Just back from a lovely winter stay at a friend's place in Margaretville, New York, up in the Catskills. Good food, good people, good sledding, lots of snow. Too much snow, as a matter of fact--we got socked in a few days longer than I had expected, and without television, Internet and, for a while, phones. So I am only now returning to the relative civilization of northeastern New Jersey to find that, yes, they are holding the Iowa caucuses without me.
What a wonderful race so far. God, I love primaries. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee seems to be pulling away Mitt Romney, thankfully. Not that I am a huge Huckabee fan--does he remind anyone else of Richard Nixon?--but Mitt really is such a Mutt. The two are now arguing about whether Huckabee has "gone negative" on Mitt one times too many, but, come on-- Huckabee is just using the time-honored "I'm-an-underdog-even-when-I'm-no-longer-an-underdog" tactic beloved of JFK and Bill Clinton and many others. The Nixonian part--aside from Mike's physical resemblance to the man while wearing a hunting cap--came when Mike decided not to campaign negatively then decided he wanted to, then decided he wouldn't, then showed reporters an attack ad targeting Romney. Just for the heck of it.
Nice, but no cigar. For some real primary dirty tricks, we need to look back at the 1972 primaries, which have been overshadowed by Richard Nixon's lopsided win over George McGovern and the Watergate shenanigans of the campaign itself. But, right around now in 1972, President Nixon felt that he was vulnerable to a challenge from a strong Democratic candidate. So it became the goal of his dirty tricks managers like Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin to “foster a split between Democratic hopefuls” in the primaries. Teddy Kennedy was not a problem—the last surviving Kennedy brother had pretty much blown his presidential chances by driving a car off a bridge in 1969 and drowning the young girl with him.
Going into the New Hampshire primary in February, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 running mate, was predicted to be the big winner—in fact, most journalists had already anointed him the Democratic presidential nominee. And Richard Nixon viewed Muskie as a formidable candidate.
But then strange things began happening. Suddenly, New Hampshire voters began receiving phone calls from rude black people—phone calls that came in late at night or very early in the morning—saying that they had been bused in from Harlem to work for Muskie. And then conservative editor of the Manchester Union Leader, William Loeb, published a letter purportedly written by an ordinary citizen which accused Muskie of using the word “Canuck” to refer to French-Canadians. In defending himself against this and other slurs on his wife, Muskie, standing outdoors before microphones and cameras, began to cry. Or, since it was snowing, perhaps a snowflake had landed in his eye—it’s impossible to tell from tapes of the incident.
But Muskie did lose his cool, and the rap on him now was that he was unable to handle pressure. He won New Hampshire, but by a much smaller margin than predicted. Only later was it discovered that the “Canuck” letter was written by White House aide Kenneth Clawson.
Things just got worse when Muskie headed for the Florida primary. There, many voters received a letter written on Muskie campaign stationary, which said (falsely) that Hubert Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving in 1967. Other letters under the Muskie letterhead claimed that prominent Democratic senator and presidential hopeful Henry “Scoop” Jackson had fathered a child with a 17-year-old girl.
No detail was too small. Posters appeared on Florida highways which read “Help Muskie in Busing More Children Now.” Ads were placed in tiny free shopper’s newsletters saying: “Muskie: Would you accept a black running mate?” And, at a Muskie press conference in Miami, someone let go a handful of white mice with tags attached to them which read: “Muskie is a rat fink.”
The person behind all this Florida mayhem was Donald Segretti, prince of dirty tricks. Segretti, whose name means “secret” in Italian, was a California lawyer who had been law school pals with several students who later became Nixon staffers—in particular, Dwight Chapin, the man who hired him and paid him $16,000, plus expenses, to wreak havoc in the primaries.
Muskie came in fourth in Florida and was finished as a candidate. Segretti’s role was discovered in the investigations after the Watergate break-in and he served four and a half months in prison for misdemeanors associated with illegal campaign activities.
After Florida, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern were the main Democratic candidates, and Nixon’s men rose to combat this. Setting up a phony “Democrats for Nixon” group (shades of Tricky Dick’s California gubernatorial run) they produced leaflets describing Humphrey as a man who, as Johnson’s Vice-President, had helped escalate the war in Vietnam. Some of the leaflets had a picture of a fish over Humphrey’s face, with the caption: “There’s Something Fishy About Hubert Humphrey.”
Partly as a result of the ill feelings caused by these fake ads, Humphrey and McGovern were unable to present a united front when McGovern became the nominee and the time came to go after Richard Nixon.
As the man said, primaries are a bitch--and then you die.