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Richard Nixon: Even creepier than you thought

Author and investigative reporter Bob Woodward likes to call the Watergate saga "the gift that keeps on giving," and it certainly has been that for him.

His 18th nonfiction book, "The Last of the President's Men," tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon insider who revealed the existence of the automatic voice recording system in the White House that brought about the first presidential resignation in the nation's history.

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In classic Woodward style, the author personally charmed and schmoozed his way into Mr. Butterfield's confidence and trust and got his story, along with a treasure trove of official documents that leaves no doubt of its authenticity.

The most damaging revelation tells how Nixon, asked in January 1972 by Dan Rather of CBS News to assess the heavy American bombings in the Vietnam theater, called them "very, very effective." But the very the next day, given a top secret memo by national security adviser Henry Kissinger reporting details of the bombing campaign, Nixon scribbled on it: "K. We have had ten years of total control of the air in Laos and V. Nam. The result = Zilch." He ordered Mr. Kissinger to produce a "bark off" study on why the Air Force failed.

Mr. Woodward's book reprints the memo and handwritten response, and he notes that Nixon thereafter "ordered increased bombing and the U.S. military dropped 1.1 million tons" in 1973, "more than an any single year of the Johnson presidency." The author asks: "What is to be said about a wartime leader who goes on with war knowing a key part of the strategy is not working?"

The book provides a step-by-step account of how Mr. Butterfield came to inform the Senate Watergate Committee of the existence of the tapes that drove Nixon from the Oval Office. Mr. Woodward leaves no room for doubt that Nixon was intimately involved in the cover-up of the infamous break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate.

The book also illustrates anew how Nixon lived in a perpetual grip of personal insecurity and gracelessness. It offers another peek into the quirky mannerisms and soul of this strange man who achieved the heights of American politics yet never seemed to capture the common touch usually required for success in his chosen field.

Mr. Butterfield had never met Nixon before H.R. Haldeman, an old UCLA friend, hired him to be what he called "a carbon copy" of himself, because Nixon was comfortable around him and apparently would be spooked by a total stranger.

Mr. Haldeman told Mr. Butterfield he had to wait for just the right moment to make the introduction, "because it will be easier on the president. He's a funny guy. It's hard for him to deal with people he doesn't know well."

Thus several days passed before the two men met in private. When they finally shook hands, Nixon merely grunted something unintelligible, so Mr. Haldeman led Mr. Butterfield out of the room as the most prudent course.

There's more paranoia in the book, as when Mr. Butterfield takes the president on a tour of the Executive Office Building and Nixon spies photographs of predecessor John F. Kennedy on numerous walls. He angrily orders them all removed and replaced by photos of himself.

Mr. Butterfield also reveals that Nixon had, in addition to an Enemies List, an Opponents List and a Freeze List, and ordered all enrollees thereon barred from the White House.

The new Haldeman deputy functioned as a buffer between Nixon and his wife, Pat, observing the president's rudeness toward her and how he ignored her when she sought to consult him about family matters. Mr. Butterfield told Mr. Woodward he considered her "a borderline abused wife."

Some guests to official dinners likewise were rudely treated. Nixon in advance would stipulate only four or five who would be allowed to approach him, and by pre-arrangement be escorted to the presence, as others were detoured.

Beyond the inside account of how Nixon sheltered himself from unwanted or unfamiliar influences, this latest Woodward offering serves up further examples of why the name of Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign organization -- officially the Committee for the Re-election of the President but reduced to the acronym CREEP -- was so particularly appropriate.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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