On Bob Bennett and Donald Trump

Bob Bennett died on May 4th from complications after suffering a stroke while trying to fight off pancreatic cancer. He was 82 years old. Until 2010, he was a U.S. Senator representing Utah, but he was bounced out of office at the Republican State Convention where he actually came in third place. His replacement, Mike Lee, is the only known friend of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Bennett is in the news today because he reportedly told his wife and his son, while he lay stricken in his death bed, that he wanted to apologize to Muslims on behalf of the Republican Party for the coming nomination of Donald Trump.

Let’s set the scene:

Former GOP senator Bob Bennett lay partially paralyzed in his bed on the fourth floor of the George Washington University Hospital. He was dying.

Not 48 hours had passed since a stroke had complicated his yearlong fight against pancreatic cancer. The cancer had begun to spread again, necessitating further chemotherapy. The stroke had dealt a further blow that threatened to finish him off.

Between the hectic helter-skelter of nurses, doctors and well wishes from a long-cultivated community of friends and former aides, Bennett faced a quiet moment with his son Jim and his wife Joyce.

Here’s what he told them:

Instead, with a slight slurring in his words, Bennett drew them close to express a dying wish: “Are there any Muslims in the hospital?” he asked.

“I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump,” Bennett told his wife and son, both of whom relayed this story to The Daily Beast.

Because Mormons experienced so much harassment in this country, they don’t take kindly to religious bigotry, and you can see the same visceral distaste for Trump from Mitt Romney and several other prominent Republican Mormons. Bennett was deeply offended by Trump’s language about Islam and Muslims, and it was an obsession of his over the last months of his life.

But as Bennett reflected on his life and legacy in mid-April, following the stroke, he wasn’t focused on the race that ended his political career. Instead, he brought up the issue of Muslims in America—over and over again.

He mentioned it briefly in a hospital interview with the Deseret News, a Utah news outlet. “There’s a lot of Muslims here in this area. I’m glad they’re here,” the former senator told the newspaper in April, describing them as “wonderful.”

“In the last days of his life this was an issue that was pressing in his mind… disgust for Donald Trump’s xenophobia,” Jim Bennett said. “At the end of his life he was preoccupied with getting things done that he had felt was left undone.”

Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from America had outraged the former senator, his wife Joyce said, triggering his instincts to do what he could on a personal level. They ultimately did not canvass the hospital, but Bennett had already made an effort in his last months of life.

As they traveled from Washington to Utah for Christmas break, Bennett approached a woman wearing a hijab in the airport.

“He would go to people with the hijab [on] and tell them he was glad they were in America, and they were welcome here,” his wife said. “He wanted to apologize on behalf of the Republican Party.”

Most people will focus on the obvious aspects of this story that make Trump look bad, but I have a different angle on it.

Whenever I think about Bob Bennett, I think about his role in Watergate. And that isn’t all that easy to explain without retelling the whole story of Watergate. I’ll just give you the crib notes on it.

It’s important to know that Bob Bennett was the son of Wallace Foster Bennett who served as one of Utah’s two senators from 1951 until 1974, the year that President Nixon was forced to resign. Being the son of a senator has its advantages, and one of them was that Bob landed a job at the Department of Transportation in 1969. From there, he seems to have been recruited into the CIA, although I don’t know how official his relationship was. What I do know is that he resigned from his job in the Nixon administration in 1971 after “purchasing” Robert R. Mullen & Co., a public relations company in Washington DC. The Mullen Corporation was actually a CIA front company, and their business was mainly restricted to doing p.r. for a subsidiary of Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation, international relations for the Church of Latter Day Saints, and providing non-official cover for overseas CIA officers. When Bennett bought the company, it was already employing CIA and Bay of Pigs veteran E. Howard Hunt, who would go on to lead (along with G. Gordon Liddy) the Plumbers Unit break-in of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.

Bennett was implicated in the Plumbers’ shenanigans in multiple ways. For starters, he is mentioned on the Nixon tapes as being directly involved in the break-in of Hank Greenspun’s personal safe. Here’s a transcript of the relevant portion of a conversation between Nixon and his advisors John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman.

E: . . . [James W.] McCord volunteered this Hank Greenspun thing, gratuitously apparently not—
P: Can you tell me is that a serious thing? Did they really try to get into Hank Greenspun?
E: I guess they actually got in.
P: What in the name of (expletive deleted) though has Hank Greenspun got with anything to do with [John N.] Mitchell or anybody else?
E: Nothing. Well, now, Mitchell, Here’s—Hughes. And these two fellows, Colson and Shapiro, Colson threw that out.
P: Hughes on whom?
E: Well, you know the Hughes thing is cut into two factions—
E: I don’t even know—but they’re fighting.
P: Yeah.
E: Bennett, Senator Bennett’s son, for whom Hunt worked.
P: Oh?
E: Represents one of those factions.
P: So he ordered the bugging?
E: I don’t know. I know the (unintelligible) say it’s a bag job.
H: They busted his safe to get something out of it. Wasn’t that it?
E: No. They flew out, broke his safe, got something out (unintelligible). Now as they sat there in my office—
P: Other delicate things, too. You’ve got a part from my poor brother, which unfortunately or fortunately was a long time ago . . . (The White House Transcripts, pages 292-293)

He also implicated himself in another Plumber job, which was the silencing of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) lobbyist Dita Beard. You can watch Brit Hume discussing the bizarre saga of Dita Beard in which he was a major participant.

Bennett testified to the House Special Subcommittee on Intelligence of the Committee on Armed Services that he knew Charles ‘Tex’ Colson “as a result of working with him in a programme of dirty tricks against Dita Beard when she was threatening to expose details of the ITT antitrust scandal.”

Remember, I’m giving you the crib notes here, so feel free to follow some of the links if you want to know more of the details of things like that ITT antitrust scandal. For now, you don’t need to know too much about it, although it explains why the 1972 Republican National Convention was held in Miami instead of San Diego.

The important thing here is that Bob Bennett was up to his neck in Watergate. Let me give just one more example because it’s fun. The following account comes from an issue of the Salt Lake City Messenger that was published in January 1975. They were primarily concerned with the Mullen Corporation’s work with the Mormon Church, but in the process of investigating that they got in contact with an employee who was present when E. Howard Hunt received the news from Bob Woodward that his phone number had been in the possession of two of the Watergate burglars when they were arrested:

Mr. Everett worked in Europe for the Mullen Co. for a number of years. Incredible as it may seem, he returned to America to work at the offices in Washington, D.C. on the night of the Watergate break-in. In his letter Mr. Everett states:

I returned from Europe on the night of the break-in, i.e. 17th June 1972. I went to the office on Monday the 19th and for the first time met Howard Hunt who had been hired during my absence in Europe. We spoke of the day’s newspaper headlines concerning the break-in and I remarked that it certainly was a stupid caper and I hoped that no responsible Republican had been involved. I assumed at the time that he was in full agreement. Only about an hour after that conversation the first call came from Woodard (or Bernstein) concerning the fact that Hunt’s private telephone number at the White House (Executive Office Building) had been discovered in two of the persons who were apprehended at Watergate. Hunt was asked if he knew how this could be and he exclaimed loudly, “My God, No!” hung up and left the office. I met him about a half hour later coming back from 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. where he undoubtably had gone to confer with his friend Liddy. He returned to the office, removed a few things and left and I have never met him in person since. (Letter from James A. Everett, dated Oct. 15, 1974)

Of course, that whole episode happened in the offices of Bob Bennett’s company.

But today we are treated to a nice story about how Bennett, at the end of his life, was very concerned about how Muslims are treated in this country and angry about Donald Trump.

This is the trajectory of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. A guy who was in complete cahoots with Nixon’s Plumbers Unit was too moderate and got Tea Partied out of office in 2010. One of the worst dirty-tricksters of the Watergate saga is now the good guy when compared to the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

I’m glad that Bob Bennett was morally appalled by Trump. I’m happy that he died relatively peacefully in the presence of his wife and son.

But it’s a sad testimony that the party is now too awful for a guy with Bob Bennett’s moral compass.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.