Portrait of edmund muskie looking up

Echoes being heard from 1973, 1974

Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine pictured right in the early 1960s with his executive assistant and successor George Mitchell.

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

“If the press had ever been more powerful than in 1972, nobody could remember when.”

So wrote Tim Crouse in “The Boys on the Bus,” a collective profile of the journalists covering the U.S. presidential campaign of that year that was first published in 1973.

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He made the comment just as he’d recounted a tetchy exchange involving the then front-runner in the Democratic Party primaries, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, and Boston Globe reporter Marty Nolan. Muskie, in common with the incumbent in the White House, thought the press was out to get him. Journalists admired his finer qualities and had suggested in 1971 that he was the candidate to beat on the Democratic side; but having raised his profile, they had no intention of going easy on him in 1972. And in time, in the heat of battle, his brittle personality was revealed in the reporting.

In this particular instance he was compelled to calm down. As Crouse related it, Nolan told Muskie “that he was tired of taking bullshit from [President] Nixon and [Vice President] Agnew. ‘I expect much more of you and I intend to hold you to it.’”

“Well, Marty, I guess you’re right” the senator said finally, and spent the next five minutes apologizing to Nolan. (The Globe reporter, incidentally, was revealed in 1973 to be have been on Nixon’s “enemies” list.)

Muskie, it emerged later, had been the target of an extensive dirty-tricks campaign by Nixon’s people and so it wasn’t just the press who were out to get him.

The president’s henchmen had at least since 1970 seen Muskie and Senator Edward Kennedy as the main potential obstacles to four more years of power, but the latter had ruled himself out of a presidential bid. That left, in their view, the former Maine governor and current senator as the one most likely to emerge as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer; and they feared the appeal in a general election of a candidate who was often described as a “moderate” and, in party terms at least, a “centrist.”

Said Pat Buchanan in a March 1971 White House memorandum: “[I]f Mr. Muskie is not cut and bleeding before he goes into New Hampshire, he will likely do massively well there, building up irresistible momentum for the nomination. This scenario is not in our interest — as Muskie today is a figure ideally suited to unite the warring factions of his party, and if they are united, that is bad news for us.”

Elizabeth Drew wrote in “Washington Diary,” her classic account of the Watergate scandal, “According to [campaign manager Bel] Bernhard, Muskie campaign-planning documents disappeared. The contents of some turned up in newspaper columns. Spies were planted in the campaign organization. Bernhard’s law office was broken into and his files ransacked.”

She added: “Confidential documents relating to the Muskie campaign were later discovered on the Xerox machine in the campaign offices. Days were lost in trying to track down spies within the organization. The campaign was constantly disrupted. Muskie fund-raisers were put on the White House “enemies” list. Campaign advisors — those who had worked [in government] with Henry Kissinger— were wiretapped.”

Bernhard told her: “We were never able to understand how it was that there was so much conjecture in the press which seemed to relate to staff discussions on the issue of Vietnam.”

Telephones did “strange things” in campaign offices; there was the chaotic arrival of food that had not been ordered at fundraisers and guests who hadn’t been invited. And that was just the beginning of the array of dirty tricks that the Democratic frontrunner became victim to (the most famous was the “Canuck Letter”).

And yet, Bernhard would never say that this felled his candidate. Maybe he would have gone down anyway.

Further, Drew wrote, “Bernhard acknowledges that ‘it is not always a simple matter…to make precise philosophic distinctions between rough but fair politics and rough unfair politics.’”

Remarkably, he addressed head on the “no harm, no foul” rhetoric we’re hearing in 2020 in the context of Ukraine scandal, by telling a Congressional committee: “The doctrine that the end justifies the means is pernicious enough. The doctrine that the failure to attain the end justifies — or at least excuses — the means is terrifying.”

Joe Biden was the man most likely to succeed in 2020, as we know, and perceived as the main threat to a Trump reelection and for some he still is.

The fact that he remains viable maybe speaks to Trump’s incompetence in the art of dirty tricks, but more likely is a testament to Biden’s status as vice-president for eight years under President Obama, (just as Nixon was the beneficiary of being a heartbeat away during the eight years under President Eisenhower).

Muskie had only been a vice-presidential candidate, in 1968 under Hubert Humphrey, although he would go on to higher office as President Carter’s last secretary of state. Crouse’s narrative ended just as the Watergate was finally grabbing people’s attention in the early months of 1973. The campaign of eventual nominee Senator George McGovern had desperately hoped that the dramatic Watergate reports would help them. But Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post told Crouse in January of 1973 they knew that it would be a slow-burner. People couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The paper that made them famous, the Washington Post, has made a related point in recent days: Republican senators are not going to look good in the long run if they ignore the possibility of damning evidence mounting up after they’ve acquitted Trump. And even with the evidence we already have, how will it look in a few weeks or months?

Edmund Muskie in 1980.

Some liberals have praised conservative scholar Josh Blackman for putting the best possible argument against impeachment in a piece in the New York Times. Elected officials get all sorts of “political benefit” from their actions and he used an example each from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson, albeit for nobler ends in both cases.

Blackman made his argument well on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Monday of this week, but it took a listener, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast who’d read Blackman’s piece in the Times, to put things in perspective. It wasn’t so much the political benefit that offends so much as Trump’s chosen method: launching a criminal investigation into a major political rival, he said, is something that Putin would do and some other authoritarian leaders would do. “America is supposed to be a beacon,” the caller argued.

And Blackman’s worry that this is all setting a bad precedent for the future is really a case against the idea of impeachment itself. Long before any smoking gun emerged in the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s men, such as press secretary Ron Ziegler, were saying in essence: “If you do this to us now, we’ll do it to you later.”