For a Watergate conspirator who spent 33 months in prison, E. (for Everette) Howard Hunt has been remarkably successful in putting together a new life. He has made a home for his young son in Miami. Now 60, he has remarried (his first wife died in a 1972 plane crash) and his bride of 16 months is pregnant. And he has just finished his 54th book, a thriller, which is with his agent.
One specter hangs over Hunt’s new life: an undiminished, even growing, bitterness toward Richard Nixon. “For many years,” Hunt says with an edge to his voice, “I believed that he personified all that was best in America. His enemies were my enemies. I was the President’s unconditional man.”
Now he is the President’s implacable foe, dedicated to preventing Nixon from achieving any kind of political rehabilitation. “I feel a sense of personal disgust in myself,” Hunt says, “for having been so beguiled and deceived.”
His anger first erupted in 1974 when he read a White House transcript in which Nixon referred to him and Gordon Liddy as “jackasses.” “I went absolutely cold,” Hunt recalls. “I felt physically sick. We had laid it on the line for him and he made it appear as though it [the Watergate break-in] was a plan attempted by two ambitious White House aides.” Despite that, Hunt says he would have let the situation lie “as long as Nixon cowered in his tax-supported sanctuary at San Clemente and shunned the limelight.” Then came the memoirs, the David Frost interviews, Nixon’s trips around the U.S. and his appearances on French TV and at Oxford University. Hunt’s contempt boiled over. He sat down and wrote an 18-page diatribe called Stop That Man! in which he catalogued Nixon’s sins. “His gratuitous resumption of the statesman’s mantle,” Hunt charges, “is based on the cynical assumption that the public soon forgets.”
Books by Watergate cohorts and his own ruminations in prison led Hunt to the certain belief that Nixon knew in advance of the first break-in, that he ordered the second—and that he himself erased the famous 18 and a half minutes on the White House tape made three days after the second burglary. “That tape established his personal responsibility for Watergate as nothing else could,” Hunt contends, while admitting that his evidence is purely circumstantial. “The erased conversations were expressions of rage—his intemperate anger at having sent incompetents to do a delicate job.”
Hunt will carry his campaign against Nixon’s comeback to French TV in June—the same program that featured the former President—and, he hopes, onto the lecture circuit in the fall. Curiously, Hunt’s argument is not so much that Watergate was wrong as that an “honorable” commander would never have “betrayed” his subordinates.
For all his anger toward Nixon, Hunt’s satisfaction with the rest of his life is obvious. When his wife, Laura, 33, announced she was pregnant, she recalls with a laugh that Hunt “passed out cold.” Now he’s enthusiastic about the baby, due in June. Best of all, Hunt says, is his acceptance by the American public. “Strangers stop me on the street and shake my hand,” he says. “I don’t have to walk into supermarkets in dark glasses anymore.”