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Edward Kennedy: Surviving Death Threats, Ousting Nixon

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The history of the brothers Kennedy tends to come away in layers. Founding Father Joe Kennedy engineered that as he traded favors among the press moguls of the forties and fifties to build up a collective image of the next generation in his family as robust and competent, forever windblown at the tiller of a schooner or stalwartly ascending Alaska's Mt. Kennedy.
In fact Joseph Kennedy's sons, like himself, were spoiled, driven, ulcer-prone and casually libidinous, regularly dedicated to one good cause or another so long as everybody got laid on time. As decade by decade Jack Kennedy's performance as president gives up its details, even his greatest boosters are harboring second thoughts about Cuba and Viet Nam, while students of Bob Kennedy's racket-busting days have started to wonder how much was idealism and how much was Bobby's calculated effort to extort campaign money from the Mob.

At this point, of course, historians are starting to dig into the half-century of inspired maneuvering that typified the Senate career of the surviving son, Teddy, perhaps the most effective liberal legislator around Washington after the Lyndon Johnson era. Now, a year after his passing, newly released documents from the federal archives have started to open up aspects of his experience newspaper reporters would never touch. On June 14, for example, the FBI declassified a trove of records pertaining to Edward Kennedy which emphasized how incessantly serious death threats kept pounding in, unsettling his Senate offices and all but paralyzing Kennedy himself at times. The public seemed surprised, but over a great deal of the half-century I knew Ted his awareness that assassination could come at any moment regularly compromised his days and nights. I remembered one mild spring day in 1970 when some lunatic along a parade route in Boston set off a cannon cracker; Ted collapsed onto his belly on the cobblestones, convinced he had taken a bullet. It took a lot of persuasion to talk him onto his feet.

These things kept happening; Kennedy skipped the press party for a publication of mine in 1972 and scurried home to lock himself in because a few hours earlier George Wallace had been gutshot in a parking lot in nearby Bathesda. By then Kennedy's anxiety about dying prematurely was overtaking the deep-seated fear of exclusion within his family which dominated his early decades.

He fought back however he was able. As I undertook a final round of interviews for my current, all-inclusive biography of the senator, "Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography," among a number of previously overlooked events I gradually unearthed was Kennedy's behind-the-scenes scuffle to drive Richard Nixon from office before Nixon destroyed him.

By 1972 the paranoid incumbent was convinced that Edward Kennedy was poised to take his presidency away from him. Footpads on the payroll of The Committee to Reelect the President -- CREEP -- tailed Kennedy as far as Hawaii and installed a honey-trap apartment in Manhattan in hopes of blackmailing the notoriously randy senator. Kennedy responded by taking a hand directly in the investigation of Dita Beard, the dying IT&T executive who was implicating attorney general Mitchell in illegal campaign payoffs to the Oval Office. Nixon and his advisors panicked. Jimmy Flug, who ran Kennedy's key subcommittee, Administrative Practices and Procedures, years later came across a Nixon tape in which his key aide H. R. Haldeman proposed planting a man on Kennedy's Secret Service detail who had assured the White House: "If you want me to kill somebody, I'll kill somebody."

"This is the kind of people they had in their coven," Flug summed it up.

Cautiously, without publicity, Kennedy began a series of counter-maneuvers. When Nixon attempted to sanitize his threatened administration by moving the impeccable Elliot Richardson into the discredited Richard Kleindienst's attorney general post, Kennedy exerted senatorial privilege to hamstring the appointment until Richardson agreed to install Kennedy ally and ex JFK Solicitor-General Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor to tear into the unfolding Watergate scandal. Cox was not to be fired except for a violation of "extraordinary proprieties." "And of course that language was virtually written in Kennedy's office," Flug specified to me. "With Kennedy and Richardson sitting down and going over the wording of the mandate."

Cox pushed the inquiry. The Nixon tapes surfaced. Richard Nixon resigned. Edward Kennedy had survived for another day.

As it happened, I had first encountered Edward Kennedy in college. That he of all people should have developed into the parliamentary mastermind even his Republican counterparts were forced to accommodate at every turn remained a source of wonder, not only to me. In the Preface to Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography I attempted to memorialize my initial impressions of a fellow student "dismissed mostly around Harvard Square as a rock-jawed goof-off who was dependable mostly on the football field or chugalugging beers with his fellow lightweights at Pi Eta... He struck me in passing as a lanky, freckled Irish-American buckaroo, not strong, particularly; good-natured but empty; unmistakably a legacy admission..."

When Edward Kennedy announced in 1962 , "Like so many others acquainted with the president's exuberant, handsome, wild-eyed, hard-drinking, risk-loving youngest brother, I felt the Kennedys were pushing it."

Fortunately, not everybody was listening.

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