“I was aware,” said Butterfield. “Yes, sir.”
This was one of the heaviest bombshells to drop during the Watergate hearings, and perhaps in American history. The president was so paranoid that he taped every interaction, unbeknownst to even his most senior advisor on foreign affairs, Henry Kissinger.
Although Butterfield had acknowledged the existence of audio taping in the Oval Office three days earlier in a private hearing, this was the first time this information was presented to the American public.
“Alex” Butterfield now resides in La Jolla Shores. Nearing 91 years of age, the man’s quick wit, inviting sense of humor, integrity and life experience is enough to fill several non-fiction works for years to come. He is currently pursuing his doctorate at UCSD, and jokes that he has been accused of “liking the title.” Previously having attended UCLA, the University of Maryland (B.A.), and George Washington University (M.A.), Butterfield says of UCSD, “I was the oldest guy on campus.”
He and former Washington Post journalist, now associate editor, Bob Woodward, have developed a close personal relationship since Watergate, albeit at times contentious, but always possessing a professional admiration.
Butterfield collaborated with Woodward on his most recent work, “The Last of the President’s Men,” in which he provided Woodward with access to all of his pertinent personal files, as well as the first-hand experience and anecdotes from working with Nixon, and his testifying in the Watergate hearings.
He will be speaking about his life, and the book, on Sunday, April 9 at 2 p.m. at D.G. Wills Books.
Early career and military background
Mr. Butterfield attended UCLA from 1946 to 1947. While enrolled at UCLA, his then-girlfriend was close friends with H.R. “Bob” Haldeman’s, which involved the two exchanging drinks and pleasantries at the girls’ sorority house. After this year, Butterfield dropped out, seemingly lacking a sense of direction that was soon to be fulfilled.
His father was a high-ranking officer in the Navy, and Butterfield spent time as a youth on Coronado. While searching for purpose, Butterfield decided he aimed to make a new career as a fighter pilot. Since he was accustomed military life, he joined the Air Force in 1948 and learned how to fly in 1949. This would provide the foundation for his military career to follow. In 1951, he would quickly advance to a fighter gunnery instructor and as a member of the Sky Blazer acrobatic jet fighter team.
Keeping with his quick ascension up the jet fighter ladder, he was then placed in command of his own squadron in Okinawa, Japan. Butterfield flew 98 combat missions during Vietnam and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
During the late ‘60s, he was stationed in Australia. Although he wanted to get back to Vietnam due to boredom.
On a trip to Papua New Guinea with Admiral Sharpe, he discovered, in a pidgin publication, The Wantok, that his old chum, Haldeman, was now a high-ranking advisor to the Nixon presidency transition.
There is a long, honored tradition of enlisted military men avoiding civilian positions, so Butterfield had to find a way out of the military. He asked several of his colleagues for letters of recommendation, and his honorable release was in the works.
Quick, slick entry into White House
The Nixon transition team was working at the Pierre Hotel in New York, which is atypical of the presidency in transition. Butterfield was back in Washington, D.C., with a primary goal of setting up an interview with Haldeman. As mentioned previously, they were old friends but had not spoken since UCLA. Butterfield reached out to Haldeman’s wife, Josephine, to get in touch with her husband on his behalf. In typical fashion, Butterfield was able to secure the meeting with Haldeman, who was confused that he would want a cabinet position after such a distinguished military career. Growing up in a Republican family, Butterfield had voted for Nixon and desperately wanted out of Australia.
“Maybe this can be my out,” Butterfield said of his service in Australia. “By this point in my career, I had worked in fairly high levels of government. I had secured letters from Robert McNamara and several others, which were sent directly to the transition team. And you better believe that I was right behind that letter. I wanted to be in front of Haldeman, for I knew I could acquire the position.”
Luckily for Butterfield, at the time, General Andrew Goodpaster recommended to Haldeman that he should have a deputy. Thus was Butterfield’s “in” to the Nixon Administration.
Also unusual compared to prior transitioning administrations, Nixon swore in the majority of his cabinet, including Butterfield (who was now deputy assistant to the president under Haldeman), on December 18 and 19.
An uneasy relationship
Despite Butterfield’s calculated entry to the White House, things could not have proceeded any less smoothly. Having already worked more than 28 days into the Nixon Administration transition, he was yet to meet the president in any fashion.
Their first meeting would result from Haldeman’s leave of absence to sell his home in Los Angeles. Though he was warned that he may “spook” Nixon, who was wary of unfamiliar faces, Butterfield approached his duties as per usual.
“Haldeman explained the situation to Nixon, saying ‘Alex will be running the office while I’m back in LA’,” said Butterfield. “The president began to make these inhumane, guttural noises (Butterfield impersonates Nixon)... not saying one intelligible word. I left him in this fashion, confused and a bit perturbed. It was my first experience that I realized my presence caused the president to turn into a blithering idiot.”
The next few meetings to follow occurred in a similar fashion, with Nixon basically insulting Butterfield in front of a senior staffer, creating his desire to wish to exit. This would quickly dissipate as he began to become closer to the president.
“Nixon was un-athletic, clumsy and paranoid,” said Butterfield. “He always had this intense resentment of the privileged class. As I can recall, he was always saying ‘Those sons of bitches (wealthy people) that had ‘it’ given to them.’ He truly was his own worst enemy.”
Within the next few years of his presidency, Nixon became heavily reliant on Haldeman and Butterfield, meeting with them for his end-of-day reports. Also, during this time, Nixon was looking for Haldeman to operate as his “assistant president,” so Butterfield begins to operate out of Haldeman’s former office, steps away from the Oval Office.
Growing their relationship ten-fold, Butterfield then took on the role of Nixon’s “liaison” to the first lady, Pat Nixon, who had a distant relationship with the president. Apparently, Mrs. Nixon did not care for Haldeman too much and preferred Butterfield to head the position.
Butterfield said that he “... Cared deeply for Mrs. Nixon, helping her in selecting wine for state dinners, as well as deciding what individuals would sit where, what food would be served, and much more definitive details of the evening. Honestly, I got on well with both Mr. and Mrs. Nixon. By this point, I had become relatively well-versed in wine, and Nixon liked that. He wasn’t particular about whites, but was specific when it came to one California red.”
It was out of his same paranoia and distrust that led to President Nixon “bugging” the Oval Office over the summer of 1970. Butterfield worked with the Secret Service to install five hidden microphones in Nixon's desk, two in lamps on the mantel over the fireplace, two in the Cabinet Room, and on all telephone lines in the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Oval Office.
Aside from Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and the Secret Service technical agents that installed them, the audio taping system was not known to exist.
The first of eight witnesses to testify before a judiciary committee, Butterfield says that his willingness to testify against the White House has been oft-misconstrued since the proceedings.
“One thing that Bob (Woodward) was inaccurate about, was that he got it in his head that I ‘had it out’ for Nixon due to his propensity for rudeness early on in my career,” said Butterfield. “The truth is, that I would never have testified had I not been asked the question directly. Once the knowledge that the tapes existed was out, I was surprised that I was not called in sooner.
“There were only three people that could walk into the president’s office unannounced, and that was Haldeman, Steve Bull, and myself. Once they realized that we were all meeting daily, I was called in to testify. Honestly, I was hurt to testify, and would not have if the tapes did not come out. Also, prior to myself, John Dean was the only one to testify for four days. Once I read the transcript of his statements, everything he was saying was making sense.”
While most of Butterfield’s friends and associates, many young men with promising careers, saw jail time as a result of finger-pointing from the Executive Branch, the man in no way wanted to share that fate. He had, after all, nothing to hide.
Although Butterfield was hurt to testify against someone he had worked so closely with for nearly three years, he said that, during the impeachment trials that he “was of a different mind, and my good friends were going off to jail. They were all victims of the glitter and deceit of the presidency.”