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Nixon’s Man in Biscayne Park PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
November 2010

Our correspondent recalls his brief encounter with E. Howard Hunt

Richard_Nixon_Presidential_Library_and_MuseumI think it was my Realtor who first mentioned it to me, or perhaps it was the seller’s Realtor. Maybe it was the house’s previous owner. I don’t really remember, but I know it came up when my wife and I were looking to buy in Biscayne Park last year. “Do you know who used to live a few doors down from here?” we were asked. We shook our heads no. “E. Howard Hunt.”

A smile came to my lips. I knew that Hunt had moved to Biscayne Park at some point. I just hadn’t known where exactly. The idea that I would be buying so close to where one of the principal Watergate conspirators had lived was ironic given that I was in the process of wrapping up a one-hour documentary on Richard Nixon for the local PBS affiliate. Now finished, Nixon’s the One: How Tricky Dick Stole the Sixties and Changed America Forever is set to premiere (10:00 p.m., Monday, November 15, WLRN, Channel 17) and I find myself once again thinking about what a small world Miami, and Biscayne Park in particular, can be.

Although I never met Hunt, I did speak with him once. It was right after the presidential election in 2000, during those tumultuous days of hanging chads, angry demonstrations (led by, we long ago learned, Republican operatives imported from the heartland to disrupt the recount effort in Miami-Dade), and general confusion about whether George W. Bush or Al Gore was going to be the next president.

I was a staff writer at Miami New Times. (Jim Mullin, the BT’s editor and publisher, was then the editor-in-chief at New Times.) We had been trying to cover the recount, but events were moving too quickly. New Times was a weekly publication, while the story of the century (or at least of the new millennium) was changing by the minute.

We needed an angle on the historical drama that was playing out at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center downtown that would make for good reading regardless of how the recount turned out.

That’s when I came up with the idea of calling E. Howard Hunt. I knew he lived in Miami and thought he might make a good interview. After all, it looked like W. was trying to steal the election. Hadn’t Hunt tried to help Nixon do the same thing in 1972? Who better than Hunt to give us an insider’s perspective on political dirty tricks? Mullin told me to go ahead with it.

By the time I had Hunt’s number in hand, the idea had evolved in my mind. Interviewing Hunt wouldn’t be enough. I would try to get myself invited over, maybe watch a couple of hours of news coverage of the recount with him, pitch questions to him that way. (I don’t know why, but I had this image of Hunt sitting in a La-Z-Boy, watching Fox News.) I called him.

It’s been ten years since my conversation, but I can still remember it clearly. With perhaps one or two words changed, it went like this:

Me: Hello. Mr. Hunt, my name is Gaspar González and I’m calling you from Miami New Times.

Hunt: Whaddya want?

Me: I’d like to talk to you about what’s going on with the election, you know, the recount.

Hunt: Why would you want to talk with me about that?

Me: Well, I know that you’ve had experience with helping to fix elections…

Hunt: Those were foreign operations. [Hunt had been the CIA’s man in Latin America in the 1950s.]

Me: I can recall at least one, uh, domestic caper.

Hunt: What are you talking about?

Me: The Watergate break-in.

Hunt: I was working for the President of the United States.

Me: So you admit it?

Hunt: Huh?

Me: Listen, Mr. Hunt, I was just thinking that, as long as you were watching the coverage, I could come over, bring some beer, and we could watch it together. Maybe even invite some of the Cubans over. [Three of the five burglars arrested the night of the Watergate break-in were Cuban. At the time of my conversation with Hunt, all were living in Miami.]

Hunt: No, I don’t think so.

Me: You sure? I think you’d enjoy it.

Hunt: No.

Me: Okay, thanks for your time, sir.

Hunt: Okay. (Click.)

So I missed my chance to meet E. Howard Hunt, who died in 2007. Fast forward seven years. My film about Cassius Clay’s transformative years in South Florida, Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, had been a big success; it got nice write-ups in Sports Illustrated and in newspapers around the country, and virtually every national PBS affiliate had picked it up. So WLRN asked what I wanted to do as a follow-up. I told them something on Nixon.

To me, it seemed like a natural bookend to the Ali film. Like Ali, Nixon had helped to shape the 1960s, and like Ali, a big chunk of his story was rooted in Miami.

Nixon first came to Miami -- specifically Key Biscayne -- in 1950, following a bruising race for the U.S. Senate against Helen Douglas (who dubbed him “Tricky Dick” for his use of smear tactics), and he kept coming back for the next two decades. Miami afforded Nixon a unique perspective on the way America was changing -- on the rise of the Sunbelt, the growing importance nationally of middle-class suburban voters, and their increasing opposition to big government (including civil rights legislation).

After losing the presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960, and an even more humiliating defeat two years later in the California governor’s race, Nixon capped his remarkable comeback by securing the GOP nomination for president in 1968 at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. The 1972 convention, where Nixon was renominated, was also held in Miami Beach. And to hear some tell it, Miami is where the Watergate break-in was planned.

Originally Nixon’s the One was going to tell that whole story. Getting into the material, though, my collaborator Alan Tomlinson and I discovered the first half alone was enough to make for a compelling hour, so our climax isn’t Watergate, but the 1968 GOP convention, which arguably changed the course of American politics. Think that’s too strong a claim? Watch the film.

I wish I could have shown it to Hunt. Not that he would have agreed with much of it, but it would have been fun to have that beer with him.

 

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