Canberra’s first coup: The political assassination of Prime Minister John Gorton – Part 7

Prime Minister John Gorton with US Ambassador William Crook, left

Midnight dancing at the US Embassy

Canberra, Thursday, 1 November 1968 – Prime Minister John Gorton was just emerging from the tabloid scandal involving cabaret artist Liza Minnelli at Chequers nightclub in Sydney when he was hit by fresh claims about his misbehaviour with a teenage female from Canberra’s National Press Gallery.

The story unfolded in front of Press Gallery itself which was staging an end-of-the-year dinner at the city’s snazziest hotel, The Rex, on Northbourne Avenue. Guest of honour was the Prime Minister himself who was on a mission to build bridges with parliamentary reporters who had become increasingly unfriendly since he took the prime ministership in January. Another guest was Geraldine Willesee, a 19-year-old reporter from Australian United Press (AUP). Their lives were about to cross in the most bizarre fashion.

Geraldine Willesee

Gerri Willesee was the youngest member of a clan that was steeped in Labor politics, journalism and Catholicism. Her father, Senator Don Willesee, became Foreign Minister in Gough Whitlam’s government and her older brothers, Mike, Terry and Don, were all high-powered journalists and presenters, while their eldest sister, Colleen, left home to become a nun. However, there was nothing monastic about Geraldine: she was determined to follow in Mike’s footsteps and not Colleen’s. Mike Willesee, a Gallery reporter who became my lifelong friend when I worked in Canberra in the 1960s, helped find his sister a job on The Australian and then with the AUP bureau in the Press Gallery.

After dinner at The Rex hotel, Press Gallery revellers took to the dance floor as the latest hits were played. Prime Minister Gorton made a bee-line for Ms Willesee and they began to dance the night away. US Ambassador Bill Crook phoned The Rex around 8.30pm to invite the PM to the American Embassy to give him important news about the American bombing campaign in Vietnam. Gorton replied with a message saying that he would meet the Ambassador at 9.30. But he kept on dancing. At 11 o’clock, an agitated Ambassador Crook telephoned again saying a meeting with Gorton was “imperative” and that they needed to discuss pending changes to American policy in Vietnam.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968

President Lyndon Johnson was keeping the whole world on tenterhooks. Some correspondents thought LBJ would step up the bombing campaign while others believed he might scale it back as a peace offering. He had already announced he would not seek Democratic Party nomination for a second term in the White House and Senator Hubert Humphrey became the official candidate. Five days later, on Tuesday, November 5, Humphrey was defeated by Republican Richard M Nixon who became the 37th US President. Johnson and “Lady Bird” started packing to go home to the sprawling ranch, affectionately known as the “Texas White House”. Johnson departed a broken man

When the Gallery dinner ended Mike Willesee heard a couple of colleagues offering to drive his sister home when a voice piped up: “I will take the lady home.” It was John Gorton. The PM then turned to Geradine Willesee and his press secretary Tony Eggleton saying: “Right, where are we going? Let’s go for a drink somewhere.” A very apprehensive Eggleton replied: “Oh, Prime Minister, I really think it’s time to go. Everything is closed.” But Gorton brushed aside Eggleton’s advice saying: “Everything is not closed! We’ll go to the US Embassy. He stays up late.” He sounded for all the world like David Brent, the Ricky Gervais character in the TV series The Office, who infamously said: “My drinking? Does it offend you? Yeah good.”

English-born Eggleton began his working life as a cub reporter in his home-town newspaper in Swindon, Wiltshire. Migrating to Australia in 1950, he became public relations director for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) when Senator Gorton was Navy Minister. After serving as press secretary to Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, he fulfilled the same role with Gorton after he became PM in January 1968. A diehard Liberal with close connections to the defence and intelligence communities, Eggleton later became Federal Director of the Liberal Party for a record 15 years.

Press Secretary Tony Eggleton, left, with Bettina Gorton, Interior Minister Peter Nixon and PM Gorton

In 1991 his career was relaunched with his appointment as secretary-general of CARE International, a quasi-governmental agency delivering humanitarian aid in war zones. In 2006 Prime Minister John Howard appointed him chair of the Centre for Democratic Institutions, a body directly involved in promoting Western policies and culture. It was a precursor of the 2019 push by John Howard and Tony Abbott to fast-track approval for billionaire Paul Ramsay’s graduate faculty studying “Western” civilisation as opposed to civilisation as a general historical development.

If anyone was aware of John Gorton’s hazardous lifestyle it was Eggleton aka “The Maltese Falcon”. A sturdy loyalist from Canberra’s pro-British network, Eggleton had served Gorton when he was Navy Minister and as Prime Minister, and grew very familiar with his personal habits and ambitions. But on this occasion the PM rejected his trusted adviser’s cautious advice to go home. Instead, he took a teenage reporter on an after-hours drinking spree at the US Embassy. Hardened journos from the Press Gallery felt that it would all end in tears. And it did.

At the US Embassy, Ambassador Bill Crook was pacing up and down with mounting impatience. He was under instruction from Washington DC to contact John Gorton and “keep him in the loop” over LBJ’s bombing plans. But Gorton was deliberately avoiding the Ambassador because he was “pissed off”. He felt that the US Embassy was taking the Australian Government for granted and not treating it as a trusted ally. Gorton also believed the embassy was leaking stories to selected political reporters. His complaints had some merit, of course, but his style of government did not appeal to Washington’s bible-bashing powerbrokers and he was paying for it.

Crook was the American ambassador during John Gorton’s first year as Prime Minister. From the very start, the two men had a testy relationship and things only got worse. Crook, the son of a Congregational minister, was an ordained preacher of the First Baptist Church in Texas. In 1954 he married the daughter of a very wealthy grocery chain owner and they had three children. Crook failed to break into politics in 1960 after losing a Democratic primary to contest a seat in the US Congress.

He was recruited to the staff of President Johnson and eventually landed in Washington DC as LBJ’s national director of Vista, Volunteers in Service for America, forerunner of the intelligence-gathering Peace Corps. Without any diplomatic experience, Crook was then sent to Canberra in 1967 as ambassador. After Canberra, Crook remained active in Texas Democrat politics and established two orphanages in Ethiopia in 1985 after the 1981-84 famine. A “Top Secret” security assessment landing on Gorton’s desk only days after he became Prime Minister in January stated that Crook was an energetic homosexual.

US Embassy, Canberra

Gorton’s official limousine left The Ritz bound for the US Enbassy with four passengers on board – the PM, Geraldine Willesee, Tony Eggleton and a driver. The embassy sits on a hilltop mid-way overlooking The Lodge, the official residence of the Australian Prime Minister, and Parliament House. Because of the close proximity between the US Embassy, The Lodge and Federal Parliament the area became known as the “Bermuda Triangle”, the centre of secret power in Australia. The prime site was gifted to the US Government by the Labor Government of Prime Minister John Curtin in 1942, a year after the fall of Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Darwin and Townsville and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan and the Axis powers.

Construction started symbolically in 1942 on 4 July, America’s Independence Day, and the Georgian-styled building was opened in 1943. Canberra and Washington elevated their diplomatic ranking with an exchange of ambassadors in 1946. In the preceding years, Washington conducted its diplomacy with Australia through the British Embassy. Wartime forced a complete revision of Australia’s alliances. Britain was elbowed into second place and the USA became No 1. The US ambassador emerged as such a powerful player that he was often referred to as “an honorary member” of the Cabinet, a fictional position previously held by the British High Commissioner.

The shift in Australia’s post-war alliance from Britain to the US was never fully accepted by Robert Menzies and his Liberal Party. So while they paid lip service to “our American friends” they continued to regard London as the world’s capital and worshipped all things British, including the monarchy, Westminster, the Foreign Office, the City of London and Lords cricket ground. Menzies famously averred that he was “British to his bootstraps” but John Gorton announced in one of his first interviews as PM that he was “Australian to his bootstraps”. The message echoed loud and clear in the conservative corridors of the Coalition and they didn’t like what they were hearing.

When Prime Minister Gorton’s official car left The Ritz it was tailed to the US Embassy by two Commonwealth Police officers on security detail. The police shadowed the PM to Yarralumla where they saw Prime Minister Gorton take Ms Willesee’s arm and walk to the Embassy’s front door with Mr Eggleton.

Inside they were greeted by Bill Crook, Ms Ainsley Gotto, the Prime Minister’s private secretary, and Jeff Darman, the ambassador’s strapping private secretary. They were having a drink after a private embassy dinner. Mrs Crook had gone upstairs to her bedroom, furious that Mr Gorton had treated her husband so shabbily. On arrival, Gorton immediately resumed dancing with Ms Willesee leaving Mr Crook, Ms Gotto and Mr Eggleton at the other end of the large living room.

Ainsley Gotto, principal private secretary to Gorton

Brisbane-born Ainsley Gotto was one of John Gorton’s first appointments when he became Prime Minister in January 1968. He made her his personal private secretary. She was 21. She had previously worked in Parliament House for Liberal Chief Whip, Bill Aston, and his successor Dudley Erwin. When Erwin was sacked from Gorton’s second ministry in November 1969 as being “hopeless” he made headlines by explaining his dismissal as Air Minister like this: “It wiggles, it’s shapely, it’s cold-blooded and its name is Ainsley Gotto.” It was an outrageously sexist remark and typical of the era. Ms Gotto’s “crime” was to be intelligent, strong-willed and devoted to being at the centre of government policy-making. Fifty years later the Liberal Party was excoriating Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for similar “crimes”.

A dossier detailing events at the embassy stated: “The Ambassador is eager to pass on private information about the cessation of bombing of North Vietnam, but the Prime Minister spends the best part of the next two hours at the far end of the room chatting and drinking with Willesee. Mr Eggleton spends the evening in conversation with Mr Crook. After an unknown period of time, the shadow car drives off. At 3am Gorton, Eggleton and Miss Willesee leave the US Embassy in the Prime Minister’s car. Ms Willesee is dropped off at her home. The Prime Minister is dropped off at The Lodge.”

Mike Willesee, award-winning TV reporter

The next day Gerri Willesee told her brother Mike about the previous evening’s events, including that John Gorton “made no attempt to speak to the Ambassador at all”. Mike Willesee later remarked: “It was an image that stuck with me: 2am, our troops in Vietnam getting killed, and here’s the Prime Minister and the American Ambassador getting pissed and refusing to talk to one another. It certainly seemed to me that the Prime Minister’s priority that night was being with Gerri.”

Over the next few days events began to move at a furious pace but were largely concealed from the public. Bill Crook made a formal complaint to ASIO that the Australian Prime Minister was a “security risk”. His evidence? He had none except that Gorton had taken Ms Willesee to the US Embassy when national security was to be discussed (it wasn’t).

Then Commissioner Ray Whitrod, head of the Commonwealth Police and a former ASIO officer, phoned ASIO chief Brigadier Charles Spry to report on events at the Gallery dinner and the US Embassy. As a result, Spry ordered a security report on the serving Prime Minister. It was an unprecedented moment in Australian history.

ASIO chief Brigadier Charles Spry

Brigadier Spry presented the PM with “two handwritten reports based on two tape recordings” provided by an unnamed “agent”. Who he? According to the brigadier, Gorton refuted the allegations against him “in strong terms” but did “not appear to be unduly perturbed by the disclosures.” Other reliable sources have told me that Gorton exploded saying that ASIO could “get fucked” and that the two dossiers were “a pack of lies”. On his return to Melbourne headquarters, Spry is reported to have destroyed the six-page dossier compiled by the mysterious “agent” along with his tapes and transcripts. I don’t believe it. In my experience, intelligence agencies don’t destroy reports, they file them.

Prime Minister Gorton kept a copy of the six-page document written by the mystery man known only as the “agent” and showed it to Mike Willesee who read it and kept a copy. Some of ASIO’s information could only have from one of the four people in the PM’s limousine on the drive from The Ritz to the US Embassy but the informant was never unmasked.

Geraldine Willesee became the first casualty of the Press Gallery-US Embassy imbroglio. In the course of the evening Gorton had told her that he wanted Australia to withdraw from Vietnam. It was a genuine scoop and Ms Willesee spent the day writing it up. But AUP bureau chief Ken Braddick was having none of it. He tore up the article and then sacked her. The next victim was Maxwell Newton, an economist, author, pamphleteer and former editor of The Australian, whose home was raided by police in a brazen attack on press freedom.

Mike Willesee concluded: “If it had been a male journalist who’d gone to the US Embassy with the PM and come back with an exclusive, he would have been lauded. Gerri got shafted.”

Over the next few years there would be other victims as well. After Gorton, the Liberal Party had a succession of leaders – William McMahon, Billy Snedden and Malcolm Fraser. It did not matter whether they were from the pro-Gorton camp or the anti-Gorton camp. This would be a bonfire of the vanities and there is reason to think it is still burning.

Next week: How Liberals destroyed their own PM

© Alex Mitchell

NB: These articles are covered by exclusive copyright with ownership belonging to the author. They can only be reproduced in full or in part by his written permission.

NB: The Weekly Notebook has been temporarily suspended while I complete the John Gorton series. But I’ll back soon with exclusive reports on the NSW and Federal elections, Trump and Brexit. A.M.

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