The President's Man: The Memoirs of Nixon's Trusted Aide
“Dwight Chapin’s newly published memoir reveals new facts and insights into the very consequential presidency of Richard Nixon . . .”
Dwight Chapin’s newly published memoir reveals new facts and insights into the very consequential presidency of Richard Nixon, including the personalities in the Nixon White House, behind the scenes politics of Nixon’s campaigns, details of his historic visits to China and the Soviet Union, and Watergate. Chapin was the president’s appointments secretary and an assistant to the president until his firing in the midst of Watergate.
This fascinating and page-turning memoir tells the story of a farm boy from Wichita and later Derby, Kansas, who worked on Nixon’s unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 1962, served as a personal aide to Nixon in 1966–67, worked in the West Wing of the White House after Nixon became president in 1969, traveled with the president on his historic trips to China, the Soviet Union, and served nine months in prison after his conviction for making false statements to a federal grand jury about campaign “dirty tricks.”
Chapin’s glowing admiration for Richard Nixon and what he accomplished as president and in his post-presidential years has not dimmed despite the fact that Nixon fired him and he ended up in prison due to his association with the president. He portrays Nixon as remarkably intelligent, usually politically savvy, a careful student of history, privately introverted, publicly unemotional, but also kind, sensitive, and caring—the latter is a side of Nixon that few people saw and was at odds with the media’s portrayal of “tricky Dick.”
Nixon was also a workaholic and a very demanding boss. From his first days in office, Chapin writes, Nixon wanted to end the Vietnam War with honor, open relations with China, improve relations with the Soviet Union, and heal the wounds of the country produced by the 1960s riots, assassinations, and anti-war protests. He had little time for relaxation (except for his love of sports) and didn’t like “small talk.” He rightfully distrusted the Washington bureaucracy and an antagonistic media, many of whom hated Nixon.
Vietnam, Chapin explains, shadowed everything the administration tried to do, and Nixon was dedicated to achieving “peace with honor” even if it hurt him politically. But Chapin also notes that with Nixon, as with every president, politics always played a role in decision-making. In our political system it cannot be otherwise. And Chapin also learned about and experienced the political infighting and backstabbing that occurs in every administration.
Chapin’s mentor and “best friend” was Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, who was his boss in the Nixon White House. Chapin also got along well with Henry Kissinger, noting both his brilliance and his out-sized ego. Other Nixon staffers that appear throughout the book include Pat Buchanan, William Safire, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Alexander Haig, John Mitchell, John Erlichman, Rose Mary Woods, and William Rogers.
The most interesting and revealing chapters of the book deal with Chapin’s involvement in planning and executing Nixon’s trips to China to establish formal relations with the communist regime, and to the Soviet Union to sign the SALT I arms control agreement. Chapin had to simultaneously deal with the bruised egos of the foreign policy bureaucracy that was either not consulted or overridden by the White House; the squabbling among the president’s aides; the technological backwardness of China; and the infuriating stubbornness of Soviet leaders.
While Nixon is frequently lauded for his foreign policy successes, he did not get enough credit, Chapin believes, for his domestic policy accomplishments, which included desegregating southern schools, launching the war on drugs, and promoting environmental safety. But his presidential report card was validated at the ballot box when he won an electoral college and popular vote landslide over Democrat George McGovern in 1972.
Chapin and other Nixon aides were looking forward to a second Nixon term, but Watergate interceded. Chapin’s view of Watergate as a politically driven and media-sensationalized persecution is gaining traction as more details become known about the activities of the Special Prosecutor’s Office (staffed with virtually all Democrats, many with ties to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) and the role that White House counsel John Dean, FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, and many in the Nixon-hating media played in orchestrating and manipulating events. Authors Len Colodny and Geoff Shepherd have written extensively about these matters.
Chapin persuasively contends that he did nothing criminal and was swept up in the mostly political and media-driven prosecutions of the Watergate Special Counsel’s Office. His alleged “crimes” were failing to recall a note he had written to Donald Segretti and his response to a question as to whether he was interested in what Segretti was doing on the 1972 campaign. Chapin notes that the subjects of the inquiries had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in or cover-up, but both the prosecutors and the media made it appear that the two were linked.
This is also a very introspective book. Chapin writes about his family life and their suffering during Watergate, his experiences in prison, his divorce, and his turn to religion (Christian Scientist) that helped him get through the difficult times.
Chapin’s final verdict on Nixon resonates: “Whatever the detractors say, whatever the writers of history say, he was a decent man who set out to do the most good for the most people.”