Fifty years ago this week, Richard Nixon stood uncomfortably on the Capitol's inaugural platform and watched his rival John F. Kennedy being sworn in as president. "We won" the election, Nixon fumed, "but they stole it from us."
Indeed, the dirty tricks that helped defeat Nixon were more devious than merely the ballot-stuffing of political lore. In one of the least known chapters of 20th century political history, Kennedy operatives secretly paid off an informant and set in motion a Watergate-like burglary that sabotaged Nixon's campaign on the eve of the election.
It began in the fall of 1960, when the Kennedy campaign spread word Vice President Nixon had secretly pocketed money from billionaire Howard Hughes, whose far-flung business empire was heavily dependent on government contracts and connections.
Reporters for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Time magazine corroborated the allegations, but their editors feared publishing such explosive information in the last days of the tightly fought campaign.
So the Kennedys turned to two crusading liberal columnists, Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, who had been attacking Nixon for the past decade.
It was "a journalistic atrocity" to conspire with "the Kennedy hawkshaws to help us get the goods on their opponent," Anderson admitted, but scoring a scoop to destroy Nixon was simply too tempting to pass up.
Anderson dropped by the Washington office of Kennedy lawyer James McInerney. With "a pride that only the diligent investigator can know," Anderson recalled, the Kennedy operative pulled out "a neatly arranged packet which I devoured unceremoniously."
The confidential documents revealed how Hughes had funneled to the Nixon family $205,000 (worth about $1.6 million today) using various intermediaries, including one of Nixon's brothers, to disguise the transaction. Later evidence would show the vice president had personally phoned Hughes to ask for the money, which was used to help Nixon pay for an elegant, 9,000-square-foot Tudor house in Washington with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, a library, a butler's pantry and a solarium.
How did JFK's campaign obtain this incriminating evidence?
By paying the contemporary equivalent of $100,000 to a Los Angeles accountant named Phillip Reiner, one of the Hughes middlemen used to conceal Nixon's role in the deal. Reiner was a Democrat who recently had had a falling-out with his partners.
With his attorney, Reiner had contacted Robert Kennedy, his brother's campaign manager. Soon after, a break-in occurred at the accountant's old office — and the Kennedys suddenly acquired a thick file filled with secret records documenting Nixon's shady deal. (Reiner's estranged partner filed a burglary report with the police, but the crime was never solved.)
With hard evidence in hand, the Kennedy camp passed the dirt to Anderson.
News outlets around the country trumpeted the revelations in headlines. The political hit inflicted maximum damage on Nixon and reinforced his conviction that his enemies in the press and politics were out to get him.
Days later, Kennedy was elected president by the narrowest margin in American history to that point. Nixon and his advisers blamed the Hughes scandal. Accurate or not, this perception haunted Nixon for the rest of his public life.
Nixon always believed he was the true winner of the 1960 campaign. He called the Kennedys "the most ruthless group of political operators ever mobilized" and said they "approached campaign dirty tricks with a roguish relish" that "overcame the critical faculties of many reporters."
The mysterious break-in to recover Nixon's incriminating financial documents convinced him that such burglaries were standard practice in national politics. Nixon vowed he would never be caught unprepared again, and he ultimately established his own corps of hard-nosed operatives to carry out espionage and sabotage, which culminated in the botched break-in a dozen years later at the Watergate office of the Democratic Party.
A half-century afterward, Washington still lives with the residue of the Kennedys' little-known dirty trick, which helped unleash our modern scandal culture and continues to influence politics and media today.
Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, is the author of Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture.
THE WASHINGTON POST