This is Geoff’s reaction after watching Chappaquiddick. It’s not so much about the movie itself, which he highly recommends you watching, as it is about Chappaquiddick’s aftermath.
Chappaquiddick, the most honest portrayal of Mary Jo’s tragic death in the last fifty years, opened in a theater near you this past weekend. What comes through loud and clear is that Senator Edward Kennedy, the last of Joe Kennedy’s sons, was nowhere near the man his older brothers were.
Most commentators would have you believe that, even if Kennedy walked away with only probation, the incident essentially marked the end of his dreams of becoming President.
This idea is way off the mark – but for interesting reasons, that may even have a counterpart today: You see, it was not Teddy so much who lusted after the presidency as it was thousands of Kennedy political dynasty supporters whose only path back into political power required that a Kennedy – any Kennedy – be back in the Oval Office.
Here’s the surprising backstory:
Once Jack Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, he brought with him to Washington a whole coterie of Ivy Leaguers, the so-called “Men of Harvard,” who had not been seen in the Nation’s capital since Franklin Roosevelt. Here was something even more exciting than working in daddy’s firm, rubbing elbows in New York’s private clubs, or even being a Wall Street lawyer: the addicting euphoria of political power, more popularly known as Potomac Fever.
These Kennedy people: They were young, they were hip, and they were certain they could change the world. The only trouble was that they had hardly gotten started when their moment in the sun was snatched away by Oswald’s bullet on that terrible day in Dallas.
To make matters worse, their graceful and photogenic leader was replaced, not by his younger brother Robert, the kid Attorney General who was easily the second most powerful man in DC, but by Lyndon Johnson, that cornpone illiterate from Texas. LBJ had no style, he had no grace, and he certainly didn’t know his proper place was behind RFK.
This elite liberal intelligentsia nursed their wounds, sharing ever more glamorous stories of the heroic deeds of Camelot with an adoring press, certain that Johnson would soon come to his senses and name Bobby as his running mate for the 1964 election. At least that would restore the hallowed dynasty and get things back to where they were meant to be. But, no, that dastardly Lyndon named Hubert Humphrey instead – and Robert, the prince of princes, decamped for New York to run for the Senate.
There things stood for four more long years – an uneasy peace at best – until Eugene McCarthy (“Keep clean for Gene”) so wounded Lyndon in the New Hampshire primary that he withdrew as a candidate for re-election and made room for the dash for the brass ring by Bobby himself. Kennedy supporters came out of the woodwork—dropping their mundane day jobs to come back together and work non-stop for the restoration of the Kennedy dynasty. It was all suddenly coming back together, albeit five whole years after Jack’s assassination. And then tragedy struck again: On the very night he won the California primary, RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Once again, irony prevailed: Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (Who on earth would choose to live in Minnesota?) won the nomination, but then went on to lose the 1968 election to Richard Nixon (who’d already been beaten by a Kennedy once, but didn’t seem to appreciate the finality of such a defeat).
Many die-hards of the Kennedy dynasty refused to leave Washington; they went into hiding in its law firms, think tanks, lobby firms, Ted Kennedy’s congressional staff and those of other elite liberals, and media outlets. There, they waited once again. There had not been enough time after Bobby’s death to substitute Teddy, the last surviving Kennedy, in the 1968 race, but 1972 was another matter entirely. Nixon had barely won against Humphrey in ’68; he’d be easy prey for a Kennedy in 1972. All the pundits said so.
Then, as so clearly portrayed in the movie, Teddy really messed up: he went and killed a young girl, abandoning her to die in a car that he’d driven off a wooden bridge. Pulling together out of necessity, Kennedy supporters saw to it that the damning circumstances were nicely covered up, as is so clearly detailed in Chappaquiddick. It took heroic efforts, but Teddy survived to remaine in the Senate.
The 1972 election came and went. Without a Kennedy to challenge him, Nixon racked up a huge re-election victory, winning every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia – but Nixon had an Achilles’ heel: there had been this weird break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building, where the burglars had been caught red-handed. Yes, it was a third-rate burglary and Nixon had no idea that it was planned, but if skillfully exploited, it might clear the path for even the wounded Ted Kennedy to win the presidency in the 1976 election.
Buoyed by a never-ending conveyor of talented staff from Harvard, Teddy had recovered sufficiently to become the liberal “lion of the Senate” and leader of the rump group of liberals who controlled the Senate Judiciary Committee. When the Watergate burglary indictments were handed down in September of 1972 and did not name anyone high up in the Nixon administration, Kennedy launched his own investigation. Utilizing his position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Administrative Practices and Procedures, he assigned five of his six assistants to devote full time to investigating Nixon’s 1972 campaign. They hit pay dirt with Donald Segretti, the dirty trickster whose telephone and credit cards bills they obtained with administrative subpoenas.
When Kennedy’s investigation appeared too political, Senator Mansfield arranged for it to be succeeded by a specially-created Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. It was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, but absorbed all of the Kennedy staffers, including Carmine Bellino, a long-time Kennedy confidant, as its chief investigator.
The vote creating the Ervin Committee was 77-0, which is an intriguing number for a Senate consisting of a hundred members. The explanation is that some 23 Republicans abstained after party line votes gave the Democrats complete control of the Committee and limited the scope of its investigation to one race. Kennedy had used his considerable influence to be sure that would be no Senate review of the shenanigans utilized on behalf of his brother in defeating Nixon in the 1960 election or of those utilized by Lyndon Johnson in beating Goldwater in 1964 or trying to beat Nixon in 1968. No, Kennedy and his supporters saw to it that the Ervin Committee would limit its entire attention to Nixon’s 1972 campaign – a laser-focused witch hunt if there ever was one.
Nixon’s situation was made considerably worse by the actions of John Dean, Counsel to the President, who had recruited Gordon Liddy and worked with him on drafting a campaign intelligence plan, which they both had detailed for campaign manager John Mitchell, while he was still Attorney General. When Liddy’s planned break-in went awry, Dean had led the cover-up efforts – without bothering to inform his White House superiors of his own risk of prosecution. When that cover-up failed, as it certainly should have, Dean switched sides and his story to turn states’ evidence and testify against his former colleagues – all in exchange for immunity for his own criminal acts. The Kennedy people promptly made Dean, who had orchestrated the cover-up from its very outset, into a folk hero, and one who largely escaped punishment for his own criminal acts.
Dean’s allegations led to the dismissal of Nixon’s top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and to Nixon’s nomination of Elliott Richardson as Attorney General. Nixon specifically gave Richardson the authority to appoint a “special supervising prosecutor”, who could help Richardson to make the tough choices of just who on Nixon’s staff to indict. Richardson, in turn, gave the Senate Judiciary Committee (who was holding hearings on his confirmation) the right to approve his choice. Not surprisingly, the final choice was none other than Ted Kennedy’s favorite all along: Harvard professor Archibald Cox, who had been a senior campaign advisor to Jack Kennedy in his 1960 race, had assembled the Kennedy “brain trust” that recommended policy positions to the inexperienced Senator, and had been rewarded for his campaign efforts by being named Solicitor General, the number three position at the Department of Justice, which was led by the President’s brother. Kennedy’s people also demanded “guidelines” that gave Cox total and unreviewed authority to investigate and prosecute without any oversight from the Department of Justice.
The ruthlessness of the Kennedy dynasty leadership, which Chappaquiddick beautifully captures, soon re-emerged. Cox quickly named two Harvard Law School colleagues as his first appointments to what became known as the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. The first, James Vorenberg (later to become the law school’s dean) assumed responsibility for hiring the prosecutorial staff – which he designed from the outset to total about a hundred people. Not wanting to waste valuable time interviewing too many candidates, he chose only those he or his colleagues already knew from prior Washington experience or had taught as students. The result was that the top seventeen lawyers had all worked together in the Kennedy/Johnson Department of Justice. This was, in its own way, a constitutional inversion: the very Kennedy people removed from DOJ as a result of Nixon’s 1968 election victory were now in charge of that department’s investigatory and prosecutorial powers of the duly elected President Nixon.
In retrospect, we can see that they accomplished three over-ridding goals: the absolute destruction of the Nixon presidency, the crippling of the GOP’s campaign funding advantage, and the investigation and gathering of derogatory information against every likely Republican candidate in the upcoming 1976 presidential election.
- Destroying the Nixon Presidency: President Nixon not only resigned in disgrace after leaks from 18 months of investigations, over two dozen members of his administration were convicted and imprisoned. The prosecutorial shortcuts, including over a dozen secret meetings between trial judge John Sirica and Watergate prosecutors or other interested parties, are detailed in my second book: The Real Watergate Scandal, Collusion, Conspiracy and the Plot that Brought Nixon Down (Regnery Press, 2015).
- Crippling the Republican Money Machine: By expanding their investigation to include Nixon administration efforts to raise funds in support of friendly candidates in the 1970 midterm elections (known as the Townhouse Project), WSPF prosecutors were able to dispatch IRS and FBI agents for confrontational interviews with some one hundred and fifty major Republican donors. Even though no charges were ever filed against these individuals, their financial support in the 1976 elections dropped considerably (and understandably). One factor that may have helped in this effort was that the Watergate Special Prosecution Force did not finally close up shop until June of 1977, well after President Ford had been defeated and Jimmy Carter had successfully assumed office.
- Investigating Potential GOP Presidential Candidates: Internal WSPF records show they launched non-Watergate-related investigations of each and every major GOP contender for the 1976 election.
Jerry Ford: Under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, Jerry Ford, having been nominated to replace Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s Vice President, was subject to confirmation by both the House and the Senate. As such, he was subject to the most thorough FBI investigation ever undertaken of any politician. A copy of the raw results of those investigations, including every rumor and innuendo about the long-time Congressman, somehow ended up with WSPF prosecutors – adverse parts of which leaked during Ford’s 1976 campaign. Ford, it seemed, had never written a check for cash in his time as a Congressman, and there was this questionable support from the Maritime Union that was the subject of WSPF investigation during the actual campaign.
Nelson Rockefeller: Similarly, Nelson Rockefeller, who was subject to the same confirmation process as Ford, may or may not have contributed funds on behalf of Senator George McGovern, when he was seeking the Democratic nomination in 1972. This got the full attention of WSPF prosecutors, whose rushed FBI investigation included waking possible witnesses at midnight – with attendant rumors that were somehow leaked to the press.
Bob Dole: When Rockefeller was replaced by Senator Bob Dole as Ford’s running mate, his prior campaign financing records were subpoenaed by WSPF prosecutors, supposedly in connection with their investigation of Gulf Oil, and again leaked to the press. Prosecutors were reluctant to return Dole’s records, even after he (and Ford) lost the 1976 election.
Ronald Reagan: Finally, and not insignificantly, when California Governor Ronald Reagan emerged as a potential GOP candidate, he too was subject to WSPF investigation. The issue there was whether he had helped a campaign donor in competition for a state contract. While nothing came of it, WSPF prosecutors also launched some twenty-five separate investigations of possible “pay to play” violations by Nixon appointed leaders of federal agencies – having absolutely nothing to do with Watergate – without finding a single instance appropriate for criminal prosecution.
All these efforts, not only including WSPF prosecutors, but also staffing of the Ervin Committee and the House Judiciary Impeachment Inquiry, were led by Kennedy dynasty cohorts. It was a huge and largely successful undertaking – paving the way for Teddy, the damaged but only surviving Kennedy, to make his expected 1976 run for the Presidency. But so much work, by so many talented and dedicated Kennedy administration alumni, was to no avail: in the end, Teddy simply never threw his hat in the ring. There was no formal announcement of his non-candidacy; he just never launched the effort.
Why would so many talented Democrats wait so long for another Kennedy? This is what is so interesting about presidential politics: You have to have gotten in early to have secured a place on a particular candidate’s bus. As a given campaign builds momentum, supporters who were early on board remain the most influential – and in a position to get the most sought-after positions should the campaign ultimately be successful. Bernie’s people weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by the Clinton campaign, once Hillary had secured the nomination. Similarly, Republicans who had thrown their efforts behind Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz somehow never won the confidence of Donald Trump.
The Kennedy people, and there were thousands of them once Jack had been inaugurated and had all those federal positions to fill, could not easily join another candidate’s inner circle after his assassination. Why would Lyndon trust the very group of people who so denigrated him when he was vice president? Indeed, when Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, key positions were awarded to his closest advisors – with nary a Kennedy insider returned to power. That is why, for the Kennedy true believers, their only “ticket to ride” was on the Kennedy bus.
While it may be something of a stretch, you might want to empathize with the current situation facing the thousands of Clinton supporters. They have spent much of the last twenty-five years sucking up to Bill or Hillary. These are the Friends of Bill, the Friends of Hil, the insiders at the Clinton Foundation, the alumni from Bill’s administration and from Hillary’s time at the State Department. These poor souls have devoted their entire political lives to the Clintons – who are now (unexpectedly) out of politics. But, what if Hillary were to stage an historic comeback? Heck, that’s what Nixon did! For these people, who essentially have no other place to go (the key places on Bernie’s or Biden’s bus already having been taken), what is there to lose in continuing to support Hillary? If you stuck with her now, you’d really be in a position to be rewarded if lightening should strike. It is these people who are keeping Hillary’s hopes alive. Oh, they have to work largely behind the scenes, but rest assured that they will continue to work on her behalf.
The Kennedy people (“The Best and the Brightest,” a talented bunch, to be sure) orchestrated the Nixon take-down as a necessary precursor to paving the way for Teddy’s expected 1976 run – and their own long-sought return to power. Don’t’ be surprised if the hundreds of Clinton supporters, who have no other place to go, try to do the same for Hillary.
Geoff Shepard was a young lawyer on President Nixon’s Watergate defense team and has authored several books and articles about that scandal, which can be seen on his website, www.geoffshepard.com