Bob Haldeman's Widow on the Perils of Power
Working in the White House is heady stuff, both for officials and for their families. Before it goes too much to their head, there's a surprisingly useful primer, "In the Shadow of the White House."
It's a memoir by Jo Haldeman, the widow of Bob Haldeman, the all-powerful chief of staff under President Richard Nixon. I felt obligated to read it, to be explained later. Then I found the 88-year-old Mrs. Haldeman's book to be unexpectedly insightful, candid, moving and instructive, especially for the current White House.
As much as it is a personal story, it's about the intoxication of power and the perils for those people who reside in that bubble.
The Haldemans were prominent in Los Angeles before the 1968 election, but it was nothing like the glories of the next couple years in the Nixon White House: trips on Air Force One to Key Biscayne or San Clemente, weekends at Camp David, state dinners, cruises down the Potomac on the presidential yacht, being flattered by Henry Kissinger.
Even with the workaholic Bob Haldeman, there was a lot of glitter and fun for the couple and their four children. Talking about the opening to China over dinner or breakfast or which head of state Dad was with today was exciting.
Drawing on her letters, personal notes, calendar, vignettes and pictures, she captures the insularity of the White House, even before the Watergate travails. Throughout she's loyal to her husband and, in the main, to Nixon, but she amazes at "how solicitous" the chief of staff was to the president: "Bob would never be this tolerant with anyone else."
That's the Oval Office syndrome and never has it been more worrisome than it is now. Donald Trump doesn't like bad news about himself. More than a few of the Trump leakers -- the new communications chief Anthony "the Mooch" Scaramucci vows to fire all of them -- are White House aides who know that's the only way to get bad news to a narcissistic boss.
Leaks are central to one telling anecdote in Jo Haldeman's book. In 1971, the Haldemans and their close friends, top White House aide John Ehrlichman and his wife, were cruising on the White House yacht. Egged on by the president and Kissinger, then the national security adviser, the men were in a lather about the leak to the New York Times of the Pentagon Papers, the secret inside government account of the tragic mistakes and miscalculations of the Vietnam War through 1968.
While Haldeman and Ehrlichman were bent on retaliation for a supposed security leak, Jo Haldeman had a different reaction: "I find it hard to get too excited over another government leak. Particularly one that predates this Administration."
No one asked her view. Instead the administration tried to suppress publication, and, failing at that, other operatives surreptitiously launched Operation Gemstone and the infamous plumbers' unit that plotted and committed illegal acts, some of which formed the basis for Nixon's impeachment.
That day on the Potomac, the president's two top aides should have listened to Jo Haldeman.
But perspective is difficult for any administration, especially one afflicted with the paranoia of the Nixon White House ... or the Trump White House.
There are amusing anecdotes: Jo Haldeman is a teetotaler, and most every time she saw the socially awkward Nixon, he would make a crack about her drinking issue. In the middle of the Watergate scandal, they discovered their teenage son was growing marijuana in his bedroom; Jo Haldeman stashed it in the trash, while the house was surrounded by reporters.
But there are sad moments even before being enveloped by the Watergate scandal. The Haldemans were a close family, but less than two years after arriving in Washington she wrote: "I feel insecure and alone. I wonder if any of the other White House wives experience similar feelings." There are few places as all-consuming and demanding as the White House.
If anyone in the Trump White House is inclined to believe that going through a serious investigation isn't such a big deal, he or she should read this book: What's true, what's next, how about the kids, what will happen to us?
"To my friends, I'm sure that I appear calm and confident," she wrote then, "but each new development makes me feel less secure." Another morning: "I really don't want to go downstairs and face the Washington Post again."
Then the agony of watching her husband forced to resign, indicted, convicted and sent to prison for a year and half. Poignantly, she describes her visits, sitting in the Lompoc prison yard in California with the love of her life, who only five years earlier was called the second most powerful man in the country.
She marvels at his equanimity and the relationships he formed with fellow inmates. Expressing pride in his service, he tells her he would "still choose to go to Washington even if it meant the same outcome." She wonders: "Would I?"
"It was a journey that took Bob and me to unbelievable heights, as well as the deepest depths."
The catalyst for the book, written more than two decades after her husband died, was when a grandchild mentioned studying Watergate in school. (Decades from now, that child's grandchild will be studying about Donald Trump and Robert Mueller.)
Why did I read it? Back in 1982, covering the Senate, I would say hello every morning to a nice young doorkeeper stationed outside the press gallery. Her name was Ann. Once I asked her last name. Sheepishly she replied, "Haldeman."
"Are you related to Bob?" I asked.
"He's my dad," she replied.
"Is he a good guy?" I asked.
"He really is," she said, breaking into a grin.
I read her mother's book at her request. Contrary to the Prussian image of the all-powerful chief of staff, Jo Haldeman convincingly describes a warm and thoughtful man, devoted to his family.
The story is, however, a reminder that unchecked power corrupts and makes good people do bad things. That's something those working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today should think about carefully.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org