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Von Haldeman and the P : THE HALDEMAN DIARIES: Inside the Nixon White House, By H.R. Haldeman (Putnam: $27.50; 684 pp.)

June 05, 1994|Ronald J. Ostrow | Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow covered Watergate for The Times

The day-to-day journal that H.R. "Bob" Haldeman kept of his years as White House chief of staff for Richard M. Nixon could serve as a how-to manual for the ultimate aide, at least as Haldeman defined that task: accomplishing the impossible without showing a trace of emotion.

Among Haldeman's formidable tasks were: to shield President Nixon from the near-paranoia of his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, repeatedly expressed in threats to resign over what Kissinger saw as Secretary of State William P. Rogers' undercutting and upstaging him; to handle Nixon's obsession and dissatisfaction with the PR side of the White House down to the level of plotting against a reporter he perceived as an enemy; to sound out Nixon's favorite Democrat, John Connally, about replacing Spiro Agnew as vice president if a way could be found to ease Agnew out before the first term was finished.

But more than detailing excesses of the Nixon Presidency that until now went unreported or incompletely told, Haldeman's contemporaneous recording of what took place during his four years and three months at the White House reveals a side of "Von Haldeman," as he jokingly dubs himself, unknown to the public: Some of Nixon's actions and style left him stunned.

This powerful chief of staff claims to have eschewed any role in policy-making. This denial turns out to be at best exaggerated modesty. We read in the diaries that he urged Nixon to bomb Hanoi and to carry out the Cambodian incursion. But to hear him describe his role, his greatest contribution lay in "frequently" having to decide whether to obey a presidential order. "I sometimes decided not to, on the basis that it was not an order that was really intended to be carried out, but rather a letting off of steam, or that it was clearly not in the P's (his diary symbol for Nixon) interest that it be carried out. Usually I later informed P that the order had not been followed, and he usually agreed that was the right decision. There were times, however, when he intentionally would end-run me with an order to someone else who he felt would do his bidding when I wouldn't."

At times, Haldeman's critical entries describe minor missteps, such as Nixon's instruction that a presidential dinner for Duke Ellington's birthday include "all the jazz greats, like Guy Lombardo." Haldeman can't resist an "oh well!"

Other mistakes, such as Nixon's "incredible" (as Haldeman described it) statement that then-accused multiple killer Charles Manson was guilty before his case went to the jury, had potentially more serious consequences. The comment came during a presidential trip: "He was trying to make point about media responsibility for glorifying criminals, but it came out wrong," Haldeman recorded. "We had quite a time on Air Force One trying to work out a correction. P had (Attorney General) John Mitchell and E (White House Counsel John D. Ehrlichman) write up a statement."

The diaries, which Haldeman recorded first in longhand and later by dictation, represent a prodigious effort, the entries having been made each night after 12- to 14-hour workdays. Haldeman died last Nov. 12, having worked full-time in the last year of his life on preparing the diaries to publish in condensed version in this book and in their entirety on CD-ROM. His widow, Jo, completed the work.

For those who lived through the Nixon Presidency, Haldeman's telegraphic-style entries bring the period back to life. For those who covered the Nixon Presidency, the diaries fill out what had only been hinted at and in some matters provide new information.

Take the case of fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham. It is well known that he was a longtime Nixon friend and confidant. But the degree to which he served as a White House political adviser has not previously been recorded.

After a Feb. 1, 1972, prayer breakfast, Graham and Nixon discuss "the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media," and agree "that this was something that would have to be dealt with," Haldeman reports. On July 20, 1972, Graham calls to report information of vital interest to the Nixon White House--that there was almost no chance the ailing Gov. George Wallace would run for president, based on a conversation that Graham had with Wallace. The P earlier had told Haldeman that "Graham has a line to Wallace through Mrs. Wallace, who has become a Christian. Billy will talk to Wallace whenever we want him to." And in a later entry, as Haldeman and Ehrlichman resign under the pressure of Watergate, Graham tells Haldeman he had not met two finer men in government and that "we've been caught in a web of evil that will ultimately be defeated."

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