"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.