On a snowy day in Manchester, New Hampshire, Democratic Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the front-runner for the party’s 1972 presidential nomination, stood before the offices of the conservative Union Leader newspaper and denounced the paper’s publisher William Loeb for publishing smears against him.
“By attacking me, by attacking my wife, he has proved himself to be a gutless coward,” Muskie said in an angry and emotional voice.
Some reports claimed tears ran down his cheeks. Muskie, and many historians today, argued those tears were actually the steadily falling snow melting upon impact. But at the time, the reports that Muskie cried fueled a media narrative that he was mentally unstable. He won the New Hampshire primary by a smaller margin than anticipated and rapidly faded in the following contests.
Forty-five years later, former vice president Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, stood before a crowd in Las Vegas to give a very similar message as Muskie.
“You’re not going to destroy me,” Biden declared on Oct. 2. “And you’re not going to destroy my family. I don’t care how much money you spend or how dirty the attacks get.”
What was done to Muskie is precisely what is being done to Biden. The president of the United States orchestrated a secret campaign of smears and deceit meant to destroy the political opponent he perceived as the most threatening to his own reelection. For Muskie, that president was Richard Nixon. For Biden, it’s Donald Trump.
Muskie’s downfall was part of a broad operation of illegality orchestrated by the Nixon White House to cover up leaks, spy on political opponents and fix the 1972 Democratic Party primary. It ultimately ended with Nixon’s resignation and pardon.
During his career as a California congressman, senator and failed gubernatorial candidate, Nixon was bedeviled by political tricks pulled on him by Democratic Party consultant Dick Tuck. Envious of the tricks deployed against him, Nixon decided to harness them himself.
Ahead of the 1972 election, his campaign and the White House hired a host of characters to screw with his opponents in the Democratic Party. The ultimate goal was to get the party to nominate South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, an anti-war figure they believed to be the least electable. (They were right.)
One of these characters was Donald Segretti, a University of Southern California frat boy, who was known for pulling political pranks to win student elections. Segretti and his buddies called these pranks “ratfucking.” Segretti and his ratfuckers were given the task of sowing confusion among the Democratic Party presidential candidates Nixon feared the most: former vice president and 1968 presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Muskie.
Among the many things Segretti and his team did to the Democratic Party presidential field was to forge letters from one campaign making wild allegations against another. They stole Muskie campaign letterhead and sent letters out alleging that sexual misconduct by Humphrey and that Jackson had fathered an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old girl. Muskie had to deny sending the letters while both Jackson and Humphrey were forced to deny the allegations.
But what got Muskie up in front of the Union Leader on that snowy day in 1972 was something called the “Canuck Letter.” One of the tricks Segretti and his team pulled was to forge a letter to the editor that purported to be from a Florida man who had asked how Muskie could understand problems faced by African Americans since he represented Maine, a state with a very small African-American population. The letter claimed that Muskie laughed after a staffer said, “Not blacks, but we have Canucks.” At the time, “Canuck” was viewed as a derogatory term for French-Canadians, of which there were many living in New Hampshire.
Segretti ended up pleading guilty to three counts of distributing fraudulent campaign material and served four months of his six-month prison sentence.
Trump’s attempt to tar Biden with the stench of a Ukrainian corruption investigation is just a grander prank aimed at rigging the 2020 election to his perceived benefit. In a now-infamous July 25 phone call, Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a natural gas company that had Biden’s son Hunter Biden on its board. So far, Biden has not suffered in the polls since the controversy erupted after the whistleblower complaint accusing Trump of malfeasance was revealed in September.
This is the only way that Trump knows how to do politics. He fanned the flames of birtherism against President Barack Obama, a racist dirty trick aimed at confusing both the public and the press. He latched on to every conspiracy theory imaginable about Hillary Clinton in 2016 ― she was dying, she sold uranium to Russia and so on. He publicly praised the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and called for, “Russia, if you’re listening,” to hack some more. And now he’s used the power of his office in an effort to manipulate a foreign country to manufacture a corruption investigation into the potential opponent he fears most.
Trump learned these politics from two professional smear merchants. The first was Roy Cohn, the McCarthyite-turned-mob-lawyer with a speciality in character assassination. The second was Nixon’s ultimate fanboy, Roger Stone.
Cohn became Trump’s first political adviser starting in the 1970s after the upcoming real estate developer and his father were facing charges of racial discrimination. Cohn taught Trump three key rules for dealing with challenges in business and politics, the author Sam Roberts told Vanity Fair’s Maire Brenner: “1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter-attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.”
Before dying of AIDS, Cohn passed off his Trump account to Stone, who had been loosely affiliated with Segretti’s ratfuckers.
Stone had pulled his share of dirty tricks as a Nixon hanger-on, including faking a donation from a made-up socialist group to Nixon’s 1972 Republican primary opponent California Rep. Pete McCloskey. It was Stone who pushed Trump to think about a political career as early as 1987 and was one of three advisers who laid the groundwork for his 2016 campaign.
The story of the Republican Party’s resurgence in the second half of the 20th century often leapfrogs Nixon. The traditional tale is one of a “remnant” of activists and wealthy oligarchs holding tight through the New Deal. They helped Barry Goldwater, a true conservative ideologue, get the GOP presidential nod in 1964. Then Ronald Reagan, the former New Deal Democrat-turned-conservative reactionary, won their revolution in 1980.
Nixon’s transactional politics don’t fit. But Nixon and his destructive politics are the real throughline from his 1972 landslide to Trump’s presidency. The destruction of Muskie and the DNC break-in simply presaged Trump’s use of the presidency to coerce a foreign country to intervene to help him win again ― after a different country helped him the first time.
The politics of personal destruction Nixon deployed ultimately destroyed him. But they’ve fueled Trump’s entire career and the party that elected him. As he heads toward his own impeachment, it’s unlikely he’ll heed Nixon’s final message from the White House.
“[A]lways remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself,” Nixon said in his farewell statement.