WASHINGTON — President Richard Nixon considered Ted Kennedy such a threat that he tried to catch Kennedy cheating on his wife, even ordering aides to recruit Secret Service agents to spill secrets on the senator's behavior.
"Do you have anybody in the Secret Service that you can get to?" Nixon asked his aide John Ehrlichman in a stark series of Oval Office conversations about Kennedy before the 1972 election. "Yeah, yeah," Ehrlichman replied.
"Plant one," Nixon said. "Plant two guys on him. This could be very useful."
Nixon made clear that the Secret Service protection afforded Kennedy before the 1972 election would be rescinded after. Then, said the president, "If he gets shot, it's too damn bad." His aides disdainfully referred to Kennedy supporters as "super swinger jet set types."
Tape recordings from the Nixon White House betray a preoccupation with the Kennedy mystique and how that might be used against the Republican president by the last surviving brother, who died Tuesday at age 77. Nixon wanted a sharp and private eye kept on Ted Kennedy's movements after the Chappaquiddick scandal, hoping to expose another misstep with a woman other than his wife, Joan.
Nixon's men had investigators tail Ted Kennedy on a Hawaii vacation and when he was at his Martha's Vineyard haunts.
Mortified, they told Nixon that Joan Kennedy wanted to wear "hot pants" to a White House function until her husband talked her out of it. But Ted's behavior? In the aftermath of his scandal, he was careful not to step out of line, the tapes suggest.
"Does he do anything?" Nixon asked in a September 1971 meeting. "No, no, he's very clean," Ehrlichman replied. "He was in Hawaii on his own. He was staying in some guy's villa. He was just as nice as could be the whole time."
Nixon shot back: "The thing to do is watch him."
All this was from an era of brass-knuckle politics and backroom intrigue that finally consumed Nixon's presidency in the Watergate affair. Kennedy overcame his own scandal to serve nearly a half-century in the Senate. But the presidency remained out of his reach.
"President Nixon never forgot his humiliating defeat in the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy," said Luke A. Nichter, a leading authority on the Nixon White House recordings and assistant history professor at Texas A&M University. "Nixon did not intend to simply win in 1972; he wanted to destroy his opponent."
"If that opponent was a Kennedy, Nixon cautiously welcomed that opportunity but left nothing to chance," Nichter said. "That is what these long-obscured recordings show us."
Nichter features and analyzes the recordings at his Web site, nixontapes.org. The material has been released by the government over the years.
By April 1971, when the first of these exchanges was captured by the White House taping system, Kennedy was a damaged political figure.
On the night of July 18, 1969, he had driven off a bridge into the water at Chappaquiddick, Mass., swimming to safety while the young woman with him, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. He pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and a judge said his actions probably contributed to her death. He got a suspended sentence and probation.
Despite that episode, Nixon was plainly worried about Kennedy's political potency yet confident the Democrat could not restrain a philandering impulse. "I predict something more is going to happen," he said. "The reason I would cover him is from a personal standpoint – you're likely to find something."
Nixon pressed for more wiretaps and a combing of tax records, not only on Kennedy but other leading Democrats. "I could only hope that we are, frankly, doing a little persecuting," he said.
At one point, he expressed hesitation about whether his actions were proper.
The moment quickly passed.
"I don't know," Nixon mused to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff. "Maybe it's the wrong thing to do. But I have a feeling that if you're going to start, better start now."
Beyond the politics, Nixon and his aides considered themselves cultural defenders of middle America and the Kennedys anathema to that.
In an April 9, 1971, conversation with Haldeman and press secretary Ron Ziegler, Haldeman cites "super-swinger jet-set types," Ziegler picks up on the phrase and the three discuss an apparently provocative outfit that Joan Kennedy wore to a Senate wives' lunch at the White House.
"Some leather gaucho, with a bare midriff or something," Haldeman said. "She was going to wear hot pants but Teddy told her she couldn't."
"It's crude," Nixon said.
And they talked about extramarital affairs in the Kennedy family. "They do it all the time," Nixon said.
Because Kennedy was not a presidential candidate in 1972, he did not qualify for full-time Secret Service protection. But Nixon offered it to Ted Kennedy, given the assassinations of his brothers, President John Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, and right after Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot in May 1972.
The offer was conveyed by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who was in charge of the Secret Service, in a phone call with Kennedy. The former Texas governor was riding in the car with JKF and was wounded when the president was assassinated in Dallas.
"Very frankly," Connally said, "I don't know that they could save you but there's a damn good chance they could if some nut came up. And you ought not to be reluctant about it. I know you're not a candidate but you're exposed."
Ted Kennedy expressed thanks and asked for protection at his home, to start.
But Nixon's motives for the offer were not pure. He worried that if a third Kennedy were shot, and while not having Secret Service protection, he'd be blamed.
Plus, he wanted dirt. And the best way to get it was to have a Secret Service agent rat on the senator. There is no evidence an agent turned into such an informer.
"You understand what the problem is," Nixon told Haldeman and Ehrlichman on Sept. 7, 1972. "If the (SOB) gets shot they'll say we didn't furnish it (protection). So you just buy his insurance.
"After the election, he doesn't get a ... thing. If he gets shot, it's too damn bad. Do it under the basis, though, that we pick the Secret Service men.
"Understand what I'm talking about?"
On the Net:
Nixon tapes on Kennedy: http://www.nixontapes.org/emk.htm