Haldeman was Nixon gatekeeper, though the gate led to a jail cell

November 13, 1993|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- H. R. Haldeman, who died yesterday, was both defined and destroyed by his loyalty to one man -- President Richard M. Nixon. As the White House chief of staff 20 years ago, Bob Haldeman was not only Mr. Nixon's iron-handed gatekeeper but his confidant and, perhaps most important, a kindred spirit.

Mr. Haldeman used to make a point of the fact that he was "not a politician" and was involved only because of his admiration for Mr. Nixon, whom he served in capacities ranging from advance man in the 1956 vice presidential campaign up to his role as the "iron chancellor" running the White House.

And he demonstrated repeatedly his contempt for playing politics in the usual way.

Controlling the access of both people and papers to the president, he was almost as impervious to Republicans as to Democrats unless convinced they could help Mr. Nixon.

"Every president needs his s.o.b., and I'm him," he liked to say.

Through his four years at the center of power -- from the time Mr. Nixon became president in 1969 until the chief of staff's own forced resignation in 1973 -- Mr. Haldeman adopted many of his hero's attitudes.

Like Mr. Nixon, he disdained the press. Like Mr. Nixon, he enjoyed plotting revenge on political enemies. And like Mr. Nixon, Mr. Haldeman was destroyed by Watergate.

He was convicted in 1975 of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the steps he had taken to sweep the scandal under the rug as the ultimate evidence of loyalty to Mr. Nixon.

Others close to the president -- even such loyalists as Attorney General John N. Mitchell and domestic affairs adviser John R. Ehrlichman, for example -- used to enjoy fencing with and sometimes even schmoozing with reporters on the White House beat.

But the crew-cut implacably self-contained chief of staff would never let down his guard -- or forget his responsibility to his chief.

When a reporter, happening on Mr. Haldeman outside the White House one day, asked him to intercede with Mr. Nixon on a request for an interview on an important story, Mr. Haldeman shrugged and replied: "I don't see what's in it for the president," and turned on his heel and walked away.

That protectiveness was his undoing.

When the Watergate furor was at its most intense, the White House tapes showed later, it was Mr. Haldeman who sat with Mr. Nixon and plotted ways to "keep it out of the Oval Office" and stymie investigators -- thus setting himself up for prosecution.

And because of his disdain for politics, Mr. Haldeman had no independent coterie of friends or allies to help him -- no one but Richard Nixon.

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