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Kleindienst, Richard G.locked

(05 August 1923–03 February 2000)
  • Ann T. Keene

Richard G. Kleindienst.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Kleindienst, Richard G. (05 August 1923–03 February 2000), government official, was born Richard Gordon Kleindienst on a farm near Winslow, Arizona, the son of Alfred R. Kleindienst, a railroad brakeman and local postmaster, and Gladys Love Kleindienst. His mother died when he was still a young boy, and his father hired a Navajo woman to serve as housekeeper for the family. She taught him the Navajo language, in which he became exceptionally proficient. Kleindienst later said that the diversified racial composition of Winslow—more Indians, Mexicans, and Asians than whites—gave him important lessons in respect for the rights of all human beings.

Kleindienst worked hard at home and in school, and to earn extra money he held two paper routes by the age of ten. As a teenager he joined his brother to run a gas station full time. He still managed to do well academically and to be popular as well, earning election as president of his high school class. After graduation in 1941 he enrolled at the University of Arizona, where he became an honor student as well as an honor cadet in the ROTC. In 1943, as World War II raged, he was called to active duty in the army and served as a navigator with the U.S. Army Air Forces in Italy. After leaving the army in 1946 he continued his education at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude a year later and becoming a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He went on to Harvard Law School, supporting himself as a law clerk in a major Boston firm during his studies.

On graduating from law school in 1950, Kleindienst returned to Arizona and joined the Phoenix law firm Jennings, Strouss, Salmon & Trask, eventually becoming a partner. There he became a specialist in commercial law, representing companies involved in industrial disputes. In 1958 he became a senior partner in another Phoenix law firm, thenceforth known as Shimmel, Hill, Kleindienst & Bishop, and remained there until 1969.

Kleindienst had been active in politics in college as president of the Harvard Conservative League, and back in Arizona he became friendly with Barry Goldwater, then a prominent businessman and conservative Republican leader, who encouraged him to enter local politics. Kleindienst took his advice, though claiming not to be as conservative as Goldwater, and ultimately became a precinct committeeman and a delegate to the 1952 Republican National Convention. There he joined the liberal wing of the party to nominate General Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. That fall he ran for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives while campaigning for Eisenhower as well as Goldwater, who was running for the U.S. Senate. All three men were victorious in their election bids.

Following his single term in the state house (1953–1954), where he was the youngest member of that body, Kleindienst returned to his law practice and to partisan politics, joining with Goldwater to help make Arizona a solidly Republican state. He served as head of the Arizona Young Republican League, and in 1956–1960 and again in 1961–1963 he was chairman of the Republican State Central Committee and served on the Republican National Committee. Beginning in 1963 he worked arduously for the nomination of Barry Goldwater as president in 1964 and went on to serve as national director of field operations of the Goldwater for President Committee. In that role, while trying to mobilize convention delegates for Goldwater, Kleindienst reportedly tried to keep southern segregationist supporters at bay and succeeded in ousting the controversial and ultraconservative John Birch Society from the Goldwater campaign. A few liberal commentators later charged that Kleindienst, in securing the nomination for Goldwater, had used unethical tactics to sully the reputation of Goldwater's chief rival, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, but their allegations were never proved.

After the convention Kleindienst returned to Arizona to conduct his own campaign for the governorship. As predicted by most polls, Goldwater was defeated by the incumbent president, Lyndon B. Johnson, that fall. Although Republicans won most of the state offices in Arizona, Kleindienst unexpectedly lost his race to the Democratic candidate. Following this defeat, politics took a back seat in his life for several years, but he returned to the fray in 1966 as the director of John Williams's successful campaign for the governor's office. Kleindienst's demonstrated skills in running political campaigns for other Republicans had become well known in the party, and in 1968, as Richard M. Nixon pursued his quest for that year's Republican presidential nomination, Kleindienst was appointed national director of field operations for the Nixon campaign. Kleindienst was given much of the credit for securing the nomination for Nixon at the national convention that August, after which he became Nixon's deputy campaign director, serving under John Mitchell.

Following his victory in November, Nixon appointed Mitchell as attorney general and Kleindienst as deputy attorney general. Kleindienst took office on 31 January 1969, assuming duties that included administrative supervision of the Justice Department and its numerous departments as well as acting as a liaison with Congress. Kleindienst quickly developed a reputation as competent and articulate but also as heavy-handed and abrasive, often to the point of rudeness. Along with Mitchell he established, under Nixon's direction, an overall policy at the Justice Department that emphasized law and order rather than the protection of individual rights, especially as protests escalated against the ongoing Vietnam War. During an antiwar demonstration in May 1971 in Washington, Kleindienst drew heavy criticism from civil libertarians when he ordered the breakup of an encampment of demonstrators and mass arrests for alleged acts of civil disobedience. He drew further criticism when he made public his support for wiretapping, although under limited circumstances, and when he proposed extended detention in special camps for violent political dissenters, a policy later denounced by the Nixon administration. Kleindienst was also criticized initially for what were seen as strong-arm efforts to stop drug trafficking along the United States-Mexico border; eventually a more cooperative venture between the two governments was implemented.

Kleindienst did earn praise from liberals for his emphatic advocacy on behalf of minority hiring, especially for his determined efforts to recruit black lawyers for the Justice Department and for his successful recommendations of many black judges to federal courts. He played a major role in advising Nixon on judicial appointments and was personally responsible for hiring Arizona friend and protégé William H. Rehnquist as a department lawyer in 1969. Three years later Rehnquist was named an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In early 1972, when John Mitchell resigned as attorney general to become the director of Nixon's reelection campaign, Kleindienst was named his successor. In the wake of his confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee on 25 February after three days of hearings, liberal columnist Jack Anderson charged that in 1971 the Justice Department, at Kleindienst's behest, had dropped an antitrust lawsuit against the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) after the company agreed to make a substantial contribution to the Republican party in the form of accommodations at several ITT-owned hotels. Kleindienst responded by asking that the Senate hearings be reopened so that he could deny the charges of wrongdoing. After a new series of hearings that stretched from 5 March to 27 April 1972—the longest confirmation hearings in U.S. history—Kleindienst's nomination as attorney general was finally approved, and he was confirmed by the Senate in early June. In the committee report and in the ensuing Senate debate, however, mention was made of many contradictions in Kleindienst's testimony as well as his possible involvement in several other antitrust suits that were dropped after the indicted companies made substantial Republican campaign contributions. Thus a cloud hung over Kleindienst as he assumed his new position.

After taking office as attorney general on 12 June, Kleindienst announced that his plans for the new post included strong enforcement of civil rights and antitrust laws and fights against organized crime and drug trafficking; he also promised full government support for prison reform. Five days later, however, the fateful break-in at Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington took place, and for the next ten months Kleindienst's Justice Department found itself in the eye of the storm in the ensuing uproar and investigation of the Nixon administration's involvement, with little time to pursue those lofty goals. Finally, on 30 April 1973, the embattled Kleindienst resigned, saying that he could no longer stay on when so many of his political associates were implicated in the scandal or under investigation. Although Kleindienst himself was suspected of involvement by many at the time, several years later reliable sources cleared his name, revealing that after hearing of the break-in he had in fact ordered—to President Nixon's dismay—full cooperation by the Justice Department with any subsequent investigation of wrongdoing, no matter who was involved.

Watergate nevertheless turned out to be Kleindienst's undoing in another way: secret White House audiotapes uncovered during the probe disclosed an April 1971 conversation between Nixon and Kleindienst during which Nixon had ordered Kleindienst to drop the Justice Department antitrust suit against ITT. In early 1974 Kleindienst was duly charged with refusing to testify accurately before the Senate during his confirmation hearings two years earlier; pleading guilty to the misdemeanor, he was fined $100 and given a thirty-day suspended sentence.

After leaving Washington in the spring of 1973, Kleindienst returned to Arizona and the practice of law. After his conviction in 1974 he remained out of the limelight, except for a brief period in 1981 when he was charged with, but later acquitted of, perjury in a case involving an Arizona client convicted of insurance fraud.

Kleindienst was married in 1948 to Margaret Dunbar; the couple had four children, all of whom, at their father's insistence, attended public schools. In private life he was active in civic and charitable organizations, played golf and chess, enjoyed classical music, and was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church. In retirement, he wrote his memoirs, which were published with little fanfare in 1985. After suffering from lung cancer for four years, he died at his home in Prescott, Arizona.


For biographical information, see “Kleindienst, Richard G(ordon),” in Current Biography Yearbook 1972; “Kleindienst, Richard Gordon,” in Who's Who in America, 54th ed. (2000); and Kleindienst's autobiography, Justice: The Memoirs of Attorney General Richard Kleindienst (1985). See also “New Attorney General: His Views on Key Issues,” U.S. News and World Report, 19 June 1972, p. 72. For information on the role of the Justice Department in the Watergate break-in and its aftermath, see especially Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President's Men (1974); John Dean III, Blind Ambition (1976); and Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis (1975), an exhaustive compendium prepared by the staff of Congressional Quarterly Publications. An obituary appears in the New York Times, 4 Feb. 2000.