Wednesday, October 28, 2015

the president's calling

(cover of the 1974 first edition)

Bob Woodward has a new book out titled The Last of the President's Men

{2015, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY} -- stories and points of view from former aide-to-President-Nixon Alexander Butterfield.



----------------------- [excerpt] ----------- Nixon's seclusion gave Butterfield some free time to return home to pick up something he needed.  As he was coming back down MacArthur Boulevard, his beeper went off.  He was among a handful of aides assigned one.  Normally the beep meant Higby was relaying some instruction from Haldeman.

Butterfield spotted a service station ahead on the left and pulled over.  He jogged across the street.  The only public phone was on the wall in the service station garage. 

The shop was filled with all kinds of loud noises, including someone banging on a tire with a rubber hammer.  The background noise would not be a problem, Butterfield figured, because he would be able to find out what Higby wanted, so he dialed the White House switchboard.

"Oh, yes, Mr. Butterfield.  One moment . . . the president's calling."

Damnit.  Butterfield took out his pen but he had nothing to write on....

Almost instantly the distinctive low muffled voice filled his ear.

"Siff funafunwas pss't negro souse ponopotion."  Click!

"WHAT . . . SIR?"  But the president was gone, apparently back to the briefing books.  It was so fast with no hello, no good-bye.  Butterfield stepped outside, leaned against a tree, shut his eyes and played back the muttered sounds as best he could conjure them. 

He was frantic.  And in the hyper-charged world and spooky drama of the White House, part of him felt his life was at stake.  One of the words -- the only halfway clear one -- was "negro," Butterfield was pretty sure.  "Ponopotion"?  What the hell was that?  "Ponopotion, Ponopotion," he played it over again and again in his own mind, slowing it up, "Pon-o-po-tion," speeding it up, "ponpotion" to dig out the meaning.  "Negro" for sure and then this new concoction -- "PONOPOTION." 

He felt he was growing brain dead.  What was "pss't"?  It wasn't a word, it was just a sound.

The Haldeman rule was to serve the president -- answer his needs, his questions. 

Cushion his way. 

If it meant reading between the lines, deciphering his handwriting, or untangling the grunts and half words, then do it.  Haldeman and Butterfield were the pipeline from Nixon's mind, and words, to the executive functions of the presidency.  Competence meant getting it right, not asking the president to repeat himself.  That would have been the easy way, but it was just not done. 

Butterfield was astonished that this man, so forceful and usually articulate, even eloquent, could mash his words so often.  It was as if he were locked in his own deeply personal world, thinking, planning and churning.  The staff were the relay stations, and they better get with this strange program.

Butterfield went back to the garage and called his secretary.  "Please call the Library of Congress or Bob Brown's office, or both -- yes, call them both -- and find out what percent of the U.S. population is Negro."  Bob Brown was a black special assistant who handled community relations.

It was a guess.

Yes, "ponopotion" was likely "population" and "pss't" or whatever it was could be "percent."  All perhaps.

Back at the White House, Butterfield was met by his secretary.  "Bob Brown says that Negroes comprise 11 percent of the U.S. population."

In his office, Butterfield retreated to his memory bank, closing his eyes, and actually holding his head in his hands.  Maybe he could squeeze Nixon's words out of his brain.  He wanted to calm himself, return to that moment in the garage.  But pure retrieval was now impossible because his guess got in the way.  Logically it seemed it was the kind of thing the president might want to know.

Butterfield took a sheet of White House stationery and wrote:  "There are 22,354,000 U.S. blacks in America, which is 11.1% of our 200 million (plus) population.  (This comes from three reliable sources.)"

...He took the note over to the residence...and had it sent up.

...That evening the two sat in Haldeman's office and watched the press conference on TV.

At one point, Nixon referred to "the 11 million law-abiding Negro citizens in this country."

Oh Jesus, the "11" was the percentage.  Butterfield felt sick.  By supplying the extra information, he had made the gaffe possible -- prime time to the world....

"Don't worry about it," Haldeman said.  ..."Mistakes like that are nothing new...especially when statistics are involved.  Besides  most people won't have a clue."  But then he insisted that Butterfield see both Ziegler and Herb Klein personally to get it corrected.  "Don't depend on a note."

Butterfield went to see Ziegler.  When he returned to Haldeman's office Kissinger was there, complaining with much emotion that the president had gone too far promising troop withdrawals from Vietnam.

Later that night Butterfield bumped into Bob Brown.

"Hey, Alex.  Does the president know something I don't know?" Brown said with a smile.  "Man, we lost half the brothers!"

Nixon, Butterfield later recalled, "blew it because I gave him too much information.  All my life I was told, 'Don't give them too much information, just give what they ask.'"


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