Courtesy of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, a glimpse into how the Nixon White House approached Senator Edward M. Kennedy (who died Tuesday night) comes from the Nixon Oval Office tapes -- the same tapes that later led to Nixon's August 1974 resignation in disgrace as a result of the Watergate affair.
In this excerpt from September 8, 1971, Nixon is talking with his top domestic policy aide, John Ehrlichman, about investigating Ted Kennedy's IRS files, because Kennedy is a potential candidate for President in 1972 and they want to find incriminating information that could derail Kennedy's ambitions. The conversation turns to Chappaquiddick, and the divorces of Republican governors Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan are raised as a point of comparison.
President Nixon: [274c|36:30] I don't know--what the hell are we doing?An MP3 recording of this conversation can be downloaded here. The Miller Center has numerous excerpts available of recordings that feature President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Nixon, either talking about or talking with the late Senator Ted Kennedy.
John Ehrlichman: I don't know.
President Nixon: You see, we have a new man over there. I know the other guy didn't do anything, but--
Ehrlichman: Oh, you mean at IRS?
President Nixon: Yeah!
President Nixon: Why are--are we going after their tax returns? I--you know what I mean? There's a lot of gold in them thar hills.
Ehrlichman: It worries people, [unclear]--
President Nixon: You remember in 1962, do you remember what they did to me in California? Now that was a crock. Those sons of bitches came out [unclear] and I find out they owe me more money, in fact, my returns had been so circumspect. I was furious. I don't know.
Ehrlichman: That's something I better talk to [John] Mitchell about. That fellow is Mitchell's guy.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Ehrlichman: And when I see Mitchell tomorrow or the next day, I'll take it up with him.
President Nixon: I can only hope that we are, frankly, doing a little persecuting. Right? We ought to persecute them [unclear] we can.
Ehrlichman: That's right.
President Nixon: And on the IRS, if you could—are we looking into [Senator Edmund] Muskie’s [D-Maine] returns? Does he have any? [Senator] Hubert's [Humphrey, D-Minnesota] been in a lot of funny deals.
Ehrlichman: Yes, he has.
President Nixon: [Senator Edward] Teddy [Kennedy]? Who knows about the Kennedys? Shouldn’t they be investigated?
Ehrlichman: [Unclear] personally. But IRS-wise, I don’t know the answer. Teddy, we are covering--
President Nixon: Are you?
President Nixon: [Unclear.]
Ehrlichman: When he goes on holidays. When he stopped in Hawaii on his way back from Pakistan [unclear].1
President Nixon: Did he do anything?
Ehrlichman: No. No, he’s very clean. Very clean.
President Nixon: He's being careful now.
Ehrlichman: Exactly. And he was in Hawaii on his own. He was staying at some guy’s villa. And we had a guy on him every night [unclear interjection by Nixon]. And he was just as nice as he could be the whole time.
President Nixon: The thing to do is just watch him, because what happens to fellows like that, who have that kind of problem, is that they go for quite a while and then they go [unclear].
Ehrlichman: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I’m hoping for.
President Nixon: I don’t think he would break really while he was, you know, trying for the big thing. Generally, they don’t. Although Jack [Kennedy] was damn careless.
Ehrlichman: This time between now and convention time may be the time to get him.
President Nixon: You mean that he would be under great pressure?
Ehrlichman: He would be under pressure, but he will also be out of the limelight somewhat. Now, he was in Hawaii very much incognito. Very little staff. And played tennis, moved around, visited with people and socialized and so on. So you would expect that at a time like that you might catch him. And then he went up to Hyannis. And we've got an arrangement--
President Nixon: How about Muskie? [Unclear.] What kind of a life is he living?
Ehrlichman: Very cloistered. Very monkish.
President Nixon: [Unclear.]
Ehrlichman: Yeah, big time. He's got six kids. And very ordinary [unclear]. Teddy . . . I-we were over on Martha's Vineyard last week.
President Nixon: Yeah--
Ehrlichman: I had never seen that site before, that Chappaquiddick-Edgartown ferry. That is a very short swim. Having seen it now, I would bet he swam it that night. It's--I don't see why--you know, they could build a bridge across there. It's a very short distance.
President Nixon: Hmm.
Ehrlichman: And it's no farther than from here to the West Wing. And not a bad tide, the time we were there. So it was quite interesting. I took some pictures of it because it amazed me how short a distance it really was. But we do cover him when he goes to Hyannis.
President Nixon: He will never live that down.
Ehrlichman: No. I don't think he will.
President Nixon: Not that one.
Ehrlichman: I think that will be around his neck forever.
President Nixon: He'll never--it isn't like [Nelson] Rockefeller's divorce. A divorce, you can get over.2
President Nixon: [Unclear] Rockefeller [unclear] most people will forget it. They say [unclear] maybe there's something wrong with his wife [unclear] and they've forgotten it.
Ehrlichman: Yeah. Yeah, nobody knew he had a first wife.
President Nixon: [Ronald] Reagan [unclear] unhappy marriage.
Ehrlichman: But this thing has a geographic identity that's interesting. And they tell me that the business on that ferry has tripled since this accident, with people going over to look at the bridge [unclear].
Ehrlichman: --is getting into the folklore.
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