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Obituary: H. R. Haldeman

Harry Robbins Haldeman, businessman, advertising executive and political aide: born Los Angeles 27 October 1926; accounts executive, J. Walter Thompson 1949-59, Vice-President 1960-68; Chief of Staff, Nixon Presidential Campaign 1968; Chief, White House Staff 1969-73; Senior Vice- President, Murdock Development Co 1979-85; President, Murdock Hotels Corporation 1984-86; married 1949 Jo Horton (two sons, two daughters); died Santa Barbara, California 12 November 1993.

IN 1974, writes Leonard Miall, the late Sir Charles Curran, at that time the Director-General of the BBC, composed a topical verse. To the rhythm of 'Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, Baker's man' it went as follows:

Watergate, Watergate, Haldeman

Fake me a tape as fast as you can.

Cut it and splice it and clear it with Zee

For Ehr1ichman, Kalmbach and Mitchell and me]

Zee - Ronald Zieg1er, the White House Press Secretary - was not involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate affair. On 1 March 1974 Herbert Kalmbach, President Nixon's personal attorney and chief fund- raiser, was fined dollars 10,000 and sentenced to serve between six and eighteen months in prison for violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. He was small fry.

Nearly a year later the big fry, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman were sentenced, on 21 February 1975, to terms of up to eight years for perjury and for their part in attempting to cover up the Watergate break-in

They had been convicted essentially on the evidence of the tapes recorded in the basement of the White House. It was President John F. Kennedy who started the practice of secretly recording conversations with important guests when he did not wish to have a note-taker present in the Oval office. The same system was carried on under President Lyndon B. Johnson. In both their cases the President started the recording equipment by pressing a button. Under President Nixon, however, the machines were voice-activated. They recorded whenever anyone spoke. There was therefore a huge volume of the tapes. Because they had been picked up on hidden microphones the recording quality was substandard.

I attended the trial of Bob Haldeman one morning in the autumn of 1974. Everyone in the Federal Court room, Judge John Sirica, the defendant, the lawyers, the jury, the large press corps and the general public, were issued with big padded headphones with which to listen to the tapes as they were played in evidence. The court officials and the jury had been given transcripts of the tapes, without which it was virtually impossible to understand what was being played for hours on end, because the quality was so poor. The press had to buy the transcripts at dollars 60 a set, and the people in the public gallery had to do without.

The tape we listened to that day was of a conversation between Haldeman and Nixon. Nixon had had a difficult interview with his young White House Counsel, John Dean, who had threatened to reveal his foreknowledge of the Watergate burglary. Nixon was concerned about how damaging this conversation had actually been, and had asked Haldeman to listen to the tape and report. There was a long section in which Haldeman read from his notes what each of the two had said. Nixon was obviously badly worried and they then began to cook up what line to take if Dean did carry out his threat to go public.

Haldeman gave his chief soothing reassurance. 'After all, Mr President, if it comes to a crunch, it is simply Dean's word against the word of the President of the United States.' Nixon paused anxiously, and then suddenly said, 'You don't think the sonofabitch could have had a secret recorder on him, do you?'

At that point there was a roar of laughter throughout the courtroom - except in the public gallery, where those without transcripts had not been able to follow. The judge immediately called a recess. As soon as the jury had left, Haldeman's lawyer was on his feet demanding that the trial should be ended forthwith. The press, led by a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, he said, had tried to influence the jury by laughing. The people in the public gallery, however, had behaved properly. Judge Sirica wasn't wearing that one.

Richard Nixon himself was neither impeached nor tried, and was given a pardon by his successor, President Gerald Ford. Over the years Nixon has tended to blame the Democrats and the liberal press for his downfall. But the Republicans on the House of Representatives impeachment investigating committee joined in demanding that the incriminating tapes be turned over, and the conservatives on the Supreme Court insisted that the tapes be admitted in evidence. Senator Barry Goldwater, the darling of the right-wing Republicans, wrote of the disgraced President: 'He was the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life. President Nixon lied to his wife, his family, his friends, long-term colleagues in the US Senate, lifetime members of his political party, the American people, and the world.'

(Photograph omitted)