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Howard Hunt, RIP

By William F. Buckley

My name has been linked to that of Howard Hunt, who died on Jan. 23, and I readily acknowledge that we were associates and close friends during the period (1951-52) when I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in Mexico. Howard Hunt was my boss, and our friendship was such that soon after I quit the agency and returned to Connecticut, he and his wife advised me that they were joining the Catholic Church and asked if I would agree to serve as godfather to their two daughters, which assignment I gladly accepted, continuing in close touch with them.

Not so with their father. Howard Hunt, as has been widely recalled on his death, had a sensational career, including, in his 50s, 33 months in federal prison on charges of conspiracy, wiretapping and burglary. Some time after leaving prison, he asked me to recommend presidential clemency, which would have had the effect of clearing his name and reauthorizing him to vote. I told him I was reluctant to do this because in fact he had been involved in conspiracy, wiretapping and burglary, but I was careful to say that the reason he committed these crimes was that he thought himself engaging in public service by protecting the interests of President Richard Nixon.

He was terribly mistaken there, and in fact he was more responsible than any single other human being for bringing about Nixon's resignation. Because it was Hunt who organized the Watergate break-in, seeking to advance the partisan cause of Nixon in l972. He had at the time already committed a crime by breaking into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, on a mission probably authorized by Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell.

Hunt came to see me, with one of my goddaughters, shortly after his devoted and alluring wife was killed in an airplane crash. He recounted the story of Watergate, giving me information not known to the press or even to the prosecution. Notwithstanding his plight, he wore a jaunty sports coat and, pipe in hand, reported that, soon after his arrest, "I said to myself, 'Where's the fix? Why didn't they fix me up?'"

It was a genuinely appealing professional query. Howard Hunt had lived outside the law in the service first of his country, subsequently of President Nixon. The way things had worked for him, in Mexico, in Uruguay, in Japan, was the way he expected them to work now. You break the law in pursuit of your country's interest as prescribed by your superior or by your cognitive intelligence of political reality. You get caught; and, if feasible, your government looks after you. If it's bail that's needed, it materializes. If it's looking after your widow and children, that is done. If you are in Washington, D.C., having committed a crime on the authority of the attorney general or the president, why -- Howard Hunt was saying -- somebody ... does something. And the charge against you for trespass, or burglary, or whatever, washes away.

But Hunt, the dramatist, didn't understand that political realities at the highest level transcend the working realities of spy-life. He ended up in prison, a widower with some of his children on drugs, and bankrupt. I got him a fine volunteer lawyer.

I remember with sad amusement an earlier experience of Hunt's with the law, this time involving his novels. Allen Dulles, then head of CIA, called him in one day and said, Howard, I know the rules are that this office has to clear all manuscripts by our agents. But you write so many, you're wearing us out. So go ahead and publish your books without our clearance, but use a pseudonym.

Hunt handed me his latest book, "Catch Me in Zanzibar," by Gordon Davis. I leafed through it and found printed on the last page, "You have just finished another novel by Howard Hunt." I thought this hilarious. So did Howard. The reaction of Allen Dulles is not recorded.

We visited once or twice after his remarriage, when he was trying to re-establish himself as an author. But estrangement crept in. A year ago he asked me, through an intermediary, to write the introduction to his memoirs. I read them with great misgivings. There was material there that suggested transgressions of the highest order, including a hint that LBJ might have had a hand in the plot to assassinate President Kennedy. The manuscript was clearly ghostwritten.

I declined to write the introduction. But when the manuscript was resubmitted to me, with the loony grassy-knoll bits chiseled out, I said OK, but wrote an introduction restricted to describing our early friendship in Mexico. The book will be published (by John Wiley) in March.

And this former colleague here registers his old affection and admiration for a civil servant who ran into bad luck and lost his judgment, but who sought to serve his country and look after his children.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate

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