Published immediately following his death, E. Howard Hunt’s memoir American Spy promised to be a salacious, nasty little pleasure; a tale that told us not only where the bodies were buried, but how deep it all went. As such, I was rubbing my hands together with glee expecting to finally learn that, yes, Richard Nixon’s comment about the “Bay of Pigs thing” on his Oval Office tapes was in fact code for the Kennedy assassination – or that John Mitchell was a double agent sent by the Kremlin to poison Henry Kissinger. And perhaps Watergate was a cover for even greater crimes, including kidnapping, murder, and the flooding of America’s ghettos with crack cocaine. At long last, the great American story would be told, and we’d hate Nixon even more than we ever did, even after his rehabilitation tour in the late 1980s. Alas, this was not the story Hunt wished to tell, and it took wading through a few opening chapters on his early days to even get to the important stuff, or at least that which was somewhat familiar. Instead of driving the rats from the sinking ship, the book is almost obscenely tame, and rather than be in awe of these people and their grand conspiratorial schemes, I actually felt sorry for the poor bastards, as every dirty trick spoke not to mad genius, but an almost comedic level of incompetence. This wasn’t James Bond or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it was a demented circus; fraternity pranks and schoolyard exploits set to the Benny Hill theme.
Take the break-in of Lewis Fielding’s office (Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist), a crime meant to discover dirty little secrets about the man who leaked the infamous Pentagon Papers in 1971, the very event that, in many ways, launched the Nixon administration on the road to Watergate. Hunt, along with G. Gordon Liddy and a few others, flew to Los Angeles, staked out the place for a bit, then waltzed through the office while the cleaning crew still remained. Pictures were taken, but nothing of importance was found, and the group threw some things around in the attempt to make it look as if some stoned kid was looking for drugs. It was a colossal failure on all counts, but in the description, it sounds no different than the time in high school when my friend and I bought a bag of pistachio nuts, parked a block away from some cheerleader’s house, and waited for her to, uh, undress in front of the window or something. That grown men charged with leading an entire nation came up with something so moronic boggles the imagination. But that’s just a single example. In other cases, Hunt and his team disrupted speeches, yelled obscenities, had operatives pose as hippies, and enlisted slimeball lawyers like Donald Segretti to write nasty notes on Democratic letterhead in order to discredit a McGovern campaign that was falling apart all on its own, thank you very much.
The other key story, at least for my money, involved the death of Dorothy Hunt, Howard’s wife, in a Chicago plane crash in late 1972. Rumors have always circulated that Dorothy was murdered, largely because she had some involvement in the Watergate caper (which is true, though she was more of a “gopher” than any high-level operative), and that her body was found along with $10,000 in cash. Hunt explains it away as seed money for an investment (why Dorothy was flying to the Windy City in the first place), which seems rather odd in that a cashier’s check might have been better for both security and the appearance of propriety. At the time, Hunt was both under indictment and without an income, so he claims it was a last-ditch effort to make money for his family. It sounds very suspicious, especially in light of the fact that Dorothy was used to arrange payments for several of the Watergate burglars, but he steadfastly sticks to his version. As much of a letdown as the “official story” is, it is simply one in a long line of disappointments, as Hunt fails to reveal the heretofore unknown, such as being the tramp on the grassy knoll in Dallas (he was rumored to be involved in JFK’s death for many years), or being the actual author of wannabe assassin Arthur Bremer’s diary. In fact, the entire shooting of George Wallace in May of 1972 is simply rehashed in this book, differing only in that Hunt inexplicably calls the gunman Wallace Bremer. A simple typo, or code for his secret complicity? Sadly, it appears to be nothing more than a sloppy editor. Why not tease us and leave some doubt?
There are other errors in the text, most of which involve compressed timelines that make little sense, including his revelation that he just missed boarding a Pan Am jet that broke apart over the Pacific. Being the crash junkie that I am, though, I did a little research and discovered that at the time he said he was scheduled to fly, no airliner matching his criteria went down in the place or manner he described. In fact, just such an accident could not have taken place until many years later. Again, a simple error in fact, or a shadowy man trying to sound like he cheated death? Hunt does possess a great deal of self-importance, which is expected for a CIA henchman, but nothing on display here hasn’t been discussed a thousand times, including the Bay of Pigs, the plots to kill Castro, and the successful 1954 coup in Guatemala that drove President Arbenz from office. Of course, I’m not asking that Hunt invent details to make his story more fascinating and dangerous (though he does halfheartedly imply that LBJ “might” have had a hand in Kennedy’s murder), but whenever a book is released “only upon death,” one expects more than a mere recitation of the record. As Hunt was a prolific writer of novels, perhaps he should have used his talents to construct a bizarre tale that may or may not be accurate, and leave the answers up to the reader; sort of like a sexed-up, hallucinatory “tell all” that would have been the ultimate send-off for a reviled man.
Instead, Hunt’s final book is as corporate as his life, and does little to force a reassessment of those dark days of the Nixon administration. Sure, Hunt refuses to apologize or act contrite (rare indeed in our age of redemption), but I would have liked an explanation as to how grown men – well-paid at that – planned such ridiculous capers and expected to get away with anything. Even that fateful night in June of 1972 at the Watergate hotel reeks of absurdity; like snot-nosed kids playing cops and robbers, up to and including walkie-talkies and silly disguises. What was their first clue that James W. McCord wasn’t an idiot? And of course, by all means, send in a group of clowns who have your name and number written in a little black book so that when caught, the burglars can be traced right back to the White House. And scotch tape on the door – not once, but twice? These are the same nitwits who pulled off Chile and Iran? A bird’s eye view of the whole affair is enough to put 9/11 plots to rest for all time, as no one in government could ever be expected to handle something so complex. I’m surprised these people can even tie their shoes in the morning. Or is that simply what they want us to believe?
Standing above the din, though, is G. Gordon Liddy, a man so off the edge as to be clinically insane. Ever the good soldier, Liddy proudly went to jail, remained more than willing to commit murder for the cause (columnist Jack Anderson was one of his desired “hits”), and never wavered from his position that the Plumbers were patriotic to their cores. As much as loyalty to a president is absurdly conflated with love of country (then and now), Liddy’s madness also extends to a peculiar romance with Nazi Germany. I have little doubt that Liddy would have made a spectacular SS officer, but for him, the best he could do was bang away at any available piano and shout out Nazi tunes for all to enjoy. While reciting a particular anthem, in fact, Liddy became so involved as to appear hypnotized, a fact that surprises no one who listens to his radio program even occasionally. The “Liddy moments” are among the most chilling of the book, and one wishes Hunt had scrapped the opening (Hunt’s upbringing was ordinary and uneventful at best) and rambled on with Liddyisms instead. The only shocker is that Gordon didn’t bite down on a cyanide capsule upon capture, salute in the direction of the White House, and fall to the ground chanting old battle hymns.
Hunt defends his actions – as well as the rest of his team – to the bitter end, even though he felt abandoned once he was arrested and brought to trial. The final chapters even succumb to maudlin pity parties, as if the time he spent away from his children (who had also just lost their mother) was anyone else’s fault but his own. Still, Hunt believes that he was defending his country, rooting out Communists (he says Watergate’s “investigations” were based on intelligence that connected the Soviet Union and the Democratic campaign), and putting his life on the line for Mom and apple pie. He even reserves a few unkind words for the recently outed “Deep Throat” W. Mark Felt, who is, in Hunt’s eyes, disloyal, if not a traitor. He even wraps things up with a few suggestions for modern intelligence gathering, though his advice will always be tempered by the fact that his operations were, in the end, unsuccessful at best. With the veneer of cloak and dagger removed, Hunt is little more than a bully and a thug, and his story reveals an agency defined more by its ass covering than any lasting accomplishments. Again, serving the White House is not, as he believes, serving the people. In the end, he didn’t even serve himself.
Oh, and one more thing – Chuck Colson was, is, and shall forever remain a cocksucking SOB. I was not persuaded to think otherwise.