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The Haldeman Diaries.

It is almost impossible to get an unvarnished look at an American president in action, particularly in this age of television and public relations. The press, instead of presenting reality, promotes the image handed to it, whether favorable from supporters or adverse from critics.

There is, however, one exception: Richard Nixon. The simple explanation for this is that his is the only White House whose presidential papers (and tapes) were seized by the government before there was a chance to remove the most embarrassing material.

A case in point is The Haldeman Diaries. Almost every day for four and a half years, Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. (Bob) Haldeman met with the president and carefully took notes on conversations that went on for minutes or hours and that ranged from the future of the lira to the choice of wine for state dinners.

Haldeman's handwritten notes, which run to 1,000 or more yellow legal pages, have been on file in the government-controlled Nixon archives outside Washington for years. But the newly published Diaries provides a vastly more convenient way of gaining access to those Nixon conversations--a record of the way the Oval Office works that may never again be matched. That's a real loss to the American political system.

Democracy, of course, is a nasty, chaotic business, and the Oval Office is where it all gets played out day after day. Almost every entry in the Diaries could have made the front page of The Washington Post the next day. There is hardly a major event from the Nixon years that this book doesn't illuminate in some way. Certainly it highlights the Nixonian traits we have learned to hate over the years--the verbal putdowns of blacks, for example, and his nervous fear of liberal Jews, especially those in the media.

But there are also ground-zero insights into how Washington really works, how bureaucrats and courtiers act when the cameras are gone and they think no one is paying attention.

Everyone will have his own favorite passages. I'll cite just two. The first is Haldeman's version of what went on behind the scenes when the decision was made, in April 1970, to launch what became known as the "incursion" into Cambodia.

As Haldeman portrays these events, which would have a lasting, disastrous effect on millions in that still-troubled Southeast Asian country, Nixon and Henry Kissinger were euphoric as they planned the surprise attack.

"As [Nixon] followed K[issinger] into the [National Security Council] meeting, he turned back to me with a big smile and said, "K's really having fun today. He's playing Bismarck."

For the two days that follow, we are told that Nixon's two other top foreign policy advisors, Secretary of State William P. Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, balked at the president's invasion plans. The reasons, as Haldeman describes them, are worth noting. Rogers' "real problem was his testimony this afternoon on [Capitol] Hill. He doesn't want to say we're sending United States troops into Cambodia, but he can't say otherwise... without lying, which he won't do (President agrees)."

Laird's concern is described as sheerly bureaucratic. "Laird not really opposed... but very upset about" a document that makes Kissinger's shop "responsible for implementation [of the invasion], says that must be Secretary of Defense responsibility."

Summing up the meetings that day, Haldeman wrote: "P[resident] made clear he understood basis of both Rogers and Laird in meeting. Rogers playing against any move, in reaction to Senate, establishment press, etc. Laird trying to figure P's position and be with it, without his prerogatives cut. K[issinger] pushing too hard to hold control."

That's a real White House at tough decision time.

My second favorite entry comes from November 1972, after Kissinger, in a famous interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, took sole credit for the opening to China. According to Haldeman, Nixon "obviously is extremely displeased.... He later in the day told me I should let Henry know that obviously the EOB [Nixon hideaway office] and the Oval Office and the Lincoln Room have all been recorded for protection, so the P has a complete record of all your conversations..." Walter Pincus is a reporter for The Washington Post.
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Author:Pincus, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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