20 January 1969: RN and PN in the Inaugural Parade after the swearing in at the Capitol. H. R. Haldeman noted in his Diary: “Expression on his face was unforgettable, this was his time! He had arrived, he was in full command, someone said he felt he saw rays coming from his eyes.”
The Washington Post has marked the First Hundred Days of the Obama administration by producing brief video accounts of the similar periods in other modern presidencies. Bob Woodward is tasked with Ford and Nixon; he views the latter through the pages of H. R. Haldeman’s fascinating and invaluable diary.
Alas, Mr. Woodward’s re-reading of the material is either cursory or tendentiously selective (or, I suppose, both).
In fact, RN’s First Hundred Days were filled with momentous decisions, important events, and vivid personalities — things that could be of interest in a comparison of those times with these, which is, ostensibly, a purpose of the series.
The new 37th POTUS and his new White House staff were feeling their way to establishing an efficient and effective modus operandi that could work at the many levels —international, national, political, personal, managerial, inspirational— on which a White House operates.
As it is widely acknowledged that the Nixon White House was among the most smoothly and efficiently managed executives offices, Mr. Woodward might have paid more attention to Haldeman’s interesting descriptions of the trials and errors that characterized those early days of settling in.
RN launched his administration with the highly innovative and significant appointments of Henry Kissinger to head the NSC and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to devise domestic policy. Haldeman had to deal with —and attempt to smooth down— the various bureaucratic and institutional feathers that were ruffled by the appointment of two such mercurial and charismatic men (not to mention the fact that one had supported Nelson Rockefeller in ’68 and the other was a Democrat who had served in the Kennedy Administration). None of this merits mention by Mr. Woodward.
Mr. Woodward rightly covers the secret bombing of the Cambodian sanctuaries, which was an important part of the record of that time. But he implies that RN’s only action —and only intention— during this period was to escalate the fighting.
He neglects the many clear mentions of the strategy of which the bombing was only a tactical part. The bombing (which was provoked by an increase of enemy activity bringing arms down the Ho Chi Minh trail)) was meant to protect our fighting forces and make the new administration’s new carrot-based Vietnam policy credible.
And Haldeman gives several examples of RN’s determination to end the war post haste via negotiations. He describes the back channel opened with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. He describes RN’s remarks to a meeting of dissident conservative Republican congressman:
P opened with 35 minute oration on the office, emphasized priorities, first, settle the war; second, establish law and order; third, stop inflation and settle the economy. Said P must concentrate on these, can’t worry about all the little side issues. Pointed out that if these settled, all else will be well, if not, nothing will be well.
Mr. Woodward opens by quoting from Haldeman’s moving description of RN in the moment before he took the oath of office at the Capitol:
Most outstanding moment: fanfare, Nixon and Pat Nixon come to top of steps, stand at attention for musical salute. Expression on his face was unforgettable, this was his time! He had arrived, he was in full command, someone said he felt he saw rays coming from his eyes. Great ovation. The, slowly, dignified, down the steps to the front of the platform.
But he clearly finds the idea of Nixon inspiring such adulation —much less shooting off rays— incredible, and he quickly moves on to other topics. To wit, interior decoration (to which Haldeman makes only a few references en passant), pets (a couple of humorous attempts to make King Timahoe, the new First Dog, feel at home), and the president’s purported temper tantrums.
There are two Haldeman diary entries in which RN is described as being a tad testy because of some serious foul ups. One is when he discovers that, as a result of a scheduling snafu, he will be attending two consecutive prayer breakfasts. The other is when the briefing book for his first press conference, which was to have been delivered to him the night before, sat on Haldeman’s desk until mid-morning of the next day.
Over against these two incidents that elicited RN’s stated ire, are several (including Haldeman’s oversleeping and holding up the take off of Air Force One on RN’s first trip to Europe!) with which RN deals unfazed. A fair reading of these pages indicates an even-tempered chief executive.
Mr. Woodward completely finesses the pages (five out of thirty-five, more than devoted to any other single topic, and filled with colorful details) that deal with RN’s trip to Europe.
Similarly, he ignores the four moving pages dealing with President Eisenhower’s death. As Haldeman makes clear, this was one of the events of greatest importance to RN during the First Hundred Days.
Ditto no mention of the major policy decision to fight for the ABM; the determination to hold various feet to the fire regarding student unrest; the successful introduction of Sunday morning White House church services; and the harrowing brink-of-war moments precipitated by North Korea’s shooting down of an American EC-121 intelligence plane.
It’s a disappointing phoned-in performance from a man who can do better. You can see it (along with Mr. Woodward’s analytical assessment of President Ford’s and Ben Bradlee’s hagiographic paean to President Kennedy’s, First Hundred Days) here.