Ted Kennedy had a chance to hold Nixon accountable. Why didn’t he?
Watergate was a self-inflicted wound by Nixon. The Democratic convention was a disaster that summer – with scuffles between the New Left and the defeated party’s moderates, sophomore liberal antics (there were votes to give Mao Zedong, Archie Bunker and Benjamin Spock the vice-presidential nomination) and a general lack of discipline that delayed McGovern’s acceptance speech until nearly 3 a.m.
And then it got worse, as the vice-presidential candidate – Senator Joseph Eagleton of Missouri – was forced to resign from the ticket for failing to disclose hospitalizations, electric shock sessions and other mental health treatments. which he had suffered.
Nixon’s own convention was superbly choreographed. He had bullied the Federal Reserve into fueling the booming economy. He was in the process of making a deal with the North Vietnamese that would doom American ally South Vietnam in the long run, but give Nixon something to brag about that downfall. “Peace is at hand,” his adviser, Henry Kissinger, said in October.
Through it all, the Watergate cover-up continued. With perjury and bribes, Nixon and his aides covered up the president’s involvement. At Washington Post, two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, helped bring the story to life. Far from the public eye, the JobKennedy’s efforts were matched by one of Kennedy’s aides, the invaluable James Flug, that summer and fall.
Kennedy had discovered how his family’s mystique drew the best and the brightest to Washington and his staff, and Flug was a prime example. Born in Brooklyn and tough, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then from Harvard Law School. Kennedy kept a loose rein on his staff, Flug told me before his death in 2020, and he was given the freedom to roam. He excelled, a colleague said, in taking Ted Kennedy into the political thicket, from where the senator had to fight his way.
Watergate was the ultimate thicket. The vehicle was Kennedy’s small judicial subcommittee. In addition to a panel on refugees and a Senate labor subcommittee on health, he chaired an all-purpose toolkit with jurisdiction over federal government administrative procedures and practices. Known as Ad Prac, its charter was essentially anything Ted Kennedy could convince Judiciary Chairman James Eastland of Mississippi to agree to. “It was bottom-up work,” said former staffer Thomas Susman. Kennedy’s aides brought their bases to the boss. He then made the choice to join, or skip, a scrap.
Flug was Ad Prac’s attorney. By mid-August, he was familiar with the Watergate scandal and plugged into the network of lawyers, government accountants and investigators building a case against the president’s men. “Flug found ties and weaving patterns that were just breathtaking,” Kennedy recalled, in an oral history for the University of Virginia.
Flug was one of the first congressional investigators to interview Alfred Baldwin, the Nixon mercenary who monitored the Watergate wiretaps from a hotel across the street – and served as a lookout for burglars the night of the heist. It is Baldwin who is immortalized in the opening scenes of the film. All the president’s men, alerting his cohorts (“Base One to Unit One – we have activity here…”) of the arrival of the police.
Flug warned Kennedy, in a lengthy August memo, that Nixon’s men were succeeding, through perjury and other means, in concealing the connections between the burglars, who were about to be charged and brought to justice, and the White House.
“The information in the indictments likely won’t provide much real detail about the who, what, or how of the conspiracy,” Flug wrote. “Indictments will be better than nothing, (but) they will be of very limited use in bringing out the whole story.”
Meanwhile, Democrats had chosen McGovern. Kennedy gave a rousing speech at the convention, but McGovern turned down when asked to be his running mate. Kennedy’s family was concerned for his safety, and he instinctively recoiled from the office’s inconsequential duties. “I’m not cut out for this,” he told the boston globe. “The vice presidency is good for some people. However, I don’t need that kind of exposure.