The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: Mary Jo Kopechne

Mary Jo Kopechne was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Nixon learns of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA)‘s involvement in the death by drowning of campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne at Massachusett’s Chappaquiddick Island. “He was obviously drunk and let her drown,” Nixon says of Kennedy, who is considered the Democrats’ leading presidential candidate for 1972. “He ran. There’s a fatal flaw in his character.” Nixon aide John Ehrlichman sends his “on-staff detective,” Jack Caulfield (see April 2, 1969) to the site to pose as a reporter and glean information. Caulfield takes along another former New York police detective, Tony Ulasewicz, who is being paid $22,000 a year out of a secret Nixon political fund handled by Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach. (Reeves 2001, pp. 100-101)

White House counsel John Dean orders the opening of a safe belonging to Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt (see 2:30 a.m.June 17, 1972). Dean orders that the contents be turned over (six days later, after Dean and other White House officials have had a chance to peruse them) to the FBI. The documents will soon be given to FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray, who keeps them for six months before burning them (see Late December 1972). Gray will later admit to the incident in his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee (see February 28-29, 1973). (Time 4/2/1973) Dean finds in the safe, among other things, a loaded .25 caliber pistol; the attache case of burglar James McCord, loaded with electronic surveillance equipment and a tear gas canister; CIA psychological profiles of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see March 1971); pages from the Pentagon Papers; memos to and from Nixon aide Charles Colson; two falsified diplomatic cables implicating former President John F. Kennedy in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Diem Dinh; and a dossier on the personal life of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Nixon aide John Ehrlichman advises Dean to throw the contents of the safe into the Potomac River. (Reeves 2001, pp. 501-502) Shortly thereafter, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, in discussions with a young assistant in White House aide Charles Colson’s office, learns that Hunt has been investigating Kennedy’s checkered past, particularly the Chappaquiddick tragedy of 1969, in which an apparently inebriated Kennedy drove his car into a lake, drowning his companion of the evening, Mary Jo Kopechne. Hunt was apparently looking for political ammunition against Kennedy in preparation for a possible presidential run. According to a former Nixon administration official, Colson and fellow Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman were “absolutely paranoid” about a Kennedy campaign run. (Bernstein and Woodward 1974, pp. 30-31)


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