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Six famous words can’t begin to define Ken Dahlberg’s full life

Six famous words can’t begin to define Ken Dahlberg’s full lifeSo here’s a guy who in his remarkable 90 years has been a World War II flying ace,  survived a German POW camp, become a rags-to-riches business success, a father, a grandfather.

Ken Dahlberg
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
This restored P-51 Mustang fighter plane is a flying monument to Ken Dahlberg, the subject of a new book about his life.

So here’s a guy who in his remarkable 90 years has been a World War II flying ace,  survived a German POW camp, become a rags-to-riches business success, a father, a grandfather. All of this and so much more.

And what is he most remembered for?  Six words in the infamous smoking-gun tapes of former President Richard Nixon.

“Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?” Nixon asked H.R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972.

Frustrating to be known by so many for these six words?

“That’s life,” said Dahlberg at a book-signing event at a Flying Cloud Airport hangar Wednesday morning.

Behind Dahlberg was a P-51 Mustang fighter plane, restored and owned by Paul Ehlen. The plane is a flying monument to Dahlberg. Ehlen has Dahlberg’s name on the plane; he calls it “Little Horse,” which is what Dahlberg named his plane.  Ehlen will take the plane on a spin above Flying Cloud at another book-signing event scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m.

Book details Dahlberg’s wartime heroism
The book, written by Al Zdon and Warren Mack, is called “One Step Forward.” Proceeds will go to the Minnesotans Military Appreciation Fund.

Much of the book is devoted to Dahlberg’s wartime heroism. He shot down 15 German planes and was shot down three times himself. The third time led to a German POW camp for the last four months of the war.

Laughing, he told the gathering Wednesday morning about the maturation of young fighter pilots.

“We were a cocky bunch,” he said. “Fighter pilots go through three phases. The first phase is ‘They can’t get me.’ But then, after you see a couple of your buddies go down, the second phase is ‘They could get me.’ The third phase comes when you’re in your parachute saying, pardon my language, ‘Aw shit, they got me.’ ”

The book also covers the extremely successful Minnesota-based business career that took a once-poor Indiana farm boy to considerable wealth with such products as the Miracle-Ear hearing aid and more fortune as a venture capitalist.

Dahlberg doesn’t try to elude famed Watergate moment
But neither the book nor Dahlberg skirt the issue of Watergate, and Dahlberg’s unintended, but significant, role in it.

Though he claimed he was “apolitical,” he had become involved in politics in 1964 because of a friendship with Barry Goldwater that dated back to the war. He worked as a fundraiser for Goldwater. Even after Goldwater was trounced in his bid to become president, Dahlberg was hooked.

Even though he was a close friend of Hubert Humphrey, Dahlberg raised money for Richard Nixon’s 1968 run against Humphrey.

“It was different in those days than it is now,” said Dahlberg in our conversation Wednesday. “Republicans, Democrats. We were all friends.”

In 1972, he was the deputy national chairman and Midwest campaign chairman for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, known widely as CREEP.

In that capacity, he solicited $25,000 from Dwayne Andreas, a few days before April 7, 1972. That date was significant because that was the day on which the law changed, requiring identification from all donors. Andreas wanted to be anonymous, likely because four years earlier he had been the finance chair for Humphrey.

“Best sales job I ever did,” said Dahlberg of getting the donation from Andreas.

Andreas’ contribution came in cash. Dahlberg turned the cash into a cashier’s check, which he gave to Maurice Stans, the CREEP finance chairman. Stans turned the check over to G. Gordon Liddy, who passed it on to Bernard Barker, who took it to his South Florida business and had it cashed.

Barker, as it turned out, was the leader of the bungled Watergate burglary. When the FBI started checking out Barker, they found he had cashed a $25,000 check from Dahlberg. This turned out to be the first direct connection between the burglary and CREEP, and it led to Nixon asking that memorable question:  “Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?”

In August 1972, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward started asking the same question. They were calling Dahlberg at his Twin Cities suburban home asking about the check. He told them he didn’t have “the vaguest idea” how the check ended up in Barker’s hands. The story, of course, ended up on Page 1 of the Post.

Dahlberg was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

But Watergate and his name will forever be linked to the man who accomplished so much.

“I understand that,” said Dahlberg, who winters in Arizona but still calls Minnesota home. “Watergate was a pretty powerful catchword. Lot of people, past and present, were curious about it.”

With a twinkle in his eye he added, “It was a pretty good story.”