Von Haldeman and the P : THE HALDEMAN DIARIES: Inside the Nixon White House, By H.R. Haldeman (Putnam: $27.50; 684 pp.)

Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow covered Watergate for The Times

The day-to-day journal that H.R. "Bob" Haldeman kept of his years as White House chief of staff for Richard M. Nixon could serve as a how-to manual for the ultimate aide, at least as Haldeman defined that task: accomplishing the impossible without showing a trace of emotion.

Among Haldeman's formidable tasks were: to shield President Nixon from the near-paranoia of his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, repeatedly expressed in threats to resign over what Kissinger saw as Secretary of State William P. Rogers' undercutting and upstaging him; to handle Nixon's obsession and dissatisfaction with the PR side of the White House down to the level of plotting against a reporter he perceived as an enemy; to sound out Nixon's favorite Democrat, John Connally, about replacing Spiro Agnew as vice president if a way could be found to ease Agnew out before the first term was finished.

But more than detailing excesses of the Nixon Presidency that until now went unreported or incompletely told, Haldeman's contemporaneous recording of what took place during his four years and three months at the White House reveals a side of "Von Haldeman," as he jokingly dubs himself, unknown to the public: Some of Nixon's actions and style left him stunned.

This powerful chief of staff claims to have eschewed any role in policy-making. This denial turns out to be at best exaggerated modesty. We read in the diaries that he urged Nixon to bomb Hanoi and to carry out the Cambodian incursion. But to hear him describe his role, his greatest contribution lay in "frequently" having to decide whether to obey a presidential order. "I sometimes decided not to, on the basis that it was not an order that was really intended to be carried out, but rather a letting off of steam, or that it was clearly not in the P's (his diary symbol for Nixon) interest that it be carried out. Usually I later informed P that the order had not been followed, and he usually agreed that was the right decision. There were times, however, when he intentionally would end-run me with an order to someone else who he felt would do his bidding when I wouldn't."

At times, Haldeman's critical entries describe minor missteps, such as Nixon's instruction that a presidential dinner for Duke Ellington's birthday include "all the jazz greats, like Guy Lombardo." Haldeman can't resist an "oh well!"

Other mistakes, such as Nixon's "incredible" (as Haldeman described it) statement that then-accused multiple killer Charles Manson was guilty before his case went to the jury, had potentially more serious consequences. The comment came during a presidential trip: "He was trying to make point about media responsibility for glorifying criminals, but it came out wrong," Haldeman recorded. "We had quite a time on Air Force One trying to work out a correction. P had (Attorney General) John Mitchell and E (White House Counsel John D. Ehrlichman) write up a statement."

The diaries, which Haldeman recorded first in longhand and later by dictation, represent a prodigious effort, the entries having been made each night after 12- to 14-hour workdays. Haldeman died last Nov. 12, having worked full-time in the last year of his life on preparing the diaries to publish in condensed version in this book and in their entirety on CD-ROM. His widow, Jo, completed the work.

For those who lived through the Nixon Presidency, Haldeman's telegraphic-style entries bring the period back to life. For those who covered the Nixon Presidency, the diaries fill out what had only been hinted at and in some matters provide new information.

Take the case of fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham. It is well known that he was a longtime Nixon friend and confidant. But the degree to which he served as a White House political adviser has not previously been recorded.

After a Feb. 1, 1972, prayer breakfast, Graham and Nixon discuss "the terrible problem arising from the total Jewish domination of the media," and agree "that this was something that would have to be dealt with," Haldeman reports. On July 20, 1972, Graham calls to report information of vital interest to the Nixon White House--that there was almost no chance the ailing Gov. George Wallace would run for president, based on a conversation that Graham had with Wallace. The P earlier had told Haldeman that "Graham has a line to Wallace through Mrs. Wallace, who has become a Christian. Billy will talk to Wallace whenever we want him to." And in a later entry, as Haldeman and Ehrlichman resign under the pressure of Watergate, Graham tells Haldeman he had not met two finer men in government and that "we've been caught in a web of evil that will ultimately be defeated."

As intriguing as such disclosures are, they fall short of achieving the status of "an invaluable asset to historians and scholars" that Haldeman's friend and presidential scholar Robert Rutland predicted they would when he urged Haldeman to undertake the effort. The largest shortcoming is that Haldeman classified his journal "Top Secret," which led to a review of the full text by the National Security Council, and deletions of "sensitive national-security-related material."

Historian and Nixon biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, who in an introduction to the book rates it "a priceless document," nevertheless said the government censorship "is infuriating." In addition, the 684-page volume is indexed only by name and not by subject, frustrating any student seriously interested in the period.

Watergate is the only period for which Haldeman said he included all his diary entries in the final product. Nearly two years after Haldeman resigned as chief of staff, he was convicted in federal court of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. His 2 1/2- to 8-year sentence was cut to 1 to 4 years, and he was paroled after serving 18 months.

"Nothing has been deleted to hide the truth, painful as it sometimes is," Haldeman wrote in the foreword. "Although this book represents only about 40% of the full text (of all the diaries), it includes virtually every word I wrote about Watergate."

Despite the asserted completeness of the Watergate entries, they offer no new information. In fact, they underscore Haldeman's failure to recognize that his actions and those of his chief executive only days after the break-in by Republican operatives at the Democrats' Watergate offices constituted a cover-up--or obstruction of justice as a federal grand jury would describe it.

"We never set out to construct a planned, conscious cover-up operation," Haldeman writes as the Watergate entries begin. "We reacted to Watergate just as we had to the Pentagon Papers, ITT and the Laos/Cambodia operations. We were highly sensitive to any negative PR, and our natural reaction was to contain, or minimize, any potential political damage. Our attempts at containment became linked to other acts within the Administration and were eventually labeled 'the Watergate cover-up.' "

But Haldeman seemed to indicate otherwise in his June 20, 1972, entry, three days after the break-in. He told of meeting with Ehrlichman and Mitchell, who by then had left the Justice Department to head the Nixon reelection committee, and Atty. Gen. Richard G. Kleindienst and counsel to the president John W. Dean III: "The conclusion was that we've got to hope the FBI doesn't go beyond what's necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that, as well as keeping all the characters involved from getting carried away with any unnecessary testimony." (Italics are the reviewer's.)

And in his entry for June 23, 1972, the day of the so-called smoking gun tape on which Nixon is heard to instruct Haldeman to use the CIA to head off the FBI Watergate investigators, Haldeman gives little indication that the President gave him such an order. That tape subsequently became crucial in persuading Nixon to resign rather than face impeachment.

Instead, Haldeman notes cryptically: "The FBI is convinced it's the CIA that's doing this, and (acting FBI Director L. Patrick) Gray's looking for a way out of the investigation. So we talked to (CIA Deputy Director Vernon) Walters and had that worked out."

But in his July 6, 1972 entry, Haldeman, discussing a 2-hour meeting he held with the P and Ehrlichman on "the Watergate caper problem," said "Walters apparently has finked out and spilled the beans to Pat Gray, which complicates the issue substantially."

An editor's note elaborates: "Walters had met with Gray, but told him the CIA had no interest in Watergate. Also, that he thought people in the White House or CRP (Committee to Reelect the President) were covering something up, with which Gray agreed. The President had told him to go ahead with his investigation."

While Haldeman's diaries shed no new light on Watergate, they make startlingly clear the degree to which the White House manipulated Vice President Agnew--and then reacted with horror when he grew beyond control; it reads as a sort of Frankenstein's-monster scenario.

Thus when Agnew is pushing to deliver a speech by then Nixon aide Pat Buchanan declaring an end to the school desegregation movement, the P says he doesn't want him to "get out beyond his (Nixon's) own position, and thus become oversold as the Southern strategy man. Afraid to dilute or waste the great asset he has become," Haldeman records.

But only a year-and-a-half later, the White House is rejoicing over an estimate that there's a 3-out-of-4 chance Agnew will withdraw from the reelection ticket in 1972. Haldeman describes what Nixon sees as Agnew's problems: "he's dogmatic, his hidebound prejudices, totally inflexible, and . . . he sees things in minuscule terms."

Connally eventually says he does not want the job, and the P directs that Agnew be limited to appearances in the South and small states and be given no important duties.

After reelection, Haldeman describes Agnew's fighting for something meaningful to do, proposing a trip to Egypt to "untangle something on the Middle East. The P was obviously so astonished he didn't know quite how to answer the thing at first, but then made the point that it would be unwise for the VP to take the risk of being rebuffed at that high level."

The issue of what to do with Agnew becomes moot as the vice president asks Haldeman to head off a kickback investigation of him by the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, a request that Haldeman rebuffs. Six months later, Agnew makes history by pleading no contest to a federal tax evasion charge and resigning as vice president. But by then, Haldeman had been forced out and faced harsher judicial action.

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