"THE HALDEMAN DIARIES: INSIDE THE NIXON WHITE HOUSE" By H.R. Haldeman G.P. Putnam's Sons 698 pp., $27.50
TO enter the White House grounds at the usual Pennsylvania Avenue gate, and to walk up that graceful driveway through the green landscape, past the cameras ready for that night's TV stand-ups, and to see the West Wing itself, with its impossibly rigid Marine guard and museum-like classical portico, is to wonder, inevitably: What's really going on in there?
Not that the Nosy Parkers of the White House reporter corps can say. They sit caged in the pressroom, grousing that the briefing is late and that next week's Brussels stopover won't be long enough for carpet shopping. Behind the press secretary's door is Oz: the West Wing itself. The news is but a shade and glimmer of the human drama that occurs daily at the power center of the Western World.
It is this paradox - that the most scrutinized offices on earth remain more inscrutable than any major-league locker room - that makes ``The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House'' so compelling.
Thousands of contemporaneous entries reveal the office life of the Nixon administration in all its triumph and tragedy, shallowness and success. At first written longhand, later dictated into a tape recorder, the diary notes will surely provide fodder for countless doctoral theses in political science, as well as humanizing the image of the late H.R. Haldeman.
What they will do for his boss's reputation is not entirely clear. The portrait of Richard Nixon in these pages is similar to that of current conventional wisdom.
Nixon seems a shrewd political operator, with a bold grasp of geopolitics, given to semi-paranoid ramblings and the plotting of petty retribution. In meetings he segues effortlessly from discussing possible Supreme Court nominees to the proper disposition of ashtrays and work on the White House pool. ``[T]he Presidential attention can jump from the momentous to the insignificant,'' complains an apparently exasperated Haldeman.
Yet it is similar leaps that make Haldeman's diaries so fascinating. As chief of staff, Haldeman served as a conduit for the whole narrative of the administration. Every day he dealt with ``flaps'' - a word that appears hundreds of times in this book - that ranged from bitter infighting between National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State Bill Rogers, to planning for the bombing of Cambodia, to getting biscuits for the new presidential dog.
Nixon was given an Irish setter named King Timahoe by the White House staff shortly after the 1969 inauguration. Dog and man proved equally awkward at the little social graces, and took a long time getting used to each other. Thus on January 31, 1969, Haldeman reports: ``Had Tim in the office, can't get him to come over by [the president's] desk, he's trying dog biscuits, no use.''
That is the way life really flows, from the mundane to the important. It is hard to tell which is which at the time, and so both are often treated with equal seriousness. In ``The Haldeman Diaries,'' history appears not with the suddenness of an overture but quietly, like a voice in the chorus.
The Cambodia bombing begins with an oblique reference to a meeting on Air Force One at a NATO summit in Brussels; Watergate begins as a weekend ``flap'' reported to Haldeman during a vacation with Nixon in Florida. It is not even the first item mentioned on its first day of entry - a report of Nixon's golf game with labor leader George Meany supersedes the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency.
Watergate, in fact, receives minimal attention all the way up to April, 1973, when the mushrooming crisis forced Haldeman himself out of office. The diary seems to show a White House that does not understand the gravity of the situation and reacts to Watergate in its normal mode for containment of negative publicity.
``Our attempts at containment became linked to other acts within the Administration and were eventually labeled `the Watergate cover-up','' Haldeman writes in a note written for the published diary edition.
If nothing else, the Haldeman entries remind us that the Nixon administration was about much more than Watergate, as historian Stephen Ambrose points out in his afterword.
The Diaries include private glimpses of the historic China trip, the moon landing and return of the astronauts, which Nixon watched from a nearby aircraft carrier ( ``P [The president] was exuberant, really cranked up, like a little kid.... Showed everyone his fancy binoculars....'').
Vietnam and the rivalry between Kissinger and Rogers is a theme (``Monumental flap with K [Kissinger], who called accusing P [president] and me of playing games with him yesterday about boat ride, etc., to cover up plan to have Rogers up to Camp David. Incredible.'').
In the end, the Haldeman Diaries provide at least an illusion of living a presidency the way it really occurs. It sounds a lot like life at many offices - albeit with higher stakes and more press.