Butterfield was born April 6, 1926, in Pensacola, Florida, to Susan Armistead Alexander Butterfield and United States Navy pilot (later rear admiral) Horace B. Butterfield. He grew up in Coronado, California, and left home in 1943. Butterfield enrolled in college at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became a friend of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. He left the university to join the United States Air Force in 1948.
Initially, Butterfield was stationed at Las Vegas Air Force Base (now Nellis Air Force Base) as a fighter-gunnery instructor before being transferred to the 86th Fighter Wing in Munich, West Germany, in November 1951, where he was a member of the Sky Blazers jet fighter acrobatic team. He later served as the operations officer of a fighter-interceptor squadron in Knoxville, Tennessee, before being promoted to commander of a fighter squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. During the Vietnam War, Butterfield commanded a squadron of low and medium-level combat tactical air reconnaissance aircraft. He flew 98 combat missions, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1965 and 1966, Butterfield served as the military assistant to the special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, where he became a friend of Alexander Haig. He also gained extensive experience working at the White House, where he spent half his time. He advanced to the rank of Colonel, and beginning in 1967, was serving in Australia as the F-111 project officer; representative for the commander-in-chief of the Pacific forces; and senior U.S. military representative.
During his military career, he attended the National War College, and earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Maryland (1956) and a master of science degree from George Washington University (1967).
In late 1968, Butterfield learned that he would be stationed in Australia for another two years, which would delay any potential promotion and potentially, harm his military career. The ambitious Butterfield wanted to be in "the smoke" (where the action was), and wanted to leave Australia. After coming across a newspaper article which mentioned the appointment of H. R. Haldeman as Nixon's White House Chief of Staff, Butterfield wrote to Haldeman asking for a job. The two met in New York City about December 19, 1968, to discuss a role as a military aide, but when nothing suitable came up, Butterfield asked to take any job in the White House. General Andrew Goodpaster, former White House staff secretary in the Eisenhower administration, suggested that Haldeman have a deputy, and Haldeman offered the position to Butterfield about January 13. Butterfield retired from the Air Force a few days later, and his appointment as deputy assistant to the president was announced on January 23, 1969.
As deputy assistant to the president, Butterfield was Haldeman's chief assistant. His first few days in the White House were difficult. Butterfield did not meet the president for 13 days. When Haldeman finally introduced Butterfield to Nixon, their meeting was short and awkward. Haldeman then left for California, leaving Butterfield in charge of the White House staff for four days. During the second meeting with Butterfield, Nixon was rude and condescending, and Butterfield nearly resigned. The following day, however, Nixon was cordial and witty, and Butterfield resolved to stay at the White House. Butterfield, who came to like Nixon immensely, nevertheless, felt the president was an "ignorant boor, a bumpkin". Initially, when meeting with Nixon, Butterfield had to mimic Haldeman's manerisms and to duplicate his managerial style. Everything Haldeman and Butterfield did was designed to make Nixon feel comfortable and relaxed, never surprised or "spooked". "If you don't do things exactly as I do, it could upset [Nixon]," Haldeman told him.
Next to Haldeman, Butterfield was the most powerful aide in the White House. He met with Nixon and Haldeman every day at 2 P.M. to plan the following day's activities. He "completely controlled" what paperwork Nixon saw, and logged memos. He accompanied Haldeman on all domestic trips, co-supervising traveling White House staff with Haldeman, and ran the White House when Haldeman and Nixon went on foreign trips. Every meeting the president attended required "talking points" for the president written by an appropriate staff person as well as an after-meeting summary by that person, and Butterfield oversaw the process by which both documents were completed and filed. Butterfield also oversaw all FBI investigations requested by the White House, which included routine background checks of potential employees as well as politically motivated investigations. Other than Haldeman, no one had a more intimate knowledge of Nixon's working style, the daily operations of the White House, what Nixon may have read, or who Nixon may have met.
Butterfield was also the person who primarily managed people as they met with Nixon. This included ensuring people arrived on time, and that they were manipulated so they did not stay too long. Butterfield also oversaw Nixon's often-distant relationship with his wife, Pat. Late in 1970, the president's aides lost confidence in Constance C. Stuart, Pat Nixon's staff director and press secretary, and Butterfield was assigned responsibility for overseeing the First Lady's events and publicity. The day after the 1972 presidential election, Pat Nixon confronted her husband over what she perceived to be Oval Office interference with her staff. The deputy assistant to the president, Dwight Chapin, and later Butterfield, were appointed to act as liaison between the two staffs.
Butterfield also oversaw installation of the taping system which Nixon ordered for the White House. On February 10, 1971, Haldeman's assistant, Larry Higby, told Butterfield that president Nixon wanted a voice-activated audio taping system installed in the Oval Office and on White House telephones. The goal, Nixon said, was to create a more accurate record of events. Butterfield worked with the Secret Service to install five hidden microphones in Nixon's desk, two in lamps on the mantel over the fireplace, two in the cabinet room, and on all telephone lines in the Lincoln Sitting Room and the Oval Office. According to Butterfield, the system was highly secret, its existence known only to Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Higby, the three or four Secret Service technical staffers who installed it, and him. In April 1971, Nixon ordered the taping system installed in his private office in the Executive Office Building.
In March 1973, Butterfield was confirmed as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and left the White House.
John Dean testified in June 1973 that Nixon was deeply involved in the Watergate cover-up, and mentioned that he suspected White House conversations were taped. Staff of the United States Senate Watergate Committee thereafter began to routinely ask witnesses appearing before the committee if they knew of any taping system. Senate Watergate Committee staff then asked the White House for a list of dates on which the President had met with Dean. About June 20 or 21, Special White House Counsel for Watergate J. Fred Buzhardt provided the committee's Chief Minority (Republican) Counsel, Fred Thompson, with a document intended to impugn Dean's testimony. Buzhardt's document included almost verbatim quotations from meetings Nixon had with Dean. Thompson initially violated an agreement under which the majority and minority staff would share all information. When committee Majority Investigator Scott Armstrong obtained the document, he realized the document indicated the existence of a taping system.
Butterfield was questioned by Senate Watergate Committee staff Scott Armstrong, G. Eugene Boyce, Marianne Brazer, and Donald Sanders (deputy minority counsel) on Friday, July 13, 1973, in a background interview prior to his public testimony before the full committee. Butterfield was brought before the committee because he was White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman's top deputy and was the only person other than Haldeman who knew as much about the president's day-to-day behavior.
The critical line of questioning was conducted by Donald Sanders. Armstrong had given a copy of Buzhardt's report to Butterfield; now Sanders asked if the quotations in it might have come from notes. Butterfield said no, that the quotations were too detailed. In addition, Butterfield said that neither staff nor the president kept notes of one-on-one private meetings with Nixon. When asked where the quotations might have come from, Butterfield said he did not know. Then Sanders asked if there was any validity to John Dean's hypothesis that the White House had taped conversations in the Oval Office. Butterfield replied, "I was wondering if someone would ask that. There is tape in the Oval Office." Butterfield then told the investigators that, while he had hoped that no one would ask about the taping system, he had previously decided he would disclose its existence if asked a direct question. Butterfield then testified extensively about when the taping system was installed and how it worked, and told the staff members, "Everything was taped ... as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped." Butterfield later said that he assumed the committee knew about the taping system, since they had already interviewed Haldeman and Higby.
All present recognized the significance of this disclosure, and, as former political adviser to President Gerald Ford, James M. Cannon put it, "Watergate was transformed". Butterfield's testimony lasted from 2 PM to 6:30 PM. The four investigators swore themselves to secrecy, and agreed to tell only the Chief Counsel and Chief Minority Counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. Chief Counsel Samuel Dash says he immediately informed his subordinate, Deputy Chief Counsel Rufus L. Edmisten, and then Democratic Senator Sam Ervin, chairman of the committee. Both Ervin and Dash realized how important it was politically to have had a Republican uncover the taping system. That same night, Ervin asked Dash to have Butterfield testify on Monday, July 16.
Friday night, Thompson informed Senator Howard Baker, the ranking minority member on the Senate Watergate Committee, of Butterfield's admission. After Ervin had told him the news as well, Baker began pushing to have Butterfield testify immediately. Again breaking rules not to have private conversations or meetings with the White House, Thompson also informed Buzhardt about Butterfield's Friday night interview.
Butterfield, scheduled to fly to Moscow on July 17 for a trade meeting, was worried that he would be called to testify before the Senate Watergate Committee and that this would force him to cancel his Russia trip.
Sources vary as to the next sequence of events. According to some sources, Butterfield was notified on the morning of Sunday, July 15, that he would testify the next day. Butterfield then met with Baker (whom he knew slightly). Butterfield asked Baker to use his influence to cancel the testimony, but Baker declined. Butterfield then called the White House and left a message for Special Counsel Leonard Garment (Dean's replacement), advising him of the content of his Friday testimony and the committee's subpoena for him to testify on Monday. Haig and Buzhardt received Butterfield's message, and waited for Garment to return from a cross-country trip later that day. After Garment was informed, the White House staff did nothing. Butterfield was not contacted, and Nixon was not told about Butterfield's testimony until either Monday morning or late Monday afternoon. According to Butterfield and other sources, Butterfield left a message about his Friday interview for Garment at the White House on Saturday night. He then met with Baker Sunday morning, but Baker told him the chances were slim that he would be called to testify. According to Butterfield, he did not learn that he was going to testify before the Ervin committee until shortly after 10 AM on Monday, July 16, just about three hours before he was due to appear at 2 PM.
Butterfield's July 16 testimony, which lasted just 30 minutes, was carried on live television by all the major broadcast networks. Senator Baker informed Dash before the hearing began that, since a Republican (Sanders) had elicited the testimony from Butterfield on July 13, he wanted Republican Chief Minority Counsel Thompson to question Butterfield during the hearing. Baker did not want the Republicans to look as if they had been caught by surprise. The New York Times called Butterfield's testimony "dramatic", and historian William Doyle has noted that it "electrified Washington and triggered a constitutional crisis". Political scientist Keith Olson said Butterfield's testimony "fundamentally altered the entire Watergate investigation."
Within hours of Butterfield's testimony, Haig had the taping system removed.
Butterfield was not involved in the Watergate cover-up and was never charged with any crime.
Butterfield did, however, play a minor role in Watergate. Nixon had $1.6 million in campaign funds left over from the 1968 election. Determined to raise as much re-election money as he could before a new federal campaign finance law took effect on April 7, 1972, Nixon's staff and political operatives began raising large amounts of cash. Some of this cash was used for illegal purposes connected with the Watergate scandal, such as surveillance and paying for the Watergate burglary. Haldeman retained $350,000 in cash in a locked briefcase in the office of Hugh W. Sloan Jr. at the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. Haldeman said the case, colloquially known as "the 350", was for polling operations. Haldeman aide Gordon C. Strachan moved the cash to the White House in April 1972, but Haldeman ordered it removed. Strachan then asked Butterfield to handle the cash by giving it to someone Butterfield trusted. On April 7, Butterfield removed the cash and met a close friend at the Key Bridge Marriott in Rosslyn, Virginia. The friend agreed to keep the cash in a safe deposit box in Arlington County, Virginia, and make it available to the White House on demand. Butterfield voluntarily revealed his role in "the 350" to United States Attorneys shortly after leaving the White House in March 1973.
Butterfield also played a very limited role in some of the surveillance conducted by the Nixon White House. On September 7, 1972, Nixon met with Haldeman and Ehrlichman to discuss Senator Edward M. Kennedy's request for Secret Service protection while he campaigned on behalf of the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator George McGovern. Haldeman suggested Butterfield handle the details, and Butterfield, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman met with Nixon later that day to discuss planting the mole. Nixon was convinced Kennedy was an adulterer, and wanted to catch him "in the sack with one of his babes". Butterfield assigned former Nixon bodyguard Robert Newbrand as the spy in Kennedy's protective detail on September 8.
By late 1972, Butterfield felt his job no longer challenged him, and he informally told President Nixon that he wanted to leave. Nixon offered him a position in the State Department, but Butterfield was uninterested in it. Nixon then suggested the Federal Aviation Administration, and Butterfield agreed.
On December 19, 1972, President Nixon nominated Butterfield to be the new Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal law, however, required that the Administrator be a civilian, not an active-duty or retired military officer. President Nixon sought legislation to waive this requirement for Butterfield, but it was not forthcoming. Subsequently, in February 1973 Butterfield resigned from the Air Force Reserves, giving up a $10,000 a year pension. President Nixon withdrew Butterfield's nomination on February 26, 1973, and resubmitted it to the Senate the same day. Butterfield was confirmed on March 12, 1973, and he resigned as Deputy Assistant to the President on March 14.
United States Secretary of Transportation Claude Brinegar often criticized Butterfield for being lax on aviation safety, allegations Butterfield strongly denied. In early January 1975, President Gerald Ford asked for the resignation of all executive branch officeholders who had been prominent in the Nixon administration. The Washington Post, quoting anonymous White House sources, said Butterfield's dismissal was not retaliation for his role in revealing the White House taping system, and allowed Butterfield to make a case for keeping his job with new White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld.
Butterfield did not retain his position, although the White House allowed him to take several months before resigning. Butterfield resigned on March 25, 1975, and left the government on March 31, 1975.
Butterfield struggled for two years to find employment after leaving the federal government. He eventually worked for a flight service company in San Francisco, California. He then found work with a financial holding company in Los Angeles. Butterfield left the financial industry to start a business and productivity consulting firm, Armistead & Alexander. He retired in 1995.
Butterfield was among those who correctly guessed the identity of Watergate informant "Deep Throat" prior to the disclosure in 2005. He told The Hartford Courant in 1995, "I think it was a guy named Mark Felt."
Butterfield is a major source for Bob Woodward's 2015 book The Last of the President's Men. Butterfield retained an extensive amount of records when he left the White House, some of them historically important, like the "zilch" memo, which helped form part of the basis for the book.
Butterfield married Charlotte Maguire in 1949. They divorced in 1985.
Butterfield moved to La Jolla, California, in 1992, where he was a close friend of (and sometimes dated) Audrey Geisel, the widow of Theodor Geisel (the author of children's books, known as "Dr. Seuss"). He returned to school, obtaining a master's degree in history from the University of California, San Diego. As of November 2015, he was working on a Ph.D. in history, with a focus on the presidential power to pardon. He remains active on the board of directors of several corporations.