Shades of 1972 All Over Again

On February 24, 1972, a letter to the editor was published in the Manchester Union Leader. The letter alleged that then Democratic candidate and presidential front runner Edmund Muskie was prejudiced against French-Canadian Americans. Known as the Canuck Letter, it was later revealed to have been written by Donald Segretti and Ken Clawson. The former was an attorney working for the Committee to Re-elect the President, better known by the acronym, CREEP; the latter worked for the Nixon administration as a spokesman.

Two days later, and under enormous pressure to respond, Muskie delivered what would come to be known as “the crying speech,” outside the offices of the newspaper that had printed the letter, calling its publisher – a Nixon supporter – a “liar.” The press commented at great length about the speech, with the Washington Post‘s David Broder writing that Muskie “broke down three times in as many minutes.”

Few knew it at the time, but the event would have a profound impact on the race. While Muskie prevailed in the upcoming New Hampshire primary over challenger George McGovern, his margin was considerably smaller than many had expected. Fueled by the momentum of a close second place finish, McGovern would go on to win the Democratic nomination.

In October, a month before the election, the FBI confirmed that the letter was part of a “dirty tricks” campaign by CREEP to smear Muskie and help McGovern. Segretti would eventually be disbarred and serve four and half months in prison for his role in the stunt, while Clawson, remarkably, somehow survived and would eventually go on to work in the Ford administration.

The reason why the Committee felt it necessary to bring down Muskie was because the polls showed him beating Nixon in November. McGovern, the more progressive candidate, would be a much weaker opponent, they felt. And as it turns out, they were right. Nixon won 49 out of 50 states in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.

Fast forward to April 25, 2019. Former vice president Joe Biden decides to run for president for the third time. Almost immediately, the polls show him beating Donald Trump in the 2020 election; and not just nationally, but in the all-important swing states that Trump carried in 2016. It is right around this time that we start to hear about a certain Ukrainian company named Burisma. As it turns out, Biden’s son, Hunter, had been on the board of that company, but amazingly, no one seemed to know or care about it. That is until Trump employed the services of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to began a clandestine investigation into the whole affair.

This eventually led to the infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Zelensky, in which Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor though.” The intent was clear enough. Just as Nixon’s henchmen had done to Muskie in ’72, Trump set in motion a process to mortally wound Biden so he could run against a weaker opponent in the general election.

And it appears to have worked. Like many people, I thought that the impeachment trial would help Biden, since Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were ostensibly sequestered in the Senate chamber for two weeks listening to the House managers present their case. But as it turns out, the exact opposite happened. Trump’s lawyers were somehow able to change the subject from Trump’s malfeasance to Biden’s “corruption.”

A look at the RCP polling average reveals the extent of damage to Biden’s campaign. On January 25, 2020, he was leading in the national polls at 29 percent. By February 18, just thirteen days after the Senate voted to acquit Trump, he had dropped to second place and was polling at 16.5, less than a point ahead of late comer Mike Bloomberg. After two extremely poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden finished a distant second to Sanders in the Nevada caucuses and is now holding on for dear life in South Carolina, a state he must win and has referred to as his firewall.

The conservative media – or at least what passes for it these days – have been doing their utmost to “champion” Sanders at every opportunity and egging on his supporters by inferring that if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, it’s because the DNC stole it from him, just like they allegedly did in 2016. Republican senators like Lindsay Graham have done their part by threatening to subpoena both Joe and Hunter Biden to testify before the Intelligence Committee.

There has never been anything quite like this in American politics. Not even Segretti and Clawson could’ve cooked up such a scheme. What happened here was a deliberate and concerted effort by a sitting president and members of his own party to smear the reputation of a man who has done nothing wrong and who has served his country with honor and distinction. Whether Joe Biden is your cup of tea or not, the fact is he simply posed too grave a threat to Trump’s prospects of being reelected. Hence, he had to be destroyed.

Like McGovern before him, Sanders would be a far weaker opponent for Trump than Biden. His supporters may feel differently, but it will be difficult for the Vermont senator to win over moderate voters in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania. Michigan and Wisconsin. Were he to win the Democratic nomination, he would be the party’s first self-proclaimed socialist to run in a general election and the most progressive presidential nominee since FDR.

It is 1972 all over again, except, like that famous TV series Dragnet used to say all the time, only the names have been changed.

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.

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