Friday, July 22, 2011

July 22, 1971

President Nixon and Bob Haldeman seem to be spending most of their time on trying to figure out how to dump Spiro Agnew for John Connally, at least according to Haldeman's diary.

Meanwhile, though, the Plumbers are in action. E. Howard Hunt, in particular. He had been hired the first week of July, and charged, he said later, with being the new White House expert on Vietnam -- that is, on how the war started, or, actually, what dirt they could dig up on the Kennedys. John Ehrlichman paved the way with a phone call to the CIA to ask them to cooperate with Hunt...I should backtrack a bit. This is John Ehrlichman, the #2 guy on the White House staff behind only Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. Ehrlichman was in charge of coordinating domestic policy -- you know, really policy, such as the economy and the environment and race and whatever. Anyway, he got Hunt started, and asked the CIA to help.

Hunt stared by interviewing a CIA expert on Vietnam. Unfortunately, while Hunt was trying to learn about the coup against South Vietnam President Diem  in 1963, he failed to use his tape recorder correctly, and lost it all. Oh well.

Next, a trip to New England, to meet with someone who they heard knew something about Chappaquiddick (wait a second...Chappaquiddick? A White House aide was doing this?). Chuck Colson authorized Hunt to go. But Hunt wasn't just a regular staffer; he fancied himself, uh, well, uh, let me just tell the story. He decided he needed a disguise, so he went out on July 22, 1971 to Langley (remember, Ehrlichman had paved the way) and got over the next days various way-out CIA disguise stuff...a full wallet of fake ID for a phony name, hair and glasses and (Fred Emery's description) a "speech-altering device that gave him a lisp and a gait-altering device to make him limp."

Then he went up to Rhode Island and met with a guy who said that Ted Kennedy had been to parties, but no, he couldn't talk about Chappaquiddick. You know, the kind of thing he probably could have said in a phone call.

Howard Hunt is going to be a lot of fun.


  1. Wasn't there also a story about Howard Hunt getting trapped in a closet in somebody's hotel room and needing to stay there for hours? I remember reading about it in college, and as I recall, Hunt ended up having to pee in a bottle after a while (and bragged about it afterward).

  2. Jonathan, the Chappaquidick trip is among the least odd of the actions of the Plumbers. In spite of his youth, Ted Kennedy was widely regarded a 1972 Presidential candidate before Chappaquidick in 1969.

    Here in late July 2011, we mostly assume that Rick Perry (or even Sarah Palin) is a white knight in the 2012 race; in a much simpler era the spectre of a Ted Kennedy reversal, and entry, in the 1972 race must have seemed quite plausible to Team Nixon.

    I'm no Chappaquidick expert, but according to Wikipedia, there remain many questions surrounding the incident, including pro-Kennedy ones, such as Kopechne possibly being the driver. It would be entirely reasonable for Team Nixon to suspect that there were suppressed anti-Kennedy details to the case, facts that might be useful in an October/November 1972 surprise against candidate Kennedy.

    There's nothing weird about that, is there? Who digs up the dirt on Bush's DUI, revealed the weekend before the election, or that laughable, I'm-disinterested-in-the-suburbs Obama interview, also the weekend before the election, if not someone close to the opposing candidate's team? Hunt seems like an entirely appropriate person to get this data, and Chappaquidick seems like an entirely appropriate source for a pre-election surprise, on the plausible assumption, mid-1971, that Ted Kennedy may yet run in 1972.

  3. In fact, if I had been Nixon I'd have sent Hunt to Chappaquidick without the disguise. As Nixon considered 1972, he surely did not look forward to the prospect of Kennedy-Nixon II. He surely realized President Kennedy was a substandard executive, whose mystique was largely built on several memorable quotes and the excitement of the 1960 election.

    No way Nixon would want to run against that mystique again in 1972, plus the ghosts of the dead Kennedys, as well as whatever machine pulled those votes from the Chicago graveyards in 1960 (and wherever else?).

    So if I had been Nixon I not only would have sent my assistant's assistant to Chappaquidick, I would have had him photographed at the Chappaquidick Dairy Hut getting a Whippi-Dip with the Chappaquidick Deep Throat, and I'd have made sure that photo got published in the Chappaquidick Times. Then I'd have had someone send a copy of that news clipping to Senator Kennedy, and perhaps for flair I would have written something like "I know what you did that summer - RMN" at the top.

    Cause on the reasonable assumption that Teddy was waffling about 1972 in July 1971, I'd have wanted to help him make the decision not to run, had I been Nixon. What better way to achieve that goal?

  4. CSH,

    Nothing wrong at all with opposition research -- by a campaign(and the WH was totally obsessed; they had hired someone to tail Kennedy, and they had a paid guy posing as a reporter nosing around after Chappaquiddick back when it happened).

    But it's not something that the White House should be doing, and certainly not something that the WH should involve the CIA in (apparently Hunt didn't tell the CIA what he needed the disguise for). And, more than that, it sets up what kind of guy Hunt was -- he loved the cloak & dagger stuff a lot, but was typically very klutzy about the whole thing.


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