Kerry's eloquence and youthful good looks worried Nixon and his aides. As Kerry was addressing the senators beneath the glare of the television lights, tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans were camped on the Mall, in defiance of government and Supreme Court orders. The following day, Nixon expressed concern to Haldeman that Kerry had been "extremely effective."
According to a tape recording of the Oval Office conversation, Haldeman described Kerry as "a Kennedy-type guy" with "a bundle of lettuce up here," meaning medals. "He looks like a Kennedy, and he talks exactly like a Kennedy."
Vietnam War critic John F. Kerry, right, appears with Dick Cavett in 1971 on the TV show on which he and Nixon supporter John E. O'Neill debated the conflict.
Charles Colson Memo to H.R. Haldeman, June 7, 1971
Colson Memo to O'Neill, June 12, 1971
Colson Memo for President's File, June 16, 1971
Colson Memo to Nixon, June 16, 1971
Colson Memo to Haldeman, June 17, 1971
Nov. 1971 Government Memo on VVAW Surveillance
Nov. 1971 Report on VVAW Activity
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Nixon: "Where did he serve?"
"He was a Navy lieutenant, j.g., on a gunboat, and he used, uh, to run his gunboat up and shoot at, uh, shoot babies out of women's arms," replied Haldeman, fancifully embroidering Kerry's testimony of the previous day.
White House records show that Nixon and his advisers were so concerned about Kerry they immediately began looking around for other Vietnam veterans who would counter his popular appeal. One they came up with was O'Neill, described by Colson in a memo as "a very attractive dedicated young man -- short hair, very square, very patriotic." Haldeman told Nixon that O'Neill ("a great little sharp-looking guy") was not "as eloquent as Kerry" but was "more believable."
O'Neill, who had returned from Vietnam in June 1970, belonged to a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, identified by Colson in a memo to Nixon as "an organization specifically set up to counter Kerry." He started making the rounds of the TV studios, delighting the White House with his fiery denunciations of Kerry and support for Nixon's Vietnamization policy.
After one such appearance, on June 6, Colson talked enthusiastically to Nixon about "this boy O'Neill," saying, "You'd just be proud of him." In conversations with Colson, Nixon referred to O'Neill as "your young man."
Colson, who now heads an organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries, declined to be interviewed, explaining through an aide that he did not want to be drawn into the current campaign. But he confirmed the accuracy of a quotation in the Dec. 2, 2002, New Yorker magazine in which he said that Nixon aides had "formed" Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace as "a counterfoil" to Kerry and did everything they could to boost the group.
In an interview this week, O'Neill denied that Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace was a front organization for the White House. He said the group got started "a little bit before Colson knew who we were" and received support from Democrats as well as Republicans.
"They were probably thrilled with what we were doing," said O'Neill, referring to Nixon and his aides. "But to say that they were using us implies that they were getting us to accomplish something we did not want to accomplish, which is not true. We were doing things we wanted to do."
By mid-June, according to a White House memo, O'Neill was beginning to feel "very discouraged" about his reception on TV. He had been booed by a hostile crowd on the Cavett show and wanted "to go home to Texas and get away from the eastern establishment." Colson urged Nixon to see O'Neill to boost his spirits.
Their June 16 meeting in the Oval Office was scheduled for 10 minutes, but Nixon was so engrossed in the conversation that it lasted 45 minutes. Pacing behind his desk, Nixon tried to encourage O'Neill by citing his own effort to prosecute State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy in 1948, an event that was pivotal to Nixon's political career. "Don't worry about being on the winning side," he told O'Neill. "Only worry about doing what is right."
According to a Colson memo, an awestruck O'Neill left the Oval Office saying "he had just been with the most magnificent man he had ever met in his life." ("Totally untrue," O'Neill says now.) Colson also quoted O'Neill as promising to "spend every waking moment campaigning for Richard Nixon."
White House memos show that Colson was working behind the scenes to push for a Kerry-O'Neill debate on nationwide television. "Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader," he wrote, referring to Kerry.