thing I wanted to do,” he said.

The Woodward book states that Butterfield was motivated, in part at least, by a desire to take credit. He had, after all, once told a friend, “I do believe I could bring down the president.”

“I don’t like that term — credit,” Butterfield said recently. “I don’t want credit.”

Making history made Butterfield a pariah, or at least that’s how he said he felt. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, President Gerald Ford asked Butterfield to step down as head of the FAA.

Eventually, Butterfield signed on as a chief operating officer of an air transport company, and later started a consulting company and settled down in the San Diego area.

Over the years, he watched, with some amusement, the guessing game about who was Woodward and Bernstein’s source.

“We were all Deep Throat for a while,” he cracked. “I was Deep Throat for two weeks. Then it was (White House counsel) Len Garment. Then it was (White House chief of staff) Al Haig.”

In the mid-1990s, Butterfield publicly theorized that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a deputy director of the FBI, who’d been passed over for the top job at the agency. A decade later, Felt acknowledged publicly that he was Deep Throat. Butterfield had been right.

At age 89, Butterfield still walks two miles a day. From time to time, he runs into Nixon loyalists, former administration staffers who hold reunions in Washington. They assure him he’d be welcome at their gatherings.

He doesn’t believe them.

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