Dwight Chapin book: The President’s Man

“The President must always comes first. ‘He was born to do this job – and he’s perfect!’” – H.R. Haldeman

Watergate was 50 years ago, great time to publish a book. What I expected was a word or two of remorse or regret, but you won’t find it in this book.

Dwight Chapin was a key player in Richard Nixon’s White House. Chapin worked as a volunteer in Nixon’s 1962 California Gubernatorial run, and then as his personal assistant when Nixon campaigned for president.

When Nixon lost in 1962, Chapin was hired by Haldeman to work at J. Walter Thompson advertising firm. Haldeman, who became President Nixon’s chief of staff, would guide Chapin’s career until he fired Chapin during Watergate. Haldeman, perhaps the most powerful man in Washington, loomed as large as Nixon in Chapin’s life. Chapin described himself as a shock absorber for Haldeman, to take the anger whenever something went wrong. Haldeman’s management style seemed to be control and accounting for every detail. He was the gatekeeper to the President and Chapin says that irritated old friends who no longer had direct access, and included Nixon’s longtime secrecy, Rose Mary Woods, who clashed with Haldeman.

The President’s Man: The Memoirs of Nixon’s Trusted Aide is almost entirely about Richard M. Nixon through the eyes of a worshipper. One might begin to feel like there was a Nixon cult. I am a student of the Watergate era, I can’t say I’ve read every book by a Watergate figures, but I’ve studied many. This book is heavy on the Nixon White House and Nixon the leader. Chapin had a great vantage point to observe and participate in some key historical moments, the trips to Peking and Moscow, for which Chapin served as the lead for the advance teams.

Haldeman’s advice to for young Chapin was: Kept a low profile, kept eyes on the next task at hand, and smiled agreeably at all the right times. He left out on thing: stay loyal.

For all the years that Chapin and Haldeman knew each other and were friends, their work relationship in the West Wing began to quickly unravel. The normally affable Chapin began to push back at Haldeman’s anger and public dressing downs. Both were members of the “USC Mafia” from their college days. Many USC alumni were part of the Nixon White House.

There are some interesting revelations in the book. Nixon did not know Spiro Agnew before asking him to join the ticket. He would develop no relationship with Agnew and soon realized asking him to join the ticket was a mistake. People in and out of the White House quickly learned that Agnew was irrelevant. Agnew’s office was even moved out of the White House.

Chapin during his trial on charges of perjury.

Chapin spends considerable space to touting Nixon’s domestic policy successes, which is overshadowed by his foreign policy pursuits. To be fair, the moderate Nixon did launch a number of successful programs early in his administration such as establishing the EPA, the Cancer Institute, supporting the adoption of Title IX legislation prohibiting gender discrimination in colleges, returning lands to Native Americans, increasing funding for some public assistance programs.

Nixon’s complex personality is at times, difficult for Chapin to rationalize. He often says how Nixon was great at working a room and knew how to connect with people, which was extremely valuable for candidate Nixon. However, President Nixon was a different animal. He describes how Nixon restricted the number of people he would see, was careful about the photo ops, and consolidated decision-making to a few, therefore bypassing his Cabinet meetings. Nixon preferred not to meet with many people, he relied on his small “inner circle” and if you had information to pass along, you were told to put it in a memo. Nixon did not slough off, he had long work hours and often had “thinking time” where he read and reviewed internal communications. This was obviously different than Trump’s “executive time”. Chapin writes that Nixon’s preferred schedule was for aloneness. As Nixon’s appointments secretary handling the President’s calendar, the bigger the issue, the more time Nixon carved out for “thinking”, which would often take up entire afternoons. Haldeman would often be included as Nixon turned a problem over and over, weighing the options, going back and forth. He said these meetings left Haldeman fatigued and in a bad mood. Nixon ruminated about a problem, whereas Haldeman was a man of action.

Chapin goes to great lengths to explain and rationalize Nixon’s quirky and dark qualities. His anger and knee jerk behavior, confirmed over and over by Nixon’s taping system. Chapin just seems to say Nixon was just being human, like all of us, and the press painted an untrue image of the Nixon he knew. Chapin kept a journal in those years and details many times when Nixon harshly responded to Pat Nixon, called others a bastard or son of a bitch, or directed retaliatory action against someone. Nixon had flaws, like all of us, true; but Nixon’s behavior poisoned his responsibility and actions as President.

Chapin describes Nixon as victim of undeserving of the political vitriol he endured for 30 years. There were those who had always hated Nixon no matter the situation so his defensiveness was understandable. Nixon was victimized by his own ingrained anticipation of these attacks which set up mental roadblocks for him. The White House staff accept as carved in stone that the media unfairly hated Nixon and was the reason for his constant focus on image. They were still kicking Dick Nixon. So a group of staffers met regularly to come up with ideas for planning events to get more positive news coverage.

Interestingly, in a full chapter on President Richard Nixon, Chapin says the Nixon tapes can’t be excused, then he spends the chapter excusing them. If the number of tapes dealing with abuse of power is only seven percent of the total, would you want seven percent of your life to speak for the other 93 percent? He states in the book that Nixon was misjudged from the tapes. When Nixon resigned, Chapin cried and calls it “the extraordinary unfairness”.

To this day, Chapin is proud to be a Nixon loyalist. He’s never wavered from his praise and defense of Nixon. He feels a debt of honor to Nixon for the association and the opportunities that came as a result. Chapin worked on the four-year project to update and refresh the Nixon Library.

I found it tiring with the repeated focus on partisan politics. Chapin always pointed out someone’s party or political label, which strips away any objectivity. For example, over and over, Chapin blames the Johnson Administration for the tacky and worn look of the West Wing (peeling paint, threadbare carpet, mess or wires), political chicanery and the slipshod and inefficient procedures practiced by staff. Perhaps these observations have merit, but Chapin overlooks any blame the Nixon era might deserve for what they left behind. Chapin takes shots at the Kennedys, but overlooks the obsession the Nixon White House had with the Kennedy legacy and Ted Kennedy in particular.

Chapin also dismisses the “Palace Guard” phrase and the idea that Ehrlichman and Haldeman kept the gate closed to people wanting to see Nixon. Anyone wanting to see the President had to schedule it and provide a memo outlining the reason why, those that would be involved and expectations of the meeting. Easy peasy. The idea he says was to not waste Nixon’s time. One more caveat was added as the 1972 election neared, approval also was tied on what was in it for Nixon politically (per Haldeman).

Cold and unfeeling are words usually used to describe Nixon. Chapin says that wasn’t the real Nixon, although the public vail was part of Nixon’s Quaker upbringing. Visually, his feelings were muted in public, formal and almost programmed, that’s what the media focused on, yet they criticized Nixon for what he wasn’t.

Fifty years later, Chapin still believes the Democrats and the liberal media were obsessed with getting Nixon. Connecting Segretti and the Watergate break-in was impossible because they weren’t related, but it all became one story. That’s how Chapin was pulled into Watergate. Chapin pushes a lot of the responsibility onto White House counsel John Dean, that Dean was really “the cancer in the White House”. G. Gordon Liddy, Howard Hunt and others cooked-up and performed the third-rate spy activities that ensnared Nixon, Haldeman, Eherlichman and others. John Mitchell, the former Attorney General, and later head of the election committee, was identified as having approved illegal activities and handled a fund that provided payment for said activities.

Chapin unloads on Dean, saying that Dean protected himself while shining the spotlight on others. Nixon then made bad decisions based on bad information, prompting Nixon into a defensive posture (they are out to get me – again). In Chapin’s eyes, Dean was the one who threw Chapin and Segretti under the bus. Chapin says Dean has made a career out of shredding Nixon’s reputation for 50 years.

Curiously, despite a search, I could find no record of Dean responding to, or commenting on Chapin’s book. Dean is very active on Twitter, but no tweets involving the book surfaced.

Besides Watergate, the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, the plumbers and Don Segretti s political dirty tricks, illegal campaign contributions, et al, candidate Nixon has been accused of interfering in Vietnam peace talks, a very serious charge. Chapin dismisses it as a baseless charge, but there is evidence of this happening.

Chapin would be convicted of lying to a grand jury, something he still denies, and served eighteen months at a low security federal facility. During his imprisonment, Chapin was on the payroll of a magazine publisher and GOP donor. Chapin and others were cut loose, hoping their departures would stem the tide of the Watergate investigation, and of course, protecting Nixon. It didn’t work.

Chapin is still critical of Woodward and Bernstein, the liberal media in general, John Dean of course, special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski (Democrats needing a “public hanging”), other prosecutors, the Court, jurors – everyone hated Nixon. He was convinced he would not get a fair trial.

After Chapin left the White House, he worked for an airline in Chicago. Even now he points to frenzy over Watergate as being driven by Democrats, the liberal media and prosecutors wanting to make a name. Watergate he says in the book was a profit center so of course it stayed on the front page. Watergate would pale in comparison to today’s scandal he also claims.

In the years since Watergate, Chapin has done alright for himself. Advertising jobs, publishing a magazine his own consulting firm, and turning around some personal battles. Recently, the 81 year old Chapin and his second wife just sold their home in the Hamptons for nearly six million dollars.

“I have no regrets about my actions. I was proud of the role I played,” Chapin writes. He believes his conviction was unfair and that Watergate was used to settle scores and eventually get Nixon. “My indictment was political. I am a political prisoner,” he remembered thinking as he wrote a very different letter to the judge of the case, hoping to get an early release from prison.

Interestingly, Chapin’s LinkedIn account says: Author | Value Creator.

He describes those words as meaning to be a builder, a contributor, to add value. Something we should all subscribe.

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