Three days before the world learned of President Richard Nixon’s secret taping system — which led to his 1974 resignation — Bob Woodward had the story all to himself.

Woodward, half of the famed Watergate reporting team, called Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, for his thoughts on whether to write it up.

Bradlee didn’t seem impressed, Woodward recalled Friday night in a UC San Diego appearance with Alexander Butterfield, a subject of his latest book.

Bob Woodward and Alexander Butterfield listen to an audience member’s question. Photo by Chris Stone

“I wouldn’t bust one up [go to the trouble on a Saturday],” Bradlee said. “I think it’s kind of a B-plus story.”

A Price Center audience of 315 swooned. The mostly middle-aged and older crowd knew how momentous that news would become. (Woodward confessed he was happy to have the weekend off.)

Concluding a laugh-dotted chat, moderator and historian Michael Bernstein turned serious.

The Tulane provost addressed his former UCSD graduate student — the man who revealed the White House taping system: “You saved American democracy, Alex. I really believe that.”

Butterfield’s bit part in history is fully fleshed out in “The Last of the President’s Men,” Woodward’s fifth book on Nixon.

A mostly middle-aged to older audience attended the UCSD conversation with Bob Woodward and Alexander Butterfield. Photo by Chris Stone

With the former White House aide’s help — and 20 boxes of four-decade-old documents — Woodward explored a question that still haunts: Who was Richard Nixon?

“History’s never over,” said Woodward, wearing a purple tie on a low ballroom stage. “You think you have the answers — that you know what really happened. Then you run into somebody like Butterfield.”

The resulting book, tapping Butterfield’s “incredible memory,” contains revelations of Nixon’s barbaric social skills, pettiness, near spousal abuse and evidence (in a memo) that he knew his massive bombing campaign in Vietnam had accomplished “zilch” while publicly proclaiming the war a success.

A longtime La Jolla resident, Butterfield was one of only nine people who knew of the extensive taping system.

As deputy assistant to the president hired by fellow UCLA grad Bob Haldeman, Butterfield didn’t want to be disloyal — “to be the guy who fingered him” — but decided not to lie if asked. And he was.

An audience member listens to Bob Woodward and Alexander Butterfield at UCSD. Photo by Chris Stone

Despite the firestorm of firestorms that ensued, Butterfield still recalls with fondness his 3 1/2 years with Nixon.

“I liked the president,” said Butterfield, 89. “I liked him a lot — once he got to like me. I reciprocated. I liked the hell out of him.”

(Later, after seeing colleagues go to prison for the Watergate cover-up, Butterfield had a change of heart. When Nixon resigned, “I did cheer.”)

Butterfield had kept documents, including the top-secret “zilch” memo, for use in writing a memoir. But it took Woodward, 40 years later, to write the book that revealed what he called “the other side of Watergate” — Nixon using his poll-driven strategy in Vietnam, sacrificing thousands of American lives, to win re-election in 1972.

“If there’s a corruption that is unforgivable,” former Navy man Woodward told a rapt UCSD audience, “it is for the commander-in-chief to conduct a war with his political interests in mind.”

A former deputy assistant to President Nixon, Alexander Butterfield jokes about going to jail for taking files from the White House. Photo by Chris Stone

Despite the damning testimony of Nixon lawyer John Dean, the California-born president would have served until January 1977 had the tapes not first been revealed on a Friday the 13th in July 1973, the speakers agreed.

“There’s a certain evidentiary purity to a tape recording,” Woodward told a “sold-out” room with vacant seats.

A dozen questions followed the 50-minute conversation led by Bernstein.

One sought Butterfield’s impressions of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who in 1973 quit in a tax evasion and bribery scandal dating to his Maryland governor days.

“Strictly political [as a running mate],” Butterfield said — but “I liked Agnew. He was a good guy.”

Woodward and Butterfield were asked straight up: “Edward Snowden — traitor or hero?”

Avoiding an answer, Woodward called for a show of hands.

Alexander Butterfield talks to an audience member after a guided conversation about Watergate at UCSD. Photo by Chris Stone

The audience, which included San Diego Union-Tribune Editor Jeff Light, was one-third for traitor, one-third for hero and one-third “unsure” about the fugitive who leaked national-security secrets.

Up to a microphone came Raquel Yensen of Chula Vista, a UCSD political science and international relations major — one of a handful of young people in the audience.

She asked Woodward’s advice for investigative journalists.

“We need more of this in-depth reporting,” he replied — and said new Post owner Jeff Bezos (the Amazon.com founder and CEO) “has assured editors of the Post they will have the resources” to look into the backgrounds of the presidential candidates.

Earlier, Woodward said the Nixon White House had a sense of power, invincibility “and no one can challenge us.” But “some would argue it’s the same today.”

Alexander Butterfield and Bob Woodward sign Woodward’s book at UCSD. Photo by Chris Stone

“Let’s look at the year 2015,” Woodward said, pointing to “message managers” throughout public service “having immense power.”

He recounted a chilling incident in which a young Post reporter phoned an Obama White House press officer.

The reporter’s topic was “a good idea,” Woodward said. But the press officer dismissed it with “Why is that a story?”

Before adjourning to sign copies carried by dozens of fans, the Post’s 72-year-old associate editor said his Butterfield book can be seen as cautionary.

“We’re going to elect a new president next year (who) is going to have lots of troubles to deal with,” Woodward said. “And we better know who that person is.”

Though his new book focuses on a long-ago scandal, “it’s a warning in a certain way,” he said.

“This is the job of the press — find out whose these people are, in depth, so we’re not surprised again.”

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