Alex Butterfield Explains Why He Revealed the Watergate Tapes
On July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield pulled the plug on the Nixon administration by revealing the existence of the Watergate tapes. Butterfield was an Air Force reconnaissance pilot who served as chart-bearing assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during part of the Johnson administration. He resigned his commission in 1969 to accept a permanent White House post as presidential assistant, offered him by old UCLA classmate Bob Haldeman. He left the White House in March, 1973, to become chief of the Federal Aviation Administration—a politically sensitive job he held until March 31 this year. While working in the White House, none of his duties was more historically significant than overseeing the taping system. Reluctant to discuss his role in the undoing of Richard Nixon while still an administration official, Butterfield, 49, agreed to talk about it for the first time with Clare Crawford of PEOPLE.
How did you feel after you revealed the existence of the Watergate tapes?
The day after I testified, I was in London on my way to the Soviet Union for a meeting with Soviet aviation officials. I saw that my mother was quoted as saying she was very proud of me. To me it was a very serious issue. I didn’t fancy myself a hero. I did wonder—and up until then there was no proof at all—if President Nixon was involved in Watergate. I sent a cable home saying, “Please, Mother, don’t talk to the press. I’m not a hero.” I was furious, and she didn’t understand.
Were you ever tempted not to tell all?
No, I was always very conscious of the tapes. In addition to the Oval Office, I controlled the taping system in the Cabinet room with a button on my telephone which no one knew about. I decided early on that if asked a direct question about the tapes, I would respond with a direct answer.
Were you surprised when the White House first published its transcripts of the tapes?
Yes, because they led one to believe that President Nixon was in no way a participant, that he was almost an idiot listening to the advice of others. In real life he was so much in charge. That didn’t emerge on those first transcripts.
How involved do you think Richard Nixon was in Watergate?
Nothing was done without his knowledge. He was pulling the strings, running the show. I think he very definitely knew about the first break-in. But this is purely speculative.
Do you think the President ever forgot that the tape was running?
Oh, yes. I know he forgot it many times. Maybe not as Watergate entered its serious stages, but he was oblivious to the tapes most of the time.
Why didn’t Nixon burn the tapes?
Because he didn’t dream that it would get to the point where he would have to give up the tapes.
Having worked in both the Johnson and Nixon White Houses, how would you compare the two Presidents?
The Johnson White House seemed orderly, but it was in a constant state of disarray or chaos compared to the Nixon White House. There wasn’t any filtering process with President Johnson, so it seemed people would go in and see him whenever they wanted to. The ticker tape was always spilling out in the hall. Everything was last-minute. In the Nixon White House, things were orderly and well timed. The President came to work at a certain hour and never raised his voice. I never heard him give anybody a lot of hell.
Which was preferable to work for?
I’ve heard the people who worked around Johnson say they hated him, but also loved him. He was such a human fellow. But I admired the way Mr. Nixon did things. That would be the way I would do it in an organization of my own. He liked to work by himself, to deal with just a few people.
What of Nixon’s penchant for detail?
It was noticeable that he was a nit-picker, but it didn’t seem unusual to me. What I did think odd was that the President had so much leisure time. There were many days with no appointments at all. There was nothing on Wednesday afternoons—that was a special rule at the White House. Every now and then President Nixon would work like a Trojan. There would be weeks when all the rules would go by the board and there would be 50 appointments and he’d sign hundreds of papers—a flurry of work. But generally he allowed plenty of time to sit and kick things around. He just loved to have Bob Haldeman in to talk. And every afternoon Nixon took a nap in the office between mine and his—sometimes for an hour, sometimes for 20 minutes.
At what point did you think President Nixon would have to resign?
By the end of April, when Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were forced to leave. This may sound sanctimonious, but I believe out of principle that Nixon should have stepped down then. He would have been greatly admired if he had. Around that time I began to have a different view of the President. When he sort of disowned Bud Krogh [former White House aide and convicted Watergate defendant], and I could see people being used and going off to prison—boy, then his resignation couldn’t have happened fast enough. He thought his being President was the most important thing in the world. It wasn’t all that important. I think we overdo the Presidency.
Have you heard from Nixon since his resignation last August?
Oh, no. I’m sure that he hates me as much as anyone can.
And the Nixon family?
I didn’t know Tricia, but I knew Mrs. Nixon and Julie quite well, and I feel awful about them. But I don’t feel awful about the President’s resignation. Not at all.
Do you still get along with your old college buddy, Bob Haldeman?
Yes, and our wives are still good friends. We talked briefly at his trial in Washington. Bob was very friendly, which surprised me a little bit, and Ehrlichman couldn’t have been friendlier. I still have lots of good friends at the White House, but I always felt a little strange after telling about the tapes. A few people were noticeably cool. Others came out of the woodwork to say, “You’re a salvation because people are beginning to say anyone who is at the White House is a no-goodnik and you’ve proven that it’s not true.”
Were you forced out of your job as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration last March?
I don’t think there is any question about that. The White House acts as though it was voluntary, but I was asked to leave—and quickly. I wasn’t allowed to stay until the confirmation of my successor, which is the normal courtesy. The White House wasn’t concerned with the passage of a bill that would reinstate me on the retired rolls of the Air Force either. I gave up my commission unhesitatingly to serve as the FAA administrator. Sen. John Tower of Texas has introduced a one-paragraph bill that would simply reinstate my pension, and it’s still before the Senate.
Why do you think you were asked to resign?
Right after I testified about the tapes I heard that there had been a meeting of three or four Nixon loyalists in the White House and the decision was, “Butterfield must go.” President Nixon didn’t survive, and I think they felt I should go too. I wouldn’t have minded leaving if they had admitted it was for these understandable political reasons—if President Ford had just stood up and said Butterfield has done a satisfactory job at FAA, but this is politics, good-bye and good luck. I would respect that. But he didn’t.
How do you feel about the events of the last three years?
I’m terribly proud of the American people and the judicial system. It’s slow. There were times I thought it was going to falter, but it didn’t. I think people all over the world admire us for that.
(To Butterfield’s wife, Charlotte) How do you feel about everything that has happened?
I’m more bitter than Alex, a little more disenchanted with the system from a personal standpoint. I was upset for everybody. But no, there was never any doubt in my mind that Alex should have told all.
(To Alexander Jr.) And what are your feelings?
All my life, Dad and I were kind of distant. He was in the military, he was traveling a lot and away from home. I had a perception of him as very straightlaced, very disciplined, very efficient and conscientious. As a result of Watergate, he became more open to ideas, more accessible, more intellectual. He has changed dramatically for the better.