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The dirty tricks of Nixon and the awfulization of today

Are things today the worst they’ve ever been?

There’s some kind of awfulizer gene embedded in human nature ( as evolved and especially among those who pay a lot of attention to politics) that makes us want to believe that things are worse than they are, and, if we can possibly manage to believe it, that things are the worst they’ve ever been.

As someone who pays way, way too much attention to the daily utterances of politicians, and the ads, and the press releases, and the constant stream of half (or less than half) truths, and the constantly improving post-modern methods of sneaking past our brains and appealing to the darker regions of our souls, I often slip into awfulizer mode myself. 

Maybe I exaggerate (which, of course, is a useful quality for awfulizing). But, as a history nerd, I am also burdened with too many facts that get in the way of truly believing that what we are now experiencing is the worst ever.

 Yes, our politicos can’t seem to find the spirit of compromise on such seemingly epic issues as adjusting tax rates, which our current discourse suggests is really about freedom versus oppression. But the country seems unlikely to literally break apart over it, as occurred in 1861 over the much more epic issue of slavery, which really was about freedom versus oppression.

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Yes, Dems and Repubs in Washington are not always speaking to each other Minnesota Nicely. But no member of the House has marched into the Senate and attacked a senator with a metal cane putting the senator in the hospital and causing permanent brain damage, as Rep. Preston Brooks did to Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Thomas Jefferson’s political opponents long traded on the rumor (which, so far as recent genetic testing can determine, turned out to be true) that Jefferson had a slave mistress who bore him several children. They called Abe Lincoln “the original gorilla,” and those who used that endearment included his own top general (George McClellan) and a member of his cabinet (Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who is believed to have coined the phrase). So perhaps some of today’s name-calling isn’t the worst we’ve seen.

On last week’s Meet the Press panel, Doris Kearns Goodwin (to make a similar point that today’s discourse isn’t necessarily at record lows, mentioned a campaign ditty sung by Whigs in the 1840 election that said that then-Pres. Martin Van Buren “deserves the lowest place in hell.”

I dug up the verse:

Who rules us with an iron rod
Who moves at Satan’s beck and nod
Who heeds not man, who heeds not God?
Van Buren!

Who would his friend his country sell?
Do other deeds too base to tell,
Deserves the lowest place in Hell?
Van Buren!

And the same for “dirty tricks”

Likewise, the tendency of any incumbent president heading into a reelection campaign to wish that he could choose the least electable opponent as the other party’s nominee and, if that can’t be arranged, to at least hope that the out-party’s nominating process will be as ugly and drawn-out as possible, leaving them less time and money to unite against him in November.

There is little doubt that Pres. Obama and his political team is enjoying the current Republican fratricide (see the current wry New Yorker cover, which captures it with a Super Bowl flavor). You will hear a certain amount of silly contrarianism on this point (after all, these contrarians say, Obama didn’t suffer from his own drawn out nomination battle with Hillary Clinton), but there is really no doubt that Team Obama:

a) is very happy to hear all of the current Repub foursome pledging to stay in the race to the end and wishes they would mean it, although such pledges are always made and usually broken and really, shouldn’t journalists just stop asking the candidates the when-will-you-drop-out questions that elicit these particular white lies;

b) wishes they could arrange for Newt Gingrich to somehow beat Mitt Romney because the Obamians surely believe what all those current trial heat matchup-up polls show about which Republican would be the stronger challenger;

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c) is willing to make some mischief in furtherance of either a) or b). If you look for it, you can see it when Dem-leaning “analysts” on CNN or Fox discuss the race. A great deal of what they say seems designed to either knock down whichever Repub is leading at the moment, in hopes of keeping the internal Repub race going  or piling on whatever criticism one of the Repub contenders is currently making against the other in a way that seems designed to tee the issue up for use by the Obama campaign down the road. And the same is of course true for the messages by various Obama surrogate organizations.

When Newt Gingrich’s SuperPAC (make that the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC that operates on his behalf but without coordination) was flaying Mitt Romney as a job-slayer during his private sector days, the Obama campaign itself put out a mildly nasty statement contrasting Romney work as a young man, profiting off (in some cases) killing jobs, Obama was organizing unemployed workers.

A bit nastier and a step removed from the Obama fingerprints (of course, there is no coordination between the Obama campaign and the SuperPACs that support him), back when Gingrich was surging a pro-Dem SuperPAC managed to acquire the domain name “newtgingrich.com” and referred visitors to that site to negative articles about Gingrich or to sites that had unsavory connections to Newt’s reputation. That same pro-Dem SuperPAC, “American Bridge 21st Century” has been leading reporters to stories like this one about how Romney’s old firm practiced free enterprise by exploiting tax subsidies, and distributed flyers to South Carolina Republicans emphasizing the most pro-gay-rights things Romney ever said.

The right and proper thing to do, of course, would be to stay out of the other party’s internal deliberations, concentrate on your own very demanding job, and save your politicizing for the campaign trail. (I can’t believe I even wrote a sentence that naïve.) None of these tricks are exactly clean, and politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley famously said (although, for some reason, Mitt Romney has changed it to “beanbags.”)

 But before I could awfulize into thinking that political dirty tricks are reaching any kind of new low, I finished reading Rick Pearlstein’s 2008 tome “Nixonland,” which reminded me what dirty tricks really look like. And yes, I’m afraid that all of this is really leading up to a rehash of a few of Nixon’s less-remembered crimes against democracy. The account below is derived from “Nixonland.”

Real dirty tricks

Chances are, you remember the really criminal stuff done by the Nixon White House as Nixon prepared to seek reelection in 1972. Illegal wiretaps placed by CIA-linked thugs after illegal break-ins into Democratic National Committee headquarters were, of course, the crimes that led the whole thing to ultimately unravel.

But if I mentioned the name Donald Segretti, perhaps those of you who were paying attention during the Watergate hearings (did I just date myself?) will recall a series of lower order misdemeanors that really set the bar for messing with the other party’s nominating process.

Nixon hoped to run against any Dem other than Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), whom he believed would be the toughest challenger. Nixon’s strongest preference was to run against South Dakota Sen. George McGovern whom he believed would be the weakest. The White House set up a unit to do something to Muskie that they called by a verb that started with “rat” and ended with a four-letter term for sexual intercourse. There were a lot of Dem candidates, and the tricks were played on several, but never on McGovern.

In the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, voters got calls in the middle night from phony volunteers claiming to be with the “Harlem for Muskie Committee.”

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The tricks often involved getting some young accomplice to volunteer for the target campaign, not only as a spy but also so they would steal letterhead and put out phony literature. Sometimes, the Segretti-run dirty tricks unit would put out fake fliers announcing a fake Muskie event. Democrats would show up, expecting to hear from the candidate and pissed off that Muskie stood them up. In other instances, they did the opposite: When there was a real rally, the Nixon tricksters would do something to screw up the candidates travel plans so the audience would be pissed off because the event would start late or the candidate would never show.

Some especially brilliant tricks would screw two candidates at once. The tricksters put out a phony letter, on Muskie stationery, informing Democrats that another Dem candidates, Sen. Henry Jackson, had sired an illegitimate daughter and been arrested for homosexual activity. The recipient could choose whether to think less of Muskie or Jackson or both.

 Another fake “Muskie letter alleged that Hubert Humphrey had been arrested for drunk driving while driving around with a call girl. The dirty tricksters got some Eugene McCarthy stationery and the campaign’s Florida mailing list and put out a letter to McCarthy’s own supporters in Florida asking them to ignore his name on the Florida primary ballot and vote for Humphrey instead.

When Muskie cried

Here’s the big one, at least in terms of kneecapping the Muskie candidacy in the run-up to New Hampshire. In a fairly famous incident, Muskie stood on a truck in the snow outside the office of the Manchester Union-Leader to denounce the paper for the lies it was running against him and his wife. Muskie got emotional and misted up, maybe even cried (back when men weren’t supposed to cry). The incident became at least the symbol of how Muskie blew his front-runner status.

Less remembered was the other lie in the Manchester paper. The paper reprinted a letter signed by “Paul Morrison,” recounting that he – “Morrison” – had asked Muskie how he could understand the problems of minorities when he came from Maine, which has a tiny black population. According to the letter (which, of course, the Union-Leader published without verifying its authenticity) a Muskie aide replied, in Muskie’s presence, that while Maine didn’t have many blacks, it did have “Canucks,” a mildly derogatory term for Canadians. New Hampshire (like Maine) had a substantial population of Canadian émigrés.

The incident reported in the letter had never happened. “Paul Morrison” didn’t exist. The letter was written by a dirty trickster on the White House payroll. Muskie won the New Hampshire primary but underperformed expectations, which led to a loss of front-runner status and eventually to the nomination of George McGovern (although McGovern wasn’t able to nock up the nomination until the convention itself) and to the reelection of Nixon by 49 states to one.

The public learned of the dirty tricks during the Watergate investigation, which led to the release of the secret White House tapes which showed that Nixon had been aware of the dirty tricks, had taken great pleasure at hearing the details of their activities and had suggested some additional ideas for more dirty tricks. The revelations of Watergate also lead to Nixon’s eventual resignation in disgrace. Segretti did four months in prison for distributing false campaign literature.

If you need to awfulize, awfulize that and maybe feel a little better about the politics of today.