By Tom Lamia
It is a new year. This one promises less than most. Despite our venerable Constitution, and a history of grit and valor, we seem to be losing our way. The current malaise could be temporary, the after effect of Obama hubris meeting Trump reality, and all will be sorted out in the election this year. I don’t think so. I see the problem as a growing acceptance of what used to be called “dirty tricks.”
A certain amount of misdirection and “shade” has always been used in political campaigns. It is tolerated because not much can be done about it and campaigns offer a level playing field for all candidates. When a particularly effective message lands, usually because its timing prevents a counter-effective response, hard feelings linger, to be assuaged by overreaction in the next campaign.
In the current climate, the urge to land serious rhetorical blows gets appeased by the heavy use of opposition research and exaggeration of the truth and relevancy of whatever “facts” may be dug up. One side may do more of this than the other, but both sides do it. This is what passes for being “tough” in today’s politics.
One consequence is that political compromise becomes ever more elusive. After you have falsely accused the other side of the most evil thoughts and deeds in a costly battle for votes, the expectation for reasonable discussion and compromise becomes hypothetical only. The sentiment toward good government through cooperation and mutual trust cannot survive the reputational and financial hurt and damage inflicted. Unsurprisingly, in this climate the practice of political compromise is rare. Some amount of cordiality is needed to make the system work. We used to have it in much greater measure than today. What happened?
Political “dirty tricks” happened. The first “tough” political operatives I dealt with were at the University of Southern California in the late 1950s, where an underground fraternity (“TNE”) actively and surreptitiously promoted its candidates for student government positions by trashing rival candidates. The leaders of TNE went on to be Nixon presidential insiders, among them Ron Zeigler as Press Secretary and Donald Segretti as a campaign aide responsible for dirty tricks.
The Nixon organization was not proud of its opposition sabotage wing and did not openly claim credit for its many shameful activities. One such operation targeted Maine Democratic U.S. Senator Ed Muskie. Muskie was the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1968 (on the ticket with Hubert Humphrey). The Democrats lost to Nixon/Agnew in a close race. Muskie had made a highly favorable impression though, and became the early leader for the 1972 Presidential nomination. Ultimately, George McGovern became the Democratic nominee and lost to Nixon in a rout, winning only one state.
What happened to Muskie? Dirty tricks happened. A significant number of voters in Maine and New Hampshire were of French-Canadian ancestry. A few weeks before the New Hampshire primary, a letter to the editor of the Manchester Union Leader related that when Muskie was asked on the campaign trail how he could understand the problems of African-Americans when Maine had so few, a Muskie aide responded, “Not Blacks, but we have Canucks.” Muskie was said to have laughed at the remark. The FBI later found that the “Canuck Letter” was part of a dirty tricks campaign orchestrated by Donald Segretti and Nixon’s re-elect committee.
Muskie then made a speech outside the offices of the Union Leader in which he attacked its publisher (a Republican power in the state) for publishing the “Canuck Letter” and for reprinting an uncomplimentary Newsweek editorial that said his wife, Jane, “liked to tell dirty jokes and smoke cigarettes.”
Muskie was reported to have cried during the speech, an act regarded at the time as unmanly. Muskie did win a narrow victory in the primary, but as the candidate from the neighboring state of Maine, he was expected to win handily. His campaign was badly damaged by the incident and he soon dropped out of the race.
The “Crying Speech” as it was soon described, was used to make Muskie out to be a softie, not tough enough to be President. Muskie was tough, in the manner most admired in Mainers and others of real accomplishment—the strong, silent type of tough. He was a second generation Polish-American whom other Mainers recognized early on as a person who would benefit from a quality education, but had no way to pay for it, so it was provided by the generosity of Maine friends and institutions. My mother-in-law was a friend of Ed Muskie when they were both students at Bates College in Maine. She spoke often of him and of his superior qualities.
A further reliable source on the character of Edmund Muskie is Maynard Toll, a top Senate staffer for Muskie from 1971 to 1975. Maynard Toll, his father (Maynard Toll, Sr.) and his older sister, Janet, were each well known to me during my working career as a California, Washington and New York lawyer.
The Bates College Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Collection includes a lengthy year 2000 interview of Maynard in which he reflects upon his professional time in Washington with Sen. Muskie, a Bates alumnus. His recollections paint an extraordinary picture of a man of strength, resolve and learning. Briefly, he was not a “puppet” or an “easy mark” for political opponents. He took his senatorial responsibilities “very seriously. ” As a Presidential candidate this and his vulnerability to Nixon’s dirty tricksters may have been a weakness. A forged letter and a slur of his wife brought him down. This would not happen today, not because it would not be done, but because he would know it was coming. In this way good people are either kept out of politics or are co-opted to the dark side in order to participate. We should all regret where dirty tricks have brought us.