Lesson Learned

Yesterday, even before Cassidy Hutchinson finished testifying before the Congressional committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol, pundits and sages on Twitter were comparing her to Alexander Butterfield, the man who, in 1973, dropped the bomb about the White House tapes on the Watergate Committee. Later in the day, a friend brought up Butterfield in a Facebook post, asking if anyone else knew who he was.

I did, I replied, and promised to blog about my encounter with Butterfield the next day. And here we are.

In 1977, when I was a lieutenant at an Air Force pilot training base in Oklahoma, our wing commander invited Butterfield to speak at our annual dining in ceremony. Our boss and Butterfield had flown together in Vietnam and were old friends. Butterfield, who after Vietnam served in the Nixon administration and then ran the Federal Aviation Administration, accepted the invitation.

Butterfield’s topic, of course, was what he had learned working in Nixon’s White House and later, during the fallout from his appearance before the Watergate Committee. Exposing officers and NCOs to speakers like this is a tradition in the military. Later in my career I would attend two military colleges, Squadron Officer School in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, where guest speakers like Butterfield — men and women who’d served at high levels in industry, government, the military, and the diplomatic corps — shared their experiences and insights. I was excited to hear what Mr. Butterfield had to say.

To set the stage, picture a hundred tuxedo-clad officers sitting at three long tables in a formal dining room, a podium for the guest speaker at one end with the traditional grog bowl to the side, attended by Mister Vice. There’s one table each for the two flying training squadrons and one for the wing and headquarters staff. Carafes of red wine, to be used later for ceremonial toasts, are arranged in rows down the center of each table.

Joining us at our table was a distinguished-looking major who’d also flown combat in Vietnam, one of the old heads we young instructors looked up to. He was our operations officer, number two behind the lieutenant colonel who led our squadron. The major, like most of us, had fortified himself at the officers’ club bar beforehand, and was now draining the carafe of wine nearest him.

As Butterfield began to talk, we heard a clatter and turned our heads in the major’s direction. We watched as he swept the place setting before him to the side and laid his head on his arms as if dozing. Embarrassed, we then looked away. A few minutes into Butterfield’s remarks, he suddenly raised his head and loudly slurred “We don’t wanna hear about this political shit, we wanna hear about flying fighters in Vietnam!”

Butterfield laughed, paused, then resumed his prepared talk. The major laid his head back down on the table, and soon two burly captains, dispatched for the purpose by our furious squadron commander, came up on him from behind, hoisted him by the armpits, and escorted him from the room.

The next day the squadron operations officer’s office was empty, desk and walls stripped of personal items. The major was across the base working at his new job, running base operations, the traditional Air Force graveyard for officers who’ve self-destructed.

I learned lessons from Alexander Butterfield that would come in handy later in my career, when I served at higher levels — which is why the military exposes young officers and NCOs to guest speakers who’ve been there — but I picked up on an even more valuable life hack that night: the importance of holding your liquor.

p.s. Per Wikipedia, Alexander Butterfield, born in 1926, is still kicking. Do you suppose he was watching Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony yesterday?

© 2022, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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