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OUT OF THE SHADOWS

45 Years After Watergate, H.R. Haldeman’s Wife Finally Speaks

The greatest political scandal in American history didn’t just cost Nixon the presidency, it cost Jo her husband. Four decades later, she is opening up for the first time—but not too much.

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Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

On March 1, 1974 the phone rang in a red brick townhome in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. A man promptly answered it in a rumpled button-down shirt and crew-cut coiffure. He calmly took notes, then winced. Next to him, his wife steadied herself against his chair. What exactly did Bob do? she thought.

Her husband was H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, and he had just been told he was being indicted over Watergate. Now more than 40 years later, Joanne Haldeman is finally speaking out.

It had been almost two years since the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate, which was followed with Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection. A year after that, Nixon’s administration was already crumbling. The Watergate scandal had spawned break-in convictions, a Senate investigation, and top-level government resignations. Until that phone call, the Watergate affair had been a nuisance for the Haldemans, “a great gummy fungus” Jo called it, that refused to die.

Bob stepped outside to face the press gathering outside their home and immediately retreated. His shoulders sagged and his clothes looked frumpy, a startling contrast to the well-dressed optimist at Nixon’s first inauguration five years earlier. As reporters waited for a comment on his indictment, Bob and Jo embraced. Neither said a word.

Jo Haldeman has been silent about her life as the wife of the second most powerful person in the Nixon White House and a key figure in the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign and sent her husband to Lompoc Federal Prison for 18 months.

At 88, she has written a memoir, In the Shadow of the White House: A Memoir of the Washington and Watergate Years, 1968-1978. She began two years after Bob’s death in 1993 when her eldest grandson casually mentioned the Watergate scandal.

“I want my grandchildren and all future Haldemans to know that when they hear or see ‘Watergate,’ ‘Nixon,’ or the Haldeman name in the news or in books, there is so much more to the story, and much to be proud of as well,” she told The Daily Beast. “I hope that I have succeeded in giving a more humanized picture of the events and the people involved.”

The memoir offers a glimpse into their five years at the White House, often sharing personal stories like the evening with the Apollo 13 astronauts, the presidential helicopter ride to Camp David, and Key Biscayne vacations. It also emphasizes the Nixon administration’s successes like the opening of diplomatic relations with China.

What it doesn’t do is come out of its own shadow.

Jo’s book refuses to offer opinions to me on anything rocking the political boat. I’m instructed not to bring up the Trump administration during our phone interview. When asked about her verdict on the Watergate scandal in relation to Nixon, she replied:

“This question goes beyond the scope of our interview.”

If Bob was Nixon’s palace guard, Jo is her family’s protector. The memoir and interview affirms her desire to remain in the safe zone, to keep wounds healed rather than exposed.

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I could only surmise based on her initial reluctance for an interview and request for questions upfront, she does not trust the press, a sentiment not only reflected in the Nixon administration but by Jo.

“Sharks, waiting for their prey,” she writes about the reporters outside their home on March 1, 1974.

Married to Nixon’s SOB

Jo was guarded and answered questions gingerly, articulating every word as if it were her last. One topic she spoke freely about: how much she missed her husband.

The high school sweethearts from California were already married 20 years when they moved with their four children to Washington, D.C. in 1969. Nixon had chosen Haldeman to be his chief of staff after the former advertising executive worked on a handful of Nixon campaigns.

More than a year into Bob’s new White House position, Jo writes she felt her husband was more married to Nixon than she was. Summoning Bob any time of day or night, Nixon the insomniac called the Haldeman’s house frequently.

“I hate that phone,” Jo writes. “Despite the perception of my being the confident and gracious wife of H.R. Haldeman, I often feel insecure and alone.”

Throughout the memoir and our conversation, Jo displays an unwavering allegiance to her husband and to the Nixon administration. Sometimes, she’d stop herself mid sentence or retract a thought. Although she strongly believed in Nixon, she agreed with his resignation.

“I did feel there came a time when it was best for the country that he resign and the country move on. But let’s move off that now,” she said.

Nixon is portrayed in the memoir as an odd character incapable of small talk or jokes and sometimes, a self-absorbed opportunist in a symbiotic relationship with Haldeman.

Whether it was Nixon’s overused jokes about Jo’s “drinking problem” (knowing she didn’t drink alcohol, Nixon teased her about drinking in excess) or his embarrassing silence during his attempt at a birthday toast to his wife, the president’s social awkwardness meant awkwardness for everyone.

Apart from Vice President Spiro Ted Agnew, whom Jo writes is “offensive,” another larger-than-life character in the memoir is Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell. An ebullient and outspoken southern belle, the “Mouth of the South,” gained notoriety for her frequent calls to the press, ranging from allegations she was a political prisoner to confirming stories about the Watergate scandal.

Although John Mitchell told the press his prison verdict was better than life with Martha, Jo observes in her memoir that John adored his wife, but her unpredictability was “often embarrassing.” Jo criticizes Martha for her obsession with attention, engaging in gimmicky acts like perching on Bob’s knees at a dinner party and showing up with an entourage of press at Jo’s daughter’s outdoor juice stand.

“Her obsession for attention drives Bob nuts, and at social events, both he and I try to avoid her,” she writes. In typical Jo-esque lingo where she rather smooth things over than make waves, another time she writes, “Martha’s not crazy, just a little kooky.”

After Nixon gave a televised speech on Haldeman and John Ehrlichman’s resignations on April 30, 1973, Nixon called the Haldeman’s house twice to ask Bob for his opinion on how he did. Nixon insisted Bob do some checking around on the public’s reaction, Jo writes.

“For the life of me, I can’t comprehend how the President can be so oblivious to Bob’s feelings.” On another occasion, Jo writes she’s caught off guard when she walks in on Bob, no longer in office, summarizing one of the White House tapes Nixon gave him.

“Every president needs an SOB—and I’m Nixon’s,” Jo quotes Bob saying.

Break-In, Cover-Up, Fallout

Washington, D.C.’s truism was born out of the Watergate scandal: It’s not the crime. It’s the cover-up that gets you.

“You have to realize, they never thought they would be caught,” said Fred Emery, former Washington bureau chief for the Times of London who followed the cover-up trial and interviewed Haldeman about the Watergate scandal.

When five men who worked for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CREEP) were arrested in a predawn break-in at the DNC’s headquarters at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, there was much political distancing from the story. White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler called it a “third-rate burglary” and Nixon stated that nobody at the White House was involved.

Jo writes about the first time she and Bob heard of the break-in while vacationing in Key Biscayne, Florida. Bob called it “ridiculous” and “an ill-advised political prank.”

“I feel very definitely that Bob had no awareness of the break-in,” said Jo. “I believed that based on Bob’s reaction that Nixon also had no awareness of the break in.”

However, Emery writes in his book Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon that Nixon’s deputy assistant and his top adviser claimed Nixon must have known about plans of the break-in, although there is no hard evidence, and Haldeman received memos beforehand about the break-in plans from CREEP liaison Gordon Strachan.

Whatever Bob did before the break-in, his involvement in the cover-up was clearer and it became harder for the Haldemans to ignore. In her memoir, Jo repeatedly calls the scandal “a stain,” especially when the press reported on a slush fund used for spying, sabotage, and silence from the burglars.

Bob shrugged the reports off and Jo’s questioning was met with the “Haldeman look”: “Furrowed brow, steely eyes, and tight lips. It’s intimidating but fleeting,” she writes.

If Jo ever suspected her husband knew more than he shared, she doesn’t let on in her memoir or our conversation. She keeps those thoughts hidden. And perhaps, Bob did too. Bob reacted to an article about the Senate approval for the creation of a Watergate committee, where his photo appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. Jo was confused by it. Bob said: “Well, it looks like Woodward and Bernstein are back at it. They’ve managed to tie me into their latest story,” the story being that he assisted in efforts to get the Senate to shift focus of the investigations from the White House-led campaign of spying and sabotage in 1972.

Haldeman remained steadfast in his innocence, suggesting that everything could still be “worked out,” even as the suggestion of a leave of absence turned into an order for his resignation. In Jo’s memoir, she shares Nixon vacillating between Bob’s and Ehrlichman’s leave of absence and resignation. He finally decides on a resignation because they’d be “eaten alive” otherwise, said Jo. According to Emery, Nixon resolved that both Haldeman and Ehrlichman could not simply take leaves of absence but must resign and fight their case from the outside.

“Haldeman didn’t intend to be the fall guy. He tried, vainly as it turned out, to be the president’s chief defender before the Senate Watergate committee, and brought himself down in the process,” says Emery.

Seventeen days after Haldeman’s resignation, the Senate Watergate Committee opened televised hearings into the Watergate affair. Haldeman was one of thirteen targets in the probe.

The Saturday Night Massacre and the Smoking Gun

Two pivotal events turned Watergate from a scandal into a death sentence for Nixon’s presidency: secret tapes and the Saturday Night Massacre.

Haldeman was one of the handful of people in the White House who knew about the existence of an Oval Office secret taping system. It was exposed publicly by deputy assistant Alexander Butterfield. Soon after, special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for copies of the tapes.

Then Nixon fired him, or rather ordered him to be fired and his Watergate investigation office dissolved.

What followed makes Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey look mild by comparison. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both refused to fire Cox and both resigned in protest. The political interference by a sitting president into an existing investigation eventually led to talks of impeachment and Nixon’s resignation.

But nobody appeared to see it coming. Haldeman was still hopeful, telling his wife the infamous White House tapes would vindicate him, Jo writes.

The tapes did the opposite. First, there was the 18-½ minute gap in one recording of Haldeman and Nixon speaking.

“I can guarantee you that the president and I were not talking about any cover-up,” Bob told Jo.

Nixon had three conversations with Haldeman in the six days after the Watergate burglary. One of those conversations was the “smoking gun,” where Nixon and Haldeman proposed having the CIA halt the FBI’s investigation on grounds of “national security,” proving Nixon ordered a cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

After hearing that, 11 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee who had voted against articles of impeachment announced they would vote in the full House to indict Nixon.

Three days after the tape’s release, Nixon resigned.

A few months later, Bob was already preparing to go to jail, asking a former bank officer what it was like to serve eight months at Lompoc Federal Prison, Jo writes.

“Containment”

Haldeman had a long-held line that what he was involved in was a “political containment” of Watergate. He tried to explain it to his children, as it’s related in Jo’s memoir:

“You should also know that what the press calls a ‘cover-up’ and the grand jury calls a ‘conspiracy to obstruct justice,’ I have always considered ‘containment,’” he told them. “The White House experienced many flaps besides the break-in, and it was my job to minimize any fallout… I worked to contain the fallout from Watergate. I don’t think that I ever broke any law, and I look forward to proving my innocence in court.. … I have never knowingly done anything illegal or morally wrong.”

In short, Haldeman’s version of the scandal involved a cover-up sans the illegality of it. Emery added, “and putting out spin to get the focus away from the White House and the president.” Since Haldeman was not a lawyer but an advertising man, he had difficulty in accepting some of these things were unlawful, “although he must have known that lying under oath was a criminal offence,” Emery said.

During Emery’s 1993 interviews with him, Haldeman admitted that he had never been able to get across to anybody the concept of “containment,” even to his wife.

Yet publicly, Jo and her eldest son Hank relate similar narratives to Bob’s.

In Bob’s posthumously published book, The Haldeman Diaries, Jo wrote in a final note that “containment” was steps taken to “minimize the political damage of an issue, as a legal, political reality—-and an ongoing practice of all presidents and political figures.” She added, considering the animosity between the president and press, between the political parties, and the divisiveness on Vietnam, “containment was critical for effective leadership.”

In interviews, Hank said his father was immune from perjury because he didn’t know he was lying in the first place.

Bob seemed to believe it too. Convinced he’d be acquitted unless someone could show what he did was illegal, he turned down a plea bargain offer by the chief prosecutor. When Haldeman took the stand on the 34th day of trial, his lawyer stated his case: “Mr. Haldeman did not enter into a conspiracy and did not intend to enter into a conspiracy.”

But the court thought otherwise. Haldeman was convicted on three charges of perjury, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and obstruction of justice on New Year’s Day in 1975.

His perjury offenses included falsely testifying before the Watergate Senate Select Committee about the knowledge of hush money being paid to the Watergate burglars, falsely claiming that Nixon told John Dean “it would be wrong” to pay the burglars, and falsely claiming there was no discussion of CREEP deputy director Jeb Magruder committing perjury.

Emery said to me, “the fact is, he got what he deserved…He took part in a conspiracy to cover up what the president did and was willing to lie.”

But Jo views it differently. She said had Bob done anything illegal, he’d have been the first to submit his resignation.

“His actions did not meet those required elements of the charges against him,” she said, “in part because some of the charges required a knowledge or specific intent behind the actions and Bob did not act with that knowledge or specific intent”

As Bob explained to his daughter, Ann: “Perjury is knowingly making a false statement, which I absolutely did not do.”

End of Power

Jo doesn’t often admit how the Watergate scandal affected her but there are hints of its financial and emotional burdens in the memoir. When Bob was indicted, they had to live off his retirement fund and income from their investments. When Bob went to prison, Jo became a realtor. Jo recounts another time when she arrived at the ticket counter without airplane tickets or when she burst into tears after the special prosecutor wished her well, “…no matter what the outcome might be.”

Bob called Nixon the night of Nixon’s resignation, asking for a pardon, along with all the others charged with Watergate crimes. But Jo opposed it.

“I felt that asking for a pardon was equivalent to admitting guilt. Since Bob did not believe he had engaged in any illegal acts, I did not think he should ask for a pardon,” she said. But she would have been fine if someone else asked for a pardon on his behalf, she writes.

Nixon’s refused anyway.

Before Haldeman went to prison in June 1977, Nixon went public with British journalist David Frost in a series of interviews. In one of them, Nixon blamed Haldeman and Ehrlichman for the cover-up.

Jo was angry and Bob felt “dumped,” she writes. At a press conference on his front lawn, Bob said, “I have one brief statement. If you really want to know how I feel about President Nixon, you can find out by reading my book.”

“For the first time, he stated his intention to write about the Watergate story as he saw it,” she said.

A few months later, Nixon wrote a “touching” letter to Haldeman that some might see as an attempt to thwart Haldeman’s Ends of Power (1978) from being too Nixon-negative rather than a form of apology.

“We will always have our deepest respect, admiration and personal affection. I know I reflect the views of many others who had the privilege of knowing the real Bob Haldeman,” Jo records Nixon writing.

But by the time of Ends of Power, Haldeman was soft on Nixon again, writing that the Frost-Nixon interview’s “distortion” of Watergate may have been attributed to the questions, answers, or film editing.

The Aftereffects

Jo ends her memoir with an epilogue that celebrates her husband’s “remarkable lack of animosity and exceptional ability to accept his destiny.”

Shortly after his father’s release from prison in 1978, Jo’s youngest son Peter swallowed a bottle of Smirnoff and sedatives until he passed out and was eventually saved by an LAPD officer. He wrote in his 1994 article for the New York TimesGrowing Up Haldeman,” that he had tried to commit suicide for years. Although Peter was in and out of hospitals, his parents were very supportive. But the Haldeman name haunted him. He wrote that he would mumble his name to receptionists, operators, and interview subjects. Every now and then, a news item would surface “to remind me of the stretch of my father’s professional shadow,” he wrote. Two weeks before his father resigned from the White House, Peter skipped history class because he couldn’t face responding to the “disturbing” picture of his father on the cover of Newsweek. A month later, Peter was expelled from the prestigious Sidwell Friends School.

Upon Haldeman’s prison release on February 9, 1979, he was still embroiled in civil lawsuits that began as early as 1973, and whose plaintiffs ranged from Jane Fonda to protesters.

Much to Jo’s dismay, Bob created a defense fund and asked friends for help. Jo writes, this “disturbs me and I disagree with the idea.”

After prison, Haldeman engaged in discussions on Watergate and Nixon.

“Bob continued to read new books as they came out and to follow new theories as they developed. I think he felt that we never had all the pieces put into the puzzle,” said Jo.

There are many schools of thought on what Haldeman might have been searching for. Some focus questions on what the purpose was of the DNC break-in and who ordered it; a missing portion of the White House funds that were used for hush money to the burglars and others, and allegations of CIA complicity in Nixon’s demise. The other focuses on the search for a master manipulator that would excuse the Nixon administration’s wrongdoing, explained Max Holland, author of Leak, a book about Watergate. “The CIA was usually the best candidate.”

Jo never knew if Bob found his answers. In 1993, he fell seriously ill. Peter hoped his father would consider medical treatment instead of seeing a Christian Science healer.

“A basic tenet of Christian Science is that to specify a physical problem is to empower it,” Peter wrote.

As Bob became gravely ill, nobody was to know about it. In fact, none of the children could visit with him until the end. Peter and his younger sister, Ann, were advised not to “raise any red flags.” “I experienced again the comforts and the anxieties peculiar to our brand of collusion. I knew I was no longer ruining it for him, but I also knew I wasn’t saving him,” he wrote.

Two weeks before Bob passed, the nature of his illness was still unclear. He was only 67 when he died. Jo tells me his death certificate reads intra-abdominal neoplasm.

Peter’s article is completely raw and honest, reminiscent of what’s missing in Jo’s memoir. He wrote about the difficulty he had reading Ends of Power, afraid he’d like something in it. When he finally reads it, he’s disappointed to have learned nothing new about his father. He had hoped to discover more about who his father was.

“My father, not his ghostwriter, is the invisible one here,” he wrote.