Sen. Edward Kennedy
Chappaquiddick was a bonanza for the Kennedy-hating Nixon, who tried many tactics to catch Ted Kennedy in an extra-marital affair in order to derail his anticipated 1972 presidential bid.
by Don Fulsom
In the summer of 1969, President Richard Nixon was licking his chops to discover just what had really happened to Edward Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. He speedily dispatched two undercover White House investigators to the scene of the suspicious watery car crash that took the life of Kopechne, Kennedy’s companion. Nixon told top aide Bob Haldeman he didn’t want Kennedy to get away with anything. Haldeman wrote a diary entry saying the President believed Kennedy “was drunk, escaped from the car, let (Mary Jo) drown, said nothing until police got to him. Shows fatal flaw in his character, cheated at school (Kennedy was expelled from Harvard for cheating), ran from accident”
When the senator went on TV to tell his version of what happened, Nixon privately noted many “gaps and contradictions,” adding: “I could not help thinking if anyone other than a Kennedy had been involved and had given such a patently unacceptable explanation, the media and the public would not have allowed him to survive in public life.”
Two ex-New York cops, Jack Caulfield and Anthony Ulasewicz, who posed as newspaper reporters, carried out the Nixon-ordered sleuthing in Massachusetts. They turned up nothing of consequence. Their probe took six months and cost $100,000.
Kennedy pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and was handed a suspended sentence of two months. His driver’s license was revoked for one year.
Caulfield and Ulasewicz were busy, if not all that productive, in Massachusetts. In a memo from Caulfield, released in 2009, the snooper reported to the White House that Robert Kennedy Jr. was discreetly observed going to see the car that his uncle had driven off the Chappaquiddick Bridge two weeks earlier. And, more important, Caulfield suggested a Kennedy family bodyguard could become a useful source of information for the Nixon forces.
Caulfield and Ulasewicz pressed on. They eventually rented and furnished an expensive wiretapped Manhattan apartment with the improbable aim of hiring handsome young men to seduce some of the young women who had attended the Chappaquiddick party that preceded Kennedy’s fatal accident. The plan, according to Nixon aide John Dean, would result in the women volunteering “details of Kennedy’s conduct in a moment of tenderness, or under fear of extortion.”
Dean actually stayed in the planned undercover apartment one night when he was in New York. “I was aghast. (Dean’s blind date) had one quick drink and left. The apartment looked like a Chicago whorehouse—red velvet wallpaper, black lace curtains, white Salvation Army furniture, and a fake fur rug.”
In April 1971, Nixon told Haldeman they should find some way to “cover Kennedy … I'd really like to get Kennedy taped.” (More than taping, what Nixon wanted most of all, according to Haldeman in The Haldeman Diaries, was to photograph Ted Kennedy in compromising positions, then leak the photos to the press.”
In June, Nixon listened with rapt attention as aide Henry Kissinger, who sometimes traveled in the same social circles as Kennedy, passed along gossip that EMK had now become “a total (sexual) animal.”
In July, Nixon spoke to several aides about the possible need for a special $2-million dollar “Nixon discretionary fund” to keep tabs on Kennedy and for other clandestine pursuits.
On September 8,1971, the President ordered aide John Ehrlichman to have the IRS investigate Kennedy’s taxes—and those of other prospective Democratic presidential candidates. And Nixon was given an update on surveillance that was already being carried out on Senator Kennedy.
Ehrlichman reported EMK was being “covered” by an unnamed informant (the Kennedy bodyguard Caulfield suggested could be used as an informant?) during the senator’s vacations. And, as Nixon’s tape recorders rolled, he filled in the President on an inspection trip Ehrlichman himself had made to Chappaquiddick:
Ehrlichman: And (Kennedy) was in Hawaii on his own. He was staying at some guy’s villa. And we had a guy on him every night (unclear interjection by Nixon). And he was just as nice as he could be the whole time.
President Nixon: The thing to do is just watch him, because what happens to fellows like that, who have that kind of (sexual addiction) problem, is that they go for quite a while and then they go (unclear).
Ehrlichman: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I’m hoping for.
President Nixon: I don’t think he would break really while he was, you know, trying for the big thing. Generally, they don’t. Although Jack [Kennedy] was damn careless.
Ehrlichman: This time between now and convention time may be the time to get him.
President Nixon: You mean that he would be under great pressure?
Ehrlichman: He would be under pressure, but he will also be out of the limelight somewhat. Now, he was in Hawaii very much incognito. Very little staff. And played tennis, moved around, visited with people and socialized and so on. So you would expect that at a time like that you might catch him. And then he went up to Hyannis. And we've got an arrangement--
President Nixon: How about (Senator Edmund) Muskie? (Unclear.) What kind of a life is he living?
Ehrlichman: Very cloistered. Very monkish.
President Nixon: (Unclear.)
Ehrlichman: Yeah, big time. He's got six kids. And very ordinary (unclear). Teddy . . . I-we were over on Martha's Vineyard last week.
President Nixon: Yeah--
Ehrlichman: I had never seen that site before, that Chappaquiddick-Edgartown ferry. That is a very short swim. Having seen it now, I would bet he swam it that night. It's--I don't see why--you know, they could build a bridge across there. It's a very short distance.
President Nixon: Hmm.
Ehrlichman: And it's no farther than from here to the West Wing. And not a bad tide, the time we were there. So it was quite interesting. I took some pictures of it because it amazed me how short a distance it really was. But we do cover him when he goes to Hyannis.
President Nixon: He will never live that down.
Ehrlichman: No. I don't think he will.
President Nixon: Not that one.
Ehrlichman: I think that will be around his neck forever.
In October 1971, Ehrlichman induced a chuckle in Nixon when he suggested that placards be made showing Ted Kennedy’s picture and asking “Would you ride in a car with this man.”
In September 1972, Nixon’s continued political fear, personal loathing, and jealously of Kennedy led him to plant a spy in Kennedy’s Secret Service detail.
The mole Nixon selected for the Kennedy camp was already being groomed. He was a former agent from his Nixon’s vice presidential detail, Robert Newbrand—a man so loyal he once pledged he would do anything—even kill—for Nixon.
The President was most interested in learning about the Sen. Kennedy’s sex life. He wanted, more than anything, stated Haldeman in The Ends of Power, to “catch (Kennedy) in the sack with one of his babes.”
In a recently transcribed tape of a September 8, 1972 talk among the President and aides Bob Haldeman and Alexander Butterfield, Nixon asks whether Secret Service chief James Rowley would appoint Newbrand to head Kennedy’s detail:
Haldeman: He's to assign Newbrand.
President Nixon: Does he understand that he's to do that?
Butterfield: He's effectively already done it. And we have a full force assigned, 40 men.
Haldeman: I told them to put a big detail on him (unclear).
President Nixon: A big detail is correct. One that can cover him around the clock, every place he goes.
(Laughter obscures mixed voices.)
President Nixon: Right. No, that's really true. He has got to have the same coverage that we give the others, because we're concerned about security and we will not assume the responsibility unless we're with him all the time.
Haldeman: And Amanda Burden (one of Kennedy’s alleged girlfriends) can't be trusted. (Unclear.) You never know what she might do. (Unclear.)
Haldeman then assures the President that Newbrand “will do anything that I tell him to … He really will. And he has come to me twice and absolutely, sincerely said, "With what you've done for me and what the President's done for me, I just want you to know, if you want someone killed, if you want anything else done, any way, any direction …"
President Nixon: The thing that I (unclear) is this: We just might get lucky and catch this son-of-a-bitch and ruin him for '76.
Haldeman: That's right.
President Nixon: He doesn't know what he's really getting into. We're going to cover him, and we are not going to take "no" for an answer. He can't say "no." The Kennedys are arrogant as hell with these Secret Service. He says, "Fine," and (Newbrand) should pick the detail, too.
Toward the end of this conversation, Nixon exclaims that Newbrand’s spying “(is) going to be fun,” and Haldeman responds: “Newbrand will just love it.”
Nixon also had a surveillance tip for Haldeman for his spy-to-be: “I want you to tell Newbrand if you will that (unclear) because he's a Catholic, sort of play it, he was for Jack Kennedy all the time. Play up to Kennedy, that "I'm a great admirer of Jack Kennedy." He's a member of the Holy Name Society. He wears a St. Christopher (unclear).” Haldeman laughs heartily at the President’s curious advice.
Despite the enthusiasm of Nixon and Haldeman, Newbrand apparently never produced anything of great value. When this particular round of Nixon’s spying on Kennedy was uncovered in 1997, The Washington Post quoted Butterfield as saying periodic reports on Kennedy's activities were delivered to Haldeman, but that Butterfield did not think any potentially damaging information was ever dug up.
Were Nixon’s men more than just spying on Edward Kennedy? In 1974, William Gilday of Boston told investigative reporter Anthony Summers, among others, that presidential aides had asked him, as early as 1970, to take part in dirty tricks that included the assassinations of both Edward Kennedy and George Wallace.
Wallace was convinced, to his dying days, that Nixon was behind a conspiracy to assassinate him. Supporting this view, when Nixon was told of Wallace’s shooting he asked Colson whether one of “our” men was responsible. And he joked with Colson that he had only “finished half the job” (paralyzing the governor from only the waist down) on Wallace.
In a newly released Nixon tape, Colson informs the President that anti-Kennedy efforts did indeed extend beyond surveillance: “I did things out of Boston. We did some blackmail and … my God, uh, uh, uh, I’ll go to my grave before I ever disclose it. But, uh, we did a hell of a lot of things and never got caught …(E. Howard Hunt, Nixon’s chief spy) ran 15 or 20 black projects in Boston, and that’ll never be traced. No way.”
The world will never know just what Hunt and his cohorts had gathered on Kennedy. The former CIA spymaster kept his ultra-sensitive reports on Chappaquiddick and other Kennedy-related intelligence (as well as his pistol, which prompted Dean to shout, “Holy shit!”) in his White House safe, which was cleaned out after Hunt was connected to the Watergate burglary of June 1972. Those secret files were eventually turned over by presidential aides John Dean and John Ehrlichman to acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. They came with instructions from Dean, “These should never see the light of day.” He added: “They are of a very, very, very secretive nature.” Gray subsequently burned the Hunt files, he said.
William Gilday, the Boston man who claims he was instructed by the White House to kill Edward Kennedy and George Wallace was later convicted of murdering a Massachusetts policeman. In his biography of Nixon, The Arrogance of Power, Summers declines “for legal reasons” to name the Nixon aides identified by Gilday. But the author says Gilday “has appeared to have knowledge of corroborating details—their nicknames, for example—and has provided reconnaissance photographs he said were taken with Kennedy’s murder in view.”
Was Richard Nixon capable of ordering a political enemy’s assassination? That is a definite possibility. He was a violence-prone paranoid who ran the White House in much the same way as a godfather ruled a Mafia “family.” Nixon believed that the means, any means, justified the end.
Aside from pistol-packing staffers such as E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, Jack Caulfield and Anthony Ulasewicz, Nixon could depend on a group of real godfathers to do his bidding. After all, he had been doing them big favors—and they had been secretly financing his political rise—ever since he was first elected to Congress in 1946. Organized crime expert Dan Moldea has quoted an anonymous Justice Department source as saying: “The whole goddamn thing is too frightening to think about. We’re talking about the president of the United States … a man who pardoned organized crime figures after millions were spent by the government putting them away … I guess the real shame is that we’ll never know the full story, it’ll never come out.”
As Nixon’s White House tapes continue to be released, more of the “full story” will emerge.
Sources: Aside from those cited in the text, sources include President Nixon by Richard Reeves; In Nixon’s Web by L. Patrick Gray; Blind Ambition by John Dean; Edward M. Kennedy by Adam Clymer; Kennedy and Nixon by Christopher Matthews; tape transcripts from the Miller Center of Public Affairs and Nixontapes.org; Crossfire by Jim Marrs, and The Haldeman Diaries by Bob Haldeman.