The Last Confession of E. Howard Hunt
Once, when the old spymaster thought he was dying, his eldest son came to visit him at his home in Miami. The scourges recently had been constant and terrible: lupus, pneumonia, cancers of the jaw and prostate, gangrene, the amputation of his left leg. It was like something was eating him up. Long past were his years of heroic service to the country.
In the CIA, he’d helped mastermind the violent removal of a duly elected leftist president in Guatemala and assisted in subterfuges that led to the murder of Che Guevara. But no longer could you see in him the suave, pipe-smoking, cocktail-party-loving clandestine operative whose Cold War exploits he himself had, almost obsessively, turned into novels, one of which, East of Farewell, the New York Times once called “the best sea story” of World War II. Diminished too were the old bad memories, of the Bay of Pigs debacle that derailed his CIA career for good, of the Watergate Hotel fiasco, of his first wife’s death, of thirty-three months in U.S. prisons – of, in fact, a furious lifetime mainly of failure, disappointment and pain. But his firstborn son – he named him St. John; Saint, for short – was by his side now. And he still had a secret or two left to share before it was all over.
They were in the living room, him in his wheelchair, watching Fox News at full volume, because his hearing had failed too. After a while, he had St. John wheel him into his bedroom and hoist him onto his bed. It smelled foul in there; he was incontinent; a few bottles of urine under the bed needed to be emptied; but he was beyond caring. He asked St. John to get him a diet root beer, a pad of paper and a pen.
Saint had come to Miami from Eureka, California, borrowing money to fly because he was broke. Though clean now, he had been a meth addict for twenty years, a meth dealer for ten of those years and a source of frustration and anger to his father for much of his life. There were a couple of days back in 1972, after the Watergate job, when the boy, then eighteen, had risen to the occasion. The two of them, father and son, had wiped fingerprints off a bunch of spy gear, and Saint had helped in other ways, too. But as a man, he had two felony convictions to his name, and they were for drugs. The old spymaster was a convicted felon too, of course. But that was different. He was E. Howard Hunt, a true American patriot, and he had earned his while serving his country. That the country repaid him with almost three years in prison was something he could never understand, if only because the orders that got him in such trouble came right from the top; as he once said, “I had always assumed, working for the CIA for so many years, that anything the White House wanted done was the law of the land.”
Years had gone by when he and St. John hardly spoke. But then St. John came to him wanting to know if he had any information about the assassination of President Kennedy. Despite almost universal skepticism, his father had always maintained that he didn’t. He swore to this during two government investigations. “I didn’t have anything to do with the assassination, didn’t know anything about it,” he said during one of them. “I did my time for Watergate. I shouldn’t have to do additional time and suffer additional losses for something I had nothing to do with.”
But now, in August 2003, propped up in his sickbed, paper on his lap, pen in hand and son sitting next to him, he began to write down the names of men who had indeed participated in a plot to kill the president. He had lied during those two federal investigations. He knew something after all. He told St. John about his own involvement, too. It was explosive stuff, with the potential to reconfigure the JFK-assassination-theory landscape. And then he got better and went on to live for four more years.
They sure don’t make white House bad guys the way they used to. Today you’ve got flabby-faced half-men like Karl Rove, with weakling names like “Scooter” Libby, blandly hacking their way through the constraints of the U.S. Constitution, while back then, in addition to Hunt, you had out-and-out thugs like G. Gordon Liddy, his Watergate co-conspirator and Nixon’s dirty-tricks chief, who would hold his own hand over an open flame to prove what a real tough guy he was. It all seems a little nutty now, but in 1972 it was serious business. These guys meant to take the powers of the presidency and run amok. Hunt, an ex-CIA man who loved operating in the shadows and joined Nixon’s Special Investigations Unit (a.k.a. “the Plumbers” as a $100-a-day consultant in 1971, specialized in political sabotage. Among his first assignments: forging cables linking the Kennedy administration to the assassination of South Vietnam’s president. After that, he began sniffing around Ted Kennedy’s dirty laundry, to see what he could dig up there. Being a former CIA man, he had no problem contemplating the use of firebombs and once thought about slathering LSD on the steering wheel of an unfriendly newspaperman’s car, hoping it would leach into his skin and cause a fatal accident. But of all his various plots and subterfuges, in the end, only one of them mattered: the failed burglary at the Watergate Hotel, in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1972.