In July 2011, a tall man in his 80s with neatly parted, snowy white hair and a California tan checked into the Hotel George on Capitol Hill.
This man once possessed one of Washington’s most scintillating and damning secrets. But that was long ago, and time had almost forgotten him.
At home in La Jolla, Calif., the tony seaside San Diego enclave, he would sometimes get quizzical looks from other guests at the society galas he attended during the many years he dated Audrey Geisel, the widow of the legendary children’s author Dr. Seuss.
“Butter-who?” they’d say.
But the identity of Alexander P. Butterfield and his singular role in American history as the presidential aide who revealed the existence of a secret taping system in President Richard M. Nixon’s White House was elementary to the caller on the other end of the line when Butterfield arrived at his hotel in Washington for a visit.
“Would you mind spending the day with me?” asked Bob Woodward, whose reporting with Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal helped topple Nixon’s presidency and won a Pulitzer for The Washington Post.
As a young reporter chasing the Watergate story in the early 1970s, Woodward had been so determined to speak with Butterfield that he had driven to the former presidential aide’s home in Virginia and knocked on the door. Nothing but silence and the subtle parting of curtains in a window greeted him.
But on that day in 2011, Woodward collected Butterfield at the hotel and drove him out to a home he and his wife own on the South River in Annapolis, Md., chatting amiably all the way.
“People aren’t still writing about Nixon, are they?” Butterfield asked in the car.
Woodward assured him they were and said he was still interested, all these years later, in talking.
“I thought, he’s sort of the master of being vague,” Butterfield told me with a chuckle during a weekend interview at Woodward’s home in Georgetown. “He can be vague more smoothly than anyone!”
The two men hit it off. They talked for hours with a tape recorder rolling. They tromped around the property together. But neither knew precisely what to do next. Woodward, now 72, thought Butterfield might make a good newspaper story. Butterfield didn’t know what to think. Nearly three years passed.
Ultimately, it was Woodward’s wife, Elsa Walsh — also an author and journalist — who saw things clearly: Butterfield is a book.
Butterfield, it turns out, had many more secrets to reveal, many more insights to share. He had walked away from the Nixon White House with boxes and boxes of papers, a trove of handwritten notes from the president, memos on fragile onion skin, invitations. Some were consequential, such as a handwritten note in which Nixon opined that years of heavy bombing in Southeast Asia was accomplishing “zilch,” even as he was saying the opposite in public.
Others were less monumental, but they gave glimpses of Nixon’s paranoia and vindictiveness. All that material, so voluminous that Butterfield had to stack some of it in an unused shower stall of his penthouse apartment in La Jolla, lends a historical bedrock to Woodward’s 18th book, to be published Tuesday, “The Last of the President’s Men.”
There was a time when Butterfield thought he would tell his own story. In the 1990s, he said, he signed up with Little, Brown and Co. and began writing. Deep into the project, Butterfield said, he got a call from his editor, who was encouraged by a recent hot-selling Nixon book. The editor wanted to know his title. “Fellow Countryman,” Butterfield said, explaining that he was hard at work on a memoir.
“What the hell does that have to do with Richard Nixon?” Butterfield recalled the editor barking back at him.
The publisher rejected his manuscript, Butterfield said.
“Whatever’s good in this book, I want Little, Brown to regret,” he added, gesturing toward an advance copy of Woodward’s book. (Butterfield is not being paid for “The Last of the President’s Men,” which is being published by Simon & Schuster, and he ceded full editorial control to Woodward.)
Butterfield hadn’t envisioned his life becoming a historical footnote. When Nixon was elected in 1968, Butterfield was a 42-year-old colonel in the Air Force. He was full of ambition yet stuck in a comfortable, low-profile job as the senior U.S. military officer in Australia. He was on track to become a general, but to reach his goal of becoming the top uniformed officer in the Air Force, he felt he needed to get closer to the action—“the smoke,” as he called it — either in Washington or commanding a wing in the ongoing Vietnam War.
He saw an opportunity when he read that H.R. Haldeman, whom he had befriended while attending classes at UCLA but had lost track of over the years, was heading Nixon’s transition team. He talked his way into a meeting with Haldeman, who would go on to select Butterfield as his deputy.
That’s when things got weird.
In the White House, Haldeman schooled Butterfield on Nixon’s quirks. Everything was designed to prevent Nixon from getting “spooked” or feeling uncomfortable. Butterfield would need to use yellow legal pads. Never white. He must study Haldeman’s manner and mimic it precisely.
“If you don’t do things exactly as I do, it could upset him,” Haldeman told Butterfield.
Butterfield told Woodward that when he finally got to meet the president, Nixon could not speak. He made some unintelligible guttural noises and awkwardly moved a foot back and forth over the Oval Office carpet. At other times, Nixon could be rude. In his unpublished manuscript, Butterfield described Nixon as an “ignorant boor, a bumpkin.”
But there were endearing moments, too. Butterfield told Woodward that Nixon insisted that he bring his daughter to the White House after she had been released from the hospital following a serious car accident that knocked out some of her front teeth.
“You see those teeth right there,” Nixon told Butterfield’s daughter while tapping his front teeth. “They’re not mine.”
“I loved Nixon for that,” Butterfield told Woodward.
In the White House, Butterfield — who liked to conduct business over a vodka Gibson or a martini — found a drinking buddy in Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democrat who worked as Nixon’s top urban affairs adviser and later became a long-serving member of Congress. Moynihan would go for a swim, then pad by Butterfield’s office in his red socks, hair uncombed and calling out, “Hi, Alex, ready!” Butterfield told Woodward. Nixon, tellingly, tended to drink alone.
Butterfield developed a knack for wrangling people who resisted being wrangled. Nixon was ever complaining about Henry Kissinger, who served as national security adviser and later as secretary of state. Kissinger was always showing up late for meetings. Once, Butterfield said, he was waiting in the helicopter with the president for Kissinger. Butterfield had to jump out and go in search.
“For Christ’s sweet sake, Henry, get your a-- on the helicopter,” Butterfield recalled telling him.
At state dinners, Kissinger presented a problem because “the President feels that Henry should not always be put next to the most glamorous woman present,” Haldeman wrote to Butterfield in a memo included in the Woodward book. “It’s starting to cause unfavorable talk that serves no useful purpose.”
Serving as an intermediary between the president and Nixon’s wife, Pat, was a more delicate matter than handling a playboy national security adviser. Butterfield describes Nixon as a lonely soul who had a cold and distant relationship with his wife. He told Woodward that he considered Pat Nixon a “borderline abused” wife. The first lady stayed in a separate home when the family vacationed on Key Biscayne, Fla., and the president would frequently ignore her when they were together, Butterfield said.
“I wanted to shake him. ‘Answer her, God damn it; she’s your wife!’ ” Butterfield said.
Butterfield told Woodward about two seemingly improper encounters Nixon had with White House secretaries: one involved a long dinner with a secretary at Camp David that she described as “the most painful, uncomfortable evening of my life.”
“What!” Butterfield told Woodward he said to the woman. “Did he make a move or something?”
The woman responded: “An awful lot of starting to make moves and then withdrawing.”
Another time, Butterfield told Woodward that the president repeatedly patted the leg of a secretary who was wearing a short miniskirt, and made awkward conversation while Butterfield sat nearby.
But when asked, during the interview at Woodward’s home, whether he thought Nixon was unfaithful, Butterfield said, without hesitation, that he wasn’t.
“I felt so sorry for him,” Butterfield said of Nixon. Presented the opportunity to commit adultery, Butterfield said, Nixon “wouldn’t have known what to do.”
Butterfield might never have become a historic figure if not for a request made on Feb. 10, 1971, during the third year of Nixon’s presidency. Woodward writes that Nixon’s aide, Larry Higby, told Butterfield that “the president wants a taping system installed, And Bob [Haldeman] wants you to take care of it.”
Butterfield arranged for the Secret Service to install hidden microphones in the Oval Office; five were embedded in Nixon’s desk; others were tucked into lamps on the fireplace mantel.
Those same microphones recorded a conversation in which Butterfield confirmed that he had arranged to place a White House spy in the Secret Service detail assigned to protect Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was campaigning on behalf of Nixon’s reelection opponent, Sen. George McGovern.
The White House felt like a “cesspool” to Butterfield, and he felt uncomfortable about what he had been asked to do to Kennedy. He had had enough. He wanted out.
“I thought to myself, ‘Son of a bitch, I am now an accomplice in an abusive government,’ ” he told me.
Nixon gave him an out. He named Butterfield, a fighter pilot and decorated Vietnam War veteran, as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
In early 1973, with the Watergate scandal in full flower and investigative hearings being held on Capitol Hill, Woodward got a curious piece of information from two sources, including the famed “Deep Throat.” They told him that Butterfield was in charge of “internal security” at the White House. That got Woodward thinking.
He asked a source on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate affair whether Butterfield had been interviewed. Later he asked about Butterfield’s unusual title.
Butterfield believes that Woodward’s questions prompted the committee to call him to testify. Woodward writes that it’s unclear.
“I know what was behind it,” Butterfield told Woodward. “You were.”
Butterfield was called in for a closed-door meeting with committee staffers held on July 13, 1973. (One of those questioning him was Scott Armstrong, a committee investigator and a childhood friend of Woodward’s. The committee’s chief counsel, Sam Dash, had originally tried to hire Woodward for the job, but the reporter turned him down and recommended Armstrong.)
Prior to the meeting, Butterfield wrestled with conflicting emotions; he resolved to discuss the taping system only if asked a direct question about it.
“I liked him a hell of a lot,” Butterfield said of Nixon. “We had all these bonding moments.”
Regardless, as he had expected, Butterfield was questioned by committee staffers suspicious about taping. He said he wished they hadn’t asked him, but since they had posed the question, he divulged the existence of a taping system, urging them not to call him to testify in public. He warned that national security would be jeopardized and foreign leaders would be furious about being taped without their knowledge.
Three days later, there was a news bulletin about a “mystery witness” in the Watergate hearings. It was Butterfield. He had been given only a few hours’ notice. Under questioning by minority counsel Fred Thompson, the future senator and Republican presidential candidate who on that day sported long sideburns, Butterfield confirmed the existence of the taping system.
The secret was out.
In the course of an interview Saturday that lasted more than two hours, Butterfield kept returning to what was going through his head in the days before and after his historic revelation. It’s almost as if, after all these years, he’s still refining his answer, still sorting through his feelings. He wants to be clear. He wants everyone to understand the nuances of that moment when he was faced with the prospect of revealing a secret entrusted to him.
“That’s the last thing I wanted to do,” he said.
“I was fighting it all the way,” he said a few moments later.
The Woodward book states that Butterfield was motivated, in part at least, by a desire to take credit. He had, after all, once told a friend, “I do believe I could bring down the president.”
“I don’t like that term — credit,” Butterfield told me. “I don’t want credit.”
Making history made Butterfield a pariah, or at least that’s how he said he felt. He got angry phone calls from Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. After Nixon resigned in disgrace, President Gerald Ford asked Butterfield to step down as head of the FAA.
For two years, he couldn’t get a job, he said.
“I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself,” he said.
Eventually, he signed on as a chief operating officer of an air transport company, and by 1979 he was pulling down a nice salary running a financial holding company in Los Angeles. He later started a consulting company and settled down in the San Diego area.
None of it was as exciting as having an office in the White House. If he had his druthers, he said, he would still be in government service, even now.
Over the years, he has watched, with some amusement, the guessing game about who was Woodward’s and Bernstein’s source.
“We were all Deep Throat for awhile,” he cracked. “I was Deep Throat for two weeks. Then it was [White House counsel] Len Garment. Then it was [White House chief of staff] Al Haig.”
In the mid-1990s, Butterfield publicly theorized that Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a deputy director of the FBI, who had been passed over for the top job at the agency. A decade later, Felt acknowledged publicly that he was Deep Throat. Butterfield had been right. He said he had no special knowledge; it just made sense to him.
At age 89, Butterfield still walks two miles a day. When Woodward offers him a ride to his Georgetown hotel, Butterfield waves him off and says he’ll go on foot. He’s tan and talkative and energetic. He remembers all.
“I drink a lot of water,” he confided by way of explanation for his vigor. “Good for the brain.”
From time to time, he told me, he runs into Nixon loyalists, former administration staffers who hold reunions in Washington. They assure him he would be welcome at their gatherings.
He doesn’t believe them.