The old house on Glenwood Road sits under a spreading linden tree, and looks down rather sternly on to Hempstead Harbor, as it has done for 164 years. You may have heard of its former owner. William J. Casey and his wife Sophia bought "Mayknoll" after World War II, and from here he transformed U.S. foreign and domestic policy, as special counsel to the U.S. Senate, chair of the SEC during the Nixon administration, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1981 to 1987. He died May 6, 1987, at the age of 74, and is buried at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.
Casey's death was occasioned by controversy. Just hours before he died, a former colleague said he had helped set up the covert — and illegal — aid pipeline to the Nicaraguan Contras. Bob Woodward, in his 1987 book, "Veil," reported that he received a deathbed confirmation from Casey of his involvement.
Which brings us to Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, who recently brought a camera crew to Mayknoll for an installment of "What Made America Great," his web series for the streaming site Fox Nation.
The resulting piece, now online, is both fascinating and overwrought: A fleeting glimpse into a secret world filled with the adornments of a cold warrior who fought the Nazis (as head of the OSS under Wild Bill Donovan), the Soviets, and — for a time — the press.
For the special, Kilmeade interviews Casey's only daughter, Bernadette Casey Smith (her mother died in 2000), and her husband, Owen Smith. They put the house on the market last year and Kilmeade's tour thus has the look and feel of one of those online real estate videos, complete with a driving rock track.
Casey Smith — who sold Casey's Palm Beach estate in 2012 — and her husband until recently ran the Milleridge Inn in Jericho; Smith was formerly deputy county executive of Nassau County, and chaired the New York State Board of Elections and Nassau County Planning Board.
I spoke recently with Massapequa native Kilmeade about this most unusual of visits. An edited transcript of our chat:
So how did this encounter come to be?
When someone said I should think about having a book party for "Secret Six" [Kilmeade's 2013 book, "George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution"] they said I should go to the Milleridge Inn for it. And Bernadette was there at the time and looked at me and said, "Do you know who I am? William Casey was my dad and he was working on a similar book like this when he died." She later showed me the notes he was trying to put together and how he was trying to figure out the book. He was working on the same book! What are the odds?
So they still live in Mayknoll?
She does and it is for sale now.
Did they think this feature could help sell the house?
Yes, and they love "Fox Nation," and as I said, we became friendly and they said, "We've got a perfect feature for you. It's our house."
The house almost seems like a living memorial to Casey. Nothing seems to have changed or even touched. True?
Yes, it's like he left yesterday.
How much time did he spend here during the Reagan years or when he was CIA chief?
He was in Washington during the week and came back as often as possible on the weekends. My sense from his daughter is that he loved the place — not only the house but Long Island in particular [Casey grew up in Bellmore]. He loved the house, loved the history, loved the scenery.
I see that you do open a can of worms, by asking both Owen and Bernadette about the Woodward interview — which they vehemently deny ever having taken place. Why go there?
Yeah, Owen and Bernadette said no way it happened, and said other friends and associates, like [former Attorney General] Ed Meese [also interviewed for this] swear that he knew nothing about it, [and] that he loved [Iran-Contra architect] Oliver North but that this was something that he would never be a part of. He never left the hospital, and a CIA officer was guarding his door there the whole time, and that Woodward could never have gotten in. I will say that the family feels like all this happened just yesterday and when I brought it up they felt as strongly as if it's today's news. They're frustrated because they think this one thing defines his entire legacy [and] it just seems unjust to them.
But did you know that Casey did in fact posthumously direct funds to the Contras, because after his death, Bernadette asked that in lieu of flowers, people should donate to the William J. Casey Fund for the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters, and that the fund raised $140,000?
[Laughs.] That's cool.