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Letter #32 - Sniffing After History

Chalk up another burglary to Richard Nixon.

Or so says historian Robert Dallek, whose current "Atlantic Monthly" article and upcoming book chronicle President Kennedy's cover-up of his multiple ailments and use of Codeine, Demerol, Methadone, Ritalin, Testerone, thyroid hormones, Phenobarbital, steroids, and various anti-spasmodic and -psychotic drugs.

On "Good Morning America" recently, Dallek implied to host Diane Sawyer that RN, who ran against Kennedy in 1960, had inspired break-ins at Kennedy's doctors' offices to get his medical records. Dallek said he thought the alleged 1960 crimes had "the smell...of Watergate to it."

There's no evidence that President Nixon knew in advance of either the 1972 Watergate break-in or the 1971 burglary at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. The genesis of the former remains murky. The latter was approved by an overzealous White House aide, John Ehrlichman, who hoped to learn more about Ellsberg after he stole the Pentagon Papers and gave them to the newspapers - the largest leak of classified documents in American history, and during wartime to boot.

Yet Dallek says he's convinced RN was behind the 1960 crimes - even though he conceded to Sawyer, and later to me, that he had no evidence.

Admitting that Kennedy wouldn't have been elected if the public had known about his health problems, Dallek told Sawyer, "Indeed, Richard Nixon understood this, too, because I believe they tried to break into his doctors' offices to get these records to use against him in the campaign."

Having worked with former President Nixon on his memoirs, including a nearly day-by-day recounting of Watergate, Sawyer knows as much about the subject as a small army of historians. "You have proof of that?" she asked Dallek.

"No proof of it," the author admitted. "But, indeed, it has the smell, Diane, the aura of Watergate to it, and of the [Ellsberg] break-in..."

Since his revelations first appeared in the New York Times, Dallek has taken some heat from the Kennedy faithful, though his comments to Sawyer make clear he's no JFK basher. Instead he seemed to go out of his way to make a virtue out of the Kennedy cover-up. When Sawyer asked about Kennedy's use of an anti-psychotic medication, Dallek said that Kennedy had only taken it for "a low mood or a bad mood" and that he was soon taken off the drug. He stressed the 35th President's daily suffering from Addison's Disease, back trouble and colitis and his brilliant, "lucid and effective," "extraordinary" performance in office. "Indeed the medications allowed him to function," Dallek said.

So what we didn't know helped us. Future Presidents may want to take heed of this deft rationalization. In his ABC interview, Dallek didn't even mention the Kennedy cover-up until Sawyer did. He briefly acknowledged it but in his next sentence changed the subject by charging the Nixon campaign with various felonies.

I reached Dallek in Washington, D.C. last week. Speaking again about the "odor of Watergate," he confirmed that had no proof for his charges. He insisted that in his ABC interview he had not made an allegation against RN personally -- though his "Atlantic" article includes this direct personal charge: "It appears that Richard Nixon may have tried at one point to gain access to Kennedy's medical history." Dallek goes on to write that "thieves" ransacked one doctor's office and then tried to burglarize another.

The only authority Dallek cited to me was historian Herbert Parmet's Kennedy biography, "JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy." But while Parmet does refer to successful and attempted break-ins at the offices of Kennedy doctors, he doesn't blame them on the Nixon campaign.

It's ironic that Dallek should rely so heavily on the Parmet book in making his unfounded charges against RN. Parmet makes clear that the only source for the attempted break-in was a Kennedy doctor, Janet Travell, who, as Parmet carefully documents, had problems with credibility and selective memory.

After Lyndon Johnson's Presidential campaign first revealed in 1960 that Senator Kennedy suffered from Addison's Disease, Travell bolstered his aides' denials by issuing a false statement with another doctor saying that he was in excellent health. Once Kennedy was in the White House, Travell alarmed others on his medical team by giving him up to three injections daily of Novocaine for back pain. A New York specialist recommended therapy to strengthen his back, which eventually reduced his reliance on the painkiller. But Travell battled her rivals until, in a dramatic confrontation at Kennedy's bedside, they insisted to her face that she be relieved of any direct responsibility for his care. The President agreed. Travell denied later to Parmet that this unforgettable moment had ever occurred.

Dallek goes much easier on Travell then does Parmet. After all, Dallek's new disclosures are drawn largely from her medical files, unveiled for him by a committee of Kennedy friends and colleagues. For instance, Parmet describes Travell's attempted burglary allegation this way: "[A]s though to remove any doubts about the motivation behind [the first] break-in, Dr. Travell found that someone had tried to break the lock on her door." None of this made it into Dallek's article or ABC interview - just the blunt and baseless charge that RN was behind two crimes.

When we spoke last week, I acknowledged the fact of the two break-ins during the Nixon era but told Dallek what he surely knows: That a special unit had been created in the White House in 1971 to learn more about Ellsberg's contacts and intentions. Aides tapped that unit for the two break-ins, both times without the President's knowledge. Since no such apparatus existed in RN's 1960 campaign organization, where did Dallek think the late Robert Finch, the mild-mannered, scrupulously honest campaign chief, and his colleagues had found their heretofore-unrevealed band of burglars?

"Maybe it was John Mitchell," Dallek said. I reminded the distinguished historian that Mitchell, the first chairman of the 1972 Nixon campaign, was busy as a Wall Street bond attorney in 1960. Friends say he and RN didn't even meet until the mid-1960s.

Dallek replied, "I have nothing to assert - no hard evidence." He alluded yet again to his sense of smell and added, "Who did it, who could've been recruited to do it, I don't have a clue." He also said that "no one has rushed forward" to corroborate his charge against President Nixon, while he's been given plenty of new information about President Kennedy since his findings were made public.

He told me that his approach as an historian was "to speak truth to power."

Where President Nixon is concerned, it is also evidently to dishonor the defenseless.