BOB HALDEMAN was his boss, and Jeb Magruder was his deputy, but somehow Herbert Klein got through it all with his reputation for rationality and decency intact, and without having been branded -- officially, or in the public eye -- as a felon, a dangerous flunky or a fool. He bailed out officially in June 1973, although in truth he had been forced out of power center of the Nixon presidency long before.
Making It Perfectly Clear is Klein's low-keyed and modest recounting of his years as the White House's director of communications, and of a relationship with Richard Nixon that streched over 27 years. It was a relationship that started with Nixon's first campaign for a congressional seat, and ended, more or less, with a meeting at Camp David at which Nixon's and Haldeman told him that in their plans for a second term he no longer would head an autonomous office of communications, but would report instead to Ron Zeigler, the press secretary.
"That meant I had lost the power struggle in which I wanted to strengthen the scope of my office," Klein writes. "I was out."
It wasn't the only fight he lost during those years, just the ultimate one. He lost his fight to prevent the administration, through Spiro Agnew, from assaulting the media. He lost his fight to keep Charles Colson from trying to strong-arm the networks. He lost fights with Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Pat Buchanan and Ziegler. His book, in fact, could have been subtitled "Losing Battles," and while he makes a strong case that he was right and they were wrong in most of these fights, it also becomes clear that he became known in the White House as a man who would take no for an answer and, as a result, he got pushed around.
Another good subtitle might be "Getting Even," because this, in the end, is what Klein does to a number of his former antagonists, albeit without an unseemly amount of relish or glee. Colson is depicted as "power-hungry," and "ruthless," and the plotter of "unsavory schemes." Agnew is portrayed as a shallow man who, even without the tax scandal, would not have emerged as one of the nation's great statesmen. And Nixon -- about whom he has much good to say -- is a flawed leader, a petty man with "a sadistic side" that caused him to indulge himself in "fantasies of vengeance."
All of this has been said before, of course. Making It Perfectly Clear is neither the best nor the most revealing book to come out of the Nixon presidency, and much of what Klein has to say about Nixon, the media and the relationship of the media and the president is neither original nor particularly profound. For a man whose ties to Nixon spanned three decades, Klein tells us remarkably little about the man that we didn't already know. (He does, however, say that in all those years he "cannot recall a moment when I saw him completely lost in happiness," and this probably is as telling as anything else written about Nixon in recent years.) And there are times when it seems that Klein is merely going through the motions, pasting together speeches, memos and old newspaper clips in order to fatten the manuscript.
There is, however, a good deal of common sense in this book, and it was written with what appears to an outsider to be balance, care, decency and restraint. Klein is critical of many of his former coleagues without savaging them. He tries to explain them without apologizing for them or for what they had done. Of Nixon, his friend and sometimes employer, he writes: "He has disappointed me on occasions, and he has let me down. But he also has provided the opportunity for irreplaceable memorable moments for me."
(One of the more memorable of these had to be the time Klein learned from reporters that transcripts of some of the Watergate tapes had Nixon describing him as a sort of likable cabbage head. "He just doesn't really have his head screwed on . . ." Nixon said of Klein. "He just sort of blubbers around.")
There are a few delicious tidbits included in here. Ehrlichman's successor, he says, found that Ehrlichman, like Nixon, had his office wired for sound. Henry Kissinger was pretty much kept off television at the start of the administration by Nixon and Haldeman, who feared that "his German accent would remind too many of the Nazi war machine at a time when we were in the midst of the Vietnam emotions." And Rose Woods, who was present at Camp David when Haldeman and Ehrlichman were tossed over the side by the president, reported back to colleagues that "Haldeman took it more like a man."
These, however, are incidental to Klein's main themes, which center around the idea that many of the Nixon administration's biggest mistakes were of its own making, and that had he left one term, he probably would have been considered a "great" president, because of successes in foreign policy at a time when foreign policy was the most important part of the national agenda.
There were, as Klein looks back on it, a number of structural problems in the Nixon White House that made Watergate possible, if not probable. One was that Haldeman brought in too many kids and gave them "responsibility beyond their years." Another was the "siege mentality" that took hold within weeks of Nixon's first inauguration and caused Nixon's men to ignore criticisms from outside and strictly limit debate from within. And this, in turn, led to an attitude, encouraged by Nixon and adopted by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and compounded by Colson, that "the White House was above reproach, it could do no wrong."
But a fatal flaw, as Klein sees it, was the "obsession with public relations" of Nixon and the men around him, and the notion that the media could be assaulted, treated with contempt and forced into line -- and that in any event good PR could off-set any negatives that a hostile press might plant in the public mind. Anyone who has listened to the Watergate tapes knows how deep-rooted this notion was. Even at the end, when everything was collapsing, Haldeman was discussing legal liabilities as Pr problems that could be finessed, rather than dealt with directly.
"From the President on down, an amazingly excessive amount of time was spent worraying about plans to conjure up better and more favorable coverage," Klein writes. "In striving for coups with the news media, many self-designated White House experts forgot the simple fact that direct and honest dealings with the press work best."
One sign of this preoccupation with PR came just after the 1968 election, when Klein was summoned to the Pierre Hotel by John Mitchell and Agnew and told that Agnew needed a press secretary who would give him a new image. "It was as if they believed someone could wave a magic wand and presto there would be a new public view of Agnew," he writes. "Politicians frequently get an idea like that."
If Klein were called upon to give media advice to another president he probably would quote the very practical advice of two very different political types, Abe Lincoln ("You can't fool all of the people all of the time") and former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker ("You can't beat the newspapers -- they come out every day"). The point the Nixon people missed, Klein argues, is that media criticisms will have no great impact if things are working well, but if the programs and policies themselves are flawed, no amount of skillful PR can hide that fact, at least not in the long run.
"With the power inherent in the Oval Office, it is common to confuse substance with public posture," he writes. "When a President finds himself in difficulty with the American public he usually blames the media first . . . . History illustrated, however, that public relations and media events are no substitute for substance. A good program or policy requires consistent effective selling by the President and his colleagues if it is going to gain acceptance, but eventually a weak program or inconsitency will be shown to be such, regardless of the superiority of the effort to sell it through a variety of media events."
Klein was one of the few authentic journalists in the Nixon Administration and was generally held in high regard by reporters, including a good many who didn't care for his politics, or for his boss. "Every decent instinct of man shines through in Herb Klein's face," one reporter who knew him said recently. "The only thing I never understood was how he could stay with those [expetives deleted] as long as he did."
Klein himself offers several clues, suggestions that loyalty, the excitement of being near power and the hope of keeping the administration and the media from a head-on collision all were involved. Angry that he hadn't been consulted in advance about the Agnew attacks on the media, he considered resigning but decided to stay on, he said because walking away "would not put a restraint on an administration which badly needed someone who understood the real facts of life of the communications world."
But the ultimate fact of life was that he lost out, and when he knew it, he left. He left convinced that Nixon and his men were malicious and unwise in their dealings with the media, and that -- at the same time -- it was "not a time the media can be proud of," with rumors, accusations and half-truths finding their way into print and onto the airwaves day after day. And as he stood and watched Nixon's second inauguration, knowing that his departure was near, he recalled that Lyndon Johnson had given him a photograph at the time of the first inauguration, in 1969. "To Herb Klein," it was inscribed. "May the end be as pleasant as the beginning."
It wasn't, of course. The fun had gone. And a large part of the reason, he believed, was that Nixon and his men allowed themselves to become isolated from criticism and vindictive towards opponents, ensnarled in an unnecessary war with the media.
"An intelligent President who fully understands the need for substance and for sensitive communications with the American people . . . could reverse the history of running warfare between the media and the White House," he writes. "The newsmen need not be less aggressive, but they must assume greater responsibility for accuracy; and for his part, the president cannot allow himself to be inimidated or bothered by petty media criticism. A middle ground of substantive communication leadership and understanding of the American people still is possible, and that is all-important."