Memoirs of Nixon’s trusted aide’
The 1960s and 1970s were a turbulent time in the United States. As turbulent as those times were, the last decade seems to be a mirror image of those years. Reading Dwight Chapin’s memoir “The President’s Man: The Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide,” one begins to see the modern political world through its historical lens.
Chapin was one of the most trusted aides to President Richard Nixon, who was eventually sentenced to prison as part of the Watergate fallout. But these memoirs aren’t just about Watergate and its fallout, or even what led up to it. This book is about the hopes, dreams, and realities experienced by the author and those around him in Nixon’s White House.
C-SPAN’s current presidential ranking has Nixon 14th from bottom. Looking at the list, it’s safe to assume that those who rank the presidents know very little about most of them. When Nixon is mentioned, he is usually vilified in some way, viewed on the basis of inherited perspectives from conventional narratives and the Watergate scandal. This book, by contrast, is written by someone who knew Nixon, not someone claiming to have known him.
From a brilliant start…
Chapin discusses his introduction to the Nixon campaign, via his friend Bob Haldeman, and his rise through the ranks of the 1968 presidential campaign to the top of orchestrating visits to the People’s Republic of China and Moscow.
The author explains how everyone, including himself, had to find their own place in a new administration. Even at the individual level, it was a colossal undertaking. Collectively, as Chapin puts it, it would amount to “replacing the entire management of the biggest company in the world with people new to their jobs, who were to have their stores up and running within seventy-five days.” Stress. Expectations. The fights. The successes. The friends. The enemies. It’s hard for the reader not to be captivated by it all, just as the author still seems to be.
…towards a dark end
The unfortunate, but also happy, aspect of the book is that we know how it ends: in a scandalous disaster. The reason it’s unfortunate is that you become attached to the author and his friends in the administration, including Nixon himself. It’s lucky because it transitions, though not completely, from memoir to political thriller, which makes for even more engaging reading.
The author establishes a point that most people should buy into. People don’t really know the details of Watergate, but have no problem making statements about it. Indeed, little has changed since the days when the story broke, when hyperbole or outright misinformation was purported. Today, when people discuss it, they lack the ability to provide detail and clarity, while making hyperbolic statements.
Chapin states that the Watergate story “is very convoluted and there are dozens of side stories that add intrigue to the main events of the break-in and subsequent cover-up. I won’t attempt to tell the whole Watergate story here.
While he doesn’t go into all of that, he does provide details and insight into what was going on at the White House, how things got out of hand, and how individuals viewed the seriousness of the allegations over the weeks and months that followed.
One of the takeaways for readers, especially those getting into politics, or even business, is to get ahead of a scandal. Cut off the heads when there is still time to do so.
Players: nationals and foreigners
Chapin places the reader inside the west wing where he worked. Featuring memos written during discussions with Nixon, Bob Haldeman, Pat Buchanan and Henry Kissinger, the book is a chance to experience some of America’s greatest personalities through the eyes of someone who was there.
In addition to meeting those in the White House, the reader receives an introduction to what was happening during Nixon’s presidency: the legacy Vietnam War that sucked the life of the country (literally and figuratively): the anti-war movement made foreign affairs even more difficult, especially because the North Vietnamese were able to take advantage of it; the continuing difficulties with the Soviet Union and their satellite country, North Korea; and the constant battles with a combative press. As mentioned above, there is so much irony in how little has changed over the past 50-60 years.
One of the most significant moments in modern history (and obviously in the book) was the opening of the People’s Republic of China. It’s amazing how that moment, produced primarily through Nixon’s political genius, affected the world then and continues to do so ever since.
Nixon’s leap to visit China was deemed impossible, not only by his critics and the press (who were practically one and the same), but also by Kissinger. Yet the impossible happened and Chapin organized and orchestrated the visits. Of the many incredibly interesting and highly readable sections of the book, this part is perhaps the most intriguing. As Chapin writes, “This trip was [Nixon’s] best time, his own and that of the whole administration.
Chapin discusses Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Prime Minister Chou En-lai, and the strange and oppressive way citizens were treated. The author’s honesty, which prevails throughout the memoir, is hardly more predominant when he evokes the conflict between his knowledge and his experience in China.
“While I hated the communist system [En-lai] represented, it was impossible not to appreciate it and even to like it. Sometimes it was even possible to forget that he and Chairman Mao were responsible for the deaths of millions of their countrymen in order to establish their communist regime.
Along with China’s opening, the Nixon administration also signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement with the Soviet Union. This agreement limited the manufacture of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Not only did Nixon initiate the SALT treaties, which were followed by subsequent administrations, but he also did something almost as unlikely. He convinced General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviets to allow him to address the Soviet people live.
Chapin details the visit to the Kremlin, the SALT deal and address, and how, after Nixon’s speech, a fight broke out between the KGB and the core press, which involved Chapin and Haldeman. The author wrote with humor: “A fight had broken out during a peace conference.”
The behind-the-scenes details of dealings with foreign diplomats, those who are foreign but less diplomatic, and those in the same office space, can only be provided by someone who has been there.
Chapin’s account of the adventures of the Nixon administration is, well, adventurous. There is no doubt that Chapin is proud of his time in the Nixon administration. He makes it clear throughout the book that he was and still is.
The Fall of Nixon… and Chapin
According to the author, Nixon’s great meltdown happened in spite of the president and because of the president. Chapin explains how Nixon would vent on people (whether they worked for him or not), his indecisiveness, his preference for almost fault-delegating, and his rather understandable grudge against the media. These seemingly minor issues resulted in a massive management failure that led to his resignation.
The author also discusses many valid points that often seem to be overlooked in Watergate conversation, including the motives of the Washington Post source known as Deep Throat, who decades later came to turned out to be FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt. He connects several points regarding CIA involvement. Also, Chapin doesn’t hold a grudge against John Dean, who was the president’s attorney during the scandal.
Chapin talks about his time serving a nine-month prison sentence and, he says, how it changed his life for the better. Faith and mentorship come into play at an opportune time for the author personally and for the book.
This important memoir is full of fascinating moments, but the author lands the book softly. As sad as the story is, Chapin does not leave the reader depressed. On the contrary, we almost hope that even through disaster, chaos and tragedy, family, friendship and faith can be enough to pull us through.
The memoir also provides insight into the inner workings of the White House: the demands, the personalities, and the power. There’s so much about this book that makes it important for different types of readers, ranging from those who simply want to better understand the Nixon years to those who are considering getting into politics, even just as a trusted aide.
This is even more important because of the many similarities between yesterday and today.
“The President’s Man: Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide”
By Dwight Chapin
William Morrow, February 15, 2022
Hardcover: 480 pages