Excerpt

Watergate Burglar Howard Hunt Was William Buckley’s Deep Throat

One of the masterminds of the Watergate break-in, Hunt confided in his friend, the conservative icon, leaving Buckley the journalist uncomfortably compromised.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

As 1972 drew to a close, William F. Buckley Jr. became privy to details about a much-undercovered incident that occurred during the campaign, which would erupt into a major scandal that would cut short Nixon’s presidency. In the preface to his 1975 collection of writings, Execution Eve and Other Contemporary Ballads, he explained that he had not written much about the Watergate scandal between December 1972 and April 1973 because he felt “greatly encumbered.” He wrote that he could not reveal details a friend had confided to him about his participation in several misdeeds on Nixon’s behalf. During those four months, Buckley also absented himself from editorial meetings at National Review whenever Watergate was discussed. Buckley’s friend and informant was none other than E. Howard Hunt, his onetime superior at the CIA. Hunt had overseen the Watergate burglary and had been involved in other illegal undertakings.

On December 8, 1972, Hunt’s wife died in a plane crash. She had been carrying with her $10,000 in cash. Speculation immediately arose that the money had been given to her husband by Nixon operatives in exchange for his silence about the break-in. Ten days after her death, Hunt telephoned Buckley to relate that Mrs. Hunt had earlier named Buckley alternate executor of her estate in the event that her husband could not fulfill his duties as such should he be found guilty of conspiring to burglarize the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate (an eventuality that came to pass a month later). Buckley was godfather to Hunt’s three oldest children. The previous June, after learning that Hunt had been arrested, Buckley had telephoned the Hunt residence to express his concerns and offer to help defray some of Hunt’s legal expenses.

The day after he had telephoned Buckley, Hunt paid him a visit. Fearful that he might be assassinated, Hunt, for the next two hours, shared with Buckley what he knew of the Watergate operation. According to Buckley’s account of their conversation, Hunt denied knowledge of any complicity by Nixon in the Watergate affair, but said he believed John Mitchell had authorized the break- in. Buckley noted in his recollection that Hunt offered this opinion of Nixon’s role before it became known that the president had engaged in conversations regarding payments to the Watergate defendants and for what purpose. Hunt subsequently made several telephone calls to Buckley at prearranged intervals. At one point, Hunt admitted that he had taken part in the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, an action that led to the dismissal of the Justice Department’s case against Ellsberg and would serve as the basis for one of the two articles of impeachment against Nixon that the House of Representatives subsequently approved. Hunt also told Buckley that he and G. Gordon Liddy, another of the Watergate burglars, had, upon White House instructions, contemplated how they might murder the columnist Jack Anderson, one of Nixon’s fiercest critics.

According to Buckley’s son, Christopher, Hunt informed Buckley that, were he to die, Buckley would be contacted by a person he did not know who had a key to a safe deposit box, which the two of them would open together. When Christopher asked his father what the box might have contained, Buckley replied, “I don’t know exactly, but it could theoretically involve information that could lead to the impeachment of the president of the United States.” He felt bound to keep confidential what he knew.

He did not record whether he unburdened himself to a priest or to anyone else, or under what circumstances his conscience would have prompted him to share what he knew with authorities in order to prevent future crimes, possibly including a murder. “Only after it was all over did we learn that Hunt had burdened Buckley with the story as far as he knew it,” two of Buckley’s colleagues recalled. “His knowledge was only partial, but still difficult enough for a working journalist to live with.” Christopher remembered his father’s demeanor during his self-imposed silence about Watergate as “pure Gethsemane: “Let this cup pass from me.

Months after Nixon resigned, a White House tape from January 8, 1973, surfaced in which Nixon is heard suggesting that Buckley be approached to write a column supporting clemency for Hunt. Nixon proposed that Buckley could cite Hunt’s dire financial situation, his grief over the death of his wife, and his having to raise six children on his own. Asked to comment on the tape, Buckley said, “I don’t need to be reminded to write a column urging clemency even for sons of bitches, as Mr. Nixon should know from personal experience.”

When Buckley began to write about Watergate in April 1973, he voiced increasing skepticism about whether Nixon could survive the unraveling scandal. He faulted Nixon for not having named a special prosecutor immediately after Watergate burglar James McCord suggested in a March 20, 1973 letter to Judge John Sirica that the White House had been pressuring the burglars to remain silent. In an effort to explain the president’s apparent sense of certainty that none of his close aides participated in the scandal that became known as “Watergate,” Buckley offered this theory: “Poor Mr. Nixon suffers not only from the excessive desire of his friends to please but also from the ravenous appetite of his enemies to harm. This appetite Mr. Nixon has … fueled by that curdling sanctimony that is his trademark; and by that articulate impatience with the imperfect performance of others on which he built his early career.”

Buckley wrote that Nixon, in a speech he delivered on April 30, 1973, which he intended to calm the nation’s anxieties about Watergate, had aroused the “Puritan Conscience of America.” In his televised presentation, Nixon “accepted responsibility” for the scandal, offered no means through which he might be held accountable, announced the resignations of White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, whom he proclaimed “two fine public servants,” and pledged to bring the perpetrators of the break-in to justice, all the while denying to investigators access to information that might establish his innocence. Buckley noted that before Nixon went on the air, the Gallup Poll reported that 40 percent of the public thought he had foreknowledge of the break-in. Buckley predicted that after hearing what Nixon had to say, many more would come to doubt him.

When Buckley began to write about Watergate in April 1973, he voiced increasing skepticism about whether Nixon could survive the unraveling scandal. He faulted Nixon for not having named a special prosecutor immediately after Watergate burglar James McCord suggested in a March 20, 1973 letter to Judge John Sirica that the White House had been pressuring the burglars to remain silent. In an effort to explain the president’s apparent sense of certainty that none of his close aides participated in the scandal that became known as “Watergate,” Buckley offered this theory: “Poor Mr. Nixon suffers not only from the excessive desire of his friends to please but also from the ravenous appetite of his enemies to harm. This appetite Mr. Nixon has … fueled by that curdling sanctimony that is his trademark; and by that articulate impatience with the imperfect performance of others on which he built his early career.”

Still, he found Nixon’s behavior contemptible. He thought “contumacious” Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with the Senate Select Watergate Committee and his invocation of executive privilege to bar aides from relating White House conversations. Buckley believed that Nixon had lost an opportunity in his April speech to put the scandal behind him. He thought that after he had gone through the motion of having accepted responsibility, Nixon should have offered to accept Senate censure as punishment for his negligence. Such an act of self-flagellation, he suggested, would have been the 20th century equivalent of Henry II’s submitting to flogging to atone for his culpability in the murder of St. Thomas à Becket.

Buckley’s ire was most aroused after a memorandum White House Counsel John Dean had written to Deputy Chief of Staff John Ehrlichman became public. Entitled “Maximizing the Incumbency,” Dean’s memo recommended that the administration make full use of its incumbent powers to “screw” its political “enemies.” Buckley termed the document “an act of proto-fascism.” Proclaiming it “altogether ruthless in its dismissal of human rights,” he continued: “It is fascist in its reliance on the state as the instrument of harassment. It is fascist in its automatic assumption that the state in all matters comes before the individual. And it is fascist in tone: the stealth, the brutality, the self-righteousness.”

In a telling aside, Buckley reminded his readers that he had not used the word fascist lightly: it was a term he believed liberals often applied to their ideological adversaries without foundation. He did not rehearse all the times his critics had applied that label to him as a means of discrediting his arguments. In this instance, he wanted to make clear, he believed that the term so often associated with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the ’30s applied. While Buckley had no way of knowing whether Nixon had seen the Dean memorandum prior to its release or whether he agreed with what Dean recommended, he questioned why, after its contents became known, the president had not denounced it.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

When it was learned that Nixon had been taping his Oval Office conversations, Buckley cautioned the president against making blanket assertions that everything on the tapes was “privileged” information, protected by the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. He recommended that Nixon turn the tapes over to a distinguished group of two or three persons, perhaps retired judges, to determine whether the president had participated in a cover-up. Nixon should not assume, he warned, that even the 18 percent who still supported him would remain in his corner as more damning facts dripped out.

In January 1974, Buckley for the first time publicly raised the possibility of Nixon resigning. He devoted an entire column to how this might occur, as several competing Nixon personalities reached an internal accord. First there was the obstinate Nixon, who insisted he was not a “quitter.” Then there was Nixon the “realist,” who could aptly gauge any political situation. The third Nixon was withdrawn, moody, introspective, and reveled in pain, often self-inflicted. For such a man, Buckley concluded, resignation constituted the ultimate suffering. “If, for a man on the make, power is an ‘aphrodisiac,’ for the man facing the end, martyrdom is ‘orgasmic.’” Finally, there was a fourth Nixon, anxious to demonstrate to the world both his victimization and his humanity. That Nixon, Buckley predicted, allied with the third Nixon, the sufferer, would lead the president eventually to resign “not only with honor, but with pleasure.”

On March 19, Senator James L. Buckley called upon the president to resign so that the country, long distracted by Watergate, might focus on other pressing matters before it. Such a move, he said, would be an extraordinary act of statesmanship and would not necessarily be an admission of wrongdoing. Days before Nixon did announce his resignation, William F. Buckley Jr. declared the president’s situation irreparable. He lamented that Nixon had not destroyed the White House tapes and doubted that Congress would have impeached him for this, given that it had no way of knowing what portions of them pertained to national security. “Now,” he observed, Nixon “will be thrown out with the chicken thieves.” Sending Nixon to prison, he said would be an act of “sadism” that would “contaminate” the body politic. “Let the man go decently,” he wrote.

Excerpted from A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr, by Alvin S. Felzenberg, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Alvin S. Felzenberg. Excerpted with permission by Yale University Press.

Alvin S. Felzenberg was the principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission and director of communications for the Joint Economic Committee of the United States Congress. He served in two presidential administrations, as an adviser to the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, and on the majority staff of the U.S. House of Representatives. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t). He holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. He lives in Washington, DC.