NEW YORK — Jack Caulfield — a former New York City police detective who died Sunday in Vero Beach, Fla., at 83 — was once a master of dirty tricks for the Nixon White House who had his biggest brush with history in the role of a messenger.
By all accounts, in January 1973, Mr. Caulfield met with James McCord Jr., a former CIA officer and one of the burglars in the Watergate break-in, to tell him that the White House was prepared to grant him clemency, money, and a job in return for not testifying against members of the administration and accepting a prison sentence.
Mr. Caulfield also told McCord that the president knew about their meeting and that its outcome would be transmitted to him.
Testifying before the Senate Watergate committee in 1973, McCord said he was told that the clemency offer had come from ‘‘the highest levels of the White House.’’ Mr. Caulfield also appeared before the panel.
The account appeared to link Nixon directly to efforts to cover up the White House’s involvement in the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, the event that would lead to Nixon’s downfall.
But Nixon denied the allegation, and transcripts of White House tapes did not show that he had been behind the offer. John W. Dean III, the White House counsel, told investigators that it was he who had authorized Mr. Caulfield to broach the matter with McCord, though Dean insisted that he had done so with the president’s knowledge.
Mr. Caulfield — whose death was confirmed by his son John, the cause not yet determined — left other marks in Washington. He was performing dirty tricks for the White House well before it assembled the ‘‘plumbers,’’ as the perpetrators of the Watergate break-in were known.
He sent an anonymous letter to the tax authorities, prompting an audit of a reporter who had written an article that Nixon disliked. He arranged a tax investigation of the liberal Brookings Institution after considering firebombing it. He wiretapped the phone of a syndicated columnist. He investigated rumors about the sex lives, drinking habits, and family problems of Nixon’s political opponents.
In the book ‘‘Breach in Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon’’ (1975), Theodore H. White said that Mr. Caulfield had typified the ‘‘writhing upward ambition’’ of many in the Nixon administration. Having risen from foot patrol to detective in two years in the New York Police Department, he became part of an elite unit that protected visiting dignitaries and gathered intelligence. He joined the Nixon circle when Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign hired him to help it with security.
After the election, Nixon’s aides suggested that he set up a private security agency to provide ‘‘investigative support’’ for the White House, Mr. Caulfield said. But he demurred, and the White House took him on as an assistant for security and liaison with law enforcement agencies.
One of his first acts was to recruit another New York City detective, Anthony Ulasewicz, whose streetwise manner would later be on display in the nationally televised Senate Watergate hearings. Ulasewicz was brought on as a private agent, paid with political funds, his main function being to spy on political opponents.
As a first assignment, Mr. Caulfield sent Ulasewicz to Chappaquiddick, Mass., to find out exactly what Senator Edward M. Kennedy had been doing on the night in 1969 when Mary Jo Kopechne, a former campaign aide, drowned after the car in which they were riding plunged off a bridge.
In 1971, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wanted to set up a covert political intelligence unit that could not be traced to the White House. In a 12-page memo, Mr. Caulfield proposed setting up a private security arm for the task, but it was rejected.
In his 1976 book ‘‘Blind Ambition,’’ Dean wrote that the proposal ‘‘read like a grade-B detective story.’’ An alternative plan became the basis for the Watergate break-in. Mr. Caulfield’s only other involvement in the affair was to pass on orders to Ulasewicz to pay the burglars hush money.
Ruthlessness, or at least its appearance, was part of Mr. Caulfield’s approach. When he passed the clemency proposal on to McCord, he added a word of advice. ‘‘I have worked with these people, and I know them to be as tough-minded as you,’’ he said. ‘‘Don’t underestimate them.’’
By then Mr. Caulfield was out of the White House, having been transferred to the Treasury Department. Dean wrote that John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s top aides, had hoped that Mr. Caulfield could use the post to influence how friends and enemies of the White House were treated by the Internal Revenue Service.
But his actual job was as a criminal enforcement official for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, where he oversaw 1,500 agents. Dean apparently chose Mr. Caulfield to talk to McCord because of his experience in handling delicate issues and because McCord had long trusted him.
Just nine months after accepting his Treasury post, which he called ‘‘my dream job,’’ Caulfield was forced to resign because of the clemency controversy. He was later an executive at an aerosol valve plant in Yonkers owned by Robert H. Abplanalp, one of Nixon’s closest friends.
John James Caulfield was born in the Bronx.