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Political spycraft seen in Nixon papers

In this Feb. 23, 1969 file photo, then President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., left. First lady Pat Nixon, head turned, chats with Sen. Robert Byrd, D.W.Va., at center. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 do not 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 prominent 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 in the Watergate building 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.)