“I don’t think I can”

When I put up my last blog post, “Information professionals:  ready to deal with pain?” I knew where I would be Saturday afternoon.  In the McGowan Theater at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for the American Film Institute Washington premiere of a new documentary, Our Nixon.  James Gardner, NARA Executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries and Museum Services, was the host on Saturday and gave welcoming remarks.

I wrote in my Friday blog post about a column by David Brooks in which he discussed how a grounding in the humanities sometimes leads to deep understanding of “what lies beneath.”  How deeply do you probe?  How do you deal with signs of pain?  Do you duck, or get up and walk away, in such situations?  Or do you stay in place, face what is happening around you, and make your way through it?  I linked such questions to the importance of preserving archival records that show how complex matters were handled by very real human beings.

Watergate was not the focus of Our Nixon, which relies on home movies shot by Nixon’s aides, television broadcast footage, and archival audio and film from the Nixon period.  The documentary covers the period from 1969 through the President’s resignation in 1974.  The latter part of the film does get in to some of the Watergate issues.  I’ve covered some of the abuse of power issues extensively at my blog, including the challenges in NARA releasing the full record of the Jew counting at the Bureau of Labor Statistics that Richard Nixon discussed with chief of staff H. R. (Bob) Haldeman.

On April 30, 1973, as the Watergate crisis escalated, President Nixon gave a televised speech in which he announced that two of his most senior aides, H. R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, had resigned as a result of the scandal.  The aftermath is recorded on one of the once secret tapes that captured some of Nixon’s telephone conversations and meetings in the White House and at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland.  Director Penny Lane used the audio of the conversation in Our Nixon.

Nixon speaks on the telephone to Haldeman, no longer his chief of staff, and says of the speech he just gave, “I hope I didn’t let you down.”  Haldeman, who has just finished his official association with a man he has served off and on since 1956 and now faces legal problems that would result in his imprisonment for 18 months, bucks him up.  He replies that the speech did what was needed for the President.

In his role as a key aide to Nixon, one who spent more time with the President than any other aide, Bob had spoken frequently to Nixon about reactions to his speeches by Cabinet members, other Washington officials, members of the public, and the press.   In a poignant moment in a difficult conversation, Nixon asks, “I don’t know if you can call and get any reactions and call me back.”

Haldeman replies quietly with a relatively even tone, “I don’t think I can.”

Nixon interjects, “No, I agree.”  A previous scene in Lane’s film included an audio excerpt from an earlier tape in which Nixon talked with press secretary Ron Ziegler about a conversation in which his aide talked to Haldeman about the President’s decision that his chief of staff will have to resign.  Ziegler reported that Haldeman understood but said Ehrlichman would take the news harder.  And that he would talk to him about the situation.  Nixon told Ziegler, “he’s a big man.”

The April 30, 1973 public announcement of the resignations done, Nixon blurts out to Haldeman on the telephone that he loves him like a brother as the call comes to an end.

To understand Nixon and Haldeman, their complicated relationship, requires understanding what this conversation reveals about both men.  In fact, it is central to understanding them.

Our Nixon panel at NARA McGowan IMG-20130622-00559

Many members of the audience in the McGowan Theater on Saturday laughed throughout the post-resignation announcement sequence in the film.   At film’s end, asked his reaction on stage, Haldeman’s deputy, Dwight Chapin, seemed to have the audience’s laughter in mind.  He said he thought he was watching a musical-comedy.  Yet the film includes clips in which it is clear that what Chapin went through was a wrenching experience for a young man who started working for Richard Nixon while in his 20s and then went to prison for 9 months.

Enhanced_Haldeman photo signed for author 1987I didn’t laugh at the April 30, 1973 conversation between Nixon and Haldeman as I sat in McGowan.  I was the NARA expert in the “abuse of governmental power” tapes and one of two officials with delegated authority to approve what the Federal government proposed to open or decided needed restriction or return to Nixon of the tapes.  We did disclosure review on 3,700 hours of White House tapes recorded between February 1971 and June 1973.   I met Bob Haldeman in the 1980s. (That is when he autographed this photo, thanking me for my work with the Nixon tapes).   We at NARA did oral history interviews with him, which I discussed here at Nixonara two years ago.

I’ve often written that the White House is a workplace, both like and not like any other.  There are some singular elements but there are commonalities to many of our workplace experiences.  Including how people deal with each other, day to day on matters that seem routine, and in times of crisis.  Bonds, loyalties, work arounds, obligations–to the top man, to each other, to younger subordinates–some so complicated we don’t always take the time to unravel what we do and why.  These are elements many of us deal with in the workaday world.

I spent years listening to recorded White House conversations as a NARA employee, including those in which Nixon came to a realization that Haldeman and Ehrlichman would have to resign.  (That they “offered their resignations” and were not “fired” was a distinction all three focused on).  There are many reasons why I have fought so hard to ensure that records such as Nixon’s are handled properly.  The primary one centers on the archival mission.  That the tapes and related materials offer an unparalleled view of the White House as a workplace was a secondary one.

The conversations in which Nixon set in motion the April 30, 1973 personnel actions and dealt with their immediate aftermath were among the most poignant I listened to during my career as a disclosure archivist.  Could the Watergate implosion, and the subsequent revelation of what Attorney General John Mitchell called “the White House horrors,” have been avoided?  I don’t know.  In the film,  John Ehrlichman said in an interview done after he was released from prison that Nixon should have stayed clear of the Watergate matter, let it play out, and avoided the urge to get involved.

A web page for NARA’s Ford Presidential Library, where one of my former colleagues, Mark Fischer, now works, highlights the April 30, 1973 Nixon-Haldeman conversation.  It concludes, “In his memoirs, Nixon recalled, ‘from that day on the presidency lost all joy for me.’”  The film does not include that observation.

Maarja in McGowan Theater at NARA A1 for Our Nixon event 062213To date, I haven’t seen much press coverage of the event in the McGowan Theater.  I was there, in what I call “full Nixonara uniform,” including some blue streaks sprayed in to my hair.   Unlike a year ago, at a Nixon Legacy forum in the same venue, I was able to ask a question of the panel.  It was similar to what I would have asked Fred Malek in June 2012 in that it centered on how you deal with the powerful as an at-will employee in the White House.

Chapin gave an interview to a conservative web site on Saturday about the Nixon and Obama administrations.   While Chapin clearly remains a conservative Republican, the political leanings and knowledge of the Nixon White House of the members of the public who came to the McGowan Theater are unknown to me.  And they are irrelevant.  They came to watch a film and reacted as they did.

Me? I worked on Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968 and voted for him in 1972.  I’ve been a political Independent since 1989, sometimes voting for Republicans and sometimes for Democrats in national, state and local elections over the last 23 years.  As I have made clear here in describing the Nixonara story, I took a beating, bullets, and a stab to the back to fulfill what I saw as my obligations regarding the Nixon tapes and files as an archivist and civil servant.

From the public Facebook page for Our Nixon, which apparently went up initially around March-April 2011 but which I only discovered yesterday, I’ve found some links to reviews and blog posts about the film.  April 2011 was a tumultuous time for me, as I focused my energies on trying to understand why my archival cohort seemingly was the “lost generation” to the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries at NARA.  Little did I know that in May 2011, thanks to AOTUS David S. Ferriero, I would reconnect joyously with the agency that once employed me.

A recent review in Cineoutsider states of Lane’s movie, “The film introduces us to a happy band of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed conservatives, pulls back to show the cracks appear in the carapace of corruption, before zooming in on the political catastrophe that destroyed the three stooges and the president they served.”  The reviewer described the film as “a compelling account of high hopes, lost innocence and turbulent times.”

Not only does the reviewer reduce Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, and John Ehrlichman to Three Stooges (the title of the review), he implies the three men whose Super 8 movies form the centerpiece of Our Nixon were similar.

“Cine enthusiasts to a man, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin filmed indiscriminately, for pleasure, and at the behest of vanity. Day in, day out during Nixon’s two terms in office, they recorded events large and small, momentous and mundane; at intimate evening screenings they projected their understandable sense of self-importance to themselves, their families, their friends. Chapin was just 27 years old when joined the Nixon encourage, Haldeman just 34, and Ehrlichman not much older. As Ehrlichman says in the film, ‘It got to be very heady, very fast.'”

Yet at the time Nixon entered the White House, the three men were in very different places in their careers and the “loss of innocence” theme doesn’t have resonance for me as it might in describing someone such as Egil “Bud” Krogh.

I would not use an image of loss of innocence for Bob Haldeman, whom I met in the 1980s and who offered thoughtful insights on the Nixon White House.  Haldeman was 43 when he became Nixon’s chief of staff in 1969.  The oral history interviews we did at NARA in 1987-1988 reveal a complicated but interesting relationship between Haldeman and Nixon.  So, too, the diary Haldeman kept from 1969 to 1973, not out of vanity, it seems to me, but from an impulse of recording history in the making.  What Haldeman said in his oral history interview reflects some of the same dynamics as the White House tapes do on careful study.

As I sat in the McGowan Theater and listened to the audience laugh at some of Nixon’s conversations with Haldeman, my mind flashed back to June 2011.  I had just obtained copies of the 1987-1988 Haldeman interviews I once had transcribed and typed on the Datapoint word processor while working as a Team Leader archivist at NARA.  Transcription took some time but was relatively easy because the oral history audio tapes had pretty good quality.  (NARA archivists asked me in 2011 if I wanted copies of the audio but I initially decided to work off of the transcripts in writing at my blog, instead.)

Asked about Nixon’s positives and negatives, Haldeman gave an interesting reply:

“I recognized, as smart people do when they go into a marriage, that you marry the person you’re marrying for the person that she is, not for the person that you’re going to make her into being, if you’re smart.   And I did that with Nixon.  I went into the relationship with the recognition there were things about it I didn’t like and things about it that I didn’t respect even, in some cases–but that my job was to deal with those, just as I deal with all the things I did like  and did respect, and to try to minimize the bad and maximize the good.”

Put another way, Haldeman said,

“Well, realistically, I understood that he was a human being, that he had flaws as well as good points, and that, in the role that I, by White House time, had cast myself in or been cast in–I had to deal with emphasizing his good points and de-emphasizing his bad ones.”

This was not a man who took the job of chief of staff as a starry eyed conservative idealist.  He had worked in one capacity or other with Nixon since 1956, when he first did advance work for his Vice Presidential campaign.  He knew the man with whom he would be dealing.  And he sought to structure the way the Nixon White House operated based on that knowledge.  He came to understand, as he observed to us at NARA in the 1980s, that being smart does not always equate having the wisdom that comes with experience.

By the time he became Nixon’s White House chief of staff (Assistant to the President), Haldeman had formed certain conclusions about Nixon’s strengths (his vision and grasp of complex policy issues) and his weaknesses.

“You can’t follow books on management theory and deal with him, and yet you have got to accomplish the results that the books on management theory are designed to tell you how to accomplish.  So, I had to figure out how we keep him out of the nuts and bolts–the training, the per[sonnel]–he was also not a good judge of personnel.  He brought in some good people and some lousy people.”

The Cineoutsider reviewer writes of

 “the kind of loyalty which Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin had for Nixon, and which he rewarded with betrayal; the kind of love the terrified U.S. electorate expressed when they returned him to the White House in 1972 with over 60 per cent of the popular vote and by the widest winning margin in the history of U.S. Presidential elections.”

I would describe the men and the time period differently.

Perhaps because Bob Haldeman knew that NARA supervisory archivist Fred Graboske and I had heard every minute of the Nixon tapes by the time we met him when he visited us at NARA in 1987, Nixon’s former chief of staff was quite open in talking to us.  We “knew it all” as regards the archival records, after all.

At the time, he thought the National Archives would start a phased release of the tapes we had reviewed for disclosure, first the “abuse of governmental power” segments, then a chronological release of tapes from February 1971 until the system was shut down in July 1973.

Our Nixon panel at ANRA IMG-20130622-00567

As I watched Penny Lane, Dwight Chapin, and former Nixon aide Lee Huebner discuss the film, I made up my mind to ask a question.  When moderator Jake Tapper turned to the question portion of the program, I walked from my seat to the microphone on the steps of the theater.  I’ll paraphrase my question.  Tapper asked questioners to identify themselves so I did.  I would have, anyway,

I’m Maarja Krusten, a federal historian and former archivist with the National Archives. I was the official who first identified during the 1970s and 1980s in my work here what you all just referred to on stage as the abuse of power segments in the Nixon tapes. One of my other assignments was doing national security disclosure review of Mr. Haldeman’s recorded diary segments. My question comes from that work and is for Mr. Chapin.

Mr. Haldeman was very disciplined, he dictated his recollections of the day’s events every evening. His was a 24/7 job. If you listen to the recorded diary, and you have to listen carefully for the inflection, you can hear a different tone on those rare days he did not work with Nixon. A different inflection in “No contact.”

Haldeman served as a sounding board for Nixon. When we at the Archives talked to Haldeman in the 1980s, he told us Nixon sometimes issued orders he decided to drag his feet on and not follow.

Sometimes Nixon would ask, have you done it, then ask again, until he finally said, ‘just as well’ on hearing Haldeman had not yet acted. This is a difficult position for an at-will employee. When Haldeman talked to us — and he also said this in oral history interviews he did with us in the 1980s, ones he urged others to do with us at the National Archives — he spoke about the pros and cons of having so young a staff. The film refers to your youth, Mr. Chapin, and the youth of many of the men who worked in the Nixon White House.

Haldeman was Nixon’s sounding board. When he himself had to decide which orders not to follow, how did he make those decisions? Did he do that internally on his own? Or were there people he turned to talk those things over?

(c) Bruce Guthrie, NARA A1 McGowan NIXON1_130622_005_STITCH

Chapin responded, thank you, that is a very interesting and important question. He said Haldeman sometimes would come back to the office, review the yellow notepad of notes he had taken while sitting with Nixon, and tell Chapin, “this one we’re not going to do.” Chapin added, some of those in the notes from meetings with Nixon were not good ideas.

(c) Bruce Guthrie panel listening to my question at NARA NIXON2_130622_583

I responded that opinions vary among observers as to which orders Haldeman should have resisted and why he dragged his feet on some but not others. But that I was interested in the process of how he came to those decisions. I asked Chapin, have you talked about this in any oral history interviews. He replied, “No one has asked me until now!” I responded, “then I’m glad I did. Thank you.”

He went on to say that Nixon issued some orders, such as bombing Brookings, that were not good ideas. And it is important to remember that he sometimes vented.

(c) Bruce Guthrie Chapin responding to my question at NARA NIXON2_130622_632

Others had questions, Tapper turned to them, and I couldn’t ask follow up about the risks and vulnerabilities in working in such an environment.  Haldeman explained some of the complexities in a segment from his oral history interview that I quoted here at my blog in June 2011.  I provided a link to the transcript.

That the White House is a workplace–a building where people work within a structure with processes that sometimes work better than at other times depending on individual capacity, personalities, character, power dynamics and various internal and external forces should be relatable for most people who go to work at an organization every day.  Some day, someone may write a book that looks at the Nixon administration that way.  The rich, robust, and highly nuanced records are there, in written files, recorded audio tapes, and film footage, as well.  In the archives.

Graboske Plavchan Howard AOTUS Rhoads looking at Haldeman files at NARA publicity phot 1978

2 responses to ““I don’t think I can”

  1. Thank you Maarja, for a very astute and fine posting. Bringing forward the idea that this White House staff represented a diversity of opinions, talents, and failings, just like any organization’s leadership, is an extraordinarily useful point. In discussing my book about the recruitment of women for executive positions in the Nixon administration (“A Matter of Simple Justice: The Untold Story of Barbara Hackman Franklin and A Few Good Women” — Penn State Press, 2011), I have found so often that people focus on the President almost exclusively, and mostly regard the staff as mere carbon-copy servants.

    The Nixon White House was generally conservative, but probably more politically diverse than recent administrations. With advisers ranging from Pat Moynihan and Bob Finch to Pat Buchanan, the opinions expressed were often very different. The White House correspondence I read during my research at the Nixon Library showed this diversity of thought, particularly when it came to sexism and expanding the role of women in government — which were the subjects I was looking at.

    Our oral history project at Penn State (“A Few Good Women”) with about 40 of the women recruited by Barbara Franklin and 10 of the men she worked with under Fred Malek in the White House personnel office, gave us a window onto one particular issue and how the White House staff reacted to it and adjusted as the politics began to shift.

    The reminiscences of the staff, which you discuss, about the President’s habit of periodically asking staff “where are we on X, why aren’t we making more progress?” was reflected in our interviews and the staff memos I read as well. Often it was not just Haldeman serving as the filter to decide what moved and what didn’t. It seemed to be a broader discussion among a larger body of senior staffers, each with differing opinions and preferences.

    In the case of Barbara Franklin, it took almost two years to decide whether or not to hire someone to be the first-ever recruiter of women for executive branch leadership positions. Beginning with a question at the second press conference in February 1969 about why only three women had been appointed, to Franklin’s appointment in April 1971, the White House staff listened (not always happily) to women in Congress and to all segments of the larger community, but still debated what to do and when. Meanwhile, the President regularly prodded them with his “when are we going to get this done” questions.

    Being an archivist, I suppose I am accustomed to focusing on the mechanics of organizations and the people who make up the staff, how they communicate and function. After all, we are “bureaucratic archaeologists” of a sort. All too often the history of creating a staff and examining how it works is lost in the “dusty archives,” while the focus of popular attention becomes the personalities of the president and his counterparts in Congress.

    So bravo Maarja! Keep up the good work.

    Lee Stout. emeritus archivist at Penn State Univ.

  2. Thank you so much for your very interesting comments, Lee! I like the image of archaeologist.

    President Nixon and his team certainly kept an eye on policy, political, and bureaucratic matters. My question to Dwight Chapin focused on the President’s visceral reactions to news stories, which is why he mentioned Brookings in reply. Nixon’s habit of asking Haldeman “have you acted on this” was trickiest for Haldeman and other at-will aides to wend their way through when they knew he was being reactive. Here is a link to a tape transcript which shows the President asking for wide use of polygraphs. http://whitehousetapes.net/transcript/nixon/545-001 The White House records offer many opportunities for studying executive actions, management, the use of and reactions to power and rank, the nexus of policy making and politics, and, as I noted, how human beings interact in workplace settings.

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