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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Bob Woodward’s “The Last of the President’s Men”

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Bob Woodward joined me on today’s show to discuss his new book: The Last of the President’s Men:

Audio:

10-23hhs-woodward

Transcript:

HH: A quarter century ago when I was the executive director of the Nixon Library, I banned for three days my next guest from the Nixon Library until Richard Nixon told me that was stupid and not to do that. Bob Woodward, of course, needs no introduction. He’s worked for the Washington Post for 44 years. He’s the author of almost a dozen bestselling books, including the brand new, The Last Of The President’s Men. Bob Woodward, first, welcome, second, my apologies for a youthful indiscretion 25 years ago.

BW: (Laughing) Well, you were, look, there’s a lot of contentious back and forth on Nixon, and his era, and I did not take it personally, though it was directed at me by name, personally.

HH: I know, it was me, and it wasn’t him. I wanted you to know that. I was asked at the end of an L.A. Times reporter’s extensive survey of the archives, is there anyone that can’t use this, and I say well, maybe not Bob Woodward, and that was just stupid on my part, so I’m sorry. This is a fascinating book about Alexander Butterfield, who is one of the few Nixon guys I have never met. And it comes out of nowhere, and it surprises everyone. Are people surprised to see that Butterfield is still around and talking to Bob Woodward?

BW: Yes, he’s 89. He’s never told his story, and of course, he hauled away thousands of documents from the Nixon White House when he left, and some of them are quite remarkable and original, and give us a new layer of Nixon. And you would think that we have had every layer possible.

HH: Well, I want to talk in particular about the bombing memo and a couple of the other ones.

BW: Yes, sure.

HH: But I have to ask, the irony, of course, of my first conversation with you is it comes the day after Hillary Clinton spent 11 hours testifying on her secret server and her emails. Is it lost on you, Bob Woodward, that there’s a parallel between Nixon’s tapes being disclosed by Alexander Butterfield and Hillary’s secret server coming to light at the same time?

BW: Well, I’ve said from the onset about the emails that this reminded me of the Nixon taping system, and a lot of people got upset at my comment. And I said chiefly, it’s because of the volume, 60,000 emails. If we had all your emails, your 60,000 of them, we would learn a great deal about you. And of course, there are some revelations in all of this, so I suspect, like the Nixon tapes, though, let’s hope it’s not decades of disclosures from them as it has been from the secret White House taping system Nixon had, but that this is going to go on a while, and it should.

HH: Now what’s interesting about The Last Of The President’s Men is it occurred to me as I was finishing the book as Mrs. Clinton testified. Nobody asked her in the course of 11 hours if there were any other servers in the way that no one had asked Butterfield until he sat down with Scott Armstrong, no one had asked him point blank, and then it wasn’t even Armstrong, it was the deputy counsel or the minority counsel, no one asked her yesterday if there are any other server systems. Were you surprised by that? Did they not learn from history?

BW: Well, other server systems or taping systems, did she keep a diary, did she dictate her recollections at the end of each day and so forth, so there are many possible questions there. And my, as with Butterfield, who was that man who had the office next to Nixon for so long, for three years next to the Oval Office, I did 46 hours of interviews with him, and just, in many cases, would return to the essential why did you do this, how did it happen, he had all these documents. And then he would tell stories based on the documents. And frankly, in a couple of cases, when he told stories, I was skeptical, and then I saw the documents that backed it up.

HH: And he just loaded up his car, and his wife loaded up his car. This is back in the days when you could do that. When I served in the White House under President Reagan, your documents were taken from you. How many other document caches are out there, do you think, Bob Woodward, because there are people, and I could just name a few – Jack Brennan and Ron Walker and Sandy Quinn and Ray Price, and the irreplaceable Loie Gaunt, whom no one has never talked to. Those are all of the President’s men. I don’t know that their documents have ever been gone through.

BW: Well, I always have, I’ve had a theory for a long time that somebody who works in that position, White House, CIA, Pentagon, will at least take a box back home for the attic. And in the case of Butterfield, of course, it was 20 boxes. And I don’t think anyone has 20 boxes, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

HH: Now there are other President’s men, RN guys. There’s me, there’s John Taylor, there’s Paul Bateman, and of course, there’s David Eisenhower. Do you think there’s more coming? Or is Nixon the inexhaustible source of, you know, Evan Thomas just wrote this terrific book about Nixon. You’ve got another book out about Nixon. Is he the most interesting president?

BW: Well, he certainly, look, it was the Nixon era. And it wasn’t only Watergate and his resignation, but it’s, I think, as we dig into it more, how did he manage the Vietnam War, which was the most consequential thing going on during his presidency, other than the criminality of Watergate. And so as I started looking at some of the Butterfield documents, and then kind of walking the cat back, and how does this compare with other documents, you see the extent to which both Nixon and Kissinger laundered their memoirs and let things out that they actually denied. So there’s always work to be done. I particularly think on the Vietnam War, which cast such a shadow over America, American foreign policy and the presidency.

HH: It’s interesting, Bob Woodward, your conclusion that Nixon is most significant for Vietnam and Watergate. Mine is that he is most significant for China and the eventually destruction of the USSR brought about by SALT I and the opening that allowed Reagan to exploit it down the road. People can argue about this for years, but now…

BW: And they will. And they should. That’s fine.

HH: So do you think that’s why he kept the tapes? You do have a section in there about why he kept the tapes. He thought they would exonerate him, and I’ve heard that. And in the two years that I worked for the President, the first time and the year and a half the second time, I never once asked him that question. But it’s always the most interesting question. Why did he keep the tapes? Give them your explanation.

BW: Yeah, I think he thought, and he made it very clear, and he said in his memoir that no one would ever reveal it, the secret system, that he felt, and this is Watergate, and this is the management of the Vietnam War and lots of other things. He felt he was in a cocoon. Ah, I’m president, I’m unassailable, and Butterfield even at one point says, you know, no one can really bring down the White House, that they are impervious.

HH: When he sat down with the Dash staff, Armstrong and the minority counsel staff, was there, in your mind, at any moment, Butterfield might not have revealed it?

BW: Well, what he says in looking back, and there’s a whole, long section in the book which is kind of a psychodrama about, you know, what was driving him, his ex-wife, his wife at the time, said she was sure he wanted to tell about the taping system. He kind of denies that, but then he says unconsciously, he might have wanted to. He, of course, could have got a lawyer and delayed the whole process for a long time. So there, this is, you know, in our business, what we try to do is find out why people do things. And it’s complex, the more you peel it.

HH: More on motive when I come back with Bob Woodward.

— – — –

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Bob Woodward. I never thought I’d say that, but I hope he comes back often. He is the author of the brand new book, The Last Of The President’s Men, fascinating, riveting, actually series of investigations into Alexander Butterfield, who was deputy chief of staff, deputy to Haldeman during the key years of the Nixon presidency, and the man who revealed, of course, to the Watergate Committee the existence of the White House taping system. Bob Woodward sat down with him for close to 50 hours, examined his documents. But if I had to point to the most interesting two pages, Bob Woodward, it’s Page 159 and 160 when you go to motive. And you quote in very dense paragraphs Immanuel Kant, J.D. Salinger, John le Carre and Joseph Conrad as you try and explore his motive. And I have my own theory, but you state it first. What, well, let me put it this way. After I read your portrait of Butterfield, it seems that he was easily offended and held grudges for a very long time, and that Nixon was rude to him the first time he met him.

BW: Yes, and then they made up, and everything was kind of rosy. But you’re absolutely right, he’s one of these people who couldn’t let go, to a certain extent, like Nixon, though Nixon much more dramatically couldn’t let go of slights in the past. And there’s example after example in the book where he just is enraged about something that happened five, six years earlier. I mean, here he is, president of the United States, and he goes into and has a fit about not being invited by his law partners when he was in New York as a lawyer to their country club.

HH: You know what’s interesting to me, Bob Woodward, I worked for him from ’78-’80, and again from ’89-’91. There was not a hint of that, not a scintilla of that. Now that’s after the fall, correct? That’s after the resignation, and it might be a life-changing experience, and of course, a brush with death with phlebitis. But when you were writing about motive, I made a margin note here, what’s W.’s motive? And that’s not about this book, but about your career. What’s been Bob Woodward’s motive?

BW: Well, I try and, you know, people will disagree with this from the left and the right who say oh, you’re a lefty, or you’re some red meat conservative, I try to be as rigorously empirical as I can. And I think in this book, it has that chapter, I think it’s a wonderful chapter, of Nixon’s mind, and how he talks to John, sends John Ehrlichman a memo…

HH: It is, oh yeah.

BW: And it ought to be taught in business schools about how to get somebody who works for you to sign on completely and take on a difficult or important task.

HH: You conclude in The Last Of The President’s Men that Nixon sought two years, three years out, that he would set in motion plans and stratagems that would not come to fruition for two or three years? Clearly, that was the case with the People’s Republic of China when he began with the Foreign Affairs article in ’68. Have you seen that in any other president since?

BW: Well, that’s, of course, strategic thinking. And there’s clearly not enough of it. You know, you mentioned China and the Soviet Union, and I think that’s important in the Nixon presidency. But what finally dawned on me, decades ago, is that it’s the Republicans who drove Nixon from office. It’s Barry Goldwater, the former Senator from Arizona, that in many ways, the conscience of the conservative Republicans, who went to Nixon, and Goldwater told me and my colleague, Carl Bernstein, too many lies, too many crimes. And you can have somebody as president do the things Nixon did, but it’s the law-breaking on such a scale, the lying on such a scale. I think that, really, that the conservative Republicans are the ones who were most upset. And in the book, as you point out, there is this memo in Nixon’s own handwriting about the bombing of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. When he writes to Henry Kissinger and says look, we’ve achieved zilch, it is a failure, now that turns history on its head, because Nixon was always saying oh, no, it was militarily necessary, it was effective. And the people who support and care about the military, like you, and I think like hopefully most people in this country, but probably most vividly conservative Republicans, would look at this and say wait a minute, this is, to continue this bombing when you know and declare it’s achieved zilch and is a failure, is something, I think, quite unforgivable.

HH: Well now, I can confirm that that’s his handwriting. I’ve got lots of Nixon notes to me.

BW: Yeah, right.

HH: It’s clearly his handwriting, but it’s also his way of working, I’ll come back to this after the break, to write something that provocative to see what it would bring back, and without, perhaps, even intending it to be taken seriously. I’ll discuss that with Bob Woodward when I return.

— – – – –

HH: And we’re talking about a memo that President Nixon scrawled on. It was actually from Dr. Kissinger to Nixon on January 3rd, 1972. It’s on Page 116 of the book. And Nixon says we’ve got nothing to show, zilch from this bombing of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. We’ve got to hit them hard. The Christmas bombing follows, Bob Woodward, and my notes to myself are, you know, it I could get Karnow or somebody, is it possible that Nixon thought not that it hadn’t worked, but that we hadn’t done it strategically, and that in fact when he mined Haiphong Harbor and when he bombed the North, he brought about peace?

BW: Well, yeah, and see, this is the question. If you look at the date of this memo and the time it’s going into the year he’s running for reelection, we know from the tapes in Watergate he was obsessed with being reelected. He almost thought not quite an entitlement, but that this was the biggest necessity in the world. And you connect the dots with documents and tapes, and you see Nixon realized how popular the bombing was, and Kissinger, in a very chilling way, if you listen to the tape of that, said well, when we mined Haiphong on May 8th, ’72, and the more extreme bombing in the North, that’s the day you won reelection. Well, the bombing, all of the war strategy shouldn’t be to win reelection. It should be to win the war.

HH: But he did win the war. I mean, and obviously, ’75, it doesn’t win, but in ’72, the Christmas peace is achieved.

BW: Well, when, as we now know, the bombing wasn’t working, almost all the combat troops are out. The war is over. The war is lost. And you know, historians may debate this for some time, but I think if you take a clear-eyed look at it, I served in the Navy in the 60s, and was on a ship off the coast of Vietnam that did the air control for the bombers going in. And the idea that a commander-in-chief would think and utter and say this has achieved nothing and is a failure, I would have been shocked at the time. I’m shocked at this now. This is, there’s a contract between everyone in the military and the commander-in-chief, and that is you do your job, I’ll do my job. I will be, I won’t, I’m not going to send you on missions that achieve nothing and fail.

HH: But just consider this. I don’t want to waste my time with you.

BW: Yeah.

HH: …debating it, but Churchill ordered the invasion of Norway. It failed. And he could write a memo subsequent, I’m going to talk about Churchill next hour with Dr. Larry Arnn. It could fail, but he could take from that failure that it achieved zilch, that the next invasion we will do differently, Normandy, which doesn’t fail, so that it had failed prior. It’s just my notes in your book. It’s a fascinating document. It’s original historical material that no one has seen before. I’d never seen it before, so I think people need to go and consider that. But let me ask you, you never got to interview Nixon, right?

BW: That’s correct.

HH: If you could have interviewed him, what would you have asked him?

BW: I think the first question would be why, why all of this Watergate, all the criminality, the breaking of, the law-breaking, the mismanagement of the Vietnam War, not being straight with people. My God, he’s president. He, and he didn’t understand, in my view, and I think the record supports this, the goodwill that was out there, that even Democrats wanted him to succeed up to a certain point, because if the President succeeds, many people in the country succeed. But he couldn’t somehow package and leverage that goodwill, and that is one of the things that brought him down. He was just, I mean, Butterfield’s got example after example of Nixon lonely, Nixon’s obsessions, and disturbed that there are pictures of John F. Kennedy in the staff offices, and you know, goes on a rant about it. And Butterfield has to conduct an investigation, and writes a memo directly to Nixon and says this is sanitization of the Executive Office Staff Offices. Now sanitization to get pictures of a former president out? I mean, one of the things you need to do in any job is be kind of cool, and okay, somebody, and the woman they want to investigate, who couldn’t have been a more loyal American.

HH: So Bob Woodward, the interesting question to me is, based on Evan Thomas’ work and other people’s work, your work with Bernstein changed the rules for presidents. Johnson was abusive and crazy and criminal, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy did quite a lot that was off the books, especially Bobby that we now know about. Were all presidents moving in that direction? It didn’t have to be Nixon, but they were all the same way until you and Bernstein basically rewrote the rule book with the help of Felt and the Watergate Committee?

BW: Okay, so first of all, there’s some examples of abuse in other presidencies, but this idea that everyone did it all the same is just not so, and not documented. Go listen to those tapes.

HH: Oh, I have. I built the Library.

BW: I mean, it is astonishing, and Nixon, a year before Watergate, ordering, directly Haldeman and Kissinger, let’s have a break in at the Brookings Institution, a think tank, as they had some document that he wanted, and the language of below the safe, I want this done on a thievery basis, never seen anything about any president going, any other president, going to that extreme. And this argument which you raise, sometimes, maybe Nixon didn’t mean it, or got talked out of it, but so many of the things were done. And all of Watergate, all of the directed spying and sabotage, designed to make sure that Nixon would run against the weakest candidate in ’72, and he got Senator George McGovern. And it was a direct plan.

HH: How do you compare it to, say, the abuse of the IRS under President Obama, because I mean, that is clearly, deeply troubling. We’ll come back to that. I hear the music.

BW: Yes, I agree, and we should get more answers. And I think it’s not a good thing that we have things come up and there is not the kind of in-depth reporting or inquiry that really should go on.

HH: One more segment with Bob Woodward.

— – —

HH: So I want to close by asking about…

BW: Alexander Butterfield.

HH: Alexander, Herbert (laughing) thinking of Herb Block, I’m getting them confused. How do you compare Hillary and RN? Do you think they have similar personality traits?

BW: Oh, boy, happily, I’m not a psychiatrist. And almost easier to explain the Creation of the universe than to answer that question. I mean, there are elements. I think the challenge now for the political system and the journalistic world is to really understand Hillary Clinton and look at all stages of her life. There was an interview that Charlie Rose did with Putin last month. Did you see it?

HH: Yes, yes.

BW: I mean, it’s an amazing interview, because Rose asked Putin, he said well, you know, you were in the KGB. There’s a saying once in the KGB, you’re always in the KGB. And then Putin just kind of sitting there rather calmly said not a stage of our life passes without a trace.

HH: Interesting. It was fascinating.

BW: Wasn’t it?

HH: But you started to say…

BW: Boy, that’s true, and it’s true of Nixon, it’s true of Hillary, it’s true of Donald Trump, of anyone, and we need to know.

HH: And you started to say there are elements of, I think you were going to say of similarity between Nixon and Hillary. What are they?

BW: Well, there is a secretiveness. There’s no question about it. My former colleague, Carl Bernstein, who wrote a long, very well-researched book on Hillary Clinton, makes the case that she and the truth don’t go together that often. And there are examples of that. But she has a strength. I think that was demonstrated yesterday in her testimony, and so somebody, you know, somebody’s got to come at this dispassionately as a reporter, as okay, who is this woman? What’s, you know, every stage of her life, what traces did it leave? And it, you know, can be done. And I think it will be done.

HH: Are you going to do it? Is that your next book?

BW: Well, I’m not sure, and you know, I’m, I know the Washington Post is committed to that, my newspaper, and I think other news organizations are. It’s got to be done in-depth. I did this with reporters at the Post in 1988 with George Herbert Walker Bush, and we did a 20,000 word series. And he wouldn’t talk to us. He was unhappy with it, and one of this top aides said well, it’s as if Bush went through a metal detector. But the metal detector in this case is a long tunnel. And there was lots of little beeping and chirping, but no disqualifying evidence. And you look at Bush, and I think that’s the case now.

HH: Bob Woodward, fascinating book, great to talk to you, come back again. The Last Of The President’s Men in bookstores everywhere, America, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.

End of interview.-

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