On today’s Daily Beast, Chris Matthews exalts Senator Edward Kennedy’s prominent —indeed, in Matthews’ telling, pivotal— but hitherto largely unheralded role in using Watergate to cripple the Nixon administration and end the Nixon presidency.
The headline —most likely not written by Matthews but perfectly capturing his piece’s tone— tells it all: “How Kennedy Brought Nixon Down.”

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is hailed as a liberal hero for his tireless crusade for health care, his push for civil rights, and his forceful effort to block Robert Bork from winning a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But there is another chapter of his legacy that has gone largely overlooked: Kennedy’s role as a hidden hand during Watergate—helping to bring down President Richard M. Nixon.

The preeminently partisan motivation and more-than-potentially self-interested purposes behind the Watergate investigations and prosecutions have long been maintained by many Nixonphiles.  And they have long been mocked and dismissed as displaying typically Nixonian paranoia.

Now Chris Matthews supplies the latest evidence for the axiom that even paranoids have enemies.

Matthews traces the Senator’s seminal involvement that began right after the June 1972 break-in.   It was mostly, and purposely, kept on the down low lest people think that Kennedy or Kennedy partisans were behind it.

It was Kennedy’s Administrative Practices subcommittee—with its staff directed by the formidable Jim Flug and its investigations run by long-time Kennedy Family retainer Carmine Bellino— that tackled Watergate from the earliest days with the kind of passionate intensity and motivation that set them apart from the usual partisan probers on Capitol Hill.

Ted Kennedy had a firm grasp on the weapons he held as a member of the Judiciary Committee and knew precisely how to wield them. It turns out that Richard Nixon, like almost everyone else, was so afraid of the youngest Kennedy brother’s presidential ambitions that he was blinded to the backroom menace Kennedy posed.

Not long after the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate, Kennedy’s people went to work. Flug, who was chief counsel to Kennedy’s Judiciary subcommittee, had the Library of Congress begin collecting every news clipping on the break-in. Kennedy then got the full Judiciary Committee to investigate, using its subpoena power.

At Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s suggestion, the Kennedy-mined information was laundered through North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin — whose faux bumpkin bonhomie belied his Harvard Law degree and masked his decidedly dicey civil rights record.

The initial investigations, and the tsunami of leaks that turned Watergate into a feeding frenzy for Democrats and a cottage industry for journalists, soon hobbled Nixon.  But for all the sordid implications and juicy details, they failed to produce any real evidence of the President’s awareness — much less his involvement.

In order to keep the issue alive, the stakes had to be ratcheted up.  By far the best way to do this was simply to go fishing through the thousands of hours of White House tapes.  If nothing else, that would be bound to produce enough embarrassing and hard-to-explain material to keep the administration on the ropes through the Kennedy restoration in 1976.

But even a powerful Senator with unlimited media backing might have a hard time crafting a subpoena for a fishing expedition.  Chris Matthews continues the story:

Kennedy began pushing for the creation of a special prosecutor to look into Watergate. That, he made clear, was his price for getting Richardson approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. He rejected the names Richardson put forward until he got the one he wanted: Archibald Cox. Cox had served Attorney General Robert Kennedy as solicitor general, and before that had worked on Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Cox managed JFK’s speechwriting and research operation, most importantly during the “Great Debates” with Nixon.

Kennedy demanded that Richardson give Cox a clear avenue to pursue his target—insisting that the special prosecutor be given unlimited money, unlimited time, and total protection from Nixon. He could not be fired except by Richardson himself—and only then in the event of “extraordinary improprieties.”

Cox proceeded to fill his investigative staff with veterans of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department and the 1968 presidential campaign. Of the 11 senior counsels Cox hired, seven had been associated with either Jack, Bobby, or Teddy. The Watergate prosecution was going to be a Kennedy operation and Richard Nixon couldn’t do a thing about it.

All of this information —and much, much more, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and some of the startling documents it debouched— can be found in Geoff Shepard’s recent book The Secret Plot To Make Ted Kennedy President.

The book was clumsily titled (at the non-negotiable insistence of the publisher) and disastrously timed (it was released a few weeks after Senator Kennedy’s brain tumor was diagnosed).  It’s hard to think of a more classic definition of a double whammy.  Maybe Chris Matthews’ unintended imprimatur will stir some interest in Shepard’s book, with its many new and hitherto unpublished documents.

There is no question that wrongs were done and crimes were committed involving and surrounding Watergate and its cover-up.  And the fact that others got away with as bad or worse as the result of a long-applied partisan and unfair double standard doesn’t absolve responsibility.   But the ways and means by which Watergate became the Crime of the Century that toppled a President who had just been re-elected by the second greatest landslide in American history has remained a frustratingly unexamined and unanswered question.

Thanks to the Beast and Chris Matthews, a wider public now has at least the beginnings of an answer.