Today the name H.R. “Bob” Haldeman is largely forgotten, the answer to a trivia question perhaps. But a generation ago, Haldeman, who has now been dead for nearly a quarter-century, was not a trivial figure. He was White House chief of staff in the Richard Nixon years, perhaps the most powerful presidential aide since FDR’s Harry Hopkins, and a central figure in the Watergate scandal.
Haldeman would remain in the historical mists but for the fact that his widow, Jo Haldeman, has written a remarkable and revealing memoir, a look at life with a White House official, a glimpse into the machinations of the Nixon years, and, in its way, a meditation on the price of power. After her husband was indicted for perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, Jo Haldeman wondered:
“How did we ever reach this point? What on earth went wrong?”
But for me, the most plaintive remark in this memoir came from daughter Ann Haldeman. It was a question the anguished teenager asked her father over fondue: “Why can’t you just explain that you made a mistake?” Shortly thereafter he was in Lompoc Federal Prison Camp, 150 miles north of Los Angeles. He would remain there for 18 months.
Many years ago, Ann Haldeman had a job working, as the expression went, “on the doors” in the Capitol, making sure that those of us who entered the Senate Press Gallery were properly credentialed. My congressional-correspondent colleagues and I passed her eight or 10 times a day, and every time I swept by, I wondered about the woman who was only six years younger than I: What was it like being Bob Haldeman’s daughter? What could it have been like for her to visit her dad in prison?
So the publication of this book prompted me to get in touch again with the woman I recall for her pleasant smile and shy countenance. For her, the decade between her 9th and 19th birthdays was bracketed by White House visits and prison visits, by astonishing highs and devastating lows. She told me she remembers it this way:
“I give both my parents a ton of credit for maintaining a stable home life throughout both the tremendous highs and lows. They were always consistent, just Mom and Dad. I admire my dad’s ability to view challenges as opportunities and to think things through positively and pragmatically. But mostly I remember Dad as a family man, at home with his roses and dahlias, dog, books, guitar, Fritos, easy laugh, twiddling a spoon at the table, sailing his Sunfish, relaxed, tan and happy.”
Her remarks serve as a reminder that the large figures who work in high positions are human; or, as Bill Clinton put it in 1999, less than a week after the Senate acquitted him following his impeachment in the House, “Presidents are people, too.” They are some mother’s son or daughter, some child’s mother or father, some adult’s husband or wife.
It was as the wife of a principal in perhaps the biggest political drama of the 20th century that Jo Haldeman, now 88 years old, experienced the extremes of the human condition. This was her view at the outset of the family’s White House adventure: “The United States needs Richard Nixon. And Richard Nixon needs my husband. My heart bursts with pride to be Bob Haldeman’s wife.” Later, she wrote: “I’m so proud of Bob and excited for our family.”
At the beginning, there were sunshine days in Key Biscayne, leisurely walks on the beach, a Statler suite for the inauguration, Pat Nixon’s dinner for the White House wives — there’s a phrase you’ll never hear today — and rides on Air Force One. At one point, she wrote:
“In the last 10 days, we have attended a dinner party at the home of columnist Joseph Alsop, a play at Ford’s Theatre, the ballet at the Kennedy Center and the wedding of the son of the secretary of state to the daughter of the secretary of agriculture.”
But soon her husband — feared in the White House and in the power corridors of Washington — made it clear that he didn’t want, as he put it, “to feel pressured to attend school functions, neighborhood parties and church every Sunday.” She felt loneliness, almost a sense of abandonment. Her husband — Ann’s father — was away constantly, and even when he was present, he really wasn’t. Jo Haldeman communicated with her husband with notes sent by mail. It was, she wrote, “a workable solution.” They talked “always at his convenience.”
She came to view the White House telephone, once such a prized visitor in her life, “as an intruder.”
Eight years after he entered the White House, her husband entered prison.
“The car door slams shut, and Bob is gone,” his widow wrote. “I watched him walk away. The only other sounds I hear are the crunching of gravel and the popping of eucalyptus pods under Bob’s Wallabees.”
And yet when she visited him in prison, “I feel a closeness between the two of us that I haven’t experienced for a long time.” When she left, she wrote, “I just spent seven delightful hours with my husband.”
The Nixon White House was chaotic, but the Trump White House is even more so. This is not a back-door suggestion that Trump’s aides may share the same fate as Nixon’s. It is a reminder that the White House is isolating, that presidential aides can become sycophants, that their perspective can become warped. It happened in the Nixon White House, to be sure, but it was not unknown in the Barack Obama White House or in the George W. Bush White House either. Their occupants were fiercely protective of their presidents as well — and were as contemptuous of criticism, even from their friends.
Jo Haldeman’s book, “In the Shadow of the White House,” is one part tragedy, one part cautionary tale. Every presidential aide should read it, now and four years from now and then again eight years from now. Every president, too. Sometimes it is not so long a journey from the White House to the big house. The crunching of gravel and the popping of eucalyptus pods can be a sobering sound, even if you don’t know what a pair of Wallabees looks like.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.