Joseph Fred Buzhardt, Jr (February 21, 1924 – December 16, 1978) was an American attorney and public servant. He is best known for serving as special White House Counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Previously he had served as General Counsel of the Department of Defense and as a legislative aide to Senator Strom Thurmond.
Buzhardt was born in Greenwood, South Carolina, to Joseph Fred Buzhardt, Sr., and Edna Hardin Buzhardt. The family later moved to McCormick, South Carolina, and Buzhardt graduated from McCormick High School with honors.
He first attended Wofford College from 1941 to 1943 before he was appointed to the US Military Academy. He graduated from West Point in 1946 and then served in the US Air Force. Following his military service, he attended the University of South Carolina and earned a law degree in 1952. He then returned to McCormick and entered private practice, alongside his father.
Buzhardt left private practice in 1958 to become a legislative assistant to Senator Strom Thurmond. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Buzhardt, along with William J. Baroody, Jr. and Anthony J. Jurich, advised the Republican National Committee on military affairs. Buzhardt succeeded Harry S. Dent, Sr., as Thurmond's administrative assistant in 1965. Buzhardt left Thurmond's staff in 1966, but the two remained close.
In 1968 Dent and Buzhardt attempted to talk Thurmond out of his proposed marriage to Nancy Moore, a former beauty queen and 44 years his junior. Their efforts were unsuccessful and apparently did not affect either man's relationship with Thurmond. Buzhardt was one of only 35 people, 26 of whom were family, in attendance at Thurmond's wedding to Moore in December 1968. According to Dent, Buzhardt was "like a son" to Thurmond, who had practiced law with Buzhardt's father.
Buzhardt stayed active in Republican party politics in South Carolina, serving as Marshall Parker's campaign manager for the latter's unsuccessful bid for US senator in 1968. That year, Buzhardt was named as an alternate delegate to the Republic National Convention, which would nominate Richard Nixon for the presidency. After the Republican victory in November, incoming Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird tapped Buzhardt for his staff.
Buzhardt's involvement in Watergate began in May 1973. Alexander Haig had replaced H. R. Haldeman as White House Chief of Staff and sought Buzhardt's assistance. Haig told Buzhardt that his role at the White House would be temporary, and Buzhardt retained his title at the Defense Department. His first task as Special Counsel for Watergate was to investigate former White House Counsel John Dean. President Nixon had fired Dean the previous week; Dean was cooperating with investigators and was believed to possess classified documents. Buzhardt, through his contacts in the intelligence community, determined that the documents were related to the Huston Plan, an illegal proposed expansion of domestic surveillance.
Buzhardt was also involved in the negotiations that led to Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation over accepting illegal payments. Judah Best, Agnew's attorney, recalled later that Buzhardt threatened to "personally... strap on his old '.45' and 'take care' of the situation" if anyone leaked the negotiations to the press. The negotiations did not leak, and Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973.
It was Buzhardt who, indirectly, disclosed the existence of the White House taping system to the public. Nixon and Haig, who were aware of the system, had given to Buzhardt, who was not aware of it, detailed accounts of Nixon's meetings with Dean, including verbatim quotes. Buzhardt, in turn, communicated them to Fred Thompson, then minority counsel to the United States Senate Watergate Committee. (He would later be a senator and presidential candidate.) Recounted by Scott Armstrong, the majority staff discovered the transcript and questioned former White House aide Alexander Butterfield about its provenance. The questions led directly to Butterfield's disclosure of the taping system to the committee and then the public. Thompson, informed of the disclosure, in turn, warned Buzhardt, who then learned of it, for the first time, in that indirect way. Buzhardt would spend hundreds of hours listening to the tapes to determine their contents before the tapes were conveyed to investigators.
In a widely-reported interview published in 1975, Buzhardt inquired whether the public would prefer "a competent scoundrel or an honest boob" as president, and he lamented that invasive media coverage inhibited good governance. Although Buzhardt denied it, Washington Post columnist David S. Broder interpreted the remark as a thinly-veiled attack on Gerald Ford, Nixon's successor.
Buzhardt co-operated with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the research for a book, which became The Final Days, by sitting for eight "extensive" interviews. In the 1989 film adaptation of the book, Richard Kiley portrayed Buzhardt. Kiley called Buzhardt "one of the mystery men, very much behind the scenes, and yet he played a key role."
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