Harry Robbins Haldeman, known professionally as H.R. Haldeman and to his friends, co-workers, and his President as “Bob,” was the Chief of Staff at Richard Nixon’s White House from January 20, 1969, until his resignation on April 30, 1973. The concepts and structure Haldeman developed for the Chief of Staff’s office during those four years have proven to be the foundation that subsequent holders of this position have employed, with some modifications, through the last four decades.
Although Haldeman, an executive with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, had followed Nixon’s career since the days of the Alger Hiss case in the late 1940s, his involvement in it did not begin until he was hired as an advance man during the Vice-President’s 1956 campaign. He proved to be effective at this work, and four years later was hired as chief of the advance team for Nixon’s first presidential campaign.
After Nixon’s narrow defeat by John F. Kennedy and his return to California, Haldeman continued to undertake various tasks for him, and in 1962 was asked to be manager of Nixon’s campaign for governor of California. After a hard-fought race, Nixon sustained his second and last electoral defeat. But Haldeman had proven capable and resourceful in this work, and so in 1968, after six more years in the advertising business, he was brought on board Nixon’s second presidential campaign as chief of staff.
In this capacity, Haldeman devised a campaign strategy radically different from Nixon’s approach to previous races. The former Vice-President had always believed in hands-on campaigning, speaking directly to as many crowds as possible; Haldeman recommended an approach focused on television commercials and limited, carefully managed personal appearances, preferably before small groups, from which footage for the commercials could be drawn. The result was that Nixon’s image was transformed overnight from the anti-Communist crusader (a persona that had proven a popular target for liberal commentators) to that of a “cool,” low-key, pragmatic thinker. This caused pundits to speak of a “new Nixon,” and helped facilitate the candidate’s victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace.
When Haldeman came into the White House in January 1969, he continued to work on developing the image of the President presented to the world; part of his job involved analyzing the results of public-opinion polls to a degree unprecedented in previous presidencies (although in a somewhat less sophisticated way than the enormously detailed approach later pioneered by Pat Caddell in the Carter White House).
But Haldeman’s primary work was to change the nature of the Chief of Staff’s office. Prior to his arrival, the Chief of Staff mainly focused on supervising the work of White House personnel and handling the appointment schedule of the President, and was, generally, not a very significant figure in the government’s executive branch overall. The major exception to this was Sherman Adams, who, as President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, functioned as the Oval Office’s gatekeeper; apart from the Cabinet members and some national security staffers, anyone wishing to see the President had to go through him. He also had some involvement in Eisenhower’s contacts with Congress.
Haldeman took the role of Presidential gatekeeper much further. From the start of the Nixon Administration until he left, all requests to see the President had to go through his office, and, almost invariably, only he and Steve Bull, who informed Nixon of his appointments, could enter the Oval Office at will. This was not an approach popular with many officeholders and bureaucrats who had been accustomed to talking to previous Presidents directly about meetings, but this was the way President Nixon wanted to work; he was extremely conscious of the need of the Chief Executive to focus on the work at hand without distractions, and it was Haldeman’s job to make such work possible.
Haldeman’s other major task was to process the President’s directives to the Executive Branch. This was usually accomplished in the form of memos, which Haldeman would send out to White House staffers and others with crisp descriptions of what the President wanted and, usually, just when he wanted it done. In a short time the large “H” with which the Chief of Staff signed these memos became, in some quarters, a much-feared initial. Haldeman also made it a point, when asking for memos and documents from others, to have them presented in a format that would make it possible for himself (or the President, if these required his attention) to make a quick decision about approving or disapproving their recommendations.
Haldeman’s role as gatekeeper, and his absolute discretion, meant that Nixon was also granted a kind of safety valve that has not been available to subsequent Presidents. For example, if Nixon was feeling upset over something a reporter or columnist had written (as was frequently the case), and felt like ordering that person to be barred from traveling with the press corps on Air Force One, he could express that desire to Haldeman during their morning meetings, and Haldeman would duly note it on the legal pad that he always used to keep comprehensive notes on his and Nixon’s conversations. Then Haldeman would simply ignore what the President had ordered, and, after a while, Nixon would calm down and forget about the idea. This enabled the President to let off steam and move on with his job.
Unlike Sherman Adams, Haldeman played little direct role in policymaking apart from evaluating how the President’s policies were being received; his own views leaned toward the conservative side, but he regarded it as his task to ensure that what the President decided to do was made clear and comprehensible to those charged with implementing these decisions.
Haldeman also was involved with planning the President’s trips outside the White House, and oversaw the advance work of Dwight Chapin and Ron Walker, especially in the trips to China that laid the groundwork for Nixon’s historic visit to that nation in 1972.
The last ten months of Haldeman’s tenure at the White House were increasingly dominated by the Watergate scandal; he had little involvement in the events that led up to the break-in at the Watergate complex in June 1972, but afterwards was involved to a considerable degree in the decisions about how to handle the fallout from it, which mushroomed into the scandal that finally forced him from the White House and led to his conviction in 1975 on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
But the circumstances that led to the end of Haldeman’s career in public service should not be allowed to overshadow the important role he played in helping to make possible some of the greatest achievements of the Nixon Administration, both in domestic affairs and in the international arena.