WASHINGTON — Richard G. Kleindienst, who served as attorney general for 10 months in the Nixon administration during much of the Watergate investigation, died of lung cancer Thursday at his home in Arizona. He was 76.
Kleindienst, a blunt, law-and-order conservative, assumed the top post at the Justice Department after serving as deputy to John N. Mitchell, a fierce Nixon loyalist who had resigned as attorney general to run Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign.
Mitchell was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Watergate conspiracy and served a prison term. While he was held blameless for Watergate crimes, Kleindienst pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 1974 for failing to testify fully to the Senate in a pre-Watergate investigation involving alleged favoritism shown to International Telephone & Telegraph Corp.
Kleindienst's wife, Margaret, said he died at his home in Prescott, where he had been battling cancer for four years while maintaining a private law practice.
Plato Cacheris, a prominent Washington defense attorney and longtime friend of Kleindienst, called him "a decent and honest public servant."
Cacheris, who represented Mitchell during the Watergate scandal, said: "It was a mark of his integrity that Dick kept the Watergate investigation going [by the FBI and Justice Department] and never tried to inject himself into it, despite his friendship with Mitchell and the president."
Sworn in as attorney general five days before the June 17, 1972, Watergate break-in, Kleindienst soon found his relations strained with Nixon's top aides as the investigation unfolded.
Much to his chagrin, he discovered that major decisions on personnel matters were being made by the White House, contrary to the common practice that an attorney general could select most of his top assistants.
Early in his tenure, Kleindienst was returning from a visit to Miami and took a call in his limousine from a White House aide informing him who would be the division heads at the Justice Department. Kleindienst steeled and clenched his fist for a moment but put his blunt reaction off the record to a reporter who was riding with him.
Upon being sworn into office, Kleindienst told Newsweek magazine that he was determined to answer his critics by initiating "a strong program in favor of civil rights."
He added: "I want vigorous antitrust enforcement to reduce the attitude that big corporations can get special favors. I want a strong fight against organized crime . . a campaign against drug traffic and real reform in our prisons."
Kleindienst's sensitivity about antitrust enforcement resulted from his Senate confirmation hearing in 1972. The hearings provided a forum for Senate Democrats to air charges that the administration's 1971 settlement of an antitrust lawsuit against ITT was influenced by the corporation's pledge of $400,000 to underwrite costs of the 1972 GOP National Convention.
Kleindienst, who was deputy attorney general at the time, and other administration figures denied the allegations. But in 1974, out of office for a year, Kleindienst settled charges that he had given false statements to the Senate by pleading guilty to a lesser offense of failing to testify fully. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, both of which were suspended.
Nixon, in later years, described Kleindienst as "a man strong in character who is at his best when the going is toughest." He first came to Nixon's attention as an avid supporter of the 1964 presidential campaign of Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.). He later became national director of field operations of the Goldwater for President Committee.
He worked in Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968 and was appointed deputy attorney general. He won a top post in the department for an Arizona friend, William H. Rehnquist, whom Nixon appointed to the Supreme Court in October 1971.
As high-ranking White House aides began to face possible criminal charges in the Watergate cover-up inquiry in April 1973, Kleindienst felt increasingly uncomfortable as attorney general and offered to resign. But he never forgave Nixon for announcing his resignation at the same time the president accepted the departures of White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and domestic affairs advisor John D. Ehrlichman.
Kleindienst told friends the announcement made it seem that he shared the same guilt as Haldeman and Ehrlichman, who later were convicted in the cover-up case and served prison terms. Kleindienst said he never again spoke to Nixon.
A native of Winslow, Ariz., Kleindienst attended the University of Arizona until his sophomore year, when he went to Italy to serve in World War II. Returning home after the war, he earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1947 and a law degree from Harvard in 1950.
Three years later, at the age of 30, he became the youngest member elected to the Arizona House of Representatives. More than a decade later, he lost a race for governor of Arizona.
Besides his widow, Kleindienst is survived by two sons and two daughters.
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.