Even his family always wondered about Elmer Wyatt. By the 1970s, this charmer with the impish smile had been driving a taxi in Washington for more than three decades. But how was it that he seemed to know everyone at the racetracks and the gambling parlors? How was it that so many politicos were not only his regular customers, but his pals?
“He always had a secret side of things,” Wyatt’s daughter, Verona Scott, told me with a laugh in a recent interview. “He always had something going on, you know, some scheme. He just had his hands in a lot of pots.”
Half a century later, mysteries still linger about Wyatt. According to family lore, he used to run numbers in old D.C. Who knows? Yet some of the cabbie’s clandestine life can be pieced together by burrowing into congressional hearing transcripts and peeking into a box of mementos, tucked away for decades and shared publicly for the first time with The Washington Post.
It turns out that Elmer Wyatt was a spy in the scandal of the century: Watergate. And he was the best of spies, according to his handler in the recesses of Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign.
Wyatt’s involvement in Watergate tracks back to 1971 when he had a stroke that kept him from working as a cabbie for six weeks, according to a written statement he provided to congressional investigators in a closed-door interview. That fall, he was easing back to work and called his old friend John Buckley to seek help finding a part-time gig, according to the confidential statement, which was provided to The Post by Wyatt’s family.
Wyatt and Buckley had met years earlier when Buckley was an FBI agent. Wyatt was at a gambling establishment where Buckley made a bust, according to Buckley’s testimony to the Senate Watergate Committee. The authorities interviewed Wyatt as a witness, then released him.
When Wyatt called, Buckley had retired from the FBI and was working in the inspection division at the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. He’d been hired by its then-director, Donald Rumsfeld, who decades later served as defense secretary under President George W. Bush during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buckley did indeed have a job for Wyatt. It dawned on him that drivers have special access to, and proximity to, candidates and campaigns. He seized on the idea of having Wyatt pose as a volunteer for the campaign of Edmund Muskie, the Democratic U.S. senator from Maine who Nixon most feared as an opponent in the upcoming presidential campaign. Once ensconced, Wyatt could spy on the Muskie campaign. Buckley, according to his testimony, got sign-off for the operation from Kenneth Rietz, an official on the Committee to Re-elect the President, known by its nickname CREEP. Buckley used the code name “Jack Kent” while engaged in political espionage, but the CREEP crew called their portly operative “Fat Jack.” Wyatt accepted the assignment immediately, figuring he’d make some easy money.
One day, Wyatt strolled into Muskie campaign headquarters in Washington and told the staff that he liked Sen. Muskie and wanted to help out. They eventually began using him as a courier.
At home in Maryland, Wyatt’s interest in the campaign puzzled his family. “I could never understand why my dad was volunteering for Muskie, because we were Republicans,” Scott, his daughter, says.
Fat Jack’s plan was simple but flawed: The cabbie would call him after collecting documents to ferry from Muskie’s campaign headquarters to the senator’s Capitol Hill office. They’d meet on a street corner in downtown Washington. Fat Jack would sit in the back seat photographing documents while Wyatt drove, then hop out, and the cabbie would continue heading for Muskie’s office. With the sunlight coming in through the windows, Fat Jack was struggling to get good pictures. After a week of frustration, he rented an office instead. He bought an enlarging machine, a camera stand and a better camera. He’d take the film home and develop it. Then he’d meet Rietz on one of two corners near the White House to deliver the material.
But they couldn’t even get that right. Rietz was always showing up late for the photo drop. Fat Jack got annoyed. Rietz was replaced by someone who went by the name “Ed Warren.” He was more punctual. Even though they were conspiring to help Nixon, Fat Jack’s new contact wasn’t entirely transparent with him. After the Watergate scandal broke, Buckley learned that Ed Warren was actually E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent who was arrested for masterminding the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.
When Buckley was hauled before Congress to testify in October 1973, he was vague about what Wyatt collected for him. He claimed not to remember many details but said the material included not-yet-public drafts of upcoming speeches, position papers and news releases. He remembered seeing a draft of a Muskie letter about the nomination of William Rehnquist to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and said it was possible that a newspaper column referring to a confidential campaign memo might have come from Wyatt’s cache.
Elmer Wyatt claimed he didn’t really know what was going on until about two months into the operation. By then he’d gotten used to the easy money: starting out at $150 a week, which later got bumped to $175, for just a few hours of non-strenuous labor. In his statement to congressional investigators, he described his eight months as a mole as if it were some sort of well-being regimen that allowed him to make a living while he was easing back into the work world.
“I was able to take thing easey [sic] and regain my health,” the statement to committee investigators reads. “Thanks to the Watergate I am now able to do a days [sic] work, 7 days a week.”
Wyatt and Fat Jack shut down their surveillance in April 1972 as Muskie’s campaign fizzled and the senator dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination. The next month, Wyatt received a signed thank-you note from Muskie that looks like a form letter. At the time Muskie would have been unlikely to know that he was showing his appreciation to a man who’d spied on him — the DNC break-in arrests wouldn’t happen for another month. Still, with all we know now, the letter almost reads like a premonition.
“Political work, perhaps more than most areas of endeavor, demonstrates the qualities that each of us has,” the previously undisclosed letter reads. “The long hours and hectic pace, coupled with often great pressures, tend to bring out the best or the worst in everyone involved.”
The next year, as Congress delved into Buckley’s operation, staffers called in Wyatt to answer some questions. He denied any involvement, according to a transcript of the Senate Watergate hearings. When they called him back a second time, he fessed up.
“I don’t think I did anymore wrong than you or anyone else who walked into Muskie’s office at the time,” Wyatt wrote in his statement to congressional investigators. Buckley insisted, under skeptical questioning from senators, that he and Wyatt were not engaged in illegal activities. But he admitted they were “spying” and involved in “political espionage.” He portrayed their Muskie project as routine opposition research.
Buckley and Wyatt were never charged with crimes. Wyatt, refreshed from his easy Watergate spying job, went back to driving a cab — and faded back into obscurity. He’d host poker games at his house, sometimes waking up his daughter, Verona, to play a hand for him. She was his lucky charm. He’d play the lottery using his cab number: 108.
He died in No. 108 one day in 1981. Just pulled over to the side of the road and breathed his last. At his memorial service, his family played the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler.”
“For a taxi driver, he led a very interesting life,” Scott says.
In 2005, Wyatt’s son died, and eventually Verona Scott ended up with that box of mementos kept by the complicated, entertaining father she remembers so fondly. Inside was a photo of John R. Buckley, signed “Fat Jack.” The inscription reads: “To Elmer Wyatt, Friend, sometimes taxi driver — other times spy — The most effective, legal and legitimate spy in the whole Watergate mess!”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a feature writer in The Washington Post’s Style section, where he profiles national figures in the worlds of politics, the law and the arts. He previously served as bureau chief in Miami for The Post’s National staff and in Mexico City for the Post’s Foreign staff. He is the author of a biography of Sen. Marco Rubio. Twitter