In newly released papers from his presidency, Richard Nixon directs a purge of Kennedy-era modern art — “these little uglies” — orders hostile journalists to be frozen out and fusses over White House guest lists to make sure political opponents don’t make it in.
As his lieutenants built an ambitious political espionage operation that tapped scribes as spies, Nixon is shown preoccupying himself with the finest details of dividing friend and foe.
The Nixon Library, run by the National Archives, released some 280,000 pages of records Monday from his years in office, many touching on the early days of political spycraft and manipulation that would culminate in a presidency destroyed by the Watergate scandal.
The latest collection sheds more light on the long-familiar determination of Nixon’s men to find dirt on Democrats however they could. Memos attempt to track amorous movements of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat whom Nixon’s operatives apparently feared the most. Journalists secretly hired by Nixon’s men reported on infighting among Democratic presidential contenders.
In 1971, keeping tabs on Kennedy was a prominent feature of the growing political intelligence operation. Nixon ordered aides to recruit Secret Service agents to watch the senator and spill secrets, previous disclosures show.
After the Chappaquiddick scandal, when Kennedy drove off a bridge in an accident that drowned his female companion, Nixon hoped to derail the married senator’s presidential hopes by catching him with more women. The new collection includes daily notes by Gordon Strachan, assistant to White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, touching on this effort.
“We need tail on EMK,” he wrote from one meeting, referring to Kennedy by his initials. The idea: “get caught w(ith) compromising evidence. … Bits and pieces now need hard evi(dence).” Several prominent women are named as being involved with the senator.
Not long after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters by burglars tied to Nixon’s re-election committee, his people worried that Democrats would pull similar dirty tricks on them.
In a memo from that summer, Steven King, security chief for the Committee to Re-elect the President, reported on his sweep for eavesdropping equipment in the premises and advised Nixon’s operatives how to avoid being bugged themselves.
“We realize that some of your Committee members probably have a particular fondness for such items as flowers in large flower pots and artificial birds,” he wrote, but “such items nevertheless present a serious menace because they are so excellently suited to serve as hiding places for ‘bugs.’
By today’s Republican standards, Nixon was liberal on some aspects of domestic policy, including health care and the environment. But Nixon and his advisers were also sticklers for social conservative traditions.
When an aide wrote a memo suggesting a woman be found to fill a senior slot at the Labor Department, Charles W. Colson, Nixon’s special counsel, quickly protested.
“No! No!” Colson scribbled by hand on the memo. “She couldn’t possibly handle the ‘hardhats’ — get a good tough Political man — Please, please.” (This was almost 40 years after Frances Perkins became the first female labor secretary, under Franklin Roosevelt.)
And Nixon despised the cultural influences of the Kennedys and their liberal circles.
In a Jan. 26, 1970, memo to Haldeman and secretary Rose Mary Woods, the president demanded that the administration “turn away from the policy of forcing our embassies abroad or those who receive assistance from the United States at home to move in the direction of off-beat art, music and literature.”
He called the Lincoln Center in New York a “horrible monstrosity” that shows “how decadent the modern art and architecture have become,” and declared modern art in embassies “incredibly atrocious.”
“This is what the Kennedy-Shriver crowd believed in and they had every right to encourage this kind of stuff when they were in,” he wrote. “But I have no intention whatever of continuing to encourage it now. If this forces a show-down and even some resignations it’s all right with me.”
More than Nixon’s artistic sensibilities were at play here. He made the political calculation that “those who are on the modern art and music kick are 95 percent against us anyway.”
He put aside his own tastes when he saw political advantage, however, as in a January 1970 memo about TV talk-show hosts.
“I would like to invite, even though I don’t like most of these people, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas,” Nixon wrote. “This could payoff in great measure to us.”
In a similar vein, Colson proposed the “seduction of Frank Sinatra,” namely inviting the singer to have private time and drinks with Nixon. Colson described the entertainer as controlling a great number of celebrities and public figures, and as a conduit to “massive financial resources.”
“These resources could conceivably come our way based on the successful establishment of a personal relationship between the President and Frank Sinatra,” Colson wrote to Haldeman in October 1971.
Nixon historians have known for years about “Chapman’s Friend,” code name for a working journalist who doubled as a paid informant, reporting to the president’s political operatives about campaigning Democrats.
Seymour K. Freidin was the first source, succeeded by Lucianne Goldberg. Years later she became known as the literary agent who encouraged Linda Tripp to tape conversations she had with Monica Lewinsky about the intern’s relationship with President Bill Clinton.
Although Nixon and his aides were hungry for titillating gossip from the Democratic presidential campaign, it appears doubtful they found out much. A November 1971 White House memo on a Chapman’s Friend report expresses the view that “all of this material is manufactured.” Still, the payments and reports continued through the campaign.