From One of His Trusted Aides, Richard Nixon Up Close Dwight Chapin, center, speaks with the media outside U.S. district court in Washington on May 16, 1974. (AP)
By John Gizzi Monday, 05 September 2022 11:05 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive
The burglary at the Watergate Hotel that would evolve into America's best-known political scandal and bring down of a president occurred 50 years ago in June.
Much of the reminiscences in the national media regenerated the big question about Richard Nixon: was he truly a malevolent political scoundrel, or should he be remembered as a visionary and decisive president who, among other things, ended the Vietnam War, made a historic opening to Communist China, saved Israel from the 1973 sneak attack that was the Yom Kippur War, and oversaw the near-complete integration of segregated schools in the South without any incident.
It seems a pretty safe bet to say that, had Watergate not happened, Nixon would be remembered as a near-great president who might well have accomplished much more in a complete second term minus scandal and legal duels.
Dwight Chapin doesn't delve into the speculative "what ifs?," but in his provocative and captivating memoir "The President's Man," the reader gets a revealing look at Nixon from one of his closest aides before and during his presidency.
Now 82 and retired after several eventful decades in the private sector (including playing a major role in bringing television into the digital era), Chapin was once Nixon's "gatekeeper" as candidate and president. Chapin also served several months in prison for something that he has steadfastly maintained was not in any way wrongdoing, but nonetheless caught him up in the fervor over Watergate.
When not even finished with his studies at the University of Southern California, the 21-year-old Chapin worked as an advance man in Nixon's bid for governor of California in 1962 — a race everyone (including the candidate) except for the fledgling campaigner Chapin sensed he would lose.
After a few years with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Chapin was brought back to the Nixon orbit by his boss and mentor Bob Haldeman, who would become Nixon's White House Chief of Staff in his first term.
As traveling aide and advance man for candidate Nixon in his race for the presidency in 1967-68 and later appointments secretary in the White House, Chapin determined who saw and didn't see the boss. He also had considerable time with and lessons from the master politician.
Like Pat Buchanan and just about anyone else in the Nixon high command in 1968, Chapin dismisses the long-held view of the liberal press that the Republican nominee somehow torpedoed the chances of an early negotiated settlement of the Vietnam War by sending Republican fundraiser Anna Chennault to tell the South Vietnamese government they would get a better deal with Nixon as president than with Democratic nominee and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
"Chances are if Nixon had been working secretly with Anna Chennault, I would have heard bits of the larger puzzle," Chapin writes. "I didn't. Not a word."
He also notes that presidential chronicler Theodore White and Humphrey in his memoirs dismiss any idea of Nixon's involvement in any such intrigue.
Chapin does, however, point out that when Humphrey broke with lame duck President Lyndon Johnson in October 1968 and said he would support a bombing halt in North Vietnam, Nixon called LBJ to say "[I]t's not my intent to move in that direction" and that he supported the president's Vietnam policy.
Although Johnson did finally halt the bombing days before the election, "he obviously appreciated Nixon's call" and, as Humphrey's close friend Sen. Walter Mondale, D.-Minn., later said, "LBJ was not as active as he should have been" campaigning for his vice president.
As president, Nixon was frustrated in trying to end what was becoming America's longest and most divisive war. This was due in large part, the author believes, to the Communist North Vietnamese being buoyed by reports of large anti-war protests throughout the U.S. and a resultant sense the American public had lost confidence in its leaders.
A possible early sign that might have convinced North Vietnam that Nixon meant business would have been a brass-knuckled response to North Korea when its Mig-21 fighter jets shot down an unarmed Navy spy plane over the Sea of Japan and left 31 Americans dead.
While National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and others advised the president hit back hard, Nixon did not want to risk starting a new war while he was trying to finish an old one. He did nothing.
Years later, notes the author, Nixon would say not bombing North Korea "was the biggest mistake of his presidency because, early on, it demonstrated a weak response to an unjustified provocation and sent a wrong signal."
Chapin devotes considerable detail to the events and his own advance work leading up to Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, something in which the 37th president had believed years before he assumed the office.
In recalling his time in Beijing, Chapin vividly brings to life the cordial relationship he developed with Mao's right-hand man Zhou En-Lai over some hard-to-digest Chinese delicacies and how when First Lady Pat Nixon told Zhou she loved his brand of cigarettes known as Pandas, the Chinese premier graciously responded: "I'll give you some" — meaning he would send the first Chinese panda bears to the National Zoo in Washington.
"And that's how history gets made," writes Chapin.
Curiously absent from his account of Nixon's accomplishments is any significant mention of his domestic agenda. The Republican president quite often irked his supporters on the right, including his own aide Buchanan, by pushing an stronger government hand in domestic policy, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the punitively anti-business Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Conservatives helped defeat Nixon's Family Assistance Plan (FAP) to provide greater federal assistance to welfare recipients and loathed price controls and total removal from the gold standard.
Chapin argues that, as the book Silent Coup concluded, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were conducting a spying operation in the White House (fearing that the political elite were undermining the military) and that the principal conduit for inside information was Kissinger's deputy, then-Col. Alexander Haig.
Haig, who succeeded Haldeman as chief of staff, smoothed the way for Nixon's resignation and exodus from office in 1974.
Without Haig and White House Counsel John Dean, whose duplicity toward his president and colleagues are vividly delineated, Chapin believes Nixon might well have ridden out Watergate and completed his term.
Chapin had nothing to do with either the Watergate break-in or the resulting developments that brought down so many in the Nixon Administration. However, he fell hard, going from overseeing visitors to the Oval Office and dining with Zhou En-Lai to serving eight months in the federal corrections center at Lompoc, California.
His crime? Making "false statements" regarding his suggestion that the Nixon reelection campaign hire old college chum Donald Segretti to play pranks on possible Democratic opponents not unlike those played on Nixon by Democratic prankster Dick Tuck.
Chapin never blames Nixon for his own downfall and punishment for something he never considered as wrongdoing. Rather, he speaks with great pride of his time with his old boss and what he learned from him, among other things, Nixon's admonition that "as you go through life, just always remember the key thing is keeping your learning curve vertical."
At a time when most of Nixon's friends and political associates are gone, Chapin's recollections, opinions, and lessons from an important figure in history are worth reading and learning.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.